Several weeks ago, Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault (MARS) held a dinner and public speaking event that featured several speakers, informational videos and small group discussions about masculinity. While the event generated controversy, it seems like the solution to our endemic sexual assault numbers has evaded everyone, MARS supporters and critics alike.
A very thoughtful letter to the editor submitted several weeks ago articulated many of the points about the MARS dinner that needed to be addressed. It is frustrating that the MARS dinner generated so much buzz while other organizations have been doing sexual violence prevention work for years. Yes, having 300 people at an event draws away from the purpose of MARS and turns the event into a large publicity stunt.
Though nothing discussed at the dinner was earth-shaking, it was still a positive thing to see so many come out in support of the concept behind MARS — men dismantling the societal norms they wear that harm both themselves and women.
I think a lot of men left the event longing for a deeper emotional connection that could have been achieved in smaller, shorter discussions. Gender norms harm men in ways that are totally different than those for women. They might exist adjacent to male privilege, but they are there, and they hurt us, too.
Despite all of this, I think it is unfair to say that the men that attended were there only for good publicity. Who are you or I, or anybody else, to decide for any of the 300 men at the event how seriously they take sexual assault? Who are you or I to claim that one has to attend organization x, y or z to make a genuine effort to dismantle the sexist values and norms that exist in our society; that attending some events over others is the solution to preventing sexual assault and harassment?
Does the dismantling of patriarchy happen at big dinners with decorated speakers and bright lights? Does it happen when we hit the right talking points or become members of certain clubs? Does it happen when we read the right literature and follow the example of the right activists?
Or does it happen in the miniscule moments when a man holds a mirror to his ego; when we confide in women that we trust — our mothers, our teachers, our friends — who ask for a better man out of each of us? Does it happen when we try to shed the armor we are taught to put on and fail — sometimes repeatedly until we can finally identify our actions and attitudes that harm others?
Sometimes, it is simply a little switch that turns on somewhere in a man’s brain that allows us to begin dismantling our harmful actions and attitudes. For most men, we do not get to decide when or where this happens. Sometimes we hear, see or say something that sets the slow and arduous process in motion.
Either way, I think that very few people on our campus — be they participants in the MARS dinner or their harshest critics — know how to set that process in motion. Nor should any one person or group claim that they do. They may find that the statistics tell a very different tale. For now, the answer evades us. Be it in the direction of groups like MARS, mandatory bystander intervention training or anything else, any step in the right direction seems to be a positive one.