THE BLOG

On Rape Culture, Masculinity and Reproductive Justice

04/19/2013 04:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2013

Sexual assault is a reproductive justice issue. The threat of sexual violence affects the way we experience sex, relationships and even our own bodies. Real and effective organizing for reproductive justice requires an understanding of the intersectional impacts of rape culture (how race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability and myriad other identities affect the way we perceive the perpetrators and victims of rape) and the ways that systems of privilege and oppression work together to make rape acceptable and even normal.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but the reality of sexual assault has been inescapable lately. The long saga in Steubenville and recent tragic suicides of rape victims have shown up in Twitter feeds, blogs, and mainstream media. In a culture with an attention span that seems to max out at 140 characters, it's rare, and telling, that these stories are holding our national attention.

The real question, of course, is whether our society is learning anything from these high profile cases -- and whether the conversation around rape and the culture of sexual violence is changing.

Campus approaches to rape prevention are slowly evolving -- we're moving on from "girls shouldn't drink/wear short skirts/leave their dorms after dark because you might get raped" to what's commonly known as Bystander Intervention Training. The target of this training is neither the victim nor the perpetrator, but the other people at the party or bar who might see a really drunk girl being assaulted and could, theoretically, intervene to make sure she gets home safely.

Bystander intervention and programs raising awareness for women are great steps in the right direction, but the obvious limit to these approaches is that they hold everyone but the rapist responsible for rape. Teaching men about consent and healthy relationships -- how not to rape -- is where we need to go next if we want to bring down the rates of sexual assault. This seems like it should not be a controversial idea, but it is. Ask Zerlina Maxwell, a rape survivor herself, who made this very point on Sean Hannity's show on women and guns in March. Her idea was dismissed by Hannity as ludicrous and she was attacked viciously on social media.

The idea that it would be more practical to arm every woman than to teach men about rape is depressing -- and it's insulting to men.

It's an extreme manifestation of the classic "boys will be boys" mentality -- and everyone but the "boys" are responsible. That's why two young students in Steubenville saw no problem posting their drunken exploits on social media for all the world to see. So much of our culture tells young boys that those actions are okay, they are natural, they are what makes you a man. That aggression and violence becomes the currency of manhood and anyone weaker is subject to domination and exploitation.

These messages can have tragic consequences for women, as seen in Steubenville and so many other places, but these low expectations hurt men too. What effect does it have on young men when they are seen as potential perpetrators when walking at night? Does living under that societal expectation remove some of the shock value when an assault takes place in front of them? What happens when this assumption of violence is amplified by racist stereotypes of men and boys of color?

What does it mean to be a man entrenched in rape culture?

Men who would never commit assault still live with the weight of these expectations imposed by masculinity. Men deserve better than that. They deserve to be able to call out the actions of their peers without the fear of emasculation. They deserve to be free of the gender policing that limits their actions and emotions -- and can have harsh and sometimes dangerous consequences for trans and gender non-conforming folks. They deserve to have their own victimization of sexual assault taken seriously, whether in church, in prison, or in a frat house.

That's why we're launching the Bro-Choice campaign. Because creating healthy visions of masculinity is a reproductive justice issue. Because stopping rape is a reproductive justice issue. Because supporting everyone's gender identity and expression is a reproductive justice issue. And because making men genuine stakeholders in fighting for sexual health, reproductive rights, and the eradication of violence means true justice for everyone.

It's not going to be easy. These are big challenges that address ideas so deeply ingrained in our culture that they are invisible to most. But it's time to stop hinting at these problems and start tackling them head on.