Most men think of sexual assault as coercion through physical force—the overly dramatized image of an assailant jumping out of the bushes or lurking in the shadows. That does happen, and those are very clear cases of sexual assault.
However, sexual assault shows up in myriad other ways on college campuses, and yet, far too often men are not forced to reconcile our actions with their consequences when they cause harm.
It’s easy for me to take sides in most things; there is a lot of black and white. But, as many students on college campuses across the country learn every day, there are also many shades of gray.
Understanding what has contributed to campus cultures that have been permissive of sexual assault at times and loathe to act at others requires us to spend a significant amount of time inside the gray. Those grays can loom heavily over our campuses and our communities when we refuse to call things by the names they deserve.
Simple and complex can share the same space at the same time. That is one of the beautiful aspects of humanity. So it is with patriarchy. Patriarchy influences men in ways we don’t always know how to discuss. We tend not to see—and sometimes choose to ignore— the ways we make life more difficult for women—the crux of patriarchy—and the ways that, ultimately, influence us.
Men’s feelings and experiences are not things we’re taught to share or explore in any meaningful way. Our task is to be and know all the things we are taught men are supposed to be and know. We rarely, if ever, question how we arrived at these accepted milestones of manhood. We believe we are where we are supposed to be because it is always where we have been. Then when life hurts us, we often wonder how we stack up. We haven’t been taught what to call the moments when our insides aren’t aligning with all the outward projections of masculinity we’re supposed to exhibit and continue.
There is little infrastructure anywhere to challenge the potentially dangerous things men are taught through patriarchy. Many young men arrive on college and university campuses afraid, pretending to be the brave men we’ve seen all of our lives. Of course, we know the black and white of sexual assault. It’s wrong. But we aren’t able to understand so much of the nuance and how our presence shows up in the gray of social interactions on campus.
Most men think of sexual assault as coercion through physical force—the overly dramatized image of an assailant jumping out of the bushes or lurking in the shadows. That does happen, and those are very clear cases of sexual assault. However, sexual assault shows up in myriad other ways on college campuses, and yet, far too often men are not forced to reconcile our actions with their consequences when they cause harm. Men don’t understand. And while ignorance is no defense to the law, understanding how ignorance affects both parties is key to making real and lasting change on college campuses.
The changes produced on campuses are a result of programmatic shifts throughout the country. Green Dot for College offers bystander intervention training that includes video and role-play exercises and other activities that allow participants to practice proactive intervention skills. Bystander intervention trainings and a general shift in culture have led to men being engaged in a myriad of ways. This is a direct reflection of an ongoing shift in attitudes, culture, and norms. Instead of the traditional reactive model, many campuses are using a preventative model, which provide men the opportunity to better engage in accountability creation measures. For too long, the creation of safe spaces for women was solely the woman’s responsibility. Now, with organizations specifically focused on engaging and mobilizing male students, faculty, and staff, men can take up some of the responsibility of creating and maintaining safe spaces.
In my role at The Lighthouse|Black Girl Projects, I am expected to meet men in our community where they are. This work begins with the foundational belief that all people in our community have value. Our “all” even includes people who have made decisions that have caused harm. Value is even afforded to men facing consequences of their actions. Same for men even unaware of how they even caused harm.
This work allows me to sit beside men, while I teach and learn with and from amazing women. TLBGP gives me a shared language and experience to share with men. We learn from our shared experiences and get held accountable for our words and actions. We work to ensure men acknowledge the pain of survivors. We also work towards teaching community to understand and accept our belief that people who want to change can change when given the space and time to learn different behaviors and responses. We also believe most people aren’t looking to cause harm. However, their decisions and actions have consequences for others and themselves. Teaching men the ways their words and actions cause harm and create barriers on campus and in community is central to our work with them.
The men we work with love their mothers and daughters. They love their sisters and aunts. They have been loved and taught by so many women in their lives. Yet, when the rubber meets the road, they quickly side with patriarchy because … well, they’ve been steeped in it and have never had the expectation to interrogate it.
As young men on campuses are learning to express their loves, fears, and ideas in ways previous generations never have, they are also learning their value beyond being able to protect and provide for the people in their lives. However, the conversations about men and how men behave in life in general and on campus in particular, must center the needs of the people in their lives. Men must listen to what the women want and need. Men as a whole, even the most dedicated and loving men among us, have work to do.
This project is supported by Grant No. 2016-TA-AX-K076, awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.