Published with The Good Men Project
Picture this if you can. You’re at a night club. Music is pumping, people are dancing, laughing, bumping into one another. You see the waves of bodies through a filter of flashing lights and shadows. Somewhere in the middle of this purple and navy sea, you notice a group of people in a tight huddle. Looking closer, you see that there is a body in the middle of that huddle. You concentrate and through the pulse of the club hear the circle laughing, and through that, you hear someone in the middle saying, “No. No. No.” This confusing scene is sliding toward the stage like a school of fish, and you spot something—a shirt?—pulled up and out from the center. That makes your feet twitch, but no one nearby looks alarmed. No one is rushing to stop whatever is happening, so you wait, until the shuffling group reaches the stage. The body from the center is pushed up and out of the tight ring and through the bars of a cage. After a few moments, the person begins to dance and the group below cheers and claps. After a minute, maybe less, the dancer steps back into the sea, and the night rolls on.
Whatever you pictured, we’ll circle back.
In April 2020 I was hopeful that the pandemic would force society to reconsider gender roles and that a new model of masculinity might emerge. Though I remain committed to a better model, studies suggest that in some ways we are moving in the wrong direction. Recent data from UN Women reports that 7 in 10 women believe domestic violence has increased, and 3 in 5 see more sexual harassment in public. As we say in my house. Not good. Very bad.
For any man who cares about the wellbeing of all people as well as the reputation of men, the documented increase in violence against women during the pandemic is heartbreaking. First, because of the devastating impact on victims, and also because men are too often the culprits. While COVID-19 mixed the world a malignant cocktail—and men were not the bartenders—we still must reckon with the numbers. If 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experienced intimate partner violence before the pandemic, and if both of those ratios have increased, humans have a significant relationship problem, and women suffer the most.
By the numbers, more women are victims of intimate partner violence, and while not all partners are men, most are. Even before the pandemic, nearly half of female murder victims were killed by a current or former male intimate partner. It’s easy to blame men, by telling or buying the story that we are all abusive, toxic, misogynists, but that is false, harmful, and an oversimplification of the issues that men face. And while men are also often victimized by other men, sexually and other wise––87% of male victims of (completed or attempted) rape reported only male perpetrators––it’s also important to recognize that “about 1 in 3 men experience contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner,” and “97% of men who experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner had only female perpetrators.” Again, that’s a significant problem.
People need to treat people better, and gender equality needs to be co-ed struggle, one where men are partners rather than obstacles to progress. Without a doubt, men need to take accountability, stop bad behavior, advocate for the advancement of women, transform accepted masculinity. Gender norms and assumptions, however, continue to frustrate efforts.
Time to circle back to the opening picture. I hope most readers felt uncomfortable. I hope most thought, This is not right. I hope some even imagined intervening. Unfortunately, as the person who was surrounded by the random bachelorette party in that scene, I can tell you that no one did.
I hesitated to tell this story. I didn’t include it to garner pity for a fresh-out-of-college version of myself. Though it is embarrassing and weird and troubling, it isn’t a traumatizing moment in my life that I’m terrified to speak about, wondering if people will believe me or call me a manipulative liar. All of this speaks to my privilege as a man, and I don’t want men to use this as a reason to disregard the mistreatment of women and shout, “All lives matter!”
I do wonder what readers pictured without any explicit mention of gender, and I am curious what people think now. What would have happened if that was a bachelor party surrounding a woman that night? Do people think I’m insensitive and ignorant for even bringing this memory up in a reflection on gender-based violence? Do people suspect I wanted that to happen and had the power to stop it and that my experience should not be held under the same light as real assault or harassment? I don’t know, but I have a lot of questions and regrets when I replay the memory.
Questions aside, I can say that a random group of people should not circle up around someone they don’t know, take that person’s shirt off, and push said person into a cage to dance. Objectively speaking. Say what you want about my inability to prevent the situation or the gender dynamics, but I hope we can agree on that much.
That is the essence of what I am getting at in this circuitous reflection. If we are going to make real headway in reducing gender-based violence and promoting equality, we’ll have to be willing to work with a critical mass of people who believe in human rights and the greater good. We’ll have to be willing to suspend an individual agenda for collective improvement, willing to even link arm and arm with long-time enemies. I’m not promoting gender/sex-blind hippiness—I think we’ve mostly kiboshed the color-blind society ideal—but maybe a consensus on some core values wouldn’t hurt.
With that said, men (generally speaking) are still playing rec league while women compete at the Olympic level of gender equality advocacy. Until men step up with a sense of urgency—not of male saviorism—they won’t be all that helpful to the cause. If women are battling for parental leave while men are giving into the pressure to skip their own, masculinity is not transforming. If frats are seen as the root cause of sexual violence on college campuses rather than spaces of fellowship and belonging, then men are not creating strength in numbers. As long as sexual violence among students is viewed exclusively as a women’s struggle for women’s interests against abusive men who don’t care about “silly women’s hurt feelings,” men will continue to be a mere obstacle––and one that isn’t going anywhere at that.
This brings me to my “what if?” What if men did step up? What if men stepped up across the country and the world? To say we are here. We are men, and when people hear the word masculinity, this is what we want them to see. What if men march for moral masculinity and gender equality (if there is a link to put in here, that would be sweet), on college campuses, in cities and towns, being seen, showing their faces, telling their stories, learning from others, and not via reposts and likes but through respectful dialogue and critical thinking.
This is the march I want to be a part of, the critical mass of good men I believe is out there but still needs to mobilize. I want to be a part of a movement that reaches its arms so wide, becomes so visible, that my daughter lives in a world where the menacing icebergs stand out in a sea of good—there, but not so hard to navigate around—rather than feeling helpless in shark-infested waters. I don’t want her to fear, hate, or be dependent on men, though I hope she has faith in the average man to stand up and be her ally.
I want to be a part of a literal march where I am left breathless. Hopeful. Energized. Joyful. I want men to flip headlines. Hundreds of male students stand against sexual violence. Men across the country demand equal pay for female colleagues. Men refuse to follow dress code in protest of institutional sexism. If that seems like a lot of undeserved celebratory press for men who decide to hop on the band wagon, fair enough. Still, better late than never.
One of the pillars of our mission is to foster moral masculinity and realize and sustain its critical mass. We've got big plans to build better culture by mobilizing good men. If you want to collaborate and start a march, shoot me a message! (email@example.com)