By Greg Loughlin“Do you have a son?” The question from a Georgia legislator surprised Greg Loughlin when he met with him as part of a delegation of men from the Atlanta-based organization Men Stopping Violence, where Loughlin serves as assistant director. The 35-year-old organization was in the Georgia state house to support campus sexual assault survivors who were unanimously opposed to House Bill 51, known as the “Campus Rape Bill.” It would require mandatory reporting of campus sexual assault to law enforcement, and limit colleges’ abilities to take safety and accountability measures to protect students. Loughlin approached the issue as both a men’s center staff member and as a father.
Why did the legislator ask if I had a son? Was he reinforcing the strategic framing that this debate is about men versus women? If I had a son, would I be more likely to be a “team player” to protect both my son’s and my own male (and presumably heterosexual) privilege?
“Yes,” I said. “I do have a son.”
“So, if he is accused of sexual assault, would you want him to be mistreated in one of those campus tribunals?” Hmmm, I mused. “Mistreated.” That word—with its implication that men are the real victims in a system tilted toward women—jumped out at me. The word and sentiment were used so frequently by male legislators at the capitol that I wondered if they were reading from a common script.
Despite the pervasive belief that men are regularly “mistreated,” the legislator’s question was still outrageous in its erasure of women’s reality from the equation. It denied the stark truth that more than one in five college women in the U.S. are victims of attempted or completed rape during college, and that the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men. It is based on the same myths and fictions used to justify HB 51: that women are untrustworthy and frequently lie about sexual assault. But I knew—from sexual assault survivors’ accounts, well-documented statistics, and my 17 years working with men to end violence against women—that the opposite is true. Men who rape or otherwise violate women frequently go free. The current #MeToo, #WeKnowWhatYouDid, and #TimesUp campaigns illustrate just how widespread sexual assault against women is. And, for every woman and man who posts #MeToo, there is, too often, another man who has support from his community to get away with it.
In addition to erasing women’s reality, the legislator’s question also denies the painful truth that my son—all our sons—are being recruited and indoctrinated into a system of patriarchal beliefs that supports male sexual violence against women. Our sons’ spirits and humanity are under attack as they face societal pressures to dehumanize and violate women…and this politician— like too many others—is denying it. Does he think this is a game?
It’s worth noting that the legislator who asked the question— Rep. Terry Rogers—was not HB 51’s sponsor. That would be Rep. Earl Ehrhart; his sexism was on display as he treated the sexual assault survivors who testified against HB 51 with disdain. Rep. Rogers was a likable “regular guy”—one of many legislators whose belief that men are being systemically “mistreated” on campus was so strong that he was committed to moving the campus rape bill forward, despite the protestations of campus sexual assault survivors and their advocates who repeatedly came to the capitol to emphatically denounce HB 51.
But Rep. Rogers was also intentionally raising additional visceral questions: How do we want our sons treated if they are accused of sexual misconduct on campus? The unspoken corollary is just as gut-wrenching: What do we want for our daughters if they are violated on campus? While HB 51 so far has been scuttled in Georgia, these questions remain urgent and highly relevant to the larger national conversation on campus sexual assault, especially in light of the Department of Education unveiling a new draft campus sexual assault misconduct policy this fall.
FairnessOur daughters and sons deserve a fair, consistent, and transparent process to address campus sexual misconduct, one that doesn’t revictimize them after they make the agonizing decision to come forward for help. Survivors and their advocates need to understand how the process will unfold and know that it will be fair as they consider the difficult calculus of whether to come forward seeking accountability on campus.
Fair processes are obviously important for our sons if they are innocent, but they are just as important if they are not. Is he going to learn responsibility by being treated unfairly himself? No, he is likely to see himself as the victim rather than examine how his beliefs and his choices impact the women in his life, not just himself.
A fair, consistent and transparent process is a prerequisite for justice for her and—if our sons have mistreated women—the beginning of meaningful accountability for him. Accountability for him leads to more safety for women. If he knows that he can get away with it, he probably will continue to mistreat women.
If our sons hurt women and girls, they need to be held accountable and face the consequences for their actions if they are to learn and grow. Those consequences—which could include expulsion from school—may feel heart-wrenching and shocking for men oblivious to how they have felt entitled to sexually assault women. If administered fairly, however, the consequences also are an act of caring. How can our sons learn to be responsible for their actions and choices in the absence of accountability? In the long term, it is in men’s interests to be accountable for our actions and choices.
A Way Forward?As the Department of Education opens a public comment period on its proposed new campus sexual assault policies, how do we get closer to the fairness and accountability that both our daughters and sons need to experience safety and justice on campus and in society?
First, we can’t get there only as men talking to men in a state capitol hallway; it can’t just be men deciding. Because—when we listen to campus sexual assault survivors, especially women of color—we learn that so many of the solutions that sound good to the men supporting HB 51 will actually decrease fairness, accountability and safety. For example, HB 51 sponsor Earl Ehrhart’s disingenuous attempt to get “serious” about campus sexual misconduct by mandating a law enforcement response —while gutting presumably “weaker” campus, community and civil accountability processes—ran counter to the testimony of survivor after survivor from Spelman College, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech, Clark Atlanta, and organizations like Students Against HB 51 and Atlanta Women for Equality, who all shared how HB 51 would discourage survivors from coming forward on campus, and then narrow their options to only criminal prosecution where if you can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt it didn’t happen.
The same principle holds true on the federal level, where the changes proposed by men’s rights advocates—increasing standards of proof; scuttling campus response in favor of criminal justice action; ending public identification of schools that fall short of their Title IX responsibilities; focusing on “due process” as an excuse for inaction, are strategies designed to decrease accountability both for men and—when they fail to keep students safe for institutions; they are examples of the community letting “him” get away with it again.
How will we know if proposed solutions increase fairness and accountability? To get this right, we must prioritize the voices of campus sexual assault survivors and their advocates. Doing so is in the best interests of all our daughters and sons.
What Can Men Do?In order to create safer communities for all our sons and daughters, men can:
- Reject seeing male sexual violence as an issue pitting men against women. Spread the word in all venues that accountability is in men’s self-interest too.
- Require accountability from each other—and ourselves— to end male sexual violence against women and girls. Such accountability is an act of caring when we see men disrespecting women. It’s what a friend would do.
- Demand community accountability for systems and institutions—including colleges and universities—when they obfuscate and delay to maintain a status quo that supports male sexual violence.
- Financially support advocacy organizations that bring diverse survivors’ voices to the forefront of policy and cultural debates. Atlanta Women for Equality, Black Women’s Blueprint, and the National Women’s Law Center are a few examples.