Last night, I attended a Reclaim the Night march here in Cambridge, against the sexual violence and wider gender discrimination that is sadly common on our campus and elsewhere. I gave a short speech about the key role of men in this movement, and this is what I said:
“When thinking about what I wanted to say here tonight, I reflected on the years I have spent in the feminist movement, attending marches and rallies and protests and signing petitions and calling legislators and so on. I reflected on the feeling of support and pride and strength that I often draw from this work, and also how quickly I find that feeling dissipates when an event like this does not lead to some concrete, material change in the problem we’re trying to highlight and solve.
And so I found myself thinking about what we can do when we leave here to stop gendered violence in our community.
Let’s start with what we know about gendered violence in general and how it happens at universities in particular. The National Union of Students reported last year that 1 in 4 women students will experience some form of sexual assault during their studies. We know that’s not because 1 in 4 men are committing violence, but because the small number of men who do it tend to be repeat offenders. We know that they will continue, and commit increasingly violent acts, so long as they get away with it the first time. We know that the perpetrators are likely to know their victims socially – 90% of victims of assault say they knew the perpetrator. We are talking about boyfriends and colleagues and supervisors and professors, and not, for the most part, strangers in dark alleys.
We know too that sexual violence is not about sex. It is about power.
And one thing we know about power is that people acquire it not just to have it, but to show it off. Using sexual violence to acquire and enforce power over women – who is the audience for that? It is partly women, to make us feel victimized, weak, afraid to assert independence in other areas of our lives. And we know, horribly, that it often works to do that.
But violence against women is also something men do to show off to other men, a way of demonstrating how ‘manly’ they are, based on a particular, patriarchal definition of masculinity that hurts men too. And because violence against women is part of this status competition men are having with each other, there is, ultimately, no solution to this problem that does not involve men.