This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Let’s Name the Problem

We are currently two years into the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, which continues to spread and take down powerful politicians, actors and comedians, and even clergymen. Even Joe Biden, a long time advocate for women’s rights and policies such as the Violence Against Women Act, is facing his inevitable #MeToo moment. While it can be hard to measure, I would personally venture to say that overall the movement has succeeded in increasing awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, empowering survivors to speak up, and demonstrating a social intolerance to these specific behaviors — which is perhaps unprecedented.

It seems like all our faves are problematic, from Morgan Freeman to Ryan Seacrest. But while we are at the height of Call-Out-And-Cancel Culture with individual men facing accountability for their actions, the conversation does not seem to be moving beyond the wrongdoings of these famous men to the systemic issues at play. The over 250 men accused since 2017 span the political spectrum from Roy Moore, George H. W. Bush, Alex Jones, Brett Kavanaugh, and President Trump to Aziz Ansari, Al Franken, Wayne Pacelle, Justin Trudeau, and Vice President Biden — many of whom have even claimed to be feminists themselves. The buzz around every new accusation feels more like celebrity gossip at this point than any real demand for change.

What is missing from the #MeToo conversation is what feminists have been saying for over a century: the problem isn’t just a few bad actors, it’s male violence.

Before the protests of #NotAllMen and that women can be abusive too, let’s consider the facts:

  • 90% of perpetrators of sexual violence against women are men[1]
  • 93% of perpetrators of sexual violence against men are men[1]
  • 95% of perpetrators of all child sexual abuse are men[2]

The exact numbers may change overtime with each new study and methodology, but the pattern is always the same: men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of sexual violence. Among perpetrators of sexual violence against lesbians, where you may expect more female offenders, males were still responsible for 89% of offenses, and 95% of sexual coercion of bisexual women involves a male perpetrator. In the one study I could find which looked at the gender of perpetrators of sexual assault against trans-identifying individuals (an issue with a serious dearth of research), the perpetrator was male 79% of the time.

Despite the crushing evidence that the sexual assault in our communities is part of a systemic pattern of male violence, including domestic violence and other forms of global violence against women, the #MeToo conversation is continually framed around individual men. This gives men who have not been accused of misconduct the ability to see themselves as “one of the good guys,” “an ally to women,” and even “feminists.” And perhaps worst of all, women are buying it.

This is why we remain constantly disappointed in all our favorite male stars, and why our male friends, coworkers, husbands, and brothers are let off for their own misogyny: “I know him, he’s a feminist and has always supported me! He wouldn’t do this.”

The truth is, yes he would. While men may not be born rapists who are incapable of overcoming their base desires, they are born into a world which teaches men that they have a right to the exact pleasure they desire, and are specifically owed it by women. While some men have been actively challenging this patriarchal notion and working to overcome their socialization, this is still the baseline socialization that boys in our society receive. There is no such thing as a “good man” or a “bad man” — there are just men who fall somewhere on a spectrum of how much violence they have enacted against women.

Take for example this woman, whose series of tweets recounting stories in which men did not rape her went viral:

I went out drinking with girl friends at a bar a few years later. I was flirting with a guy there, he grabbed my hand, pulled me outside, into an alley, he kissed me hard and then looked at me and said, “yes?” I didn’t say anything.
He said “go back inside then,” maybe he was annoyed but he meant it, I went back inside. There wasn’t a rapist at that bar.

There’s a lot to dissect here. For one, whether this particular man was a rapist or not, this woman really has no idea if there was a rapist at the bar that night. In fact in a room of even 10 men, it’s incredibly likely that there were rapists there — considering that 31.7% of college-aged men in one study admitted that they would rape a woman if there were no consequences (and really, what consequences are there when only .5% of perpetrators serve jail time?). One study found that 35% of college-aged men had committed one sexual assault since the age of 14. It’s understandable that women may want to deny this. The truth that one in three men are rapists is not pleasant, and doesn’t lend itself to feeling particularly safe around the men we have to interact with on a daily basis.

Further, the idea that because the man at the bar chose not to rape her he must therefore be one of the “good guys,” fuels the misguided notion that men who are caught perpetrating violence against women are categorically different from those who aren’t. Never-mind the fact that this man did actually grab her, separate her from her friends, and kiss her — all prior to gaining consent for any of these actions. While he decided against pulling the trigger on full-blown rape, his actions do display male-pattern sexual entitlement.

I know firsthand the fine line between a good man and a rapist. In 2015, I was sexually assaulted at a holiday party by someone who had been my friend since high school. This man had defended me against my abusive ex, was an elementary school teacher in an impoverished West Philly school, had travelled overseas to Georgia to teach English, and most strikingly — was an outspoken feminist. Yet it only took a bottle of wine (or two) for him to get a little rape-y. He later apologized to me, and promised to learn from his mistake and do better in the future. I do believe that apology and intent to learn was genuine, but nonetheless he is a perpetrator of sexual assault. Is this a good or bad man?

“Male violence is the worst problem in the world.”

To say that the men who are publicly accused are no different from the yet un-accused is in no way an excuse for the violent and abhorrent behavior of sexual assault. Rather, it’s time that women who want to see real change in the #MeToo era name the problem at hand. Sexual assault isn’t an issue with Hollywood, the Catholic church, or R&B artists. As feminists have known for years: the issue is male-pattern violence, and sexual assault is only one facet of this violence which keeps women in a subservient class to men. Male violence extends beyond just sexual assault and abuse against women at home. Male violence is also war, mass shootings, gang violence… literally every form of measured violent crime. Many of these forms of violence compound, such as women and girls of ethnic and religious minorities in conflict regions being at heightened risk of sexual violence as a war tactic, according to the UN.

As the Huffington Post put it, “Male violence is the worst problem in the world.”

While we all have men in our lives that we love, acknowledging that men as a class are the oppressors of women as a class is necessary in not only ending sexual assault, but all forms of male supremacy. Viewing some men as the good guys who “would never” erases the material reality of the condition of women compared to that of men. The patriarchy is something all men are complicit in to some degree, just as all white people have been complicit in white supremacy.

The modern feminist movement, in which you can claim you are a feminist by simply believing in equality, has been eager to include men under the label. Emma Watson’s #HeForShe typifies this phenomenon. But as Al Jazeera pointed out in July, “the problem of male entitlement and misogynist attitudes towards women is a social one, not a personal one, and certainly not one that will be resolved by more men insisting they are feminists.”

Rather than letting the very class that is oppressing us into the movement and scapegoating a few “bad apples” on Twitter, the mainstream feminist movement needs to come to terms with the pervasive reality of male violence. Nearly every adult male will commit some form of sexual violence against women, even if they never commit criminal sexual assault — whether it is through buying sex (20%), sexual harassment at work (33%), viewing pornography (98%), campus sexual assault (35%), coercing a woman into certain sex acts (46% of college men), or simply maintaining the systems that allow this to happen.

Ending sexual assault is about more than consent education and cancelling abusive men. We must demand an end to the acceptance of violent male sexuality, support feminist spaces for women to organize without men pretending to be allies for their own gain, and consider the global unionization of women against all forms of sexual exploitation. This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I challenge feminists to name the problem. Let’s hold men accountable for male violence, and demand and end to this epidemic of global terrorism against women. In doing so, we become that much closer to toppling the pillars of patriarchy.