I would like to join the ranks of writers analyzing the Jackson Katz presentation that brought out nearly half the college at the end of last term. It was a huge success in mobilizing student attention on men’s and women’s issues; now, the college is working to keep that energy moving forward.
Deb Southern and Lori Schroeder have written a letter-to-the-editor in TKS urging the Knox community to keep the momentum rolling in regard to making our campus safe, particularly as we head into Flunk Day. Allie Fry’s letter-to-the-editor emphasized the current state of sexual assault prevention efforts on campus, which I appreciated for its open appraisal of where we’re at, how we got there, and how we should keep working. I encourage you to read both of those pieces.
I thought it was critical that Katz acknowledged, near the beginning of his presentation, that his work was built upon the work of generations of feminist women who came before him. He spent some time acknowledging their achievements, and as I think was right, continued on rather than basking in applause for this acknowledgement.
As men in this discussion, our voices are incredibly meaningful, but we also have to be careful not to divert attention from women while speaking in support of them. In discussions, we have to listen actively and put aside our feelings of defensiveness or the eagerness to comment on everything that is said. In writing and speaking, we must acknowledge our privilege and be open to receiving feedback on our perceptions. One of the most powerful things we can do is to share women’s voices without obscuring them with our own commentary. The best way for those of us with privilege (especially if we are straight, white and male) to help transform situations of gender or racial injustice is for us to adopt a role that is both active and passive.
At the end of Katz’s presentation, I found myself wanting to ask two questions. First, how can we transform male peer culture to not only discourage sexism, but also to support and understand the experience of women?
Katz mentioned one thing in particular that launched his interest in gender issues: When living among women in college, he noticed that they didn’t share the same freedom of movement that he did. At night his female suite mates had to be cautious, and couldn’t know they were safe when they went out.
The male ability to imagine women’s experience and empathize with it leads to the transformation of societal attitudes that men hold toward women: men who know how uncomfortable catcalls and sidelong looks are to women don’t make them. Men who can imagine the horror of assault are more motivated to go out of their way in stopping it. (It’s for this reason that I like to point out the reality of male-on-male and the rare female-on-male assault, so that we men can imagine ourselves in the shoes of a victim.)
How, in male peer culture, can we integrate the experience of women? How can men talk to other men about what it’s like to be a woman?
My second question was: How can we change the perception of sexual assault from a personal issue to a collective issue? As Katz mentioned, and as I’ve heard from friends, many men feel tired of hearing about sexual assault prevention. Often this is because they think, “If I’m not raping anyone, there’s nothing more I can be doing!”
Yet assault is not a personal problem, as the term “rape culture” readily points out. We will be more enthusiastic about addressing assault when we see that it is not a personal endeavor, but a collective one, involving the joining of forces with others to protect people we care for. (It’s worth pointing out that this action framework is explicitly embedded in U.S. military culture). We are social creatures at heart. When we see ourselves as part of a group, our motivation rises.
The implication is not necessarily that Katz didn’t talk about this. These are intended to be important and generative questions, which I believe we should try to answer in our lives.