When I got an email this weekend informing me of three sexual assaults that occurred at Cornell on Sunday morning alone, I did what I usually do when I receive these emails: nothing. There’s a strange sort of paralysis I get when those “Forcible Touching Incident” and “Crime Alert” emails surface in my inbox. It’s a sort of helpless silence, as if to say, “What do I do with this?”
The easy reaction is to dehumanize the rapist. If the rapist is a monster, then the rape is an anomaly and we, as a society, bear no responsibility for the attack. This dehumanization is an understandable reaction. When faced with such a heinous crime, who wouldn’t want to distance themselves from the criminal? The last thing we want to believe is that there is something of ourselves in our rapists and murderers.
And dehumanization would maybe be an acceptable reaction, if acts of violence were actually anomalies. But they aren’t. The three sexual assaults of Sunday morning come on the heels of two racist and homophobic attacks on Cornell students in August, as well as the racist attack at Sigma Pi last spring. The media has just about grown tired of being outraged at Todd Akin’s absurd remarks about women being able to “shut down” pregnancies in the case of “legitimate rape.” Meanwhile, according to the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, rape in the United States leads to over 32,000 pregnancies per year. In both the United States in general and on the Cornell campus in particular, sexual violence is anything but an anomaly. It is as commonplace as it is horrifying.
And still, I see those “Crime Alert” emails and, if I open them at all, I scan them quickly and move on. A sick, twisted and bad man did a sick, twisted and bad thing.
Which, on a certain level, is what happened. Framing the event in that way, though, necessarily limits the steps that we, as witnesses, can take to eradicate sexual violence. Demonizing or pathologizing the rapist is a cop-out. It prevents us from taking responsibility for the humans our society produces. Because yes, rapists are humans, and yes, they come out of a culture of which you, like it or not, are a part.
In fact, in a certain very disturbing sense, rapists are not so much deviants from as they are exemplars of dominant male “ideals.” Men are taught from Day One that to be male means to be assertive, powerful and virile. Our primary objects of concern, we are constantly reminded, are meat, beer and women, and when we want any of those things, the implication is that we just go out and get them.
This is part of why breaking the silence on sexual violence can be so hard. On some level, we realize that rape is the ultimate enactment of qualities that we, as a society, have been extolling all along as male ideals. We are left with a massive cognitive dissonance between our horror at rape and our tacit endorsement of dominant gender roles. Our favorite way of dealing with that dissonance is silence.
If we have the courage to confront the gender norms which we enforce upon each other and ourselves, if we look beneath the shroud of silence at the culture we collectively construct, we uncover an unmistakable rape culture: a culture whose gender constructions tend to thrust men and women into the roles of sexual predator and prey, thus encouraging and normalizing sexual violence.
It is important to note that rape culture is a two-sided coin. Just as the dominant gender roles of society force women into roles of submission, passivity and objectification, they simultaneously force men into roles of domination, aggression and predation. Obviously, women are not inherently submissive and passive, any more than men are inherently dominant and aggressive.
Most of our conversations about gender tend to focus on the former and minimize the importance of the latter. When we talk about the struggle for gender equality, we talk about it in terms of the role of women in society rather than the role of men in society. This emphasis is built into the word feminism. My argument is that in our efforts to eradicate sexual violence, establish gender equality and smash the patriarchy, we don’t just need to reevaluate and revolutionize what it means to be female. We need to reevaluate and revolutionize what it means to be male, and we need to do it now.
We need to recognize what’s happening when we hand war toys to our sons and domestic dolls to our daughters. We need to start telling heroic tales that don’t revolve around dominant and powerful men rescuing submissive and helpless women. Perhaps most relevantly to us as young adults, we need to take a close look at how we talk about and seek out sex. Every time we reinforce the courtship roles of stud and slut, we lay the groundwork for sexual violence.
We are all complicit in the creation of rape culture. As unsettling as this truth is, it also gives us the power to do something about it. To portray rapists as something aberrant, something completely divorced from what you and I do at parties or in bars, is both cowardly and disempowering. When we see those “Forcible Touching Incident” emails in our inboxes, we need to take some responsibility for the men we create.
Tom Moore is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.