By Neil Joyce
This past weekend, I was at an off-campus party with friends. In the span of five minutes, I saw three things happen:
1. A drunk guy tried to force a beer down a girl’s throat.
2. That same guy forced a girl to dance with him and follow her around the party.
3. Another guy went behind a girl and rub his crotch on her without her knowledge.
A few of us were able to intervene in each of these situations before things got worse, but I was shocked by this excessive sexual violence. I turned to my friend, a girl at the party, and asked, “Is it always like this for girls?” She nodded.
I’m sure that most girls would agree that this is a common occurrence that they, their friends or others see on a nightly basis. I have never needed to ask questions like this because I am a male who does not face the verbal and physical violence that women regularly face on college campuses and basically anywhere else they go on a daily basis.
Sexual assault has been rampant in the news lately, as scores of women have revealed the sexual harassment and assault they have faced from Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Men and women on the Internet have rightfully denounced his behavior, and many people of all backgrounds (men, women, gender non-conforming people, LGBTQ+ people) continued the conversation with the “Me, too,” Movement, highlighting their own experiences with sexual violence while offering support to survivors who have kept these experiences private.
It is sadly ironic that all of this has been occurring on the eve of National Week of Action, a week of addressing the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses sponsored by It’s On Us, a campaign working to end sexual assault on campus. However, this sexual misconduct is an ugly reminder to those of us who have the privilege (I’m talking to the vast majority of us men) to ignore or forget the experiences women face every day of their lives.
It is ironic and problematic that most of those who run It’s On Us or similar campaigns to end sexual violence are women, when in reality, the vast majority of perpetrators of sexual violence are guys. It reminds me a lot of efforts to undo racism; it is usually people of color trying to end racism while the majority of white folks discredit, devalue or ignore those cries for justice. Just as many white folks were swift to denounce recent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and beyond, many men were swift to denounce the behavior of Harvey Weinstein. However, when it comes to examining our own contributions to racism and sexism, we claim innocence, become upset and fragile and shut down. Just because we aren’t serial rapists doesn’t mean we don’t contribute to sexual violence as direct perpetrators or bystanders. It’s time that It’s On Us.
It is time for us to be honest with ourselves and our friends. Since we were young, we have been shaped by societal and personal forces of sexism to see women as second-class citizens, objects for pleasure, b*****s, c***s, p*****s, s***s, w****s or in other ways in which we subject women to a state of being in which we prioritize our own wants and needs.
I write this piece not because I understand the experiences of women. As I stated earlier, as a male, I will never have to face the relentless sexism that women face on a daily basis. I also do not write this piece from a place of moral superiority to shame other guys for these words and actions, because I know for a fact that I am guilty of words and actions that have subjected women to stereotypes, made them feel uncomfortable, unsafe or less of a human than I am. I am ashamed of these experiences that have hurt many people because of my selfishness and sexism, and I do not see this article as a way of reconciling these terrible things. Nor does writing this piece mean I am “cured” of my sexism—I will likely fail women again, and must be held accountable.
The fact is that most of us guys will fall short again, whether it’s the way we talk about sexually active girls, catcall women on the streets, continue to pursue women after they say “no,” make sexual advances without consent, drug women, take advantage of drunk women, grope women, rape women or devalue the stories of survivors. Women will continue to ask us to treat them as equals, and we will say we believe in gender equality, but fail to acknowledge the ways in which we benefit or contribute to sexism for personal gain.
There are a million excuses we can fabricate to comfort ourselves and convince ourselves that sexual violence is over-exaggerated or that we play no part in it. Yes, sexual violence and sexism are ancient systems that affect virtually every society in the world. Maybe that seems overwhelming or out of our control. However, when it comes down to it, these vicious forces thrive because we as individual men permit them to. As we are made aware of these structures and fail to undo them or even support them through our words and actions, we are responsible for allowing these structures to exist. If each of us took a personal step forward during this National Week of Action, and each and every day for the rest of our lives, to acknowledge and undo our own sexism, we may someday be able to give women the respect they deserve.
Neil Joyce, FCRH ’19, is a international political economy and humanitarian studies major from Seekonk, Massachusetts.