By Christopher Kilmartin
In the days of state-sponsored slavery in the U.S., physical and psychological violence was used to justify and maintain the system of economic and social inequality that allowed whites as a group to exploit the labor of slaves and dominate public and private life. Although few participated in the violence—the most extreme of which was lynching—all members of the dominant group (whites, especially white slave owners) benefitted from the intimidation of the subordinated group (slaves), who feared becoming victims should they challenge what was considered “legitimate” authority (for example, male slaves could be beaten or lynched for merely looking at a white woman). Slaves learned to be servile to survive; “uppity” slaves were in much greater danger.
Considering patriarchy as an economic and social system by which men as a group dominate women as a group, sexual assault and the threat of it serves the same purpose as lynching—it causes women to be fearful of challenging men’s dominance.
Hence, women whom men sexually harass in the workplace, rather than being those whom many men find attractive, are more often those who challenge men’s dominance and are thus seen as a threat. The film North Country depicts the extreme harassment and assault against women iron miners in Northern Minnesota, who are seen as invading men’s workspace and taking “their” jobs in an impoverished economy. As one of the characters points out, when the mineworkers were all men, nobody mistreated the wives and daughters at the company picnic. Thus, it is not the mere presence of women that threatens male dominance; it is their presence in a specific context—one in which men feel entitled to exclude them. Although most men did not participate directly, all stood by passively rather than become allies to those who were being mistreated.
So it is not surprising that military and higher education settings are rife with sexual assault, as they are largely male-dominated spaces (as are many universities with their athletic and fraternity cultures).
Women in these environments learn to be subordinate or pay the price for their resistance. Institutional power structures often intimidate sexual assault victims to inhibit them from coming forward or violate their rights and re-victimize them if they do. Rape myths, such as the beliefs that sexual assault is caused by alcohol or miscommunication, or assigning total or partial responsibility to the victim, serve to justify men’s perceived entitlement to women’s bodies.
Although few men commit sexual assault, all men derive some benefit from the social advantages it brings. For nonviolent, egalitarian men to be aware that women distrust them not only requires that they not just understand gender and patriarchy as systems, but impels them to engage in gender-aware dialogue with other men. This kind of discourse is not common. Many feminist bloggers are subject to rape and death threats, not necessarily by rapists and murderers, but by men who perceive the bloggers’ challenges to the masculine narrative and analysis as a threat. In an extreme example, the alleged victim in the Kobe Bryant rape case was subject to more than 100 death threats for challenging the sexual entitlement of a masculine cultural standard bearer.
Profeminist men are also seen as subversive and are subject to the same physical or psychological violence. In an extreme example, a group of Texas men gang-raped an activist after he gave a profeminist speech. However, most of the threats toward these men are usually less extreme, perhaps because vocal profeminist men are seen as a small, ineffectual minority, in sharp contrast to feminist women, who are a large force to be reckoned with. Most of the intimidation of these men seems to take the form of masculine shaming, much as boys’ groups perform, calling them sissies, pussies, fags, or “manginas” as a way of threatening to relegate them to subordinate groups—women and gay men—to police the boundaries of acceptable masculinity and ensure the dominance of men as a group. The psychic damage of this practice— that it distances men from one another and increases maleon- ma l e phys i c a l and psychological damage—is largely unexamined in public discourse.
As a result of violence or the threat of it, similar to slaves who were servile as a survival strategy, many women are reluctant to adopt feminist identities, as they have been convinced that feminists hate men, when in reality they (as a group) have a higher opinion of men than women who do not identify as feminists. Many men are even more hesitant to adopt feminist ideologies because doing so would require accepting the idea that they benefit (although they also suffer) from the violence of other men and that they have unearned privilege for which they must then become accountable. Nevertheless, if there was ever a time for nonviolent, egalitarian men to find their collective voice and speak out, it is now.
Christopher Kilmartin is a professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg,Virginia and author of a number of books, including The Masculine Self. A licensed clinical psychologist, Kilmartin is also a stand-up comedian, actor, playwright, and consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.