12 September 2014

The Effects of Accountability: Illuminating the Dark Corner of Male Entitlement

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (trigger warning) tells a story of something we as Men in the Movement have to be prepared to engage in conversation. The title is “Presumed Guilty: College men accused of rape say the scales are tipped against them” and I have no doubt that the recent spotlight on how Universities “handle” sexual assault cases will get students to talk about it. Which is good. And it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for when this happens with your friends.

It’s a lengthy article, but I highly suggest reading to at least the third picture. It has a lot of information that would be tough to summarize here. But one of the biggest take-aways is
that many men and their families are suing Universities and Colleges for “unfairly” expelling male students. There is also a group called “Families Advocating for Campus Equality” (FACE) whose purpose is to defend these men. The article lays out some of the arguments from “both sides” although this issue is much more complicated than a simple binary. But the basis is that these men and their supporters feel like it’s “too easy” to be accused of sexual assault and then be expelled. They feel there is often “not enough evidence” to take action.

There are many, many interlocking discussion points. One of the arguments that the expelled men espouse is captured in this quote, “But in the current climate, they say, the gender-equity law known as Title IX is allowing women to allege rape after alcohol-fueled sexual encounters in which the facts are often murky.” The irony is that when anyone says this in defense of their actions, they are openly admitting that they didn’t obtain consent. In Colorado, one of the criteria to obtain consent is that the person is sober. So saying that the facts are “murky” is the very definition of violating consent.

What’s interesting is that the person who founded FACE says that “one rape is one too many” and I believe she genuinely believes that. Their aim is to hold accountable the process of investigating sexual assault cases, which is great. The process needs multiple perspectives in order for it to improve. The missing component, however, is the fact that less than 2% of reported cases of sexual violence are false and as this diagram demonstrates, too many perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions. Something has to change, and stories like this are part of the process.

When I read why these men (and their families) feel the way they do, a couple of things came to mind. First, it is not a coincidence that the voices of these upper class heterosexual White cis-men are being heard and this story is getting traction. They have the benefit of resources (probably mostly from family members) to hire lawyers, they have the inherent credibility of being (or at least presenting as) White in an institution of higher education, and engaging in heterosexual relationships. And their combined voices are really strong. It always fascinates me how much survivors, advocates, and feminists in general have been yelling and screaming about sexual violence for generations. The voices of survivors are finally being heard, but as soon as there’s an institutional foothold, there’s a backlash from a comparatively minimal amount of voices.

Second, the unfortunate reality of our society right now is that it’s easier for many to blame the victim than it is to believe their son, brother, friend, etc. is a perpetrator of sexual assault. This denial is one of the strongholds of our culture of victim blaming.

But most importantly, this might be the first time that these men were held accountable for their actions with impactful consequences. It is also a direct reflection of how deeply tied entitlement is to the socialization of men because these men violated the consent of another person and genuinely believe they did nothing wrong. And that is what scares me the most about stories like this.

My fear stems from understanding that attitudes like this are very much connected to the story of Eliot Rodger and many other violent crimes against women. When male entitlement manifests, it ultimately harms everyone, but it especially harms women. If we break down entitlement, it essentially makes a person feel like they possess something by birthright or they’re owed something from this world. When this is infused with social identities and power, the idea that men feel entitled to women’s bodies is one of the fundamental obstacles we have to navigate when it comes to deconstructing our own socialization. I am definitely still working on my own entitled actions and thoughts.

Ultimately, the reaction of these men and the genesis of FACE is the backlash to survivor voices finally being heard. These men are not the victims, and what they’re doing is not cool. Sexual violence has been an issue forever. I’m not trying to excuse anybody who falsely accuses. Falsely accusing someone of sexual assault is horrible and if someone experiences that, it deserves to be validated. From a broader perspective, however, our culture of victim blaming and silencing survivors is much more pervasive issue than false accusations. So in large part, I feel like this backlash stems from recognition and fear that the status quo is changing. This backlash, oddly enough, is a sign of a little progress.

And that is why the deconstruction of violent masculinity is so important for us in Men in the Movement. We have to be honest about the ways our entitlements show up and lean on each other to point them out. We have to practice accountability as a group of men, both for each other and ourselves. The forces around identity that give this story traction are the same forces that we can use to reframe it.

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