Men, Power, and Everyday Feminism

An SIUE alum now in grad school elsewhere reflects on the assumption that men are entitled to women’s attention whether they are reading, mourning, taking a train ride, talking with friends, or just not interested. Because of the charged nature of the comments, and the possibility of local retaliation in the current environment, the author wishes to remain anonymous.

TW: Discussion of rape culture, violence against women, Kavanaugh hearings, Bill Cosby sentencing, etc

Hi, everyone! Brevity is not my strong suit, but I will try to be brief. That said, I have multiple stories that I would like to share with you. I am currently pursuing my second a Master’s degree and, like other places and campuses across the country, my place has been buzzing about the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh and the allegations of sexual assault brought against him by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University and, as of this writing, at least three other women. Among other news traveling through the campus grapevine are the trial and subsequent conviction of Bill Cosby for drugging and then sexually assaulting many women.

It was in this context that, just two days ago, I was standing in line at a local cafe when I overheard a young, early-20-something undergraduate discussing the Kavanaugh debacle in a very disturbing way. He was conversing with a fellow undergraduate, a young woman who looked to be about the same age. He claimed to not understand “what the big deal was” and that “stuff like that” (the activities that Kavanaugh participated in as a high school student in the 80s) happens “all the time.” There were also claims that Brett Kavanaugh and co. were “young kids.” A week prior to this encounter, I’d overheard another, very similar account–this time in regards to fraternities on our campus which endorsed sexual assault not unlike the famous Yale fraternity that chanted “No means yes, yes means anal,” a chant that was later echoed by fraternities across the country including at Texas Tech.  The overarching sentiment it seemed to me was “What’s the big deal? This is so commonplace that it isn’t noteworthy. Get over it. Let them be kids.”

Around the same time that I’d heard the comments about Theta Tau, I witnessed another incident on campus. I’d been walking from my house to the CVS that’s a couple blocks from my campus. As I was walking down the promenade of campus, I passed two girls about my size (quite short). They were clearly friends, and one of them was talking to another friend on her phone. As they walked past me, two guys about their age—they were all white and looked to be late teens, early 20s—approached them.

A man in a grey suit and hat, smiling, leans over the back of a bench inside a train car. He is leering or smiling at a young blong woman dressed all in black as though in mourning clothes. She is not smiling, and is looking directly at the viewer.

“The Irritating Gentleman”, by Berthold Woltze, painted in the late 1870’s. Dudes demanding women’s attention? Not new. The young woman, dressed all in black, could be in mourning. She is certainly simply traveling along on her own agenda. She is looking somberly directly at the viewer.

The bigger of the two guys, who was well over 6ft and easily a couple hundred pounds, walked directly up to the two girls. When one girl, who was on the phone, ignored him to carry on with her conversation, he began to harass them.

He hoisted up his leg and brought it within inches of her face and pretended to kick her–IN THE FACE.

Stock photo shows a woman in a red suit leaning back, off balance, as a man in a suit lifts his leg up as though to kick her in the face

The man’s and the woman’s body positions looked almost exactly like this.

When her friend protested, he laughed and looked at his friend (who was still watching) and exclaimed, “I could take her if I wanted, I could take both of them right now…” and both guys laughed their asses off before walking away in all their macho glory.

So, what’s the big deal? As a woman in her 30’s who’s been in college or graduate school off and on since the mid-2000’s, I can safely say that I’ve been in and around universities for a very, very long time. This means that I have had ample time to observe campus cultures. That is to say, the scenario that I described above is not an isolated incident. Over the years I’ve witnessed a slew of similar behavior:

  • men clothes-lining women across the chest
  • men coming up behind women and football tackling them
  • men pretending to choke women
  • men elbowing women in the face
  • men literally kicking women in the behind, and an assortment of other appalling behavior that I’ve been noticing even more lately.

These young women, of course, just brushed it off. They laugh, they shrug, they roll their eyes and once upon a time, I used to be one of them. But now, I worry about how and what these women are internalizing in these encounters. I also worry about what the young men are internalizing as well. I worry about how they are being conditioned to perceive this behavior as “normal”, “okay”, “no big deal”, or even “funny”, or worse–a sign of affection.

To this I say, it is not okay. This is not normal. And these behaviors are certainly not signs of affection. What these behaviors demonstrate is deeply ingrained privilege that are a symptom of toxic masculinity: the way boys and men are socialized to believe that they are owed access to women’s bodies, affection, attention and time (as well as other things), and that they are entitled to use aggression, force, and violence if necessary, to get it.

Two women lean close to each other on a bed or chaise lounge, looking irritatedly at a young man who is trying to sit next to the bed in their space. The humorous text reads "Excuse me. Yeah Hi excuse me. Can we help you. Yeah is there some we can help you over here. This bed is for two people. You're making us be three people and we don't want that."

A screenshot from The Toast.net’s excellent “women having a terrible time at parties in art history”

To this I say, boys and men need to learn that they are absolutely not entitled to women. Can we stop coddling them, start holding them accountable and start teaching them the BASICS, like developing emotional intelligence, respect for others, and communication skills and learning that consent is not just sexy, not just essential, but mandatory?! Can we get them to understand that they ARE NOT entitled to our bodies, affection, attention or time? Can we get them to understand that the women in their lives aren’t the only ones who should be doing the emotional work in a relationship?!

A simple black and white drawing of a man is on the left. One of a woman is on the right. In between them is a gigantic speech bubble issuing from the man's mouth. He is leaning forward and taking up space, and the woman is being pushed back against the right side of the image by the speech bubble, which is deformed where it meets her body.

This is also something that they need to be taught from a very young age, like the nanosecond they come out of the womb. And although this behavior is ingrained by the time they are college bound, I really wish more men would step up and reinforce that it isn’t okay.

While I *do* think it’s important that everyone be involved, including women, in fixing culture and teaching boys and men how to do better, at the same time I *am* wary of the job falling to us yet *again* to fix it. A good model might be Ian Tolino, AKA “Consent Bro“, a “peer educator” who has spoken to fraternities about the importance of  affirmative consent (only yes means yes). But we need also to have men talk to other men about the general sense of entitlement to women’s time and space, and to dominating conversations or interrupting women.

So to men, and in sum, I say, if you consider yourself to be an ally to women, can you PLEASE start calling other men out? We don’t need you preaching to the choir to convince us you are one of the good guys. While it’s great that you can recite Feminist theories, your Praxis matters. We need you to acknowledge your privilege and constantly hold each other accountable.

 

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Filed under Gender, Masculinity, Sexual Assault, Uncategorized

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