The UVA Sexual Assault Module and the Disturbing Reality of How We Teach Violence Against Women

October 19, 2015

Story by Kendall Siewert

To put this article in context, first watch this two-minute clip that was part of this year’s U.Va Sexual Violence Education Module: 

[embed]https://vimeo.com/72060537[/embed]

Let me introduce you to that guy. He’s in college. He plays on a sports team. He sometimes calls girls “dumb sluts,” but he’s not trying to be a jerk. He simply does not understand that this is offensive. One day, a freshman teammate of that guy astutely points out that calling girls sluts makes the team look bad. In a sudden turn of events, that guy realizes that his behavior probably is not going to get him any girls, since they don’t particularly want to hang out with jerks. This warped logic is eventually what prompts him to change his behavior. He now understands the error of his ways, even if he only understands them in terms of his self-image and ability to successfully interact with women.

This is how we have decided to talk to men about any kind of gender-based violence towards women. There are three core similarities in these types of discussions: men appeal exclusively to other men, a “bro” rhetoric is used to create solidarity, and the main point of sale is self-interest. This video provides men with traditionally masculine phrases such as “wow, dude, that’s harsh” to combat any instance of “dumb slut” commentary. It asks men to stop degrading women because it is bad for their sports team and reduces the chance women will want to hang out with them. It cannot fathom that men would ever do this just because, so it rephrases itself in stereotypical terms men “should” understand: sexual pretense and sports. It does not ever talk about respecting women or thinking about their feelings. All of the focus is, unsurprisingly, on the men.

This is insulting. I am surprised that more men do not feel angry about the way videos like this address them, reducing each intelligent and thoughtful individual into a dumbed-down stereotype. If they will not vouch for themselves, I will vouch for them. The men I have met in my U.Va community are so much more than that guy. They are anything but self-interested. These men are more than capable of understanding the importance of ending all forms of violence against women, and consequences of such violence like degrading language.

It is no secret that violence against women, sexual and other, is a problem in society at large. Women have openly fought against it for decades, and now men are stepping up to the plate as allies and even leaders of the movement. I cannot reiterate enough how important the involvement of men is to ending violence against women and girls. We simply cannot do it without their help.

However, the ways men organize around and speak about violence against women have all started to look eerily alike. Instead of aiding women as equals, they have broken off into their own groups with their own languages and exclusive settings. All-male educators that present to all-male audiences have taken off as a solution to solving violence against women. Women have become excluded from a conversation that they worked so desperately hard to start. Stopping violence against women by removing their experiences from the dialogue does not seem like a good place to begin.

Image courtesy of Snipergirl; Flickr Commons

These male-only groups are essentially revamped good ol’ boys clubs. They create “safe spaces” where men can speak freely without worrying about the constant vigilance of women. William Henagan, who handles the public relations for U.Va’s all-male peer education group One in Four, rightly states that single-sex presentations work “to engage an audience [to be] more comfortable with participating in the dialogue,” so “men don’t feel worried about asking questions that may offend the other gender.” This opportunity to speak freely can be a good thing, especially in our society of hyper political correctness. But if men and women do not get a chance to engage each other in conversation, they miss the opportunity to learn something new from the other perspective. A comment that offends a man might make a woman realize how many men feel automatically categorized as perpetrators of violence against women. A comment that offends a woman might make a man realize how scary it can be to lack autonomy of one’s own body. Sometimes the messiest conversations make for the best learning.

It could be different if this man-to-man bro rhetoric preached a purely benevolent message. However, as we see in the video, it often emphasizes self-interest. Ulester Douglas, the executive director of Men Stopping Violence, gives candid insight into how his organization affects a change in mindset from men. “You have to go after self-interest in any privileged group,” Douglas says, even though he understands the problematic nature of this approach. “It’s a disturbing reality,” he admits, “but it is a reality nonetheless.” Are we actually cultivating positive social change through this method, or are we operating within a flawed framework? If we think we have found an effective way to educate men about violence against women, but it exists greatly in terms of self-interest, is it truly effective? I would argue that it is not.

I want an education that pushes boundaries and is not gendered. I want men to want to learn about violence against women because they genuinely care, not because there is a hold on their SIS account or because it makes them look bad. I believe that in order to do this, we first need to give them more credit. We need to start by believing that men care about people besides themselves, their mothers, and their sisters. We need to reach a place where men are seen as whole, rational, compassionate human beings who want to do the right thing. Finally, we’ll end up in a world where men and women can have conversations about gender violence together, tactfully sharing opinions, benefitting from other viewpoints, and ultimately creating a culture of mutual respect that is currently lacking.

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