In its least sinister and most popular form, this culture is one of male bravado and stereotypes that sexually objectifies and commodifies women’s bodies. Many men are socialised and brought up within this culture, and many of us know it when we see it in others. At the same time, as active members of the culture, many of us miss our supporting role in it. The behaviours do not seem wrong when we are among a group of male friends. Often it is part of the membership rites and language of the group.
Social psychologists suggest that somehow, when we’re with other people, we lose our rational capacity or personal identity which controls our behaviour. And that it is acceptance of the norms and the values of the group that becomes most important. To better understand that not all sexual violence means rape, academic Liz Kelly suggests understanding women’s everyday experiences of sexual violence along a continuum from “choice to pressure to coercion to force.”
This helps to understand the subtleties of sexual violence, the point being, sexual violence is more complicated than violent assault such as rape, but starts with and involves far more common, everyday situations, such as harassment or targeting someone who is drunk.
Now many men might take offence to being swept up and placed in a culture that produces sexual violence. Many of us consider ourselves empathetic, caring, sensitive to women’s concerns—ie, men who support women. And in many cases this is true. It is certainly problematic to argue, as some do, that every man is a sexual predator-in-waiting.
This does not avoid the initial claim that many men are part of a sexist culture that generates disrespect and violence against women. What is this culture of masculinity that many are part of? It can begin with actions many feel normal and non-threatening. What some might see as a compliment might actually be an unwanted compliment.
Not all might be offended, granted, but it’s not like women have choice in the matter. Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment, says: “Street harassment is often an invisible problem or one that is portrayed as a joke, compliment or the fault of the harassed person. In reality, it’s a human-rights violation.”
Colleagues in the workplace making suggestive comments—especially superiors—can be classed as harassment too. Men might deem it nothing, a harmless piece of flattery, but again this is part of a culture where men get to decide what behaviours women should accept. These behaviours often become internalised by women and expected of men. This produces the ironic situation that a female’s attractiveness involves legitimation by male heckling or flattery. The male world of objectification becomes the cultural norm.
Another issue within this culture is that men often push the responsibility for crimes of sexual violence onto women. They make claims about the way a woman dresses or claim she gave them signals. Yet no is always no, and harassment is still harassment, no matter what a person wears. Furthermore, people should always have the right to change their minds and remove consent at any point in an encounter—from flattery to sexual relations.
The situation is so bad that we teach women what not to do in order to avoid sexual violence while ignoring that it is men who are perpetrators of 99 per cent of sexual violence, and it is men who need educating. If we want to fix the problem, it requires attack on multiple levels. Research suggests the strongest enabling factor in sexual violence is the idea that such behaviour is covertly condoned. That is the culture I’m talking about here. And that is one level we can attack.
It just takes one man in a group of men to be offended and to make that point in front of his peers for the smokescreen of acceptance to be questioned by others. Many men might feel like they don’t want to be that man because they will lose credibility with their friends. Yet losing that credibility compared with being part of a continuum of sexual violence against women is a straightforward choice all men can and should make.