Given the recent national discussion around sexual violence and harassment, I have given some thought to how I have been the beneficiary of my unmerited “white male privilege”. Male violence and abuse of power are undeniable facts of American life. Their effects are felt by women, children and men. Let me offer you a little perspective from where I sit at age 63 following a long career having worked most of my life for large retail organizations and now as the leader of a community domestic violence program.
Most of us can see how we benefit from sexism in terms of having easier access to higher-paying jobs but we balk at the idea that we benefit from women being raped or battered. To look at male violence against women, it is instructive to start with rape. Male rape of women is male violence against women in its most devastating form. It involves the total violation of a woman’s body, mind and spirit. When we listen to and take victims seriously, we know that its effects are debilitating long after the act itself. What is almost as horrifying as rape is how normative it is in our culture: one in 2.5 women is a victim of sexual assault in her lifetime. One in three females is sexually abused before age eighteen. In a survey of 1,700 Rhode Island junior high school students, a quarter of the boys and a sixth of the girls said that a man has the right to have sex with a woman without asking, as long as he has spent money on her. A majority of the boys and a near majority of the girls said that it’s permissible for a man to force sex on a woman if the couple has dated for six months. These survey results are most alarming.
Historically, the term “domestic abuse” did not even appear anywhere until the late 1960’s. The cultural response to rape has typically been to ask questions like, “What was she wearing?” “Where was she walking?” “What did she do to stop it?” Since the very recent Weinstein controversy, battered and raped women are requiring us to label victim-blaming for what it is and to see how victim-blaming relieves us from asking more disturbing questions like, “Who is doing this to women? And why?” One reason it’s difficult for men to answer these questions is because it threatens to lessen the distance between us and “those other guys” who brutalize women.
When HELP of Door County first began working with men who batter women, we kept waiting for the monster to come through the door. Many years later, we’re still waiting….. Most of the men we see – whether self-referred or mandated by the courts – seem normal to most of the people who know them. They just happen to be committing criminal offenses at home. FBI crime statistics tell us that close to 40% of all men living intimately with women have battered their partners during the course of the relationship. By “battering” I mean the use of and repeated threat of physical force to dominate and control a woman. From this definition and these statistics, we might conclude that battering is “normal” behavior in this culture.
Seventy-five to ninety percent of rapes are committed by male acquaintances: family members, co-workers, classmates, dates, boyfriends, husbands. Battering and rape are not being committed by pathological freaks. Women are most often victimized by men they once trusted and loved. Why? The answers that we generally hear from men going through our Violence Intervention Program include:
• Men batter women because at least in the short term, it works; i.e., the violence temporarily stops a woman from doing what threatens or challenges our male authority.
• Men batter women because they can get away with it. Until recently, men could batter women without experiencing consequences such as her leaving or their arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentencing. Most men know that no matter who starts the fight, they can generally overpower a woman.
• And finally, men have been socialized to believe we have the right and the privilege to dominate and control women. Physical force (battering and rape) are the extremes to which men resort if necessary to maintain that control. When I say men batter because they can get away with it and it “works,” I am describing some of the workings of patriarchy, a system of male control over women, a system of male privilege.
To talk about male privilege, we have to talk about ourselves from the perspective of “the other”. From within male reality the term “male privilege” doesn’t signify anything – it has no meaning – it’s invisible; it’s just the way things are. How does a fish talk about water? The name feminists have given to our position – male privilege – doesn’t exist in “common parlance,” which is the language of the dominant group, the culture-definers. The term (male privilege) did not exist and had no meaning until women began to expose their oppression and name their oppressors. It is a phrase whose meaning was articulated by the experience of women who were its victims . . . It is a new phrase, born of broken silence . . . In the battle for the power to define reality, most men reject the terms “oppressor” and “oppressed” as even applying to us. We label them and those who use them as “strident,” “hysterical,” “man-hating,” because it is in our interest to discredit them.
When HELP of Door County began to work with men who batter, we ran into this problem of conflicting definitions of reality. We entered our work with the assumption that most white males probably share – that we were good guys (non-batterers). The guys we worked with were bad guys (batterers). This assumption was immediately undermined by our observation that many of the guys referred to us seemed quite like us. What we need to acknowledge and understand is that the experience of oppressed peoples – those not in power – is different from ours as the dominant class.
Men so controls the definition of what is reality that they need not even know there is any other view. Theirs is the dominant world view and they see that there is not much difference between them and batterers. We are all participants/beneficiaries in the continuum of male controls over women. Male privilege also includes the assumption that reality is what I (and my kind) say it is. A man is defining a woman’s reality and claiming the truth when he says: “She was being provocative; she had on a see-through (too short) dress.” “I didn’t want to hit her. She provoked me. She kept nagging.” “Women lie.” In these examples, we describe reality in ways that justify our position and world view.
For domestic violence advocates, we believe simply that women must be listened to as the alternative to our historical practice of using power and control tactics to silence them. Listening thus becomes a path toward justice. Part of what we hope to bring to the Door County community through the VOICES OF MEN Program is to institute the following practices:
• Listen without interrupting. This doesn’t mean we actually plan our rebuttal as a woman speaks. It doesn’t mean “listen until you’ve had enough and then interrupt.” It means give women your full attention and seriously consider her point of view.
• Believe her and take her seriously. This means accepting her feelings, her version, her vision. It means fully recognizing her right to her opinion and acknowledging that her opinion is as valid as your own.
• Change what is wrong. This is about silencing locker room talk and putting an end to pornography since pornography reinforces our assumption that others are there for us. It’s about recognizing the amount of rage women feel from being constantly endangered, from being expected to serve us, and then labeled “bitch” or “nag” if they complain about it. It’s about pay equity and doing our share of the housework without being reminded.
Listening to women is hard for most of us men. If we listen, we’ll hear things that are hard to hear. Our lies, our injustices, our faults will be exposed…. To do or say nothing in the face of women’s rage is to step into the great unknown. Much of our current unease with the #Metoo movement revolves around our own feelings of confusion and fear as males. Our confusion and fear can be palpable. At this point we feel like we are not being a man. The reality is that to have a just society, we can no longer afford to be the kind of man we grew up trying so hard to be. The right thing to do is to relinquish control over a space that we have for so long preeminently occupied with our male privilege in order that women can live their lives to the fullest.
In this time of societal transition, men are feeling vulnerable and I would offer that this is both good and necessary – after our guilt and shame, terror and confusion wear off, we will leave our children and grandchildren with a society of tenderness and love. When we walk away from our male privilege and patriarchy I believe that the women in our lives will feel a new commonality and closeness with us – rather than feeling driven away by us. Becoming comfortable with not being in control, being patient, listening, offering care, being of service – if power and dominance are essential to who we are, these will always be alien concepts . But if we want love and connectedness, rich relationships with women, children, men and other living creatures, then we need to open ourselves to the change that is currently in progress.
We wish everyone in our community a joyful and peace-filled holiday season!
HELP of Door County, Inc.