Discourse / Editorials / October 16, 2008

The right to be wrong (and fix it)

Last week, my friend and fellow theater person Joey Firman wrote an editorial about how discrimination, both on and off campus, must come to an end. I respect and appreciate the article, especially the portion in which he addresses how Knox students frequently condescend towards the Galesburg community. I would like to address a short portion of his article that I think demonstrates a larger problem:

“Many people on campus, mostly women, have been victims of sexual harassment, assault and/or rape, an act based largely on the belief prejudiced belief that women are sexual objects to be conquered.”

As a tall, sometimes aggressive male, I had assumed that the activist organizations on campus would dislike me instantly if I spoke out about sexual harassment and assault because I and those like me are viewed as the perpetrators of such acts. I have been afraid of being accused of or being found to have committed acts of sexual violence in the past. I realize now, though, that people have a right to be wrong and to fix their mistakes.

SASS has made it clear that there is a problem with sexual harassment and assault at Knox that has not been adequately addressed by the administration. Most cases of these crimes, it appears both on campus and nation-wide are of the male-to-female variety. As a male who has been both the victim and the perpetrator of sexual harassment earlier in my life, (moments I am not proud of) I am bothered every time I see a sign that says “Men Can Stop Rape,” as if it were a cultural responsibility for men to change an image of ourselves that most of us do not identify with: the image of a rapist. Suspend judgment and read on, I don’t want to offend anyone:

I agree with the fundamental fact that rape is most often an act of male-to-female violence, and that men are in a unique position as a result of this to stop it from occurring. I agree with male-initiatives to prevent rape, as well. What I do not agree with is the wording of the statement, which implies that rape is a totally male phenomenon that can be stopped as easily as a bunch of men getting together and saying, “that’s it. I swear, no more raping.” This is, in my opinion, is how Mr. Firman’s statement is a microcosm of a larger problem, a problem that I think it would benefit activists on campus and all over to consider. He says that people at Knox, mostly women, have been victims of sexual harassment and assault, and that the primary reason for this is that males believe that women are sexual objects. This is where a distinction becomes critical, a distinction between confused and misled men and the true dregs of society, that is, a distinction between the accidental harassers and the real rapists. Most cases on campus (although not all of them) are likely to deal with the former- a misunderstanding or a misconception that resulted in a physical violation. Very few of these accidental cases, especially at Knox, would be helped by an accusatory statement.

But don’t I, who have, by my own admission, harassed others, prove the point that men and their objectification of women are the problem? Bear with me, because I’m not an expert, and these are broad strokes.

Everywhere we look, we find that our society is filled with gender stereotypes that come from both ends of the spectrum. We aren’t too liberal to be affected by these images that place our genders into tight categories, often times to sell us something. One such niche is the ape-like, girl-dominating male, and another is the receptive, eager-to-please female. I think that we all, no matter how educated, fall victim to these and other gender stereotypes in how we perceive and how we are perceived by others. Phrases that pigeonhole male-to-female sexual harassment into being based on “the prejudiced belief that women are sexual objects to be used” play into the very stereotypes that cause harassment and gender bias in the first place.

If males who make mistakes (be these errors in language, non-violent action, or in unvoiced beliefs) are subject to a woman-hating/usurious stereotype, then the environment for males will become one of fear, not one of progress and equality, not one of open discourse. If one can, however, voice their problems, the misconceptions they have received from society, and the mistakes that have been made (in belief or in action) then we can make progress. In a world of judgment, people like me who made a mistake would not admit guilt and try to fix their problems. Instead we would be mute, frightened of being accused of being the very scoundrels immortalized in our media and (sometimes) created in our campus discourse. This is an image that is sold to us quite a bit to manipulate fear and stimulate caution, and while I am not denying that there is such violence on campus (which is intolerable, and deserves both accusation and thorough punishment), we can still agree, hopefully, that we live in a reasonably safe environment. Why, then, is there still a problem with this? I’m guessing (and yes, only guessing) that it is because of bigoted upbringings, a media that does all it can to define our roles as males and females, and basic fear.

I have been confused, scared, and even angry, but have never set out to hurt anyone. I think that most people can say the same. I didn’t hide under her car and slit her Achilles tendon when I harassed a girl three years ago, and the girl who harassed me didn’t slip a pill into my beer. A combination of societal prejudices that allowed us to grow up misinformed and a general angst and fear of rejection caused our acts, and no doubt similar reasons have caused acts across campus.

So, if the problem is only males who consider women “objects to be conquered” and live by this theory, then we will have little trouble finding them out and bringing them to justice, especially when the administration steps in and meets the demands. The problem is complicated enough though that an integrative solution must be sought in which we do not alienate anyone, even the people who are wrong. The problem of confused, poorly informed and maladjusted youth perpetrating acts of sexual violence must find a solution in a discourse that ends the hurtful stereotypes that create such useless, shameful aggression in the first place.

Willi Goehring

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