by Steve Vickman, Executive Director, HELP of Door County
As America grapples with the surfacing of instance after instance of male violence against women, it’s time men come to grips with their role in perpetuating a cycle that has disastrous effects on women, children and men.
Some men can see how we benefit from sexism by having easier access to higher-paying jobs, but even many of them balk at the idea that we benefit from women being raped or battered. Male rape of women is male violence against women in its most devastating form. It involves the total violation of a woman’s body, mind and spirit, and its effects are debilitating long after the act itself.
Almost as horrifying as rape is how normative it is in our culture: one in 2.5 women is a victim of sexual assault in her lifetime. One in three females is sexually abused before age 18.
In a survey of 1,700 Rhode Island junior high school students, a quarter of the boys and a sixth of the girls said that a man has the right to have sex with a woman without asking, as long as he has spent money on her. A majority of the boys and a near majority of the girls said that it’s permissible for a man to force sex on a woman if the couple has dated for six months.
Historically, the term “domestic abuse” did not even appear anywhere until the late 1960s. The cultural response to rape has typically been to ask questions like, “What was she wearing?” “Where was she walking?” “What did she do to stop it?”
Since the Harvey Weinstein controversy, battered and raped women are making us see how victim-blaming relieves us from asking more disturbing questions such as, “Who is doing this to women? And why?”
When HELP of Door County first began working with men who batter women, we waited for the monster to come through the door. Many years later, we’re still waiting.
Most of the men we see – whether self-referred or mandated by the courts – seem normal to most of the people who know them.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 35.6 percent of all men living intimately with women have battered their partners during the course of the relationship. By “battering” I mean the use of and repeated threat of physical force to dominate and control a woman. From this definition and these statistics, we might conclude that battering is “normal” behavior in this culture.
Seventy-five to 90 percent of rapes are committed by male acquaintances: family members, co-workers, classmates, dates, boyfriends, husbands. Battering and rape are not being committed by pathological freaks. Women are most often victimized by men they once trusted and loved. Why? The answers we generally hear from men going through our Violence Intervention Program include:
- Men batter women because, at least in the short term, it works by temporarily stopping a woman from doing what challenges our male authority.
- Men batter women because they can get away with it. There is relatively little risk of her leaving or him being arrested and prosecuted.
- And finally, men have been socialized to believe we have the right and the privilege to dominate and control women.
It’s the workings of patriarchy, a system of male control over women, a system of male privilege.
The term male privilege did not exist until women began to expose their oppression and name their oppressors. In the battle for the power to define reality, most men reject the terms “oppressor” and “oppressed.” We label those who use them as “strident,” “hysterical,” “man-hating,” because it is in our interest to discredit them.
What we need to acknowledge and understand is that the experience of oppressed peoples – those not in power – is different from ours as the dominant class.
Our group so controls the definition of reality that we need not even know there is any other view. Ours is the dominant worldview and we see that there is not much difference between us and batterers. We are all participants in the continuum of male control over women.
Male privilege also includes the assumption that reality is what I (and my kind) say it is. A man is defining a woman’s reality and claiming the truth when he says: “She was being provocative; she had on a see-through (too short) dress.” “I didn’t want to hit her. She provoked me. She kept nagging.” “Women lie.” In these examples, we describe reality in ways that justify our position and world view.
At HELP of Door County, we believe women must be listened to. This Voices of Men Program institutes the following practices:
- Listen without interrupting. Don’t plan our rebuttal as a woman speaks. Don’t listen until you’ve had enough and then interrupt. Give women your full attention and seriously consider her point of view.
- Believe her and take her seriously. Accept her feelings, her version, her vision. Recognize her right to her opinion and acknowledge that her opinion is as valid as your own.
- Change what is wrong. Silence locker room talk and end pornography since pornography reinforces our assumption that others are there for us.
Listening becomes a path toward justice.
Listening to women is hard for most men. If we listen, we’ll hear things that are hard to hear. Our lies, our injustices, our faults will be exposed. To do or say nothing in the face of women’s rage is to step into the great unknown. Much of our current unease with the #MeToo movement revolves around our own feelings of confusion and fear as males.
The reality is that to have a just society, many of us can no longer afford to be the kind of man we grew up trying so hard to be.