Thinking Outside of the Man Box: How Men Can Stop Sexual Violence

by Teresa Lu

Last Tuesday, in association with V-Day, Eve Ensler, award-winning playwright of The Vagina Monologues, hosted a panel discussion regarding sexual violence, in the light of the Steubenville rape case. The event sold out in eight minutes. Though it was exciting to know that every seat would filled with engaged listeners, there was something so annoyingly typical about the scene that greeted me: the audience was composed almost entirely of women, with a couple of guys sprinkled here and there. This is one of the problems Ensler had come forth to discuss: Why aren’t there more men involved in the fight against rape? “Violence against women should not be a women’s problem; we’re not raping ourselves!” she voices. She then turns her attention to the panel, the five distinguished men that she has invited to give their perspectives on the matter. 

From left to right: Peter Buffett. Jimmie Briggs, Joe Ehrmann, Tony Porter, Dave Zirin, and Eve Ensler at the Paley Center for Media

Ensler begins by telling everyone how depressed she has gotten from continuously reading about the Steubenville case. Aside from the deplorable facts of the incident itself, the panelists agree that the guilty verdict was a tremendous step forward in the U.S. justice system. Dave Zirin, sports writer for The Nation Magazine comments, “If the boys were pronounced innocent, the court would basically be saying that ‘drunk’ and ‘unconscious’ means ‘consent’, and that result would have been disastrous.”
What was perplexing is that those who knew about the incident, including family members and the coach of the football team, somehow decided they shouldn’t report it. The prevailing sentiment is that Steubenville was too broken and hopeless to send to the shredder its last shining medal that is the town’s football team. The panel points out that this analysis is narrow and misleading. Incidents of rape like the one in Ohio happen all the time in this country and worldwide, most of the cases unreported. This is not the story of a withering town and its football team; it’s the story of an oppressively androcentric society.

At one point, Ensler stops to read a page of results from a poll in the U.K. eerily titled, “When Is It Okay to Rape A Woman?” The first answer is “when a man has spent a lot of money on her.” She then reveals the percentage of men who agree… and the percentage of women who agree. The two numbers are not very far apart. More answers include “when she is drunk”, “when she wears provocative clothing”, and “when she says ‘yes’ but changes her mind”, which all carry astounding percentages of men and women who concur. These statistics echo the very definition of rape culture. Rape culture is culture, the one that we’ve built that values men more than women and is oblivious to this hierarchy.

Tony Porter, co-founder and co-director of A Call To Men, notes that even though both men and women conform to a male-dominated culture, violence towards women stems directly from the male psyche. “Men are the benefactors,” he says. In order to prevent rape, we must unravel the psychology of men and male-dominated culture – we must open the Man Box.

The panelists begin with discussing current societal views of masculinity. Joe Ehrmann, pastor, ex-NFL player and coach, points out that we associate masculinity with athletic ability, sexual conquest, and economic success. Porter later recalls his own experience of being taught masculinity: “We were always told ‘Don’t be a sucker,'” he says. “Don’t be too nice… don’t be too emotional… In general, men pride themselves in not being women. The current definition of being a man is basically the dehumanization of women.” 
As the basis of the discussion is Steubenville, the panels notes that the crucial connection between “being a man” and being athletic seems to have distorted athletes’ relationship with sports. Porter brings up the large percentage of African-American players in aggressive sports such as the NFL, bringing us to examine the vicious cycle of male aggression in historically ghettoized populations. Jimmie Briggs, founder of the Man Up campaign, added to this by sharing his research regarding African-American and Latino boys in impoverished communities. Through talking with these teenagers, Briggs had found that, like other men, their aggression stems from not being allowed to express their emotions. Porter recalls a conversation he once had with a 9-year-old boy. “I asked him, ‘What would you like to do if you weren’t a boy?’ And he said ‘I would be free.'”

It seems obvious that forcing boys and men into shame, silence and secrecy naturally manifests itself in frustration and hunger for control. “Bullets are hardened tears,” Ensler says. This seems to be root of sexual violence and the very mindset of a rapist. She also adds that this is largely due to the sexual repression by our remarkably Puritanical nation. “Nobody [in the U.S.] really talks about sex and everyone is having awful sex,” she says, pointing out that true sexuality is often lost. She asserts that if communities could promote more conversation about sex and provide better sex education, kids won’t go around not knowing what to do with their emotions and their bodies. Men should be taught reciprocity – not to fear or condemn sexuality in women, but to respect it. “Sex is like Chinese food,” says Zirin, quoting the 1999 film Outside Providence. “It ain’t over ’til you both get your cookies.”
The other problem surrounding rape is “bystander mentality”. When sexual violence occurs, onlookers often dissociate themselves from the incident instead of protesting or reporting it to authorities. Zirin compares this situation to a boy being bullied on the playground. Oftentimes other boys who witness this put up a strong front to prevent themselves from being bullied, conforming to what they’ve been taught about “being a man”, continuing the cycle of male aggression. “A lot of parents want to change the way kids deal with bullying but don’t want their kids to be the pioneers,” Zirin explains. It is certain, however, that promoting aggression, which includes not standing up against it, completely warps the way kids socialize, which in turn affects the way they think as adults.

Ehrmann also notes that there has been a trend of children quitting sports at around age 13 because it gets too “serious”. “Sports should be about strengthening friendship and fellowship,” he contends (not about expressing dominance or proving self-worth). Additionally, Ehrmann claims that if we as a society could measure a man’s masculinity by his capacity to love and be loved, as well as his faith in causes bigger than himself, boys and girls would grow up in a much safer environment. (Amen!)
The panelists agree that educating children must be active at home as well as in the classroom. However, they conclude that in order for the fight against sexual violence to be effective and long-lasting, the institutions that men look up to, such as the NFL, must take an active stand against rape culture. For full bios of the panelists, click here.

Here’s the complete event on livestream.


images via, ABC News,,


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