Last Wednesday, I sat among a sea of candles at Take Back The Night and watched speaker after speaker share their stories of sexual violence. The event was one of the most powerful that I’ve attended at Penn and the brave voices of the participants are still echoing inside my head.
Most of the stories seemed so removed from my college experience that I felt more awed by the pain of the speakers than the details of their stories. But a few — about violence around campus with “good guys” — impacted me directly. They stirred a horrifying realization: I bet I know what he told himself as this was happening.
Even if we don’t act upon it, I imagine many men at Penn have learned the logic and language of sexual violence: Yeah, she was really drunk, but look at what she had texted me earlier. I know she was mostly passed out, but she had come up to my room already. I just pushed her head down in the heat of the moment.
Overt offenders are a serious problem, but so are men who think they’re doing nothing wrong.
The flirting leading up to this is often like a conversation between two people speaking different languages. What does paying for someone’s dinner mean? What does grinding indicate? How do you translate “See you later ;)”? Everyone has a different bias when interpreting, which is why activists say that “only yes means yes.”
But the language barrier is the result of structural tensions connected with our gender roles. After the event, one participant asked me, “Do you think we live in a rape culture?” That’s a harsh label, but we definitely live in a pursuer-pursued culture, in which men go after women nearly all of the time.
In general, sexual activity relies on a guy’s initiative and a girl’s acceptance. The pursuer invests time, energy, maybe even money and often wants something in return. He expects a level passivity from his target since her role in decision-making is only to accept or decline.
As a reaction to these power dynamics tied to gender, people often play “the game.” Individuals might purposefully send mixed signals to lure a partner, acting disinterested or flirting with others. This dynamic allows pursuers to make Sunday morning justifications — she was acting hesitant just to tease me.
If you think a woman who pursues a man is “overly aggressive,” or if a man who is quieter hasn’t got any game, you may know a language with its roots in a culture of violence. I’m not suggesting everyone be genderless — skipping down Locust wearing overalls — but we should actively choose to act “manly” or “womanly” or neither.
In order to tackle this culture of sexual violence, we need to include a victimizer-based approach to existing rape prevention. We also need to rethink gender roles like the aggressive, pursuing male and the submissive female.
Men Can Stop Rape, a national organization working to this end, provides an alternative to most prevention efforts that focus on risk-reduction and self-defense tactics for women. Its “Healthy Masculinity Action Project” works to increase the national dialogue on the link between violence and society’s expectation of men and masculinity. It teaches men to model strength without violence. Men, for example, might transform “strength” to include qualities like the willingness to cede power, show affection and nurture those around them.
Redefining gender roles may not only work toward reducing incidents of sexual violence, it may also encourage positive intimate relationships. The current dynamic creates transactional partnerships where individuals are more concerned about satisfying themselves than creating a shared experience. One telling statistic is that 70 percent of women do not orgasm from vaginal penetration alone. So if that’s all you’re doing, it’s probably a one-sided affair.
Perhaps if we’re honest with our partners, we can explore new avenues of intimacy that are conscious of stereotypical gender roles.
Violence prevention can start in the minds of potential victimizers. Groups like One in Four are important, because men need to speak to men about sexual assault. But men also need to speak to everyone in their communities and redefine their roles in sex — not just to take back the night, but to transform it entirely.
Zachary Bell is a College senior from New Haven, Conn. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Critical Playground appears every other Tuesday.