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.
So I’d like to address myself to the men here tonight, and to what you, as concerned allies, can do to end sexual harassment and violence here in Cambridge.
First, we often say that allies should support and amplify women’s voices, and that is important, but I want to suggest that you can go further. When your female friends complain about a professor who makes sexist comments in class or inappropriate advances to students in private, it is not enough to support them if they choose to bring it to a department or a college’s attention. Of course you must do that, but you should also complain to the relevant authorities yourself, and on your own behalf. That is because in a patriarchal society, a formal complaint from a male student, or a mixed group of students, carries more weight with administrators than the same complaint with women’s names at the bottom.
Second, we need men to talk to other men about why violence is such a big part of how we understand masculinity, and to do the work, in your own male social networks, of defining masculinity some other way. When your friends make fun of one guy in your group for not having the ‘right’ manly hobbies or interests, when they harass a woman down the pub, and then laugh it off as ‘banter,’ you have to be the one to say the jokes aren’t funny. When your friends talk about their sexual exploits as though having more sex with more women makes them better men, you have to challenge that idea, and say it doesn’t make you respect anyone more. You have to convey that their idea of manliness isn’t one you aspire to, that it isn’t manly at all.
Third, and most importantly, we need men to speak up in social settings to stop violence in its tracks. Here is what I mean – I have been out at parties, and I’m sure you have too, where one guy is relentlessly creeping on some girl in the group, who is definitely not into him, while their friends look on awkwardly, a bit embarrassed, a bit alarmed. As the night progresses, that guy might grope her in the club, he might follow her home, he might assault her. I have been at parties where a young woman’s male partner, having had a lot to drink, is threatening her, and I worry that it might not be a great idea that they go home together. As a woman, of course, I can and should speak up, tell him to cut it out. I can tell her that I have her back, when she complains to the cops, or reports him to the nightclub bouncer. I can offer her my couch if she needs a safe place to stay. That will give her support, it will make her feel more confident, it is an important act of sisterhood.
But the reality is, when violence against women is part of a power game men play with each other, my words will not stop the man from committing the violence. If he’s groping a stranger or threatening his girlfriend, he doesn’t care what women think.
But, on the rare occasions when a man in the group steps forward and says, ‘Dude that’s not cool,’ ‘Mate, leave her alone,’ every time I have seen that happen, the assailant steps back. This is very important. It is not sufficient to tell your female friend afterwards that you were horrified, that you hate that guy, that you definitely don’t want to be that guy, that you will definitely back her when she goes to the police – of course you should do all these things.
But if you want this epidemic to end, you have to speak out in the moment, to the man who is committing the violence. This is the cruel reality of gender oppression: men will only stop committing violence against women when violence against women actively diminishes the perpetrator’s standing with other men.
Women, I know that this can be frustrating. It has taken me time to realize that our liberation depends not only on changing how society sees women but also and perhaps more critically, on changing how society sees men. That latter piece, which I believe is the critical feminist work of our time, is work men have to lead. And that’s a hard thing to swallow. But it is one of the very hard lessons of the history of revolutions, political, cultural and social, that wherever they have succeeded, the popular pressure of the oppressed group from below has required an assist, sometimes a big assist, from some portion of the elite from above. Even if the oppressors come from within that elite. Especially when the oppressors come from within that elite.
We will stand here with our candles and our banners and our chants, and we will hurl them at the walls of power. But somebody has to open the door from the inside. That is how the light gets in.“