Can Men End Sexual Violence? On Men and Masculinity

Overwhelming evidence indicates that the majority of rape and sexual assaults are perpetrated by men against women, and by men against men. However, not all men are perpetrators! In fact, the majority of men have never raped or sexually assaulted anyone. Even so, sexual violence against women has become an epidemic which has led to the discourse on how to engage men in the fight against gender-based violence.

From infancy, boys and girls in all societies are taught to behave in certain stereotypical ways; they are treated differently and are expected to behave along these prescribed patterns. Different messages are conveyed to them through the media, religious leaders, parents, schools, peers and others. They learn gender roles and what is expected from them as boys and girls. In most cases girls’ and boys’ expected roles and responsibilities are associated with their future roles: as mothers and wives for girls, and as husbands, fathers, bread earners and head of the household for boys. Young men typically learn that it is considered ‘masculine’ to be strong and dominant, sexually active, not to show emotions, and to exercise authority over women and children of their families. This process of socialization actually shapes men in the same way as it does women. These messages play a vital role in sustaining gender inequality and perpetuating harmful masculine norms that govern gender roles in almost all societies.

The idea of involving men and boys in interventions aimed at putting an end to gender-based violence is relatively new because primarily gender-based violence was only thought of as women’s issues. More recently, however, the male-engagement field has been looking at men more holistically. Work with men and boys that recognize that men can be partners in GBV prevention; that they do care what happens to their partners, their families and in their communities is now slowly beginning to gain momentum. More so, Understanding the self has been found to be the foundation for ending violence against women and men, this is based on the premise that social change is inextricably linked to changes within the self. As products of a patriarchal society we must all examine and recognize our roots, and when we work on issues that challenge the very identities that we hold so central, looking at the self becomes inescapable.

Gender-based violence (GBV) occurs and is perpetuated by an imbalanced power distribution, and men, in most societies, are the holders of entitlements and power at the family as well as societal level. The demarcation of social spheres for men and women further contributes to widening this gap. At the domestic level, discrimination and violence can take the form of limited opportunities for girls/women to get education or employment, limited or no participation in decision making, control over mobility, physical abuse, etc. Similarly, at the community level – sexual harassment, bullying, and undermining women are common forms of violence. Primarily, it is men who are the perpetrators of violence at domestic and community levels; however, men’s behaviors are rooted in the way they are raised. Providing men an opportunity for reflection, and through reflecting on these inequitable gender norms and what price they pay to fit in the popular “male box” can play a vital role in initiating change.

“Masculinity refers to the socially produced but embodied ways of being male. Its manifestations include manners of speech, behaviors, gestures, social interaction, gender stereotypes and a division of tasks ‘proper’ to men and women (e.g. ‘men work in offices, women do housework’), and an overall narrative that positions it as superior.

While masculinity brings with it many privileges, it also brings with it many costs that men have to bear in response to proving their masculinities and live up to the expectations to be called a real man. Masculinity also carries with it constant competitiveness and therefore tensions over power. The fact that many men also suffer from poverty and are placed in subordinate positions in relation to other men and women from other classes also creates tension and frustration in them; because on one hand masculinity gives them control and power, and on the other, they have to deal with the contradictory and very real experience of powerlessness in this context. One aspect of masculinity is that it demands from the person to prove it and often being potent is considered an important proof of masculinity in our society. Therefore, different expressions of sexuality are linked to masculinity. Since sexuality has a close link with masculinity, there is pressure on men to always seem ready for sex and to initiate it.

At a time when rape and sexual assault occur at what can only be termed epidemic rates, the wisdom of targeting primary prevention programs at boys and young men seems unassailable. It is important to understand that the question of rape and women’s bodies lie within the domain of ethics, where physical integrity and emotional security are fundamental human rights. If a change has to happen it has to happen at all levels. However, the most important aspect to challenge and change are the values and beliefs (roots) of the society that we have internalized, often unconsciously. We need to become aware of the costs of these values and norms on ourselves and others around us.

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