[Ed. Note: This is a guest piece from Nicole Bedera. Nicole is a sociology student at Westminster College who researches college sexual violence and a Hospital Response Team Advocate at the Rape Recovery Center.]
Recently, there has been a renewed focus on getting men involved in rape prevention, especially at a college level. Two weeks ago, the Obama Administration released a series of goals and measures to address the sexual violence epidemic on college campuses, including a video intended to convince men to care about rape prevention. Before that, organizations like A Call to Men and MVP have involved men in the discussion about sexual assault. Men like Jackson Katz and Tony Porter have even given TED Talks about why men should care about feminism and rape. All of these actions combined send one very powerful message to men: you have the capability to end sexual violence.
But do they?
Our culture has represented sexual violence as a “women’s issue” since we started to recognize it as a social problem. Historically, women have been the leaders in movements for everything from criminalization of dating violence to discussing the role of pornography in rape culture. If you walk into your local rape crisis center today, women will still be the vast majority of volunteers and staff members. Even the discussions around rape prevention at home have revolved around daughters, teaching them how not to lead men on or put themselves in a vulnerable situation. Women have experienced and cared about sexual violence before there was even a word for it. While women did and continue to do all of these things, men, as a group, have at best been silent and at worst hostile in the face of women’s efforts to address rape. Men have been largely absent from the sexual violence prevention movement and yet we’re now asking them to be leaders.
Right now, most men are ignorant to the reality of sexual violence. Many men have no idea that countless women around them have been sexually assaulted. They can’t comprehend the daily rituals women participate in to prevent attack. Plenty of men still ascribe to the belief that the majority of rapists are psychologically deranged strangers jumping out of the bushes. Our culture is teeming with factually false myths about what sexual assault is and how it happens and men are far from immune to believing them. In fact, their historical absence in gendered violence movements probably makes them more susceptible to clinging to false beliefs about rape. By asking men to stand up against sexual assault when they can’t define the problem, they might miss some of the biggest issues or even reinforce cultural rape myths despite their best intentions. Believing that rape is wrong and saying so isn’t activism—at least not until the person making those claims understands exactly what they’re saying.
Ultimately, men do have the capability to end sexual violence, but not just by virtue of being men who care about rape and not by working alone. Just like the women working to end sexual assault right now, men need to educate themselves about rape before they can become meaningful allies. To do that, men can start by listening to women. Ask the women in your life about their experiences with rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. And, most importantly, believe whatever they tell you. Men could be the greatest allies that rape survivors and activists have ever had, but first, we need to catch them up on what women have experienced and accomplished.