Cameron Bustamante describes the beginnings of conversations among men about sexual violence.
A lump in my throat formed at the moment that I realized that this was something that men “just don’t do”, and that I was one of those men. There were about twelve of us, sitting in a circle, facing each other in almost complete silence. The situation may seem odd, but it’s quite familiar to me actually. I have been in many like it, but never was onae as eerily lethargic as this one. As a discussion group attendee, I am one of the quiet ones. Not because I fear speaking in front of people, I try to conserve my words for a time when I think that they can and will be meaningful. Anybody that has been involved in things similar to this can tell you that they are very commonly ripe with people stating (and restating) the obvious, not to mention the occasional riding of the political high horse around the room. That is not to say that reiteration and ideology has no place in discussion groups, as I think that they do in moderation. I think that this particular discussion group could have used some more, actually. What we had instead was a few declarations that the subject at hand was indeed “a problem” and a few vague ideas to things we can do to solve it. I thought that those people (albeit the more characteristically outspoken) were giving a good go at it, but in between them there were many extensive periods of silence as we tried to avoid each others eyes and round up our thoughts on the subject (or pretended to).
And then I turned my ears to MY silence. I was genuinely ashamed and, to an extent, confused. Why could I not for the life of me think of something worthwhile to add? Why couldn’t anybody else? And then it slapped me in the face. This was a subject that men just don’t talk about.
Not even self-righteous revolutionaries like us.
Perhaps it was the bruising of my ego that hurt me so much as I realized this, but the fact remains that it hit me. The subject was sexual violence, and our inability to discuss it with any fervor was strikingly ironic. No matter how “conscious” of the issue we claimed to be, our silence possessed a horrid echo. No matter how much we thought of ourselves as being part of the solution, that night’s discussion group left me feeling like a large part of the problem.
Of course, being a self-righteous revolutionary, I just couldn’t let that be. So I began assembling my thoughts and doing some reading and generally putting the issue of sexual violence to the forefront of my thought. The more effort I put into doing this, the clearer it came to be to me: I had never given it much thought. The lack of premeditation that I had (and I would think that the same is true for the rest of my male discussion group-ers) was characteristic of the problem and how it continues to be a formidable one, if not its very backbone.
I came across a man named Jeff Hearn’s research of what he refers to as “anti-sexist men’s movement” and others who are attempting to change these trends both in their personal lives and in society itself, he finds that “…because many men prefer to keep their public and private lives separate, they regard their relationships with women as their private business. Consequentially, they are unwilling to challenge other men’s violence against women”. The dichotomy we generally make between our “public and private lives” that this quote refers to is very apparent in our everyday lives, and isn’t thought of as being a problem most of the time. Privacy is a naturally conducive to intimacy, it would seem. Some of us would even go as far as to say that the inverse is true as well. I would add that these notions seem true enough, but the problem persists. As our relationships with other people fold inward, becoming more and more private, they become almost untouchable by public scrutiny. Sexual violence persists both in practice and in its appearance in the form of jokes, fantasy, and as an outlet of anger in male conversation. It persists mainly because the majority of us have been in countless situations where it has come up either right before our eyes or abstracted in conversation and we have let it slide right off of our backs. I myself have been part of the later and as I develop a definition of sexual violence that is becoming more and more broad, I understand that this happens WAY more often than not. In my case, I can’t think of one instance where I actually took a stand against it. When a guy who has been repeatedly brutalized by police officers in order to “prove a point” can’t think of one instance when we has even risked conflict in a friendly conversation to bring sexual violence into scrutiny, you know it’s a problem. This is magnified greatly when I realize that I am by no means alone.
The answer seems to be that ever-elusive thing called compromise. Elusive, because of its difficulty we are better off asking how we can do so and, more importantly, why would we want to do so.
In the larger scheme of things, we are accountable for our actions in regards to sexual violence. Seeing as terms such as “Sexual Harassment” have been added to the tip of the everyman’s tongue, we can say that we are under more legal scrutiny than every before. This also contributes to a broader, more realistic view of what sexual violence really is. Understanding the limits of the law and its most basic flaw of detouring crime by punishing it after the fact, many activists believe in taking a more pro-active stance. A rolling up of the sleeves to get the job done, so to speak. As men committed to this, what could be more pro-active than starting with that little area where our public and private lives come together, our relationships with other men? As much as we might like to be buried under such heavily packed notions of men being (naturally?) inept at showing their emotions, we actually do so on a regular basis. Although we may not be having heart-to-hearts every day, our take on women (and the violence we commit upon them) is apparent in the most casual conversations. There is much to be heard in the way we joke, fantasize, and confide with each other. When a joke, fantasy or whatever is presented in a conversation that is adverse to our ideals, even more is to be heard in our silence than the offensive language used.
Jeff Hearn continues to observe that in almost any situation where men feel comfortable with their masculinity the conversation tends to drift from “more progressive, even pro-feminist stance toward those that are ambiguous even anti-feminist” I believe that this happens simply because it is convenient for us to do so. That stalwart feminists have beckon repeatedly called “the patriarchy” seems to lie upon the foundation of male conversation like a skyscraper we walk by everyday. Ominous, but we rarely look up to see it baring down upon us. We just scurry past it and enjoy the shade it provides us with on hot summer days. It’s easy to see how men have the advantage of ignoring the problem, but how do we deal with it? Do we loathe masculinity? Do we loathe ourselves? I would hope not. We should start by taking note when our casual conversations find themselves leaning upon the patriarchal structure that we, supposedly, despise. It is here where we can make a difference. It is here where we learn that the dissection of our lives into such rigid schemes of “public” and “private” only serves to offer us yet another easy way out of accountability. Finding yourself publicly accountable for your private ideals and actions can only encourage others to follow suit.
Objections to Objectification Anyone?
One of the few men who spoke out in the group brought to our attention that one of the main problems that we have as a gender is our tendency to become visual “butchers” as he said. Butchers, because we view women as pieces of meat or different body parts severed by our eyes into things removed from the idea of a woman as a whole. I asked myself if I (being attracted to them) turned women into objects before my eyes. I got a little laugh that I would even pose that question unto myself, because I absolutely do. That I do so is not even up to questioning, it is a given. What really needed to be addressed was whether it was wrong as stated by the man in our group.
Sexual attraction is a very powerful force, and leaves me feeling that in a very strong sexual sense that we are objects. When I am physically attracted to somebody, an impulse is present because of physical beings, the visual make-up of that which is taking up space, quite beautifully, in front of me. Although, this is only a simplified version of sexual attraction, it seems like the most common. We have this tendency to treat objects differently according to the abstract concept of “what they are”. Likewise, we as men want to be respected on different levels, one being the equally abstract “who we are inside”. What we are and “who” we are inside have very blurred boundaries, and we need to recognize that the same is for women. Simply stated, (and to play with a particularly odd philosophical device) the machine is an object but never forget that there is a ghost in there somewhere. I know that sounds weird, but people are bodies and something else too. “Value” them as such.
Easily said, but not so easily done. It is in our best interests to keep the patriarchal gears turning with as little friction as possible, so we don’t treat women as we would want to be treated. We abuse them on many different levels, the most vile being rape.
As Susan Brownmiller deftly chronicles in here book “Against Our Will”, rape has a strong historical bond to our inability to conceive of women as the equal to us. Historically, our objectification of women goes beyond sexual desire and has resulted in treating women as property. As our concept of property evolved along proto-capitalistic lines, women were, and continue to be, covered under this concept. Our language is a testament to this because even if they are used in the most endearing way, “wanting” a woman denotes possession and “courting/dating” implies a certain work that needs to be done to achieve a material gain. How can you enjoy an object and not feel the need to own it?
You can almost hear the capitalist within us chattering its teeth and writhing sleeplessly. Not only are our relationships with property, but our entire concept of it, at fault it seems. We abuse women not only out of hatred and complacency for the patriarchal structure we are born into, but because of the capitalist mentality we have been born into as well. By it, acquaintance or date rape (the most common type) is rationalized because one cannot abuse his own property and patriarchy allows us to take because it is ours by birthright.
This goes beyond the physical as well. Not only do we own the female body, but the mind within. By perpetuating the myths of women being the weaker sex or unable to handle stress, we are able to own their fates by limiting what they are able to achieve in our world. Our possession of the female spirit is another extension of the same egoism that allocates the Earth to mankind. Just as we have seen, when mankind has positioned itself as the ideological ruler of the Earth, mankind has fewer qualms with abusing it.
Of course, not all of mankind have traditionally believed that they “owned” the earth, just those who stepped up and beat it into submission. Readily available in various cultures is the concept that the earth is something that can not be owned. This is a very humbling statement by western standards because it implies that mankind is part of the earth, and not some heaven-bound creature who is the exception to every natural rule. For these reasons its just as humbling when we realize that as men we cannot own women.
This is all nice and uplifting when it hangs among the rafters of theory, but when it comes down it will deal a painful blow upon male heads. I’d like to think of it as a wake up call.
Reprinted with permission from On the road to healing: A booklet for men against sexism, issue #2. Contact: PO box 84171, Seattle WA 98124, USA. http://www.pscap.org]