The majority of sexual violence prevention programs are geared towards women. However, since men commit 92% of sexual assaults against women, men’s role in preventing sexual violence is substantial. This article will explore what it means to “be a man”, how those perceptions can alter someone’s chances of committing sexual violence, and some ways that we can minimize those risks.
What makes a man?
To be clear, I know there is no single type of man. Men are varied in their actions, beliefs, and perceptions about themselves and the world. So, you might ask how can we answer what it means to be a man if there is no one type of man? The answer to this is to talk about the perceptions of manhood, which, while not ubiquitous, have some similarities across the world.
James Bond seems like a good man to be a reference for manhood. He has existed in various incarnations for over 60 years. So, what do people, of any gender, think of him? Here are some common answers:
- Bread winner.
- Controlled emotions.
- Problem solver.
A lot of these are positive traits. Being confident can help to live a worthwhile life and advocate for yourself. Physical fitness can be an important part of someone’s physical and mental health. And being able to solve problems pretty obviously holds value in most areas where there are problems to be solved. On the other hand, some of those characteristics are more problematic.
Aggression, womanizing, and stoicism are characteristics of what academics call “hegemonic masculinity”. In essence, this is the type of masculinity that needs to hold power over others, especially women. And problematic behaviours in the military and in sports can show quite clearly how extremes of masculinity based in dominance over others can go wrong. That being said, a man can believe that James Bond acts like a stereotypical man, but he might not believe that those behaviours are okay. These people offer different versions of being a man, but can sometimes bear the cost of countering the traditional model.
Parents will show more positive behaviours to boys who do stereotypically (within the “hegemonic masculinity” sense) behaviours associated with being a man. Additionally, a boy’s peers and teachers are more likely to criticize boys who do more stereotypically “feminine” behaviours. This starts early in a boys life and doesn’t stop when they become a man. The power-based masculinity hurts men who don’t abide by it at disproportionate rates. Boys who are gay or bisexual have more than twice the risk of being threatened by a weapon during the previous 12 months than heterosexual boys. The risk is even higher for boys who are “not sure” about their sexuality.
A masculinity based on power over others has been described as “hard won and easily lost”, needing to be consistently proven to the man himself and the people around him. While there are many traits that can fall into the power-based model, one of the strongest influences is that it opposes anything stereotypically “feminine”.
How does all this affect sexual violence?
Many studies have linked power-based masculinities to committing sexual violence. Men who believe in having power over women are more likely to commit sexual violence. This isn’t a surprise. Especially because one of the questions used to measure this is: “When it comes to having sex: I never feel bad about my tactics”. This kind of manhood coincide with myths about sexual assault and rape culture values to create a dangerous situation. Especially for BIPOC women.
It is important to acknowledge that violence doesn’t have to be a part of masculinity. However, some of the most ‘manly’ institutions in our society (e.g., professional sports, the military) are also the most violent. Unfortunately, these places also attract men who rank high in traditional masculine gender roles. This creates a place where men who believe they have to prove themselves as men by having power over women are among other men who believe the same. And all their beliefs intensify each others’.
As a note, these social settings also tend to use more alcohol than average. Using alcohol responsibly doesn’t have to be problematic. The problems with sexual violence increase when alcohol is combined with beliefs where men need to drink a lot and then prove how “manly” they are.
How can men lower their risks of committing sexual violence?
There are programs designed to help guys understand and prevent sexual violence. For example, Man Up Against Violence in Regina taught students about healthy manhood. They discussed what it meant to be a man, to stand against violence, and to challenge wrong ideas about masculinity using plays and group discussions. Other programs, like Mobilising Men in Practice, work globally to start conversations and provide tools to men looking to end sexual violence.
These line up with what a lot of other programs are trying to do. Mainly, in conversations about healthy masculinity, there are 2 ways to change the status quo. One is to affirm the positive characteristics of masculinity. The other is to challenge and transform what masculinity means. Normalizing the healthy belief structures that traditional masculinity currently holds can be valuable. As is countering the universality of unhealthy versions of masculinity (including toxic masculinity). On the other hand, changing the concept of ‘masculine’ behaviours is more likely to happen when we challenge the idea of what it means to be masculine. Most men don’t embody the hypermasculine belief systems that cause people to sexually abuse others. Neither do most men commit sexual violence. However, there are many men who do.
Men’s role in preventing sexual violence
Being able to have conversations with your friends and family about what it means to be a man can be an incredible way to start shifting perceptions. You are a model of masculinity, and acting that way can influence those close to you. It can be freeing to reject rape culture and embrace your own qualities that go against traditional masculine beliefs. I have spoken with many of my fellow men who don’t believe in the traditional gender roles. They are also open to sharing their power and space equally with women. Once we can do this with ourselves, then we can start having the ability to affect change in the lives of those we love. Maybe soon we will stop talking about the crisis of men and boys and enter a healthier world for everyone. This is all men’s role in preventing sexual violence.
Why does Vesta care?
We at Vesta are invested in eradicating rape culture. We believe that this can only happen when people know what that is and their role in it continuing. Men play an important role in doing this, as allies, survivors, and perpetrators. Because, without men involved, all the blame will continue to fall onto women.
One of the traditional roles of men is taking responsibility, and I believe this can be a positive one in our lives. So, as a man, take responsibility for your place in re-creating harmful versions of being a man. Stand with women in their fight for equality. Help make this world a safer place for women and men alike. And lastly, don’t be afraid to shed a few tears for the people who have been hurt because of masculinity while you try to make society a better place. Once we are all able to do this, then neither the overwhelming feelings of guilt, nor their harmful counterparts, will be required.
If you know someone who lives in Ontario, Canada, has been assaulted and they are considering documenting or reporting their experience, connect them to the VESTA Community app, found here.