Friday, September 11, 2009
How to Be/Not Be a "Nice Guy"
by Sarah Jeanne Lombardo
A group of men gathered several times at my school to discuss the need for a Men's Resource Center on campus. Now, I'm all for Men's Resource Centers as places where fellas can gather to discuss and then change the ways society constructs and maintains gender norms--i.e., that men are perfect and stoic and strong and should beat up anyone who says they're not (which usually means calling them womanly or gay), and women are pretty and polite and accommodating and should never say or do anything offensive (like talk about the ways "being accommodating" harms women). I'm all for MRCs as places where dudes can put together programs that help other dudes be nicer to themselves and women, especially where "be nicer" means stop hating women and gays or anything about themselves that could be considered womanly or gay.
From what I hear, some of the discussions have been about how unhealthy these gender roles are. But most of the conversations have been about the ways that men are made to feel bad about being men. The example that keeps coming up is a poster (full disclosure: I co-created this poster) for a school-sponsored play that discussed how women are treated on campus after sexual assault, and how these create an unfriendly atmosphere for women in higher ed. The poster featured a close-up shot of a man with very "angry hands" taking off his belt, presumably to assault someone, either physically or sexually (and yes, I know the latter encompasses the former). Below the image was the quote "1 in 3 college men say they would rape a woman if they thought they could get away with it."*
The discussion regarding this posters often consisted of "this poster says all men want to rape women, and I don't rape women, so this if unfair." Of course, that's not what the poster said, and if anything is unfair, it's the stuff women do on a daily basis to protect themselves from rape, or the things guys get away with because women are afraid they might get attacked if they say something, but I do see how men who don't rape might get itchy when they believe someone is calling them a rapist. Unfortunately, the discussion rarely veered toward "what can we do about it," and when it did, the answer was never "ask men why they might feel rape is something you don't do because it's illegal, not because it's wrong--and then work on ways they can stop."
The answer was either "get women to stop saying these things" or "we should prove to women that we're the nice guys." While the former was just dangerous--if we don't say these things we don't get any closer to stopping these things from happening--the latter was really misguided. The group pondered volunteering at a shelter for raped and/or battered women. When, afterward, one of the participants asked me how I felt about it, I didn't really offer an opinion, but I did wonder aloud if men were even allowed to volunteer at shelters, since women might want to recover from the trauma of their male partners' violence in the absence of males. His response was a kinda sorta chest-thumpy "but I'm not her husband...she needs to see that I'm a nice guy!"
This was frustrating for multiple reasons--the most important being it was just plain selfish. Dudes should work with survivors of domestic and sexual violence because they want to help women become empowered after a thoroughly horrifying experience, not because they want to look good. Moreover, if the space they want to work in doesn't really work well if they're there, and they refuse to accept a policy that addresses this, they are failing to recognize the importance and validity of a safe space. In failing this, they reaffirm the idea they should be welcome into any space on their terms. Barging into a space to say they're not the barging-in type isn't really nice. The first thing guys have to do to prove they're nice is listen to women when they say they're doing it wrong.
Now, I understand that this argument is hard to swallow--what's the difference between not allowing men into a shelter and not allowing women into the military, or blacks onto a golf course? What's the point of sheltering women from men, when they're just going to be encountering men in their daily lives once they get out of the shelter? Et cetera. I don't agree with these lines of thinking, but I know it takes a lot of education to get away from them, so I don't push it. I did, however, impress this:
Women don't just want nice guys to prove they're nice guys, they want nice guys to help other less-than-nice guys be nice guys. There are a lot of spaces that work with survivors of domestic and sexual violence, but not nearly enough places that work with perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence. Men need to create these spaces, and better yet, create spaces where they can discuss with other non-perpetrators ways they might develop perpetrator-y tendencies, before they actually get to perpetrating. Something like.....a Men's Resource Center, informed by feminism, and for the betterment of men and women and everyone outside and in-between! HUZZAH!
*Some places the 1-in-3 statistic has been published:
Fisher, B., and J. Sloan III (1995). Campus Crime: Legal, Social and Policy Perspectives. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas.
Koss M.P., Dinero, T.E., Seibel, C.A. Stranger and acquaintance rape: Are there differences in the victim's experience? Psychology of Women Quarterly. 1988:12:1-24.
Malamuth N.M. Rape proclivity among males. J Soc Issues. 1981;37:138-157.