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Male feminist tackles gender issues

Brian McKenzie | Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Anti-sexism activist Jackson Katz has told members of the New England Patriots and the U.S. Marine Corps that men need to stand up to a culture that allows the physical and psychological subjection of women. On Tuesday, Katz delivered the same message to a Notre Dame audience.

Part of the trouble with society’s treatment of gender issues is that these matters are widely considered to be “women’s issues,” he said.

So long as issues of rape, sexual harassment and sexism are considered women’s issues, Katz said, it is easy for men to opt out of the discussion.

“Opinion polls show that both women and men think [violence against women] is an important issue, but that it’s an important women’s issue,” he said.

And with 99 percent of rapes committed by males, a widespread refusal among men to engage in problem-solving debates will prevent any true progress toward prevention.

It is essential to involve men in the discussion, both in the academic and activist settings, Jackson said. He was impressed that men comprised about half the audience Monday.

Given today’s expectations of masculinity, men must often be confident in their identity before they can speak frankly about the sexist attitudes that pervade current paradigms of gender, he said.

“We need more men with the guts to break out [of] complicit silence,” Katz said.

Too often, Katz said, men allow themselves to disregard the issue because they are “good guys” who don’t beat their girlfriends or assault women.

In a culture rife with sexism and gender-based violence, refraining from hitting or raping a woman may not be enough to make a man a “good guy,” he said. “We need to raise the bar a little.”

Males involved in anti-sexism activism are often asked about their personal motivation, Jackson said.

His own personal awakening to the cause came during college when he realized the lives of his female friends were dramatically affected by the need to protect their personal safety, he said.

“The women I care about can’t even walk out to the corner store at 9 p.m. to get a soda,” he said.

That realization made him angry. As he became more involved with gender issues, Jackson found out that many women close to him had been victims of abuse.

His experience is hardly abnormal, he said.

Jackson insisted that every male in the audience knew at least one female that had been sexually assaulted. He cited a Department of Justice statistic that one of four women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape during college.

“True prevention is going to the root of the problem: men and boys,” he said.

“[But] what has been called ‘prevention,’ as far as I’m concerned, is risk reduction for women, like ‘watch your drink’ and ‘don’t go out alone at night.’

“Silence in the face of sexism is a form of consent and complicity,” he said.

Men are relevant to preventing violence against women not only because attackers are almost always men, but also because such violence affects them indirectly, he said. He offered an example of a husband whose “wife would wake up screaming, having traumatic flashbacks of a rape that happened 20 years ago.” Though the husband wasn’t a victim of rape, he was very much harmed by it, he said.

He also considered the effect of domestic abuse on the family. When a husband beats his wife, children are the secondary victims, he said.

“As far as I’m concerned, if he’s abusing their mother, he’s abusing them by definition,” he said.

Language plays an important role in shifting the emphasis from men to women, he said. The media often use certain phrases “Mary was beaten” or “Mary is a battered woman” that conceal the role of men and define women by their victimhood.

“The use of the passive voice shifts attention from men and boys to girls and women,” he said.

He also objected to the use of the word “accuser” to describe the alleged victims of rape. “[The accused] is now the victim of her accusation,” he said.

Jackson extended his argument about the importance of semantics by asking the audience to provide derogatory labels used to criticize female anti-sexism activists.

Two of the terms – “bitch” and “witch” – spurred further analysis.

In medieval Europe, thousands of women who resisted patriarchal power were burned at the stake as witches, he said.

Today, women who refuse to defer to male authority are routinely labeled “bitches,” he said.

“We’ve come 500 years, but we’ve changed one letter?” he said.