Sexual assault must be confronted at the cultural level, as well as the individual level, for lasting change to take hold, internationally renowned educator Jackson Katz told more than 100 people in the University Hall amphitheater Jan. 13.
Katz, the keynote speaker for our Community Development Day, drew on his pioneering scholarship and career of teaching sexual assault prevention to urge attendees to examine how they think about and react to the violence men inflict on women.
“We often use passive language when we talk about sexual violence,” Katz said.
The phrase “violence against women” somehow implicitly lets men off the hook, he said, though they perpetrate the overwhelming majority of sex crimes and violent crimes.
“In this case, you have ‘men’s violence against women,’” Katz said. “It doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? But it’s accurate.”
However, he added that reporting sexual violence isn’t male-bashing; rather, he said, “It’s anti-male not to speak out.”
“The same system that produces the abuse toward women produces abuse toward men,” Katz said, pointing to the recent increase reports of male sexual victimization.
And the system is the chief target of Katz’s efforts.
Culture of sexual violence
Because men are the perpetrators of most sexual violence, throughout his career Katz has sought out audiences within male-dominated arenas, namely athletics and the military. He is the co-founder of Mentors Violence Prevention (MVP), one of the longest-running and highly regarded gender violence prevention programs in North America.
According to Katz, it is the first major program of its kind in sports culture and the military, and it introduced the “active bystander” approach to the sexual assault and relationship abuse fields. That model makes men responsible for preventing sexual violence, not simply by refraining from it but by interrupting sexist speech and behavior and physically intervening when necessary.
However, Katz is clear to point out that the active bystander approach isn’t merely a “see something, say something” strategy that can devolve into “bouncer training.”
One barrier to education, though is that men — including those who would never abuse women themselves — too often become defensive, feeling attacked when he and other professionals, or feminists in the public sphere, point out men’s pivotal role in inflicting violence. Male defensiveness perpetuates a culture of sexual violence, Katz said. At its most extreme, this defensiveness is indicated by the nation’s rate of incarceration.
“Prisons,” Katz said, “are filled with men who are little boys … much of it a defensive posture that they learned” when they were children. But, he added, “There’s no excuse for abuse” even if one has been victimized.
Yet the media and social norms, even well-meaning ones, present challenges to changing the culture of sexual violence. Katz noted the shift of “victim” to “accuser” as one troubling change to the nomenclature. He traced the usage to 2003, when pro basketball star Kobe Bryant allegedly raped a woman in a hotel room. Bryant denied the allegations, saying he and the woman engaged in consensual sex. Katz believes the tendency to use “accuser,” even among some feminist writers, is “a giant step backward,” as it saps the sympathy toward those who have been abused.
Clinging to power
But the cultural preservation of sexual violence goes beyond word choice, Katz said. Right-wing media typifies a deliberate effort to perpetuate the status quo, and to cling to the rigid gender (and racial) dynamics of the past.
The vast majority of violence in the world, Katz indicated, is done to gain power or to maintain it, and conservative media reinforces this, as well as the notion that sexual violence is merely an individual behavior, not a culturally influenced one.
The appeal of conservative media, especially talk radio, Katz said, is “white men pronouncing the world as the way they see it.”
“As white men lost their central stage in the culture, the culture started going downhill,” Katz said about minds of media stars such as Fox News’ Sean Hannity, or longtime conservative radio kingpin Rush Limbaugh, who coined the term “feminazis” around the early 1990s.
But this phenomenon isn’t restricted to the United States, Katz added. In Poland, 60,000 people marched in the streets espousing Nazi-like rhetoric, but also anti-feminist and anti-gay ideology.
What’s more, traditional cultural norms and definitions of what it means to be a man reinforce women’s designation as second-class citizens and targets of violence.
“We have to redefine strength in men,” Katz said. “I want everybody to be strong … the question is how we define strength. The caricature of male strength that’s being presented in our culture is just embarrassing.”
What’s needed, Katz said, is that men exercise their power responsibly as advocates of a culture free from sexual violence. The way to get there, and to circumvent male defensiveness, is to “invite, rather than indict” men, and get them involved in the solution.
Katz’s keynote presentation was titled “Transforming the Culture of Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault through Education: Promise and Pitfalls,” a theme that pervaded Community Development Day.
Following Katz were university General Counsel Shirin Philipp and Dean of Students Nathaniel Mays discussion the importance of Title IX, the legislation that protects people from discrimination based on gender in educational settings.
In the afternoon sessions, representatives of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center presented an interactive workshop on handling student disclosures of sexual violence, and faculty members Catriona Baker, Nancy Beardall and Lisa Fiore discussed a conference and art exhibition tackling the issue of violence against women that is slated for the fall.
Fiore said the presentation, “Transforming Awareness into Action — Resources to Stop Violence Against Women,” explored how works of art can help strengthen relationships, lend support and build community in the fight against gender violence.
In conjunction with professors Meenakshi Chhabra and Sonia Perez Villanueva, Fiore’s presentation presaged the Violence Against Women Initiative, a university-wide effort they are coordinating. According to the coordinators, the initiative’s exhibition and conference will “explore the between global representations of violence against women and bring attention to … how these representations affect humanity.”
Animator and faculty member Baker shared her piece the "I Am Red" project created to give survivors of sexual assault a voice. An installation of 720 handmade books will accompany the animation "Every Two Minutes" to illustrate the number of people daily affected by sexual assault.
Dance/movement therapy expert Dr. Beardall shared her and Baker's interdisciplinary collaboration, "Could This Be You?" depicting breakup violence. Accompanying this was the website Could This Be You which contains resources for high school and college students. Beardall’s "Just Moves" was also listed on the website as an example of social action awareness through dance about relationship violence.