Dartmouth College, my alma mater, was in the news not long ago along with a number of prominent colleges and universities being investigated for ‘mishandling’ cases of sexual assault. I have no doubt that most campuses would fall into this category if anyone bothered to take a look, but the Dartmouth news is significant for me because that is where I began my education about manhood and sexual violence.
Dartmouth was an all-male school when I began my first year. In late fall, dorm residents who’d been accepted to fraternities were preparing for ‘sink night,’ a celebration of newfound brotherhood. They came around to our rooms and warned us not to lock our doors when we went to bed because they intended to pay us a visit. We had no idea what was coming, but there was no mistaking the familiar weight of men’s potential for violence.
When they returned late that night, screaming drunk, they went from door to door, rousting us from our beds and herding us into the hall. They lined us up and ordered us to drop our pants. Then one held a metal ruler and another a Playboy magazine opened to the centerfold, and the two went down the line, thrusting the picture in our faces, screaming at us to “Get it up!” and resting our penises on the ruler. The others paced up and down the hall behind them, yelling, screaming, and laughing.
No one protested and of course none of us measured up. That was the point, after all, for us to submit to humiliation, to mirror, like women, men’s power to control and terrorize in what we later learned was known as ‘the peter meter.’
For them, it helped to forge a fraternal bond of shared power and control. For us, it was a grant of immunity from having to submit again, at least in this place, to these men, in this way. But our lack of resistance and the general absence of talk about it afterward suggest we got something else as well.
As outrageous as the peter meter was, it touched a core of patriarchal truth about men, power, and violence. As men, we found it repellant and yet ultimately acceptable. The truth is that we, too, got a piece of manhood that night, for by deadening and controlling ourselves in the face of an assault, we showed that we had the right stuff. Had anyone protested, he would not have been seen as more manly for his courage. He would have been called sissy, pussy, mama’s boy who couldn’t take it.
We both lost and gained in the patriarchal paradox of men competing and bonding at the same time. And I had my first exposure to the dangerous mix of manhood, sexuality, and violence, while administrators and faculty of the college, many of whom could not have been oblivious to this infamous annual event, were silent.
Fifteen years later, I returned to Dartmouth for two terms as a visiting professor. The college had been co-ed for just seven years, and women in my sociology of gender class told stories of men leaning out of dorm windows to scream, “Cunts go home!” as women students walked by. One conversation led to another until I heard about an incident at a fraternity where a local woman who was mentally impaired had been lured inside where she was repeatedly raped.
Looking into it, I discovered a trail of cover-ups, from college officials to the chief of the Hanover police to whom it was suggested it would be in his best interests to leave this alone, which he did. No one was about to risk their own careers to make a case that might jeopardize the futures of the young men involved, some of which included the practice of law.
I gave a campus-wide presentation on what I’d found. A modest crowd showed up, mostly students and mostly women. Nothing more came of it. I left at the end of term.
And now this, yet another report of widespread sexual violence in an institutional setting, and like all the rest—whether in higher education or the military or the Catholic Church—it is presented with an almost breathless sense of being news. Institutions respond in kind with some version of how totally unacceptable this is and now that they know about it, they will of course do something about it. There are awareness campaigns. Students who witness rapes are encouraged to intervene. There are classes on how women can change their lives so that men will be less likely to rape them. In the military, the top brass huff and puff about zero-tolerance and issue orders down chains of command that henceforth men will not rape women.
The thing is, it doesn’t work. After a while everyone will get on with their lives and careers, except, of course, the women who suffer being raped, which will continue as before.
Why? The short answer is that awareness campaigns and laws and orders from on high are, however sincere, trumped by something far more powerful. They are dwarfed by the mainstream patriarchal culture that defines manhood by the capacity for control, especially in relation to women and, even more, to women’s bodies to which men are told from all sides they are entitled.
Manly control is a standard by which men are taught to measure themselves and one another. It is a basis for both solidarity and competition, for privilege and vulnerability. When I would come back to my dorm after a date on a Saturday night and drop by the floating card game in the room next door, the greeting was almost always something like, “Hi, get laid?” It was not an inquiry into my happiness or well-being. It was both a test and a ritual affirmation of our common standing as men defined in relation to control over women.
Men rape because being able to decide whether a woman will have sex with them is an entitlement that goes with manhood, and one way for a man to feel secure in his claim to that title is to show he has what it takes to make use of it. That some men resort to guns, knives, drugs, or fists in the process may technically violate the rules of men controlling women’s bodies, just as chemical weapons violate the rules of war and clipping violates the rules of football. But as with war and football, the rules of rape are not meant to stop men from demonstrating their manhood by getting what they want from women.
Or, as Catherine MacKinnon so famously put it, “From women’s point of view, rape is not prohibited; it is regulated.”† And the point of any system of regulation is, above all, to preserve and sustain whatever it is that is being regulated, whether capitalist markets or football or war or men controlling women.
If we were really interested in stopping rape, we would not just be talking about awareness or more strictly enforcing the rules. We would be talking about patriarchal manhood, its connection to control and violence, and the system of male privilege that gives it meaning and authority. And we would be asking if the men who control the universities and corporations and government and the military and media and all the rest have the stomach for that, or will they be silent and play it safe while women continue to pay the price.
I was a young sociologist in 1976 when I first became radicalized on the subject of rape. By that I mean I started asking questions about the roots of where it comes from.
It began with my reading of Susan Brownmiller’s new book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. I had to read it over a period of time because I kept having to put it down to take my mind off the horror she was describing so well. Which is what rape is, not just in what it does to a life, but in its epidemic and global proportions.
And as far as I could see, it makes no sense at all, a world in which such a thing could be so common—not to mention a frequent subject of jokes—as to be seen as a normal part of life. I have never been very good at things not making sense, especially when they involve suffering, so I set out to understand what I thought Brownmiller described much better than she explained.
As a sociologist, I knew that an epidemic of rape could not be caused by an accidental occurrence of a certain number of bad or crazy men deciding to rape women. I was still in the early stages of working out my understanding of how social life works, what would become the basis for my work on issues of privilege and oppression. And yet I knew that everything we do is in relation to something larger than ourselves.
Most men do not rape women, and yet men raping women is a pattern that recurs year after year in familiar ways and predictable numbers. Different people and yet the same pattern, like a game we recognize no matter who is playing it. Turn on the television and we know a football game when we see it. It could be cartoon characters, but we would know. Because the players are not the game and the game isn’t them. What we’re watching is both/and—the game being played.
It was the ‘game’ that I had to understand. And so I read the feminist work of brave and brilliant women who were mapping out this thing I came to know as patriarchy. I volunteered at the rape crisis service in Hartford. I taught a course on the sociology of gender as a way to deepen and sharpen my own understanding by making it intelligible to others.
Bit by bit, over a period of years, I came to understand—that patriarchy is organized around principles that explain the patterns that result, just as the rules and principles of football makes sense of all that running around and knocking people down.
That patriarchy is male-dominated and organized around a masculine obsession with control. That it is male-identified and male-centered. That if you wanted to concoct a recipe for rape, you could not do better than this.
We are taught to expect that whoever is in charge should be a man and that real men are always in control, especially in relation to women, except for their mothers, with which no woman is to be confused, as in, “Who do you think you are, my mother?”
And the key to it all is that violence is a means of control, and to be in control of something is to be unaccountable to it, whether it’s a pencil or a person. I can do with you what I want. That is the point.
The more I sat with this, the more the insanity began to make sense.
Because men are judged by their capacity for control, then getting into fights, tearing up the joint, breaking things, busting heads, kicking ass, screaming drunk and out of control—is all just part of being a guy. Most men don’t measure up to this, making us vulnerable to being called out and shown up by other men, our manhood credentials thrown into doubt. To protect ourselves, we create masks to keep anyone from knowing. We learn to argue instead of punch. We use money instead of fists. We compensate by cheering on more manly men, the soldiers, the wrestlers and boxers, the football team. We go to hockey games to watch the fights. We play violent video games.
But there is more. Manhood is the standard for humanity—God the father, mankind, guys, the brotherhood of man—with women as ‘other’ and lesser. All of which puts men and what they do or don’t at the center of attention—the film, the news, the conversation, the bed.
To be seen as the standard for everyone creates a point of view on who you are and on everyone and every single thing that isn’t you. Not just a better point of view, but the only point of view.
If he doesn’t call it rape, it is not. She wanted it. She asked for it. He doesn’t care what she says. She liked it. She had it coming. It was no big deal. Combine above ingredients and mix thoroughly.
In such a world, I wanted to know, what becomes of sexuality, what I had long believed was at the core of what it means to be a human being?
It is turned into a toxic mix of human sexual response on the one hand and patriarchal control, including violence, on the other. It is portrayed as what someone in control does to someone being controlled. Experience is transformed into achievement, an act of control, a series of active verbs taking objects. He ‘gets’ it up. He ‘makes’ her come. He ‘fucks’ her. Or he does not.
The language of sex is fused with the language of control and violence, rape language—fuck, screw, stick, nail, bang, take—the penis as weapon, what they taught us to chant in basic training, this is my rifle, this is my gun/this is for fighting, this is for fun
The one who fucks is ranked culturally above the one who is fucked, whether men over women or men over men.
Just as the language of sex is made violent, the language of violence is sexualized—to be screwed, had, taken, fucked, nailed, and, of course, fuck you.
Sexy manhood is romanticized as predatory and aggressive, the chase, the hunt, sexual scoring and competition as badges of status among men. Sex is turned into a thing that women have, an object of desire that men are taught they must get through a continuum of coercion and control that ranges from entreaty, wheedling, sulking, pity, begging, and guilt to manipulation, barter, and purchase and deceit, theft and extortion, and the brute force of terror and knives and guns and fists.
The obsession with control turns everything into an object with no room for empathy, for imagining another point of view, a subjectivity the equal of a man’s. Nor is there room for a man’s empathy for himself, who is to show no fear, deny his pain, make no complaint, show no weakness, no vulnerability, his body a machine
This is my gun.
Most men do not rape and never would, but in their silent complicity in the myth of manhood there lies a profound ambivalence toward women and themselves that affirms and grants permission to the men who do and will.
This is how rape happens and why, and it will continue until we see and understand it whole for what it is.
Voice Male contributing editor Allan G. Johnson is a sociologist, nonfiction author, novelist, and public speaker. His books include The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy and Privilege, Power, and Difference, and two novels, The First Thing and the Last and Nothing Left to Lose. This article was originally published on his blog at agjohnson.wordpress.com.