Masculinity is achieved through gender violence. Certain forms of ‘manliness’ are predicated on men’s violent use of power over women and against those men perceived as weak or ‘unmanly’. This assertion of “manhood”…is perceived as normal or natural…The hierarchies that exist between men require violence to be maintained and so men too are its victims.
This idea by feminist writer Melanie Judge says, is reinforced daily. We, as a society, are training boys to be men in a culture of normalized violence. Men such as Brock Turner, the perpetrator in the recently publicized sexual assault case at Stanford University, were raised in this culture. Social training like this, or socialization, is the process by which people learn to perform acceptable behavior by society’s standards. For people who identify as men, achieving a performance of manliness that passes as normal continues to be a largely uncontested ideal. Consciously or unconsciously, men are trained to assert dominance over women and over men who present in less stereotypically masculine ways; doing so earns them a place, temporarily, amongst men seen as champions in the gender hierarchy. However, it also requires an emotional injustice. The normalized narrative of what it means to be a man indicates that men are entitled to power and that men avoid anything perceived as weak, including vulnerable human connection. This idea does not mean men cannot engage in human connection; certainly many do. The point is that many, if not all men are influenced by this dominant narrative in their daily lives and actions.
The sexual assault case at Stanford begins with Brock Turner, a college student sex assigned male at birth and socialized to perform masculinity. In sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, he may have acted upon entitlements and privileges he’d internalized as normal. Living in a rape culture, we produce and receive too few counter cultural messages that challenge the idea that sexual conquest and male domination of others are not just the norm, but are what make men powerful, sexy, desirable, or ‘real men’ (???). Thus, many men expect, and are expected, to pursue access to women’s bodies.
Rape culture is a culture in which sexual violence is considered the norm. For example, in addition to Turner, rape culture in the United States has produced male fraternity members who hang banners directed at fathers of incoming college women. Some of these banners read “She called you daddy for 18 years. Now it’s our turn.” and “Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time…go ahead and drop off mom too…” These statements clearly indicate that women are to be passed as property and/or sexual commodities from one generation of men to the next.
Although Virginia’s Old Dominion University suspended the fraternity responsible for hanging such messages, historically, communities have overlooked these misogynistic crimes, sending a message that such behavior is normal. According to a senior at Ohio University (whose fraternity hung banners reading “Dads, we’ll take it from here” and “Daughter Daycare”), “Our motives were not to insult or look down on anyone, not to be sexist. Our motive is just to have fun, it’s college.” His statement not only implies that being in college excuses his fraternity’s actions, but that he does not remotely believe there was anything wrong here. Although nothing actually excuses sexism and misogyny, the motives behind actions like these are clearer when we consider gender socialization and the lack of serious repercussions. For example, the Ohio University fraternity was simply asked to take down the banners and a professor reportedly scolded them. A lack of serious repercussions is seen in the Turner case as well, wherein Turner was sentenced to a ludicrous six months in prison.
While both examples of men’s verbal or physical entitlement to women’s bodies do include disciplinary measures (a sign of change in the right direction), consequences like these are still uncommon and do little to change the overall culture. For example, most perpetrators of sexual assault are never held accountable at all. Men’s violence and the language that condones that violence become a norm. With these behaviors normalized, men are inclined to believe they are alone in their discomfort with men’s violence and entitlement. Thus, too often men are hesitant to speak up and challenge gender norms for fear of losing masculine status. This fear serves to reinforce norms as bystanders choose between complicit silence or active participation.
Often overlooked is the notion that gender norms are impacting men’s capacity to foster connection and be authentic to their values. By connection I mean mutually-sustaining connection, or relationships in which each person can bare their insecurities and fears and feel safe. Instead of this, we, as a society, are socializing boys to be men in ways that render them vulnerable and insecure, constantly striving to prove themselves as socially-accepted men. Too often, we set them up to do this alone, hoping that they might figure out how to challenge sexism while also managing to achieve a masculine front.
Although most men do not sexually assault people, many have been in situations where a) someone says/does something sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, or transphobic, b) they are uncomfortable or outraged and c) they do nothing. The messages that reinforce the normalized narrative of what it means to be a man read loud and clear. These messages are not just brandished on fraternities’ banners or randomly born in the minds of collegiate athletes. They are embedded in our culture and in various forms of media from advertisements to video games. Left unexamined, rates of sexual assault will remain the same. Men will likely continue to assume they are expected to remain silent in the face of rape culture.
The Turner case raises an alarm that the way we, as a society, continue to socialize men and boys is damaging. Recognizing that gender plays a significant role in the lives and actions of men can shed some much needed light on specific cases of men’s inexcusable violence and sexism. Individually, many men are, or have the capacity to be, emotionally-connected; however, that capacity will remain in the dark as long as impossible, and often unwanted, stereotypes are left unchallenged. Until we incite and sustain a social transformation of masculine norms, men’s violence will continue to surmount men’s capacity for connection.