Ending Violence Against Women Requires a Bigger Role From Men

To counter sexist attitudes, we must move away from advocacy against sexual assault as a specifically female cause. We must foster male attitudes that recognize and reject violence towards women.
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Several weeks ago, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the head of the Air Force's sexual assault prevention program was arrested for attacking a woman in a Virginia parking lot. Just days later the Army's coordinator for sexual assault prevention was accused of 'abusive sexual contact.' And, as if it couldn't get any worse, last week, a sergeant at West Point Military Academy was charged with secretly videotaping female cadets in the shower. Though the vast majority of our men and women in uniform serve honorably, events like these are far too common. A survey from the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention Office finds that cases of sexual assault in the military are on the rise with 26,000 servicemen and servicewomen sexually assaulted last year (up from 19,000 the previous year). Only 10 percent of these cases have been prosecuted.

Lawmakers like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are providing much needed leadership, pushing to reform the military's sexual assault policy to hold offenders accountable. Stricter enforcement and tougher legal penalties are necessary, but we must also address the larger systemic issues in the military and our society that permit a culture of sexual inequity. The victims of sexual misconduct in the military are both men and women, but national and military surveys illuminate that proportionately most victims are women and almost all perpetrators are male.

The high rates of sexual assault in the military are not a result of more mentally unstable and hardened criminals in our armed forces. Rather, these men come from across America, and their choices and behaviors are shaped by our society. We can't separate men in the military from our society as whole. Their high rates of sexual assault are a reflection of our society's failure to address this issue. The military's culture of impunity and emphasis on stereotypical attitudes of manhood exacerbate these already persistent sexist attitudes.

Paralleling this troubling trend in the military, the last year was rife with violence towards women. Women in New Delhi, India, and Steubenville, Ohio, suffered horrific and highly publicized rapes, while debates on college campuses escalated to shed light on a disturbing nonchalance regarding attitudes towards sexual violence. When classmates at Dartmouth College disagreed in the course of public protests highlighting issues of sexual assault, racism, and homophobia, students issued rape and murder threats against their classmates. Sadly, these incidents represent only a small sampling of sexually motivated discrimination and abuse.

The issue of sexual violence and its associated sexist attitudes is not limited to any one nation or institution, and it cannot be mitigated by more sensitivity training or tougher laws alone. To counter sexist attitudes, we must move away from advocacy against sexual assault as a specifically female cause. We must foster male attitudes that recognize and reject violence towards women. In pursuit of this goal, we need to create more opportunities for boys and men to exchange views and learn from and challenge each other about this issue -- a space where male leadership can form organically. In order to be successful, we have to include men in the debate.

There are many male allies -- we just need to encourage more of them to speak up. Over the past six months working at a women's rights transmedia project, Half the Sky Movement, I've met male athletic coaches, professors, students and former military personnel who have chosen to champion this issue in their communities. Male-led efforts have created effective initiatives like Men Can Stop Rape, which began with the tagline "my strength is not for hurting" or the White Ribbon Alliance, which encourages men to speak out in solidarity against violence towards women. Sir Patrick Stewart of Star Trek has used his celebrity to call violence against women the "the single greatest human rights violation of our generation," and called on one million men to join him in helping to end this violence.

It's encouraging that there are men who want to take an active role in preventing violence against women. History illustrates the important role men can play in advancing the status of women. During the suffrage movement in the early twentieth century, for example, millions of men supported suffrage with some even forming Men's Leagues for Woman Suffrage. Their support helped to achieve the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right vote. Though the goal may not seem as clear-cut, we need a similar level of male participation to address present-day violence against women.

We are seeing more initiatives focused on facilitating conversation between men and boys on the topic of sexual violence and attitudes -- a subject on which men have not been effectively engaged in the past. Jackson Katz, who co-founded Mentors in Violence Prevention at Northeastern University, promotes a grassroots approach to ending gender violence that encourages male leadership and ownership. Organizations like A Call to Men, led by Ted Bunch and his team, work with young men to challenge common notions of 'manhood.' A similar initiative from Futures Without Violence, Coaching Boys into Men, trains adult mentors to teach boys respectful attitudes towards girls in youth athletics. Similar opportunities should be expanded at schools, places of worship, and on athletic teams to sensitize boys and young men to gender issues with opportunities for discussion.

The Half the Sky Movement's educational videos make the positive impact of these male-to-male exchanges clear. One video from Sierra Leone captures a local men's group discussing domestic abuse and sexual violence. One man argues that it is acceptable to abuse a defiant or insubordinate wife. Others disagree, and a conversation ensues challenging each man's judgments in a productive way.

It is high time that more boys and men step up as leaders to make improvement in their ranks. We are taking strides in the right direction to make that a reality, but until we engage men on a large scale on this issue, efforts to end violence against women will be elusive.

*The views expressed in this articles are those of the author and do not necessarily represent Half the Sky Movement.

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