It has been more than 40 years since the first rape crisis clinics were established in the early 1970s. The rise of awareness regarding sexual violence and victim services was driven forward by the hard work and voices of women. If we look at a photo history of rallies, marches and political testimony it would be overwhelmingly scant of male representation.
For too long the scourge of sexual violence on our communities has been thought to be a women’s issue, largely because women were the victims and the ones doing the work to end it.
Of course this is highly problematic from multiple perspectives. The vast majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by men, making this a men’s issue with traumatic ramifications for women and men. The victims of these crimes are the people men care about. They are our daughters, nieces, partners, mothers, teammates, co-workers and friends.
If violence against the people we care about does not make this a men’s issue, what does?
The fact is this is an issue for all of us, women and men together. We need to work as allies in ending sexual violence, and men have an important role to play in this work.
One thing men can do as allies is challenge aspects of “male culture” that degrade women and provide a supporting structure for sexual violence. Many men are conditioned to believe that women are inferior and exist solely as sexual objects for the pleasure of men. These men also believe that sexual violence is a legitimate means of establishing power – a highly coveted commodity in male culture. When men challenge the cultural assumptions of entitlement, objectification, violence and power, we begin to undermine the cultural mores which implicitly support “rape culture.”
Specifically, men can speak and act in a way that reinforces our respect for women and acknowledges girls and women as our equals. They are our family members, bosses, teachers, political leaders and friends. Another message that men should convey to other men and boys is that there is nothing masculine about establishing power through the use of sexual violence. In fact, there is nothing more cowardly and disgraceful.
Working as allies also means to stop blaming and shaming victims. The blaming of victims is a green light for perpetrators and undermines justice. Perpetrators know that many victims will remain silent rather than be further traumatized by a culture that blames victims. We must believe the voices of victims and hold the perpetrators accountable. When men do this, we provide an opportunity for healing and put blame where it is deserved.
When doing outreach and education we ask participants of our programs to imagine the person that they care about the most being sexually assaulted. When processing this exercise, we ask them how they felt about the perpetrator. Their responses aren’t surprising: anger, rage, even hatred. The participants are not concerned about where their special person was when they were attacked, what they were wearing or how much they had to drink. The questions many women are asked after she is raped don’t matter to our program participants when they are considering the sexual assault of the person they care about the most.
Every person who gets sexually assaulted is someone’s special person. If we don’t care about those ridiculous excuses for rape when it is the person we care about the most, why would we ask such questions when it is someone else? We must stop blaming victims!
It has been more than 40 years since the first rape crisis clinics were established, and the path to equality and safety has been cleared by many brave women. It is time for men to demonstrate true strength and be allies in the work of protecting our families, friends and larger community. This work includes modeling respect for girls and women, working for full equality, challenging elements of male culture and holding perpetrators accountable.
Will the “real men” please stand up?
Drew Wing is the executive director of Boys to Men, a Portland-based nonprofit that seeks to reduce interpersonal violence. He is a former business developer and holds a theology degree. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.