Yes All Men: Confronting a Culture of Male Sexual Violence as Men

Historical research recently revealed that Eliza R. Snow, possibly the most beloved and influential woman in Mormon history, was gang raped by 8 men in Missouri, during the height of conflicts between native Missourians and Mormons in 1838. Like everyone else, I was shocked and horrified by the discovery. I didn’t, however, expect the intensity of feeling that followed. Stories of rape and sexual assault are tragically common, and always have been, and that kind of ordinariness doesn’t often elicit strong outward emotion in me. But as the reactions on social media began to pour in, and I read about “Zion’s poetess,” and “our beloved Eliza,” and “the maiden of purity,” tears rolled down my cheeks and I realized that Eliza meant more to me than I had realized. Her words and her persona are all over our early history. I’d read several of her writings and two of her many poems are particularly meaningful to me. To know that behind all that she had experienced one of the worst things a human being can experience, and that she carried it with her for the majority of her life, felt shatteringly unjust.

Gang raped. Passed back and forth among several men. I have no idea what it would feel like to be raped. I know men and boys are also raped or sexually assaulted, on a smaller scale (usually but not always by other men). I couldn’t really imagine that either, having never experienced it. But it was impossible to even theorize what a woman experiences. If I could try to understand this by putting myself into the shoes of anyone in this awful scene, it was, unfortunately, the men. I tried to imagine myself being in a situation like that, with other men, waiting for my turn. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t imagine being able to physically go through with something like that, even if it was me alone, even coerced. Not only could I not imagine being raped, it was difficult imagining being the one who is raping. What could those men have possibly been feeling? What had brought them to this unimaginable point? I could, I thought, perhaps imagine something in the neighborhood of some of the emotions she might have felt, because I’ve experienced them myself, though surely on a vastly smaller scale. Fear. Despair. Rage. I felt sick to my stomach at merely the thought.

When I’m confronted with stories of women who have been sexually violated by men, I often turn inward, trying to get a sense of how I should receive awful news like this, and what I can or should do, if anything, in response. I don’t know if this is unusual. Some would say that as a man I’m hardly in danger of something like this happening to me, and I am not required to be anything more than sympathetic and not say something stupid or insensitive, like any other human. Besides, my male voice and opinions are not really appropriate in these situations, except in basic condemnation of them. We should listen to the victims, listen to other women for whom this is a daily mortal danger, and if they want us to say or do something, that would be legitimate. In this particular case, Eliza’s voice should be the one who speaks, and whichever women want to speak in solidarity with her to share their stories or promote awareness and change. And besides, if women do have a message to men it is usually no more complicated (though frustratingly unheeded by too many) than, “Don’t rape.” Well that’s easy. I already don’t rape. Done and done.

And I basically agree with all that. We are accustomed to men providing their opinions on virtually every topic, especially to explain and contextualize, and I myself have often not been an exception to this. If that’s how a man is going to contribute to the conversation, then I wholeheartedly assent to his silence. But there are clearly very specific ways in which to not speak as men about male sexual violence, whatever we think about our non-culpability, is simply no longer acceptable.

Of course, when I say there are certain things that as men we absolutely must confront and lend a voice to, all of us can only begin with ourselves. So I begin with myself. Confronted with stories like Eliza’s, apart from the more obvious feelings of shock and horror, I often feel somewhat confused and ashamed. These are not feelings of guilt; I know what guilt feels like and where it justly (or unjustly) applies, and this isn’t that. I know I’m not personally deserving of punishment whenever another man hurts a woman. But because this problem is so pervasive and the lines and roles are so often defined in the same way (men attacking or harassing women), I have struggled to figure out how I as a man (and other men who don’t rape) nevertheless fit into all this, because it feels like we do, as men who participate in and live the daily struggle for the various meanings of what it does and should mean to be men and what men can be capable of (both of doing and restraining from doing). Of course the answer could be, “I don’t fit into that. Most of us don’t. We non-raping men don’t have anything in common with men who do this. Even men who harass and intimidate are not the same as those who rape. And we simply don’t do either of these and are not inclined to in the least. It’s insulting to even suggest otherwise.” However, I think that this is not the right answer. I think that response is itself a dangerous one. I think that upon sufficient and truthful reflection we can see some different ways to look at this, which if true, can also help us contribute to making things better. And I think it can be liberating to consider that damaging or contributory behavior exists along a spectrum, and not divided into separable categories of the thinkable (where our mostly acceptable maleness safely exists) vs. the unthinkable (where another, utterly different and mysterious maleness exists). In that sense, our potential complicity, however indirect, however distant from the dark far side of the spectrum, is a hopeful gift, not a terrible indictment. It means that there is something within our power to do that might have an actual impact for good. It means that addressing and condemning and mourning tragedies after they have already happened is not the only option.

In a very basic and hopefully obvious sense, this is all very much about women and girls, the ones who are most violated or harassed or who are in danger of being so, all of whom have to deal with this all the time to varying degrees. Their spaces to talk and act should be sacrosanct and unbothered by outsiders. But in another important sense, this–male impositions on girls and women–is precisely about me and other men, about all men. In this  sense–the one I will elaborate below–we must unconditionally speak and question and describe and look for ways to be better, even those of us who do not assault. This kind of discourse is authentic, not just because it tries to be truthful about the only things we can be truthful about–our experiences–but because it doesn’t try to speak in a universal register for everyone. We should be men speaking to other men, trying to figure this out together as men, not divided between “good” and “evil” men, not this species vs. that species, but as men who acknowledge that we all have some darkness in us, and the freer we feel to face that and deal with it, as a common community of men, the safer we can make our world. The option to consider certain men alone and apart as evil and dangerous is not a real option because it avoids the roots of the problem, like disposing of a diseased tree by cutting off the leaves. These are men, too, and there is no hiding from that fact. Waiting for certain boys to become men under the present rules of manhood, who may or may not learn to harm or otherwise make women feel unsafe, and then good men and women having to deal with the problem through violence or prison (or all too often a slap on the wrist), has never worked. Waiting for the monsters to arrive, or setting up triage after the attack, or, at best, doing the inaccurate guesswork of trying to identify early on who is going to be a monster and who is not, is a long term strategy desirable only to the hopeless and fearful.  We have to do this together, not only for the sake of loved ones we wish to protect and keep from harm, but also for our own sake, for our own worth as human beings. If others want to look in on the conversation, that’s great, they can learn some things too, just like we should be learning from them. But we must face what only we can face, and speak its reality accordingly, a reality that will be different for every man but one that shares elements common to every man that has passed into manhood in our society. And that will reveal what I think are some important truths about what it means to exist as a man, for every man, in a world built largely by and for the benefit of men.

I’m aware that women are not perfect angels, who only succumb to superficial and trivial wrongs. There are certainly violent women, cruel women, greedy women, and many other women possessing harmful attributes that contribute to suffering in the world. I am not saying that women escape the need to be better, to correct behavior. The tendency to elevate women to that of superior moral creatures is as false as believing that there is another species of male that is irredeemably dark and violent (or that all males are). We are all either human beings or we are something else, and considering women in this way does no actual favors for any woman, and is usually retrograde. But since I am not a woman, I won’t and can’t speak to any of that. While we should all teach one another how to help each other, that is ultimately something that women are responsible for figuring out. I can only speak and request out of my own mouth. I can only address that which is possible for me to say and do something about.

A couple years ago,  #YesAllWomen was a major Internet phenomenon.  Following the Isla Vista killings that left 6 people dead and wounded 14 others, we discovered that hatred of women was a motivating factor for the killer’s crimes. Sensing a feminine backlash, many men responded to this with #NotAllMen (a precursor of sorts to #AllLivesMatter) as a way of distancing themselves from the men who have hurt or killed women, insisting that not all men are sexist, not all men are rapists. #YesAllWomen was the response from women, and thousands upon thousands of stories of women’s experiences with sexism, sexual harassment, assault, and abuse at the hands of men were unleashed, and they were just the tip of an iceberg the size of which we always terrifyingly underestimate. The sheer quantity of the barrage was mind-numbing. I remember reeling just at the enormity of the size of a wave that, for a time, seemed to blot out the sun. I wanted to close my eyes and stop up my ears so I didn’t have to see or hear any more. How could male sexual violence possibly be this pervasive? And how could I be a man in any way like these men, even just anatomically? Surely, we were talking about another species here–women, men, and then an awful, twisted third branch that looks a lot like the human male but is vastly different in every way that matters.

#YesAllWomen was a relatively brief movement, as social media movements usually are. Life for women and girls went on, of course, and things remained largely unchanged. If they haven’t yet been subjected to male harassment or violence, such violence almost certainly awaits them in their future. Both statistically and anecdotally we know this is the case. Globally it’s the number one cause of female adolescent deaths. Rape is the first sexual experience of half of all girls worldwide. There are dozens more statistics that describe the overwhelming numbers of girls and women who experience violence by men and boys, and untold numbers of unreported incidents. Boys and men are sexually violated as well, of course, but often (certainly not always; female perpetrators are growing in number) by other males, and in much smaller numbers overall, even accounting for under-reporting. But then there are the hundreds of thousands of everyday incidents that, while not being blatant assaults are nevertheless unarguably traumatic–being followed by men in public; being fondled and groped; hearing grotesque sexually explicit things some man or boy wants to do to you, if not in person then through a dozen different kinds of social media; being threatened online; being forcibly exposed to male genitalia both online and in person; being silently stared at for long periods of time; being essentially stalked at work by an associate or boss who won’t leave you alone; being pressured to show your body in various ways, in a number of situations; being labeled a slut for both providing or not providing sexual favors; being expected, at minimum, to perform oral sex after a certain number of dates or a certain number of jokes; being expected in all kinds of social situations to make your body generally available for men to touch or see; and mountains of other stories that I wouldn’t even be able to imagine but happen regularly to women everywhere.

As a man–even if you were a man who considers himself sympathetic to and an ally of #YesAllWomen and women generally–when you hear stories like these you might be shocked and dismayed, but life usually goes on for you in a much more oblivious way. You’re not a rapist. You don’t assault women. You don’t even harass women (you probably think). You are horrified by those who do. Why, just today you worked rather unsexily with several female colleagues and had a totally platonic lunch with a female friend and not once did you ogle or make unwanted advances or even do anything to make them feel uncomfortable (never mind that you can’t actually decide that one way or the other). You don’t notice that sometimes you’re actually proud of those unsullied moments and even might not mind some recognition now and then for your sexual control, though you’ve probably never explored why. It’s that kind of distancing that allows men (and even women) to imagine that there are sick, evil, male-like creatures who are for all intents and purposes aliens from another universe, or were warped and twisted by abuse, etc. Certainly nothing like you or other men you know and love.

Conversations among women about their sexually violent experiences are, of course, crucial and necessary, and are often surprisingly discouraged by men, women, religious institutions, and culture generally. Women and girls are frequently made to feel ashamed and filthy by their violations. In some parts of the world they are even killed for having been raped, a forbidden taboo that does not apply to their rapists. Sexual violence is still discussed largely in secret places, or with names redacted. Safe and strong spaces where women are encouraged to say what they can,  when they can, empower women in a number of ways, and there have always been far too few of them in our society. These spaces are often the origins of activist movements to change or fix laws that harm women and promote institutions that help them. They are frequently the birthplaces of literature and scholarship written to educate people about the truth regarding sexual violence, patriarchy, feminism, etc. Feminism began as a response to a need for these kinds of spaces. In fact, feminism arguably becomes most persuasive when it shines a light on the widespread pervasiveness of male violence and connects it to virtually every kind of gender inequality. As men we absolutely should listen to these stories, even and especially when they are directed at men in fierce anger and condemnation. And many men do listen. We should work with women to provide the legal and physical protection to help women flourish, and many men do that, too. We should also recognize a common tendency to take over, be the center, have all the answers, interpret women’s experiences. We have to learn to be smaller when invited into these spaces. We have to become acquainted with and help to create new masculinities, new ways of being men. But despite the willingness of many to listen and help (however imperfectly), we still wish to do so while standing apart and above. We will wait for the violent male demons on the outside, and when they come we will do our part to drive them back. This is every army righteously formed to guard the weak and vulnerable, every brother or father who will avenge in blood the violations of their sister or daughter, every boy and man who says he is willing to take a bullet in order to protect the women and girls in their communities.

But we almost universally ignore the more personal demons on the inside. They’re often seemingly more benign, so benign that it’s easy not to address them as demons. They might not want to destroy and devastate, but that is precisely why we separate them so easily from the demons physically attacking women on the outside. These demons are drawn to testing boundaries, exploring various ways of wielding power, trying on this or that version of masculinity, seeing what fits or what intimidates, learning what gets you this but doesn’t get you that. Even more subtly, these demons are usually  unconscious and buried deep below the surface, and therefore they are almost always unsummoned. We have to learn about their existence (which we will of course deny for a long time; forever, if we choose). When they rise to the level of our consciousness we quickly distract ourselves so we won’t have to face them. And when others claim that on some level “all men” really does apply to all men, we are quickly indignant, mockingly dismissive of such an absurdity. Even other women will often back us up, speaking of the incontrovertible goodness of the men in their lives who could never even desire to harm a woman in any way.

It is not necessary to feel guilty about (and therefore attempt to ignore) the mere presence of such demons. These are simply inside us, and we did not put them there. At some point we awaken and take stock of the earth beneath our feet, the people and places surrounding us, a body that breathes and moves and desires. We didn’t choose most of this. And what we have chosen, we chose out of pre-existing shapes and materials–also not of our choosing. We awaken to these demons, and to histories, languages, cultures, ethnicities, religions, genders, predispositions, preferences, neural pathways inserted into us in a natural organic Matrix from which we cannot easily unplug ourselves, all of which grip us unalterably.

So when I say “yes, all men,” it’s important to understand what context that idea most appropriately lives in. Being/becoming a man (or woman) is a phenomenon that you are thrown into. Biology is the least noteworthy aspect of this–all the factors in the above paragraph make up the specific situation of every person. We didn’t choose these factors and for the most part they are extremely difficult to remove or replace. That’s just the situatedness of humanity.

What all of this speaks to is the comprehensiveness and solidness of the intertwining systems and structures that we find ourselves a part of. Yet, when we hear these haunting stories of women’s suffering at the hands of men, we know that we know plenty of men we call “good.” Though at times I’ve been tempted myself to condemn all men everywhere (particularly when feeling guilt for my own thoughts or actions when they have not been what they should be), the fact is that I, like nearly everyone, have plenty of examples of men that make up my family, friends, public heroes, etc, men whom I love, admire, and think worthy of being called good and trustworthy.

But the fact that we constantly must emphasize and highlight that good men do indeed exist everywhere should tell us something important, if unsettling, about men. (That we must constantly point to the purity and moral superiority of women is a related phenomenon). Particularly in the case of sexism, which always seems to be more rampant than we think, the answer is not to think that sexism is an exception to the rule, nor, more importantly, that it exists in the “bad” men while I am a “good” man. And don’t misunderstand me. There are truly bad men. Of course there are. There is a significant difference between the rapist or child abuser and the overly aggressive flirter. But they are still men. And sexism exists along a range or spectrum for all men, not as isolated individual instances in bad men alone.

Women’s stories of male abuse are shocking, and they should appall us, and we shouldn’t feel personal guilt for the action of another individual. But there is an opportunity here to take a hard look at ourselves and the ways we might contribute to the systems that we have been thrown into. No matter how well we were raised to be good boys and men (and many of us, truthfully, simply were not), we were still raised within systems that have competing, often contradictory, and frequently toxic rules for how to become a man, and the only way to have escaped all that would have been for one’s ancestors to not have passed down a culture, language, genes, etc. We are always already operating under these rules. We don’t consciously tally them all, but they inform the ways we think about the world, including, of course, the girls and women of the world. And no alternative system of rule-making, even religion, can counter all those rules entirely, particularly since all institutions–including religion–are themselves infused with the rule-making and man-making logic of the broader systems. No matter that we might not be one of those men luring a young girl over to a shadowy corner to expose themselves, or threatening a woman’s life because she didn’t sexually capitulate, or any one of the other horror stories women have lived, the fact is that none of us escaped this structure of man-making, even if we did not become monsters because of it. We unconsciously do or say things to make women and girls uncomfortable. We do. When we sit too close without being invited, or tell jokes whose punchline is about female sexual availability, or make multiple attempts to strike up a conversation that isn’t wanted, or tell women to smile more, or become irritable and distant when a joke isn’t laughed at, or talk cavalierly about how we can be strong and violent when necessary…And more often than we’d like to admit we very likely consciously do or think things that are misogynistic in some way, from our unequal participation in domestic life, to supporting sons over daughters, to unequal or inappropriate relations with female co-workers or friends, to pornographic preferences for womens’ appearance and sexual behavior, and much more.

The stories and structures that have often informed us how to be men with women are, of course, all-encompassing and powerful, and have been with us for a long, long time. But we are lying to ourselves if we believe that we have wholly escaped them and live a narrative outside of other men. Feminism at its core is not an incremental, civilized response to gender inequality, so much as it is an organized, last ditch, all-out effort to stop the crushing tide of a genuine human catastrophe where nearly every woman ever born is a casualty in some fashion. As men, it’s simply not possible to not be complicit in some way in this unending tragedy, if merely for the reason that these damning structures have given us all our identities and helped to tell us how to live, move, and have our being.

And while we cannot choose how we were thrown into this world, or the demons that were planted in us, we can consciously and purposely formulate a determined stance of self-awareness of our throwness and choose to recognize and name those demons, and without shame or guilt call them out for what they are. We cannot be condemned for enacting roles that were given to us, that were given to those who came before us and that we learned to imitate. We certainly should not feel shame for being something (men) we cannot be otherwise. And much of what we have inherited is good. We are by no means deformed products of an irredeemably evil culture. But we are condemned for any refusal to respond to the call of thousands upon thousands of these voices–that men did this, not aliens or genetic human mutations, but men, and thus to look inwardly and examine ourselves in the light of this suffering, not simply point fingers at others as a minority of exceptionally warped sociopaths. They were spun out of the same system we were and are therefore extreme symptoms of a disease that touches all of us.

These are small, seemingly insignificant beginnings. Looking to our own behaviors and relationships first before we look outward at the monsters won’t cause sexual violence to all of a sudden plummet. Women’s shelters won’t suddenly not be needed. Women won’t immediately be able to walk the streets without fear. But where to start, if not the beginning? Waiting for the onslaught, lamenting statistics, is not a strategy, it’s despair and capitulation. It’s a defeatist resignation that this is the way things are, this is how hundreds of thousands of men will always behave, and this is why I will always have to be that father who shows the male suitor of my daughter my gun, both literally and metaphorically. And maybe this generation will largely continue to have to anticipate these constant devastations. But what about the next generation? Have we cultivated that kind of self-awareness, that desire for introspection, that naming of demons for our sons? If we have, the future could truly look different than the present, and continuously improve. And putting aside the extremes of rape and assault, there are things we can attend to and correct now. We can make an effort to recognize what might make women uncomfortable, what might be offensive, what might contribute to unsafe environments, and act accordingly. We can pay attention when women tell these stories by first interrogating our own behavior (which we actually have the power to do something about) rather than single-mindedly rage in self-righteousness at the perverts and rapists.

The initial reactions to the revelation of Eliza Snow’s gang rape have been telling. Most people were shocked and dismayed, but there are not insignificant numbers of outliers that have either reacted differently, or added qualifying addendums to their initial horrified response. Among (mainly but not exclusively) women, it has been common to observe dismay that this has been publicly revealed about Eliza, who would not have wanted such an intimate and terrible secret known to the public. It could call into question all of her virtues she was so admired for, or at least temper them considerably. We know that sexual violence during that time was not spoken of openly by the women who experienced it; it was rarely even written about in private diaries. When men would discuss it they would usually redact the names of victims in order to preserve the public perception of purity and virtue. In other words, being the victim of sexual violence was shameful, and victims and families made considerable efforts to keep sexual violence hidden. The reactions of some commentators regarding Eliza’s death have borne similar traits. Even today, shame and guilt are often attached to victims, which underscores the need to speak about these incidents more openly.

But the male outliers I’ve observed have been quick to question the provenance of the story (which Professor Andrea Radke-Moss, the author of the piece outlining the incident, has provided in more detail). As she outlines at the above link, the sources for Eliza’s rape are not entirely unproblematic, but the point here is that men were quick to frame the tale as potentially easily dismissed because oral accounts might not be reliable, or someone along the line possibly lied, perhaps even Eliza herself, etc. These are not simply objective scholarly reactions to a story of a woman’s rape; this is a common male reaction to stories of rape generally, then as now. Once again we see a tendency for us (men in particular) to distance ourselves from atrocities committed by other men. As I’ve tried to defend above, this is not a realistic endeavor. This catastrophe that stretches from the present to the beginning of recorded history cannot be reversed without us. It’s easy to call out rapists and perverts for their atrocious behavior. It’s even easy for many of us to be allies of feminism, showered with praise by women when we support feminist ideals in the abstract. But the necessary work on the ground will require fierce honesty with ourselves and the stories that have defined us, stories that have made us, for better or worse, one large community of men who in our depths really do understand one another’s darknesses and struggles. We don’t all attack and destroy. But if we do not make a conscious effort to re-orient certain things that have always been on auto-pilot, then we will continue to be part of the larger problem that spins out varying degrees of harm to women and girls. There isn’t any man that doesn’t have something to correct in our relationships with girls and women. The primary question concerns what specific things apply to me personally. Our ownership of our own deformities is the first real step in building a new world and writing new stories for future generations in which men and women do not fear one another but dwell together in love, friendship, and empathy. We owe that to the women and girls we love. And we owe it to ourselves, for we can’t be fully human and fully at peace without doing that work.

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