You know the stats. One in five college women will be sexually assaulted during her time on campus. You know the raw numbers. Over 26,000 reported acts of unwanted sexual contact in the US military last year. What you probably don’t know is that 7% of college men admit to attempting rape, and 63% say they’ve been involved in multiple assaults, an average of 6 each. Think about those figures, and then think about the big, 300-person lecture class you took freshman year of college. Statistically speaking, that’s a lot of rape survivors, and a lot of rapists.
That new figure — the one you didn’t know, the one about rapists rather than rape survivors — is from a report released by the White House a few days ago, to coincide with the creation of a new Presidential task force on sexual violence. The report and the task force were introduced by the Vice President and the President, along with about half the cabinet. In his remarks, the President focused particularly on sexual violence on college campuses, calling that epidemic “totally unacceptable,” and praising the student activists who have held their campus administrations accountable for enforcing Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. When you don’t adequately protect your students from sexual violence, and fail to properly punish assailants, you’re in violation of Title IX.
“Sexual assault is an affront on our basic decency and humanity… It has to matter to all of us,” the President said, adding that when we don’t provide resources for survivors, “shame on us.” The President talked about the abuse of boys — about 1 in 71 men will be raped in their lifetime, a quarter of them before they turn 10 — which is how most people outside of the feminist blogosphere or outside of sexual violence prevention circles talk about boys or men when they talk about sexual violence. Most people stop there. But the President didn’t.
“We’ve got to keep teaching young men in particular to keep teaching young women the respect they deserve, and to recognize sexual violence, and be outraged by it, and to do their part to stop it from happening in the first place,” he said. “I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women. That starts before they get to college. So, those of us who are fathers have an obligation to transmit that information. But we can do more to make sure that every young man out there, whether they’re in junior high or high school or college or beyond, understand what’s expected of them. And understand what it means to be a man. And to intervene if they see someone else acting inappropriately.”
To quote Joe Biden — himself is a vocal advocate for preventing violence against women — this is a big fucking deal.
When we talk about sexual violence in this country, we usually talk about women. Which isn’t entirely a bad thing. Women are dramatically more likely than men to be sexually assaulted. Sexual violence, or the threat of it, is and has for a very, very long time been a way of asserting power over women.
But talking about women, or talking exclusively about them, when we talk about sexual violence, usually means that we ignore the fact that sexual violence isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something that’s done to you, by another human being, and statistically speaking, that other human being is pretty likely to be a man. Despite this, we talk about sexual violence as a “women’s issue” (a term that makes my skin crawl, because it lets 50% of the population off the hook for thinking about things like wage discrimination or absurd standards of female beauty — which we could really use their help solving). We talk about what women can do to prevent sexual violence, how they can dress differently or drink differently or defend themselves differently when someone tries to rape them. When someone tries to rape them. Not when rape happens, but when a rapist shows up and starts acting like a rapist.
This isn’t a new complaint, and part of the reason this Presidential task force happened at all was thanks to the hard work of activists who have slowly, painstakingly moved the conversation away from “how can we stop women from getting themselves raped so damn much?” and toward something more productive.
Nonetheless, the way we speak about sexual violence drives me out of my mind, because it speaks so poorly of us, as a culture. To believe that rape is something that just happens to women, that it’s inevitable, that there’s nothing we can do about it, and to resist any challenge to that narrative requires you to believe so many awful things about human beings. You have to believe that men are mindless animals incapable of resisting their animal urges, that they’re too stupid or empathetic or important to learn to do so, and that it’s not worth trying to finding out if they can (of course they can) if it might ensure the dignity and safety of others. It requires you to ignore the suffering of your fellow humans, and to blame them for their own pain. That’s what it takes to believe that rape is something that happens to people. That’s what we do when we talk about sexual violence in this country. It’s a shitty worldview, one that lacks empathy, and faith in other people, and the courage to hope for more from one another. And I want us to be better than that.
I want the kind of conversation the President called for this week, about what it means to be a man, and about how to remake American manhood in a way that doesn’t involve violence against women — or against anyone, for that matter. In fact, I want an American manhood that abhors violence against women, not because women are to be protected from other men, but because women are human, just like you.
I want us all to be a part of that conversation, but I especially want young men there. The ones who consider themselves future leaders of companies, of countries, of the world. The ones who aspire to greatness, to fame, to leaving any kind of mark on the planet, whether it’s inventing some great new something, or bringing children into the world. I want those guys talking about how to be real men.
I want them to step up, and quit joking about rape, and quit letting their friends get away with it, and quit acting like there’s nothing they can do to stop it. That’s some callous, lazy, uncourageous bullshit, and I know they can do better than that. Your move, gentlemen.