When Will Men Say Something?

Men's silence around sexual assault is striking and bizarre

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A former student at Amherst College recently published an account of a rape she endured 18 months earlier in her campus dorm-room. In the article, Angie Epifano writes that when she finally sought the help of college officials, they could not have been more unhelpful. A campus-based sexual assault counselor told her that it was pointless to press charges against her attacker, she should forgive and forget and c’mon now, was it really a rape? The alleged attacker went on to graduate with honors; the college retained its premium brand; Epifano’s blunt, brave narrative crashed the server; and, as usual, no man said or did anything.

(MORE: Are Colleges Doing Enough To Combat Sexual Violence?)

Last week, the female president of Amherst, Carolyn A. Martin issued a statement declaring that “things must change, and change immediately,” followed by a pledge of support by the Board of Trustees. Now, make no mistake: It’s great that the influencers at Amherst acted so decisively and responsibly. The question that did not come up — the question that in fact, never comes up when “women’s issues” hit the news — is this: Why don’t men come forward and say something?

As a married guy with a son and two teenaged daughters, I don’t consider myself any more or any less a “feminist” than anyone else. But in my experience, outside of Lysistrata, widespread female outrage on behalf of other women rarely accomplishes much of anything.

Which is where men come in. I’m not saying it’s easy to recuse yourself from your gender in order to defend the other. Men seem to be trapped between their own loyalties and the risk of being seen as “patriarchal” — or, alternately, girly, traitorous or sexually nosy. Then there’s this: at some point in his life, every male I know, including myself, has drunk too much and treated women poorly. The result: by refusing to get between other men and their penises or their beliefs about sex and women, men have relinquished any moral authority and leadership. “Silence has the rusty taste of shame,” Epifano writes in her op-ed. Indeed.

Aside from President Obama, various comedians and MSNBC, where was any measured, non-political male response to the Sandra Fluke affair, or to the recent remarks by assorted right-wing politicians about women, rape and conception? Men’s invisibility was, and is, striking and bizarre.

(MORE: The Problem With Our Sandra Fluke Moment)

In our culture, sometimes — not always but sometimes — things don’t get done, or changed, unless a man in authority speaks out. Women and men both know this. The issue is not that women can’t fight their own fights; it’s getting others to listen and influence change. It goes without saying that more than gender, “women’s issues” have to do with power, which is why men sometimes have a moral obligation to call out other men around issues of right and wrong. The last I heard, this was one of the descriptors of being male. Gentlemen: do you have anything at all to add?