The fallout since the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month has included good guy vs. bad guy diatribes in the conversations on violence.
Discussions of the shooter’s mental health, his alliance to white supremacist groups and warning signs around his behaviors in a culture of toxic masculinity are in contrast to the actions of the heroic teachers, rescue workers, medical personnel and teen survivors.
The sweeping use of toxic masculinity as causal may have unintended consequences if it is used to imply that all masculinity is inherently toxic. This is particularly important in context of the concurrent #MeToo movement and solutions to halt sexual violence. The implication that all men are part of the problem of all kinds of violence may result in the exclusion of good men from the conversation about stopping violence—including sexual violence and harassment.
Certainly many men’s groups such as MenEngage Alliance, The Good Men Project, Men Stopping Violence and others are actively involved in engaging men in the fight against sexual violence. Women like Mona Charen at CPAC continue to call on men and women to decry harassment when they see it.
Yet some men may avoid being involved in the #MeToo movement if they identify as one of the “good guys” and are upset at being falsely lumped into the culture of toxic masculinity.
Being a good guy or good person is more nuanced than a simple classification based on whether or not the individual has abused someone. This is evident when someone who does good work like the CEO of the Humane Society or members of charities such as the Red Cross and Oxfam are accused of sexual violence. Yet even though most men are not predators, the behaviors of those who are have created a culture of fear among women.
The reality is that sexual harassment and violence is primarily an epidemic for women. As many as 85 percent of women and 19 percent of men say they have been sexually harassed. Additionally a 2018 study found that 27 percent of women report a history of sexual assault, compared to seven percent of men. Most of the time both women’s and men’s assailants are men.
As a forensic expert and researcher on sexual harassment and assault for over 10 years, I know that sexual violence is largely a woman’s problem because women are the most frequent targets of such violence. However, the effective reduction of sexual violence requires that men also see such violence as a man’s problem in a way that does not alienate men.
That is not just because men are the typical perpetrators of such violence, or because some men are also victimized, but because men have the power to help stop sexual violence. When men see it or before it happens, men can intervene.
Women need men as allies in the fight against sexual violence. And if women and men are going to work together to stop sexual violence, we need to include non-abusive men in conversations about the solution. However, public accounts of men who have intervened to stop sexual violence are largely absent. Male perpetrators of violence are more often the focus of attention following the #MeToo movement.
An Australian journalist recently created the #HowIWillChange hashtag for men to engage in the movement against sexual violence. It did not garner the same popularity as the #MeToo hashtag. This may be because use of the hashtag would require men who see themselves as good men to have to admit that they are not good enough and thus need to change.
In order for more men to engage in the fight against sexual violence, they need to feel welcomed into the fight. This sense of welcomeness may come from increased sharing of stories about men intervening to stop sexual violence.
Saying that not all men are bad distracts attention away from the serious problem of sexual violence and does not address the cause of sexual violence. Not every account of sexual violence needs to include a discussion about non-abusive men. But focusing public conversation solely on all the bad things that men have done and the culture of violence against women may inadvertently portray men as the enemy of women. This portrayal excludes non-abusive men from the conversation about finding a solution to sexual violence.
Men can be included in bystander intervention programs as this can effectively reduce sexual violence. Early and continued education that teaches men and women to intervene when witnessing sexual misconduct and about how to obtain affirmative and enthusiastic consent before engaging in sexual behaviors is also vital. This education however must avoid the implication that all males are complicit in sexual violence.
Placing images of naked women with powerful antiviolence sentiments on their bodies in between pages of a men’s magazine with other scantily clad women seems an ineffective way to include men in the conversation about sexual violence. Teaching young boys that girls can’t say no to their requests to dance is also problematic.
We cannot rewrite history to ignore the fact that a culture of violence by men against women has existed for generations in the U.S. and in the world. However, welcoming men into a conversation that accepts these hurtful truths must include a focus on how old socially constructed ideals of masculinity and femininity oppress both women and men.
In order to help stop sexual violence, men don’t need to be told to be part of the solution. They need to feel included as part of a team. It is only by working together to achieve a mutually beneficial goal that we can prevent sexual violence. Without gender-inclusive teamwork, the #MeToo movement will not reach effective solutions.