The Good, the Bad, and the Bystander

In the effort to get men to stop raping, most activists and practitioners have settled for getting men to get other men to stop raping.  This, of course, helped avoid the old “man-hating” charge we faced when we tried to discuss how aggressive male heterosexuality had been normalized in our rape culture.  It’s so much easier to celebrate an idea of masculinity that does the right thing.  Celebrating the majority of men avoids imposing guilt and might explain why this video, dramatizing a group of eight male bystanders who stop two men from assaulting a woman, has gone viral:

Yes, we know.  We, too, wanted her to drop her books, put up her hands, yell, and run.  And we’re not convinced that “every religion protect women” or that “protecting women is religion.”  We also wondered how a woman in that situation would ever be assured that the other men encircling her don’t also mean to do her harm.  Of course, our version of this video would not go viral. (Nothing of ours goes viral.)

The video is a perfect example of the current strategy to tell men that good, masculine, and truly religious men do not rape; and it’s the men who fail to follow these norms who disrespect and attack women.  But as U. of So. Cal. Prof. Michael A. Messner points out in his new Gender & Society article, the effort to change rape culture by framing the problem as one of a few bad apples is a major break from the feminist movement that challenged rape to begin with.  As Messner puts it, in the 1970s feminist women and pro-feminist men thought that

“. . . successfully ending violence against women would involve not simply removing a few bad apples from an otherwise fine basket of fruit. Rather, working to stop violence against women meant overturning the entire basket: challenging the institutional inequalities between women and men, raising boys differently, and transforming in more peaceful and egalitarian directions the normative definition of manhood. Stopping men’s violence against women, in other words, was now seen as part of a larger effort at revolutionizing gender relations.”

As Messner points out, the institutionalization and professionalization of anti-rape work since that time has led us to embrace a health model of rape prevention, which has medicalized the problem of sexual violence–and thereby, at least in some ways, de-politicized it.

This “rebranding” of anti-rape work, Messner says, re-individualizes the problem of rape and appeals to men’s sense of masculine honor and strength.

And, to Messner’s analysis, we would add that, as we pointed out in our Trauma, Violence & Abuse article, the strategy to teach good men that their role is to be intervening bystanders when bad men assault women also positions women as inherently helpless damsels in distress, and men as their knights in shining armor–solidifying one of the central myths of the rape culture we’re trying to dismantle.

Some advocates doing anti-rape work are aware of these tensions.  Seeking to link structural injustices to incidents of sexual violence, for Messner, is the way forward.  We think this also offers insight into how to avoid the charge that self-defense is an individualized, de-politicized solution to rape.  For when a woman claims an entitlement to defend herself, she is insisting on challenging embodied gender roles and fighting structural injustice. When Jane fights back, Jane’s making one small kick for woman, but one giant kick for womankind.  We know Jane can fight back.  We’d like to see that go viral.

One response

  1. […] we are now told that rape is something committed only by weird, desperate, unmanly men.  But, as we point out elsewhere, Prof. Michael A. Messner argues in his Gender & Society article that the effort to change […]

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