By Avery Ryan Contributing Writer
In light of recent perspectives of sexual assault on campus, I found myself horrified and at a loss for words. Over the past three and a half years that I spent at UMF, I had seen the school as incredibly safe. I thought that extreme cases of sexual violence and injustice were something that happened “elsewhere,” and that my little campus was immune to – and absent of – these issues.
My ignorance has reached its end. I can no longer unconsciously pretend that these problems do not exist on my campus. I had to take a long look at myself to understand why I was unaware of these problems, and what I could do to contribute to their reduction.
One of the reasons why I was so unaware of these issues was my own safety regarding sexual violence. Anybody can be a victim of sexual assault, and that fact cannot be understated. However, as a tall, broad-shouldered white man who doesn’t go out much, my chances are falling victim to sexual assault are incredibly slim. This narrow probability limited my perspective. If I didn’t have to be cautious of the signs of predation, why should I have known what they are, or be able to recognize them? Through my privilege I am allowed a barrier of safety that is incredibly difficult to empathize through.
Stepping into the shoes of somebody who is absent of this privilege is difficult, but allows for a bit of understanding in what the possession of this privilege means. I can go for a run at night without being afraid, I can put my drink down at a party with little fear, I’ve never been catcalled while walking to class, and I’ve never been faced with abrasive flirtatiousness at my workplace. These examples only scratch the surface, but the discomfort they cause cannot be invalidated.
If your immediate response is to argue with these examples, take a second to think about why. Is it the word “privilege?” Do you think that catcalling is “fun,” or that the person being yelled at should “take it as a compliment?” Do you find nothing wrong with being flirted with while you’re at work?
If you feel abrasion towards “privilege,” – why? Does the word make you feel as if your accomplishments are not earned, or that you have a certain allowance provided to you by biological traits that you can’t control? This negative perspective is incredibly damaging, and is certainly incorrect. By acknowledging privilege you are not losing recognition of your successes. By acknowledging privilege you are allowing yourself to see the world as if you didn’t have that benefit.
Step into the shoes of the employee being flirted with at work: you’re in a place of obligation, trying to do your job. You have nowhere to go to remove yourself from this conversation, and the pervasive flirtatiousness is making you uncomfortable. However, you are also a customer service representative— another reason why you cannot end the conversation. You are trapped and uncomfortable. Is this something that happens to men as well? Totally. But the frequency and intensity of these moments is multiplied by one’s gender.
Coincidentally, as the courageous victims of sexual assault have made their stories heard, Gillette released the ad campaign “The Best Men Can Be.” This campaign analyzed decades of stereotypical masculinity in advertising, and Gillette pledged to make strides in distancing themselves from various aspects of toxicity in its advertising. This campaign was met with various negative – and occasionally aggressive – feedback on social media. The responses fought against the ad, labeling it as propaganda and inappropriate for Gillette to comment upon such topics. Despite this criticism, the campaign’s focus is on sexual harassment and bullying— acts that should be universally agreed upon preventing. The campaign takes a firm stance on men needing to hold other men accountable for their behavior and asks that we make strides toward redefining our characteristics of masculinity.
The timing of this campaign, while coincidental, is inarguably eye-opening. Sexual assault and harassment is present everywhere, and its existence on our campus requires significant action from all parties that hold a semblance of responsibility. For men on campus, it is necessary that we take a stance on holding our friends accountable for their actions. We can no longer tolerate moments of toxicity that would previously labeled as “just guys being guys.”
The darkness in each of these survivor’s stories is incredibly disheartening, and in many ways it is frustrating to feel helpless in contributing to solutions. However, by holding each other accountable for our words and actions we can contribute in some way to making our campus a safer place.
I appreciate this thoughtful take on the issue. Although this topic has been discussed extensively, I find your perspective thought-provoking and compelling. I think every man is capable of understanding this, the question is whether they are willing to entertain uncomfortable thoughts. Hopefully others will follow your lead and UMF (and colleges everywhere) will become a safer place.