The statistics around sexual assault are staggering: 1 in 3 women will be assaulted in their lifetime. And those numbers are grossly under-reported due to the ordeal women have to go through once coming forward to confront their attacker. While I am aware of these statistics the terrifying reality of rape culture didn’t fully hit me until I saw it being perpetuated in my own classroom.
I had one day left in the week and didn’t want to start a new unit, so I decided to do a spot social justice lesson. The lesson examined the racialized and gendered messages mainstream media send us by analyzing Lupe Fiasco’s song “Bitch Bad” and various responses to it, like this one from Crunk Feminist Collective. The lesson went well, the students were able to discuss with clarity and share profound insights into the songs lyrics and video. They discussed minstrel, they discussed their own use of the term “bad bitch,” and most importantly the young women in the classes told their truth around dealing with the pressures of looking “sexy” while maintaining respect and not being seen as ratchet. While many of the young men listened and were respectful there was a handful that simply refused to accept what was being said. They rejected the idea that women actually didn’t appreciate how they are viewed, both my larger society as well as the young men in their lives.
It was at this point that the conversation turned troubling. A young man we will call Michael was particularly vocal about his disbelief. He was adamant that women lied constantly and that despite what they were saying now, in front of him and the rest of his class, when he talked to them individually they agreed with him. Despite the often times passionate objections from the women in the class, the other males remained quiet, Michael was not to be moved.
By the end of the day I taught the lesson three times. There were many more positives to take than negatives, but Michael’s reaction was the main one that stayed with me. It wasn’t so much Michael’s reaction in and of itself that was scaring me, while it did. What was getting me was that when the class ended,and the young women were obviously still upset, the reaction of the other men in the class was to rush Michael out to keep him from getting yelled at or “punched,” as one young man told me. This is where I really saw the danger of rape culture. It is not just in Michael’s response, it is in the silence of his peers. Instead of checking their friend they remained silent, passively siding with him. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would remain silent at the party when a friend wanted to “have fun” with the passed out girl, like in Steubenville? How many of them will say the girl “wanted it?” How many of them will, despite dozens of accusations, refuse to believe that one of their friends is a serial rapist? Worse, and more heartbreaking than that, how many of them will be able to have a healthy relationship with a woman? How many of them will be able to listen to, and truly be supportive of, their sister, mom, aunt, girlfriend, wife, or even daughter when one of them has the courage to face our devastatingly sick society and say she was sexually assaulted?
As a new father, I look at my daughter and understand with incredible clarity that the responsibility for healing from this trauma lies with us men. It is up to us to model healthy, loving, and complete humanity by refusing the narrow definitions of manhood. The homie Jamie Utt talks about this with incredible compassion, this is just one of his pieces, please check them all out. Above all we must not be silent. Just as white silence is tacit acceptance of white supremacy, when we are silent about rape culture, patriarchy, and misogyny we are accepting them as part of our society, we must refuse this. We must talk about manhood and masculinity, and the entire gender spectrum, early and often. When we do this, our young people will grow up with a healthy image and understanding of not just themselves, but others, more capable of healthy relationships. And what can be more life-giving than healthy relationships?