Let me ask you a question: Do you have a good friend of the opposite sex?
Odds are you do. In fact, the odds are overwhelming.
When I first began teaching, 25 or so years ago, I asked my students how many of them had a good friend of the opposite sex. About 10 percent said they did. The rest were from what I called the When Harry Met Sally generation. You’ll remember the scene, early in the film, when Harry asserts that women and men can’t be friends because “sex always gets in the way.” Sally is sure he’s wrong. They fight about it. Then, thinking she has the clincher for her position, she says, confidently, “So that means that you can be friends with them if you’re not attracted to them!”
“Ah,” says Harry, “you pretty much want to nail them, too.”
Young people today have utterly and completely repudiated this idea. These days, when I ask my students, I’ve had to revise the question: “Is there anyone here who does not have a friend of the opposite sex?” A few hands perhaps, in the more than 400 students in the class.
But let’s think, for a moment, about the politics of friendship. With whom do you make friends? With your peers. Not your supervisor or boss. Not your subordinate. Your equal. More than romance, and surely more than workplace relationships, friendships are the relationships with the least amount of inequality.
This changes how we can engage men in the efforts to end sexual assault, because there are three elements to sexual assault that can be discussed and disentangled.
First is men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, to sex. This sense of entitlement dissolves in the face of an encounter with your friends. After all, entitlement is premised on inequality. The more equal women are, the less entitlement men may feel. (Entitlement is not to be confused with resentment; equality often breeds resentment in the privileged group. The privileged rarely support equality because they fear they have something to lose.) Entitlement leads men to think that they can do whatever they want.
Second, the Bro Code tells those guys that they’re right—that they can get away with it because their bros won’t challenge or confront them. The bonds of brotherhood demand men’s silent complicity with predatory and potentially assaultive behavior. One never rats out the brotherhood. But if we see our female friends as our equals, then we might be more likely to act ethically to intervene and resist being a passive bystander. (And, of course, we rescue our male friends from doing something that could land them in jail for a very long time.)
Men’s silence is what perpetuates the culture of sexual assault; many of the excellent programs that work to engage men suggest that men start making some noise. We know the women, or know people who know them. This is personal.
Finally, we’re better than that—and we know it.
Sexual assault is often seen as an abstraction, a “bad” thing that happens to other people: Bad people do bad things to people who weren’t careful, were drunk or compromised. But, as I said, it’s personal. And besides, this framing puts all the responsibility on women to monitor their activities, alcohol consumption, and environments; if they don’t, whose fault is it?
This sets the bar far too low for men. It assumes that unless women monitor and police everything they do, drink, say, wear etc., we men are wild, out of control animals and we cannot be held responsible for our actions.
Surely we can do better than this. Surely we can be the good and decent and ethical men we say we are. Surely we can promise, publicly and loudly, the pledge of the White Ribbon Campaign (the world’s largest effort to engage men to end men’s violence against women): I pledge never to commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls.
Our friends—both women and men—deserve and expect no less of us.