According to the CDC, 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetime. That’s alarming. If you’ve been listening to the discussions happening across college campuses—where 1 in 4 women will suffer date rape or attempted date rape— you’ve heard that people are finally taking concrete steps to do something about it. And many of these steps move toward changing the way we think about consent and changing the way we think about men and masculinity.
Thinking differently about sexual assault
The discussion about sexual consent says that men and women need to think differently about sexual assault. For a long time, the debate has centered around the idea of “Did she say no?” or “Did she send mixed messages?” It’s pretty clear that this approach hasn’t worked. And, as college campuses are being required to implement sexual assault plans, many of them are making efforts to include a new approach to the idea of consent in those plans. Rather than putting the burden on a woman to say “No” if she does not want certain sexual advances, both women and men are being challenged to mutually agree about the level of sexual activity between them.
Though fraught with lots of anxieties on both sides of this dialogue, recent national discussions of sexual assault on college campuses are a big step forward. In fact, some colleges are taking another step in this initiative by circling up males on campus in an effort to help them revision masculinity, both to educate about consent and become allies. For example, Central Michigan University uses the image of a herd of a hundred zebras standing around watching a lion kill and eat the weaker zebra and doing nothing. They invite males in the No More Zebras Program to be outspoken and active allies rather than silent bystanders amongst the man-pack.
Encouraging men to consider their behaviors
We’re certainly not out of the water yet. We’ve lived in a culture that’s had a history of bad behavior around the issue of rape for too long, and it’s left us with far too many men who feel no qualms about forcing the issue of sex by magnifying their force and diminishing a woman’s resistance with alcohol. This is further exacerbated by a climate on college campuses of sexual exploration among individuating young adults who sometimes use alcohol for liquid courage or management of social anxiety.
At the Men’s Resource Center, we work with men to help them understand the distorted versions of masculinity that make it so much more likely that men will commit acts of violence. Though we do not excuse sexual, physical, or emotional violence, we encourage men to consider their behaviors within a context we’ve named mascupathy—a pathology of manhood that prizes emotional distance and certain forms of aggression. There are few instances where we can see this pathology as clearly as we can in the campus debates on sexual assault. Until we help males revision a more relational and intimate form of sexuality, the culture of rape won’t fundamentally change because we haven’t uprooted the primary problem: mascupathy.
Men joining the conversation of consent
Unfortunately, much about young males and their fledgling masculine identity fuels their desire to use female attention to assuage their fears of not being man enough. As college-aged men construct their adult personalities on campuses, they find themselves in a competitive environment that drives men to sexual conquests to prove their masculinity and ascend in the hierarchy of the man-pack.
Campus rape culture is cultivated by this mascupathic environment, particularly when men act out their aggrieved entitlement—I’m deserving of sex from you, because you’re at my frat, I paid for this date, you dressed this way, you didn’t say no, you can’t stop now we’ve gone too far, etc. Men joining the conversation of consent requires that they fundamentally change their beliefs about their male identity, sexuality, and intimacy and forge a more wholehearted, communal, and compassionate masculinity.
Responding in a healthy way
Too often we get caught up in things like the oft-repeated fear that men will be legally scarred for life because college assault plans respond aggressively to rape and date rape allegations. We’re missing the bigger picture. This particular fear, in fact, provides us with a good metaphor for how important this transformational period into adulthood is for the development of masculine identity. When faced with concerns like these, we need to ask: why is it that so many men commit acts of sexual violence? And why do we have such a tendency to sympathize with them for it?
Questions like these allow us to understand that perpetrators of sexual assault aren’t just monsters. They are more likely particularly bad actors that struggle and fail to meet the standards of masculinity we set for our boys. In our experience, being a “regular guy” requires men to repress the very skills that would allow them to respond in a healthy way to instances of sexual confusion—compassion, sensitivity, and emotional intelligence.
It is absolutely not natural
The University Health Services at the University of California Berkeley estimates that 75% of males and 55% of females involved in date rape had been drinking or using drugs prior to the assault and as many as 70% of college students admit to having unwanted sex as a result of alcohol use. As alarming as this is, we at the Men’s Resource Center find hope in this need for liquid courage.
Our work with men has taught us that it is absolutely not natural for men to be aggressive and violent—the need to mask fears and inflame aggression through alcohol before committing what will likely be their first act of physical/sexual violence against women tells us that young men want an alternative. They just don’t quite know how to name the discomfort they feel when faced with living up to the idea of a strong, rugged manliness. After all, can we say that 70% of men are monsters?
New dialogue between the sexes
What we believe is that the vast majority of men also will be open to this new dialogue between the sexes about a mutual process of sexual involvement, particularly if we construct this dialogue within a larger context that considers what it is in our expectations of men that leads to so much violence. A conversation like this opens the door for men to understand intimacy as an emotional connection, not simply an act of sex requisite for being a regular guy.
Al Heystek, MA, LPC, MDiv
Al is a Licensed Professional Counselor who has worked professionally with men’s issues since 1994. He has been a therapist with the Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill since 2002. Prior to that Al worked for OAR, Inc. in Holland, Michigan as a therapist in both outpatient and residential men’s chemical dependency programs. Al also worked for Gateway Foundation, an Outpatient Treatment center in Chicago and prior to that was on a ministerial team for 10 years in an urban ministry in Chicago. Al is also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. learn more…