I was biking down the street in New York, on a warm and sunny day. To my right, I saw a petite, middle-aged woman walking around in her yard. She was wearing a long black dress, and her head was wrapped in a massive white scarf. To my left, I saw four young men playing basketball. They were shirtless, wearing colorful and butt-exposing shorts. I was struck by the contrast and imagined the positions reversed: on one side, a group of young women playing basketball with their tops off and bright, skimpy shorts on; on the other side, a man covered head-to-toe in a long, dark dress and head scarf.
My natural, innocent self accepted the switched attires as a simple reflection of individual choice. My socialized, fear-based self, however, sounded danger alarms at the thought of the young women exposed and vulnerable to harm.
As a woman, I am conditioned to dress and behave according to a certain code, in the name of protecting myself from abuse at the hands of men. And yet, this mask of protection is simply an illusion. Across the world, men have assaulted women who were wearing all manner of clothing, from a birthday suit to the most extreme hijab. In addition, about two-thirds of sexual assault occurs between acquaintances and about half occur in a woman’s home . So while we are told to dress this way, walk that way, avoid those men and stay indoors during these hours, so as to prevent sexual assault, the fact is that women are not the ones who can prevent sexual assault. Men are.
Violence against women is not just a “women’s issue,” as it often has been referred to; rather, it is primarily a men’s issue, because with rare exceptions, men are the sole perpetrators of violence against women. In other words, sexual assault is not a matter of women being attacked. It is a matter of men attacking women.
“Men,” of course, include all manner of unique individuals with diverse experiences and behaviors. That said, men as a collective group are responsible for nearly all oppression of and violence against women, children and fellow-men. Women can organize politically, support survivors emotionally, fight back physically, and work toward prevention educationally, but ultimately, only men themselves can choose not to be violent against women.
“Men as a group have more power and privilege than women as a group,” states Josie Lehrer, Sc.D., founder of the Men’s Story Project (MSP) — a public story-sharing and community dialogue project, promoting healthy masculinities and gender equality. “Hegemonic notions of masculinity and appropriate gender relations often foster preventable harm for people of all genders.” In other words, our social norms foster a culture in which male violence is tolerated, if not encouraged and men have both the power and resources to stop that violence.
MSP helps people take a critical look at how men are raised, pressured and socialized to be men. “We live in a culture that has a lot of preconceived ideas that are based on archetypes,” says participant Aqueela Sherrills, a negotiator of the historic Crips-Bloods truce in Watts. Sherrills reveals his story of growing up in gang violence, working his way out and against it, and then uncovering his personal trauma that led him into living against his true being. “I had a lot of abuse as a kid that shaped my world view. I didn’t know what life is like without it,” he says.
Understandably, a boy who is raised in an environment of abuse experiences shame, fear, anger and other emotions that, when left unchecked, may led to violent expressions. The culture of violence continues until a period of deeper assessment of unconscious behaviors. Ultimately, the violence that a male learns not only harms others; it also harms himself. Dominant cultural norms often define “men” as unemotional, physically strong and domineering, and these norms give men other traits that constrain full expression of their humanity. In attempts to be included in the ruling class called “men,” males often contort themselves into beings that can look very different from their natural selves.
Both men and women enforce these restrictions. “Men get their cues from women of what men should be and visa versa,” Sherrills says. Some women, for example, expect men to be breadwinners and uninterested in childcare. In my opinion, such an expectation is as limiting to a man as saying that a woman cannot do manual labor or manage a company. “Women push men to repress a lot of their emotions, because it’s not masculine and that’s dangerous for men,” adds Dana Edell, Ph.D. — Director of SPARK, a girl-fueled activist movement demanding an end to the sexualization of women and girls in media. “Violence is emotions turned into anger.”
Society’s expectation that “boys don’t cry” robs males of experiencing their emotional side. The external command to suppress inner realities is similar to the abusive control that men in turn exert on women, so as to avoid certain feelings. Many religious practices, for example, instruct women to cover body parts that men deem attractive. There are, of course, many experiences and interpretations of these rulings. In my opinion, the implication is that God gave woman her beauty, but man has not yet learned how to receive and care for this gift. I hold, however, that it is the man’s task to mature into a being worthy enough to receive the blessing of beholding a beautiful woman. Society needs to support women in taking up our space as entire human beings, as opposed to being treated as beauty/sex objects.
As of now, Edell notes, girls are born into objectification: “Girls are related to according to their appearance from the get go,” she says. After years of self-refinement, Sherrills understands the problem as “blaming versus beholding.” As he puts it, “We need to behold each other, not define each other.”
In addition, anti-violence activists agree, men need to understand that power does not mean power-over. “The masculine instinct to be tough is meant to protect those that are not as strong, and to show respect,” says Joshua Safran, defense lawyer in the documentary film Crime after Crime about the years-long struggle to free a domestic violence survivor from prison. But in its current distorted form, he continues, “the social pressure for men to be tough is often interpreted as brutal suppression of others, and women are often the recipients of the worst.”
Lance McGinnis, a father of three boys in New York, observes society emphasizing toughness in boys. He works hard to balance the pressure, by encouraging the tender side of his own children. “In a house full of testosterone,” he says, “I focus on teaching my boys to be sensitive and empathetic.” “None of this is biological or natural or inevitable,” says educator, activist and award-winning writer Paul Kivel, author of books including Boys Will Be Men. “These rules are learned, and therefore they can be unlearned.”
As award-winning actor and activist Sir Patrick Stewart sums up the matter in the Ring the Bell: One Million Men. One Million promises NYC launch, “Violence is a choice a man makes, and he is responsible for it.”