More Than A Few Good Men
By Jackson Katz
How can we get a critical mass of men — at UMass and around the country — to speak out about men’s violence against women? How can we make sexist attitudes or behaviors toward women socially unacceptable among men? How can we encourage more than a few good men to work with women on these issues as partners and allies, and not against them as hostile antagonists?
Activists in the movements to end rape, battering, and sexual harassment seem to revisit these questions with greater urgency each time we’re confronted with high-profile instances of gender violence, as opposed to the vast majority of incidents that devastate individual lives and families, but never make it to the local or national news.
You would think that it would be a fairly straightforward task to find men who are willing to stand up and be counted in the effort to reduce the outrageous level of violence — physical, sexual, emotional — that our mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives, and daughters have to live with. But sadly, it is anything but easy to find men willing to take that step.
In fact, there are a number of obvious and subtle forces at work to keep the nonviolent majority of men silent. The obvious forces include policing mechanisms in male peer culture that stifle the voices of men who are uncomfortable with abuses perpetrated by their fellow men. These policing mechanisms include questioning the manhood and heterosexuality of men who would dare take the “women’s side” in the supposed “battle between the sexes.”
Using derisive appellations like “mama’s boy,” “p-whipped,” “sensitive new age man,” and “fag” for men who dare to break the masculine code of silence, men often remind each other that we’ll never be considered “real men” if we don’t exhibit blind loyalty to our sex-class.
A more subtle force that keeps many men from becoming actively involved in the struggle against gender violence is the defensiveness many of us feel at the mere mention of the scope of the problem. When we hear women say they’re angry about all of the violence men do to women, some guys respond indignantly. “Hey, it’s not all guys. I’m not a rapist,” we say, as if we’d been accused of being one. In this case, defensiveness is really a form of denial that allows us to avoid being personally implicated.
Defensive posturing is responsible, in part, for the virulence in some circles of the backlash against feminism. Feminists, of course, have long been at the forefront, in our society and worldwide, of efforts to reduce men’s violence against women, and indeed all forms of violence.
And yet they are all too frequently labeled “male-bashers.” This Orwellian inversion, calling the anti-violence activists the “bashers,” or the violent ones, allows us to disregard the urgency of their message. It’s a version of “kill the messenger,” the time-honored tradition of discrediting the bearers of unpleasant or discomforting news, rather than face squarely the implications of their message.
Killing the messenger is a tactical cousin of another popular avoidance strategy, blaming the victim. If you believe that somehow the victim caused herself to be violated, you sidestep inquiry into the role of the aggressor. If you’re a man who doesn’t want to look at the ways that you as a man contribute — through silence or more active means — to a culture where violence against women is so common as to be almost unremarkable, focusing on the victim is a convenient strategy of psychic self-defense.
One of the notable features of the recent spate of gendered assaults at UMass is that because several of the attacks were alleged to have been perpetrated by strangers and took place during the day, it’s socially unacceptable to blame the victims. As a result, it appears that a number of men — and women — have been politicized as never before about the pervasivness of men’s violence against women.
This is one positive outgrowth of an otherwise tragic series of events, because awareness about the extent of the problem, and outrage about it, are some of the first steps necessary for mobilizing large numbers of people to organize for change.
If the perpetrators are caught, however, many people will be tempted to believe that the attacks were the isolated acts of a sick individual and/or group.
This is understandable, because it’s easier to deal with the concept of some psycho rapist-muggers than it is to look critically at the culture that produces such men at a pandemic rate. We know, however, that most violence against women is perpetrated by men close to them, in their family and friendship circles, men who are “normal” in every superficial respect.
This chilling fact means that if we truly want to reduce the rates of gender violence in our society as we enter the 21st century, we have to work hard to redefine what “normal” means. If we can achieve a society where it is more normal for men to speak out against gender violence than it is for them to commit it, we’ll be a lot healthier society than we are today.