Turning The Page On Violence Prevention and Gender Identity Development

I apologize, this is a personal post and a bitter sweet one at that. This will be my last blog post in my professional capacity with the Men’s Anti-Violence Council.

Still, it seemed like a good time to reflect on the many papers, conferences, programs, people, places, and things that I have observed in my year and a half and offer a few notes on what I’ve seen.

Historically (and still to this day), the anti violence conversation has been dominated by conversations about how NOT to be a victim. Blue safety lights, improved reporting schemes, buddy systems, safe rides, personal defense class, and rape whistles came to symbolize all that Universities were doing to combat sexual assault. I think it is safe to say that these methods alone were not doing the trick. In fact, Dr. Emily Greytak has some poignant things to say backed up by her research in “Beyond Blue Lights and Buddy Systems.”

The Don’t Rape movement came next. Clarifying campus rules, social norming campaigns such as “My Strength is Not For Hurting” and campus wide programming such as performing theatre and videos exemplified this pedagogical shift. While the research on best practices in this area are mixed, it was a significant evolution because it rejects at its core the fact that victims somehow “choose” to become victims.

Any student in the North Carolina education system can tell you how victims have been turned on their head and systematically made perpetrators of a different nature – perpetrators of speaking out about their attackers.

Bystander education was developed as a value added component of the Don’t Rape movement. It addressed all students, of any gender and sexual orientation as active agents to prevent violence. At its core is the principle that we all have a responsibility to speak out about cultural and behavioral red flags of violence. It gave every person a voice and power to stop violence in some way shape or form. The efficacy of this approach is seen in the addition of the Campus SAVE act which MANDATES bystander intervention trainings not just for students, but faculty and staff.

But in all of my limited time working in this field, I have yet to see a good response to the phrase “boys will be boys.” Some have argued that boys “shouldn’t” be boys or that boys can be better than “that” (a synonym for boys being, by default, “bad boys”) but there has never been a credible counter narrative about what boys CAN and WANT to be. This is especially true given the varied lived experiences of boys from differing cultural, racial, religious, socio-economic, or geographic upbringing not to mention the experiences that gay men have and continue to face in the United States.

The Men’s Rights groups might argue that this stigmatization is where misandry and women are somehow oppressing boys, but I reject this claim as well because it merely reinforces that violence is somehow a part of being a boy and that all men must “reclaim” this heritage. In other words, man up boys, because otherwise women will get you and other men will mock you. Once again, using the threat of demasculization in the eyes of other men to transfer responsibility.

So let me offer you an executive summary of “the next page.” Real Men, at least according to the media, men on the street, Men’s Rights groups, and Suzanne Venker (in her work The War On Men) are the following: Strong, independent, handsome, sexually attractive and sexually active, heterosexual, bread winners, and otherwise dominant.

According to my sources (think little kids on the school yard, fraternity men, and athletes), any threat to these skills are considered bad. Like Sandlot, throwing “like a girl” is the WORST of all possible insults.

So we hide our fear, we don’t admit our weaknesses, refuse to ask for help, drink, drive, fight, and have as much sex as possible to prove ourselves. Or claim that others are less masculine than us.

Let me offer a counter narrative – being a cisgendered male / man is about being you without being measured against impossible standards of daniel-craig-as-James-Bond-esque behavior. Being a man is about being authentic, being honest, being open with others and yourself. Being a man is less about your biological sex and more about how you perceive your own masculinities. Being a man is about accepting yourself for who you are and accepting others as well. Being a man is about being ok with femininity in yourself and others and being ok with others regardless of biological sex being masculine in their own way as well. Being a man is NOT about NOT being a woman, it is about who you are in your gender identity and not about your sexual orientation. Despite a societal fascination with coming of age stories and rituals, being a man isn’t proven, it’s developed and understood through personal exploration.

But what does healthy masculinities have to do with violence prevention? Have you ever heard the phrase “make a man out of you?” Yeah…so have I. In Game of Thrones, it is often accompanied by a gratuitous sex scene. This is not uncommon. So often sex is closely associated with graduating from boyhood to manhood. It is an entitlement and barrier of sorts. 40 Year Old Virgin, American Pie, Sex Drive, Eurotrip, and Superbad have all tried to make this point.. Real men (see Don Draper or James Bond) are never turned down. Only weaklings, boys, and gay men can’t get women to have sex with them.

It’s time we reject this narrative as well. Sex (and physical/emotional intimacy) is a joint conversation between partners of any gender. It has nothing to do with coming of age of men through sex, violence, or financial coercion. The “nice guy” has no more entitlement to sexual gratification as the man in the mask who takes a person’s freedom at weapon point and no person in between.

Long story short, If I have learned anything this past year and a half, it’s this. Let’s talk. Let us talk openly, honestly, and in a safe environment. Boys and Men WANT to talk about issues of sex, manhood, and healthy masculinities. So often I have heard the refrain “no one has ever asked me.” So let’s ask. Let’s ask young boys what it means to be a man. Moreover, let’s ask ourselves, our friends, our media content providers, and the systems around us.

I think the answers might surprise us. In a good way I imagine, but some not so good ways too. But that, ultimately, is a good thing. At the very least, we’re not letting the conversation be dominated by the few and the hostile.

Together, we can create safer communities and supportive environments for all gender identities.

This is Jacob Oppenheimer, signing off.


A Call To Action: When Leading By Example Isn’t Enough

Let me be clear when I say that I have the utmost amount of respect for the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend this country every day.

But the recent arrest of the Air Force’s Chief Sexual Assault Prevention Officer for sexual battery highlights one of my growing concerns about complacency over sexual assault in our country to date.

It is no longer enough to say “we are so much better off” than we once were and that we can “all lead by example.”

Case in point – despite the changing sexual assault policies in the US Armed Forces, reports continue to climb significantly among all three branches of the services. Despite a focus on values congruence, fraternity men continue to actively engage in rape culture promotion, harass victims of sexual assault, and chapters continue to be investigated for sexual assaults on premises each semester. This year has also seen several high profile investigations regarding athletes and sexual assault (in both high school and college). It isn’t just groups either – institutions of higher education also have a major role to play in sexual assault prevention as well as contributing to the problem. Despite changes to policies regarding Title IX and Clery Act as well as the adoption of the College SAVE Act (under the Violence Against Women Act) several high profile institutions are being investigated by the Department of Education for failing their obligations to investigate claims of sexual assault and support victims or going so far as to discourage victims from seeking help and filing reports.

While I do not believe that rape is the exclusive purview of the military, fraternity men, and athletes, these groups do exist in the spotlight not only for the risky behavior certain members continue to engage in BUT also for their extraordinary capability to make a difference in their communities.

All of which brings me back to my original point – yes, being a good guy is important. Not raping someone (for lack of a more diplomatic turn of phrase) is a necessary part of who we have to be. But here’s the problem, modeling good behavior is not enough. Silence in the face of so many overwhelming examples of men hurting others will not dispel the myth that all men are rapists. Silence will not tell the men who do hurt others that their actions are harmful. Silence will not tell the victims that they are safe and supported by their friends, family, communities, and the world around them.

So here’s a message for my fellow men. Enough is enough. You know that strength, independence, resiliency, and leadership we’re so fond of talking about? Time to put that into action. Break the silence, stop the violence, and help make a difference in your community. Violence is as acceptable or unacceptable as society permits it to be. Society is not just one gender, one race, one religion, one sex, one class, or one sexual orientation.

We all have an obligation to work with each other to promote a safer, healthier, more respectful environment.


Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2013 in Iowa City, IA

Today marks the beginning of sexual assault awareness month. If Steubenville (OH), Torrington (CT), Missoula (MT), Seattle (WA), and New Delhi (India), are any indications then we still have a long way to go in our efforts.

As part of our ongoing efforts to raise awareness about issues surrounding sexual assault and encourage men to speak out against gender violence, we wanted to bring attention to the many great events that the Rape Victim Advocacy Program is hosting in Iowa City!



Rape Culture and the Steubenville Gang Rape Media Response

The verdict is in. Two young boys, among a group of football players of Steubenville Ohio, were found delinquent (the juvenile equivalent) of guilty in the case of sexually assaulting a 16 year old girl and one boy was found guilty of distributing nude photographs of a minor.

For more information on the tragic case of the Steubenville gang rape, you can read the full timeline at the Daily Kos.

The case was remarkable for the incredibly publicity generated both by the male perpetrators and the media both before, during, and after the case. Unlike other “acquaintance rape” trials, the evidence (provided by the defense itself through social media) was clear and unambiguous that rape had occurred.

It also mirrored the recent gang rape of a woman on a bus several months ago that spawned nationwide protests. The case in Steubenville was particularly noteworthy because of the age of everyone involved. Though, like many cases, it involved athletes, alcohol, and victim blaming.

Now the deconstruction of the tragedy has begun in earnest in a 24 hour news cycle desperate for lurid details.

On on hand, we celebrate any successful prosecution of perpetrators of rape. According to the Department of Justice, the decision to prosecute was roughly 50% of cases brought to police. On the other hand, the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network reports that only 5% of rapists will ever be convicted of their crimes. 

But rape culture isn’t just a matter of statistics. In the literature, it is defined as ” a complex of beliefs that  encourage sexual aggression and supports violence, a society  where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent, and a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones  physical and emotional terrorism and presents it as the norm”. Society reflects these beliefs in the portrayal of sex, sexual relationships, power, and normality in every day words, action, and images.

You can find more articles about rape culture, challenging rape culture, and the affects of rape culture here, here, here, here, and here among many places.

Rape culture is especially prevalent in how the media talks about rape and rape enforcement. Jackson Katz does a particularly good job highlighting how men are decoupled from gender violence perpetration through simple grammatical syntax.

In particular, pay attention how the statement “John beats Mary” becomes “Mary is a battered woman.”

We see the degenderization of violence in the coverage of school shooting. BOYS don’t shoot up schools, STUDENTS shoot up schools. We also see it in the coverage of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill rape case and federal lawsuit.

But what does all of this have to do with Steubenville media coverage? Stuebenville exemplifies how pervasive rape culture is in our society still.

First, we normalize the behavior of the perpetrators and identify the victim as abnormal. Second, we justify even the most egregiousness behavior as relatively normal for our community. Third, if we can’t degender the perpetrator, we change the focus of agency to the victim. This is known as victim blaming.

CNN may have made the worst of the leaps into rape culture. Candy Crowley lamented the “lasting impact” on the lives of the boys who raped a “nearly unconscious” young woman. Further, their bottom screen texts routinely established the young boys as “football stars” versus the young girl as the “drunken girl” or “drunken victim.”

In these statement we see CNN attempt to gender and normalize the male perpetrators while degendering or abnormalizing the female victim.

However, CNN isn’t the only news organization that gets in on the controversy. ABC stressed how “this was every parent’s worse nightmare and a cautionary tale for teenagers living in today’s world.” (emphasis added). NBC did a character piece on the male perpetrators as “promising football stars.” It was the Associated Press who focused on the level of intoxication while Yahoo News highlighted the emotional trauma for the town of Steubenville Ohio. You can find these examples and more from Think Progress.

Just recently, Fox News (among others) released the name of the female victim survivor in direct violation of state statutes that protect victim survivors who are minors.

The one element that ties these narratives together is in fact what is missing from the narrative – a focus on the female victim of sexual assault. This is a component of rape culture – a systemic set of blinders to the impact of rape on the individual and the fact that women are statistically far more likely to be raped by a man that they know. Though anyone of any gender can attack anybody else.

In fact, this blind spot is highlighted best by The Onion, who ran a parody news video about a young male basketball player “overcoming rape” after a “drunken mistake” his freshmen year.

It is time we stopped normalizing rape. We need a culture change to a firm stance for “affirmative consent” and we need to start teaching it to both boys and girls EARLY. No one has a right to your own body except for you.

As Dr. Harry Brode argues in his lecture “Asking For It: The Ethics and Erotics of Affirmative Consent” if you get into a car accident, telling the cops that you were drunk as well does NOT help your case.

Further, we need to reject efforts to blame victims for what they were doing or what they were wearing. In this particular case, the defense tried to argue that “she could have said no if she wasn’t interested in sex”. What they did not say was whether she had said yes to sex. In fact, there is strong evidence that not only was the girl too drunk to give consent, but that she was nearly comatose.

Moreover, why does it matter if she was drunk? We need to move towards a society that sees sex as something that is not an entitlement but a mutually respectful activity.

As a side note, I think such a culture change could and would lead to better, healthier sexual relationships, but that is neither here nor there.

The fundamental basis of affirmative consent is that sex is principally up to the person being asked if they want to have sex or not.

A Department of Justice report indicates that 73% of victims know their attackers. Most rapists are men, though not all men are rapists. There is no magical bodily function that rejects rape sperm in the female body, rape-rape is not “fundamentally different” from acquaintance rape, and rape is not sanctioned by god.

It is time we start teaching boys not to rape, rather than teaching everyone else how NOT to be raped.

If Steubenville has taught us anything, it is that we continue to discount the dangers and impact of acquaintance rape. As a society, we still see how pervasive unhealthy sexual relationships are and are unable to seperate our own anxieties about sex to hold a critical frame to male perpetrators without seemingly attacking all men. We also desperately need to do more work to talk with children about healthy relationships and affirmative consent to promote safe and respectful communities.

If we take nothing from the Steubenville case, we accept that rape culture is an acceptable state of mind.

Do you agree with the idea alcohol negates your ability to give consent to your body? If not , then join the conversation and speak out against sexual assault and speak for affirmative consent.

Why I Am (and every Nice Guy should be) Supporting One Billion Rising and Other Efforts To End Gender/interpersonal Violence

As a guy, I wasn’t sure I ever really “Got It.” I was never told to watch out for where the next attack was coming from. I was never told that certain clothing or certain drinks were “off limits.” I was never told I needed to go to a personal defense class before I could begin classes.

I never had to worry about the kind of things that this woman talks about in her blog.

But I did have a very similar experience where I found myself as That Stranger. I was walking out of a meeting at the Old Capital Mall. As I rounded one corner, singing along to my iPod, a woman left the rest room ahead of me and turned left towards the parking lot. By pure coincidence, our steps turned in lockstep with me about ten feet behind her. Though I did not say hello, her reaction was as immediate and instinctual as my surprise was to find us in this classic workplace awkward situation.

She immediately glanced over her shoulder, clutched her purse closer to her self, and started walking faster.

Her response was not at all surprising in hindsight. When society tells women to not wear skirts, avoid drinking alcohol, or talk about sex and does not talk to men about how to prevent sexual assault, we have a problem.

I have a problem. Selfishly, I don’t want to be considered a perpetual perpetrator on sight.

But if I, and the other “Nice Guys” of the world want to avoid being labeled perpetrators, then there needs to be a communal response to gender and interpersonal violence that goes beyond not participating in hostile behavior.

We have to speak out against those who do.

That is why I will be at the One Billion Rising dance at the Old Capital Mall this Thursday (February 14) at 5pm. It isn’t a huge action, but I refuse to be silent when over 1 billion women in the world will be raped or beaten in their lifetime, often by my fellow men though not always. Students, faculty, staff, and the greater Iowa City community will come together and dance in solidarity with victims and advocates world wide. It may seem like a small thing, but the the more people stand together and speak out, the greater chance we can to show the small minority of perpetrators (of any gender identity) that their behavior is not acceptable.

Check out the event’s Facebook page here.

One Billion Rising is an organization built in cooperation with Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues production. It brings people of all genders together to show their support in the movement to end gender violence. It is but one of many organizations dedicated to the cause of violence prevention.

Whether or not you are able to make it to this Thursday’s event, I hope that you do SOMETHING in recognition that there is just TOO MUCH violence in our society. What you do, when you it, and with whom is not the issue. The issue is that we can no longer do NOTHING.

Not if we want to consider ourselves Nice Guys at any rate.

Move forward and speak out. Together we can help create a new culture of respect and safety. Together we can make a difference.

Thank you,


Superbowl 2013 Ads: New Ads, More of the Same Pandering

It is that time of year again. Arguably one of the highest rated programs in the country, the superbowl commands top tier, star studded advertising like none other.

If you are anything like me, this might be one of the few times you stick around FOR the ads.

If economic theory tells us anything, then the sky high costs of advertising for during the superbowl (estimated to cost well over $3 million per thirty second spot) should say what companies think sells with the American public.

So what is selling these days?

Besides the usual animated babies (in space!), amazing cameos (including Seth Rogen/Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler), Clydesdales, and farmers; the super bowl also featured a number of questionable choices as well.

What do I mean by “questionable choice?” I mean that these three commercials represent some of the worst advertising gender tropes and objectifications of the game.

3. If it has boobs, men will buy it.

GoDaddy is arguably one of the worst offenders of the bunch. It ranks as number three because their efforts are half-hearted and transparent. As a technology company that builds websites, nudity and sex has absolutely nothing to do with their services or their products. Yet like the game companies that sponsor “booth babes,” GoDaddy makes a wide assumption that men, particular men in the technology field, are helpless at the sight of buxom and scantily clad women. It is an endorsement of the objectification of women as “flair” for technology products. Furthermore, as someone who fancies himself a male  geek, I am offended. You can check out their video here:

GoDaddy Superbowl 2013 Commercial

2. Men who do not conform to gender codes are an object of derision

I’m a little torn on including the Dorrito’s commercial on this list, but ultimately, I think the ad falls short of its intended purpose (dorritos will make us do anything) and instead ends up casting aside the men who don women’s clothing to play tea party with their daughters as emasculated. This is shown in two parts, one of which being the mother who chastises the husband and the other in the fact that even wearing women’s clothing the men egg each other on, less like an enjoyment of the setting and more like a fraternity hazing event.

Feel free to disagree, but you can find positive images of cross dressing, but this is not one of them.

Dorritos Superbowl 2013 Ad 

1. Women are less important than objects

Objectification of women has long been a part of media strategy. It has percolated in US culture in a plethora of ways from the phrase “I would tap THAT” (emphasis added), and Comedian Daniel Tosh who joked about how “funny” it would be if a heckler at his show was suddenly gang raped.

I’m no expert on humor, but I imagine a few women in New Delhi, Steubenville Ohio, Montana, and across the world would disagree. As a man I disagree. But such is the freedom of speech. It allows us to debate about humor but does not and should not condone violence of the most intimate variety.

Which is why Gildan’s, a t-shirt manufacture, initial foray into brand advertising was so surprising. A man sneaking away from a one night stand, clearly suffering the affects of too much alcohol, is more concerned with his shirt than the woman he slept with is disquieting in ways that the other commercials are not. Whether this was the result of trying to start a national ad campaign for the first time or some greater design, their commercial hits the number one problematic advertisement of Superbowl 2013. Not because of its overt content, but for the implicit messages that it seems to condone.

Gildan Superbowl Ad, 2013

But that is just one person’s opinion. What did you think of the 2013 ads?

EDIT: Dishonorable mention goes to Volkswagon for the cooption of a Jamaican accent. It plays on stereotypical notions of accent, attitudes, and behaviors. Perhaps not the worst offender everywhere, but problematic none the less.


The Challenges with the Perpetrator/Victim Approach to Prevention

There is no silver bullet to violence prevention. No one approach, no one target audience, no one tagline that will solve gendered or interpesonal violence in the United States and abroad.

Sounds kind of depressing doesn’t it?

In a National Review Online story, one general seems to echo a consistent diatribe against the current slate of prevention work. “We’ve added more [educations and trainings] after every incident…but the trainings aren’t working. We’re wasting people’s time.”

In an time when Congress sees itself as so poor that it cannot afford victims services, then prevention becomes increasingly important. This was highlighted recently by a report by the US Armed Services academies showing 23% increase in reported cases of sexual assault.

There is a silver lining however, and one that belies the above mentioned General’s claim. More people feel comfortable reporting crimes that are already happening according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). This is, as bad as the situation still is, a positive development.

That does not negate the worries of generals, school administrators, parents, friends, and family. Rape, and gender violence, is still prevalent in word and deed in the United States.

Which brings us back to the issue of whether our education is working or not and why?

Traditional risk management education has focused on telling men not to rape and women how not to be raped. In other words, it focuses on a gender binary and perpetrator/victim model.

This model also assumes that men will always be rapists or violent and women will always be victims.

This educational model is based upon a sometimes spoken, often unspoken, assumption that “there may be a limit to how much gender-sensitivity training can do to reengineer some brutish but basic human impulses in an institution still at least formally dedicated to a high-testosterone activity.”

In other words, men are genetically coded to engage in violence channeled through training essential to the survival of our soldiers. Moreover, according to the National Review article and many others, this is somehow preferable to continuing to engage all people in conversations about healthy and respectful behavior.

While no one can deny that there are biological differences between men and women, I find it personally and professionally insulting to be told that I am just one bare shoulder away from turning into some sort of beast.

For that reason alone I support the continued education, specifically engaging men. For one reason, the current model makes assumptions about me and my behavior purely based on my gender. I’m uncomfortable about that. But two, these assumptions are not unfounded. Department of Justice statistics show a significant trend that Men are the perpetrators of violent crime ON THE BALANCE. This does not mean that men are the only perpetrators or that women are the only victims, but the trends are pretty slanted towards that intrepretation.

You can see the impact that has on people in this well written blog entry about street harassment.

There is a third reason that I support engaging men as bystanders in violence prevention. The research supports a bystander model. While not perfect, a second study conducted by the Department of Justice and published through the National Criminal Justice Reference Service shows that there is an increasing efficacy in the developing bystander models promoted by programs like the Mentors in Violence Prevention program and Coaching Boys Into Men. More specifically, these programs show results in increased knowledge, stronger attitudes, and changed behaviors regarding gender based violence.

Finally, the current model while useful to some degree, makes assumptions about violence that does not comport with today’s violent actions. Violence does not just have to be physical. It can be verbal or emotional as well. Violence is also pervasive, not just the effect is has on victims, but on the chilling affect it has on communities. It creates fear, panic, and prejudice where none need be present.

Violence prevention does not have one solution. No one person or organization can tackle such a broad issue. However, together, working on intersecting issues of mental health, access to violent instruments, promotion of violent behavior, and acceptance of violence in society, we can create a violence free future.