Debunking “Pussy” and Patriarchy: Starting With a Few Campus Men?

As a university leader and violence-prevention researcher, I watch national statistics seeming to tell an unwavering narrative: Despite all our consciousness-raising and prevention efforts, violence against women is here to stay. A 2015 survey involving 27 universities across the nation, for example, suggests that roughly one in four college women will be the victims of sexual assault by their senior year.

For university officials and prevention scholars, the statistics are seared into our consciousness, aggravated with each new event as friends, family, students and colleagues call upon us to answer “when will it end?” My answer, of late: Never.

It will never end until the world is free from patriarchy. Patriarchy is a social system permeating the world, where men hold positions of power and have authority over women. Its insidious tenets include sexually objectifying and perpetrating violence against women, intensified at the intersection of race, ethnicity, poverty and other disenfranchised identity. While violence occurs in all types of relationships and gender configurations, sexual violence disproportionately involves male abusers and female victims.

Recently we all received a heavy dose of patriarchy, from the top, when our president-elect swanked that “to get women,” you simply “grab them by the pussy.” Is it uniquely the president-elect who attaches relevance to the word “pussy?”

In March 2017 at MSU, Don McPherson—former National Football League quarterback, activist, feminist and advocate for preventing violence against women—asked 25 college men to identify the worst thing they would be called for not embodying masculine traits, such as strength, courage and aggression. Traits that McPherson says comprise “the man box.” The patriarchy box. The resounding answer from campus men: Pussy. Pussy is the worst thing to be called for not fitting into “the man box.”

Pussy is vulgar slang for “vagina,” used to refer to women as sexual objects. Deducing from this, the worst thing about not being man enough is becoming a woman. Becoming a pussy. Becoming a sexual object. And we arrive back at patriarchy, the social structure that asserts men’s power and authority over women.

Is there hope for preventing violence against women in the current political climate—one that seems not only to perpetuate, but to heavily reinforce, patriarchy? While violence against women stretches across all of society, college campuses represent a microcosm for exploring such hopes.

In March 2017, we held MSU’s first-ever formal gathering of male student leaders, representing organizations throughout campus (e.g., Inter-fraternity Council, Residence Halls Association) to explore: what it means to be a campus leader for social justice issues, including sexual violence prevention; campus climate issues related to sexual violence; concrete prevention steps; and networking connections. The four-hour program coincided with the university’s It’s On Us prevention week and included 1) keynote speaker Don McPherson; 2) interactive presentations by campus partners representing the Title IX Office, the Office of Institutional Equity, the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Program and the National Social Norms Center; and 3) participant discussion. Business attire was encouraged to stress a professional leadership focus.

How did we address “patriarchy” at the campus gathering? McPherson covered patriarchy and rape culture, including what it means to live as men in the “man box”– a “box” of masculine traits including aggression, hypersexuality and expectations of authority and protection over women. Campus-based presenters inspired participants to consider what it means to be social justice leaders on campus, including standing firmly against sexual violence; with specific strategies explored for intervening in everyday situations reeking patriarchy, ranging from lewd comments and gestures directed at women to rape and domestic violence. Small group discussion explored these concepts, including barriers and strategies for intervening.

Is this concept new? Researchers have implemented and evaluated intervention programs that explore patriarchy and strategies for resisting it within adolescent boys (e.g., Coaching Boys into Men), and in college students more generally (e.g., Green Dot Bystander Program). However, our event was the first to bring together campus men to discuss these issues within the context of social justice leadership more generally.

Will the concept work? As the president’s degrading comment about grabbing women by the “pussy” shows, we face an uphill climb in advancing an agenda that will challenge the patriarchal tenets linked to violence against women. But we must persist in the climb. Violence prevention requires multi-dose learning, meaning that one-time exposure to the concepts of patriarchy and strategies for resisting it will not result in sustained change. Rather, multiple exposures are needed. We remain hopeful that the event at MSU is the beginning of a more sustained dialogue with campus men, with plans to follow up with participants to obtain feedback and to form discussion and support groups.

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