A SYTYCB entry
In November, when news broke of Jerry Sandusky’s acts of sexual assault at Penn State, there was an outpouring from men across the country. Some scrambled to defend a program whose leaders had quietly turned away from the violence for years, others chewed over what their own hypothetical reactions might be to similarly bearing witness; many expressed genuine anguish.
These kinds of stories, however, are all too familiar to women who face the threat of violence regularly and often devote a dismaying amount of energy steeling themselves against it. Perhaps as a result, some of the loudest reactions came from men for whom the daily threat of violence—particularly sexual violence—is not a reality. There are many complicated explanations for the unprecedented deluge of men’s responses to the Penn State abuse, but one of them is that when it comes to sexual assault, men have the privilege of distance.
There are, of course, many male-identified people for whom sexual assault is not simply a distant possibility, but for most white, cis, heterosexual men (from whom many of the Penn State reactions appeared to come), the reality of sexual violence is unwelcome news. It threatens previously intact establishments that are deeply beloved by them, like Penn State’s football program. It forces them to consider an experience from which most of them previously enjoyed a comfortable removedness.
I don’t mean to trivialize men’s outrage, to suggest that all such expressions were born out of a dogged commitment to football, or to reduce a story of child abuse to an analysis of normative masculinity. But what that story did bring forcefully to consciousness is that most of the time, women are left to talk with other women about sexual violence.
I have been reminded of those months of frenzied discussion about Penn State often this week, amid talk of Congressman Akin’s misguided musings on the female reproductive system. The situations are dramatically different in content and consequence, but there are echoes in the unrelenting (and deserved) attention they’ve garnered – and in the gaping disparity in men’s participation in the aftermath.
This time, men have been quiet. Save for a few quirky tweets in solidarity, our male allies have done little more than offer their condolences as women everywhere take up arms once more against this latest wave of bigoted ignorance. Perhaps it’s difficult for them to extrapolate from Akin’s verbal blunder the real-world ramifications for women’s physical health and autonomy. A more sinister part of me wonders if it’s because Akin’s remarks fail to conjure the feelings of transference and institutional ownership that were so present during the Penn State crisis. Or – a more charitable reflection – do our male comrades feel less entitled to participate when it is not their bodies that are so cruelly implicated?
Whatever the reason for their absence this time around, we are compelled to ask once more: where are the men? Men’s voices in these messy dialogues are welcome, and important—and rare. Their reserve in the wake of Akin’s comments should be a powerful reminder that taking on sexual violence is best served as a collective effort, irrespective of the powerful institutions at stake.