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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011

Men and Sexual Violence: Moving Beyond 'No Means No'

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Last week, I attended a forum sponsored by the Illinois Department of Human Services called “Taking Action: How Men Can Stop Violence Against Women.” This was one of several regional forums across the country initiated by Vice President Joe Biden, who has been an advocate for the prevention of sexual violence for more than 20 years. You can view a webcast of this event, which included representatives from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio as well as Illinois, here.

The forum kicked off with a taped address from Vice President Biden, in which he exhorted men to respect that “no means no” and asked them to “be a man” in standing up against sexual violence. I appreciate very much that the VP has demonstrated such commitment to ending violence against women during his political career. However, I was a little disappointed that he pulled out these tired tropes during his speech. Unless we move away from rhetoric like “no means no” and “be a man,” we are not going to truly engage men in this struggle.

From my point of view, the persistence of sexual violence in the United States has a lot to do with rigid, stereotypical gender norms. Studies have shown that people who subscribe to such norms are also more likely to be accepting of sexual violence. Many people understand that stereotypical gender norms are harmful to women, in that women are told, for example, that they are less intelligent than men, or that they must simultaneously be sexual objects for men yet not be seen as “slutty.” It is less often understood that gender stereotypes hurt men as well. Men are placed in a constrictive “man box” by social norms that do not permit them to show emotion or care, require them to be aggressive and dominant, and expect them to always be ready for sex. This box damages men's relationships with others and prevents them from showing their authentic, true selves. Anyone who doubts that these norms exist need only watch Miller Lite's latest ad campaign, in which groups of men shame each other for being “unmanly.”

Repeating to men that “no means no” reinforces these gender stereotypes, as does telling them to “be a man.” Yes, some men do believe that women don't really mean it when they say “no” to sex, partly because of these same gender stereotypes that tell women that if they consent to sex, they will be viewed as sluts. But “no means no” also assumes at some level that men are uncaring beasts who must be ordered to stop what they're doing, like dogs. What about encouraging men to talk with their partners about sex, find out what they do and don't want to do, and get an enthusiastic “yes” before proceeding? Teaching men communication skills that will lead to a happy “yes” is more productive than ordering them to respect a “no,” especially since not all sexual violence survivors verbally say “no” when they're being assaulted. The phrase “be a man” implies being strong, being a protector, and not being afraid. In some circumstances, these are all good qualities, but this statement also suggests that there is one correct way to be a man, and that women need men to protect them.

Thinking that perhaps I was not the target audience for Biden's remarks (since I am a woman who has worked in the sexual violence prevention field for almost 20 years and am thus likely to be a tad jaded), I asked a male college student after the forum how he felt about Biden's address. He volunteered that the “no means no” message didn't sit well with him either. I'm interested in hearing other men's thoughts about this issue. Does “be a man” resonate with you or the men and boys that you work with? Or is it time to come up with something new?

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.


Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.
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