Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“Rape is a men’s issue,” was the main message in Dr. Jackson Katz’s lecture to Swarthmore students last Wednesday, co-sponsored by the fraternities, Delta Upsilon and Phi Psi. Katz, a self-described “anti-sexist activist,” made his appearance on campus amidst the ongoing controversy surrounding Phi Psi’s pledge poster.
Coming to Swarthmore at a time when issues of gender discrimination and violence remain at the top of the agenda, Katz drew a sizable crowd to his two-hour lecture that included Q&A sections and previews of his upcoming film “Tough Guise 2: the Ongoing Crisis of Violent Masculinity.”
Katz made his name in the 1990s, through his Mentors in Violence Prevention program, which serves to educate high school and college athletes on matters of gender violence.
These “bystander” programs involve recruiting athletes, a socially influential group, to nurture correct attitudes towards gender violence and its causes. This creates positive role models that Katz said lead to an environment in which rape and gender violence are less likely to occur.
Since those pilot programs, he has expanded his “bystander” approach to many more groups, written books, made and appeared in documentaries, and become a visible activist in gender violence prevention.
Katz began his talk by lamenting the widespread description of rape as a “women’s issue.” According to Katz, this allows most men to sidestep the gender violence issue as unrelated to them. Citing the fact that 99% of rapists are men, he believes that using the term “men’s issue” allows activists to get to the root of the problem more effectively.
The importance of language was a recurring theme throughout Katz’s talk. The activist pointed out how questions phrased in the passive voice, such as “how many women were raped,” and the media’s frequent use of “accuser” instead of “victim,” can shape our perception of who is to blame in cases of sexual assault.
Katz also dealt with the concept of masculinity in general. He pointed to the fact that 98% of mass shootings are perpetrated by men, and asked why gender is not a part of the discourse surrounding mass shootings. Masculinity and its representations in media, Katz argued, are at the heart of the matter.
He also argued that the media serves to reinforce existing perceptions and attitudes regarding gender relations and violence, citing pornography as a way that rape culture and skewed gender perceptions are propagated.
Katz believes that a person’s attitudes are changed most effectively by molding the environment around them – be it through media or, more effectively, through friends and acquaintances.
His “bystander” approach is grounded in the above principle. Katz cited a study that showed men are more likely to act in a sexist way when surrounded by sexism. By changing the environment to one that discourages such attitudes, Katz tries to push this peer influence in the opposite direction.
In the Q&A section of the talk, a member of the audience suggested that Katz’s ideas may exacerbate gender conflict and reinforce the gender binary. To this, Katz answered that he recognizes the gender binary as a problem, but thinks that excessive gender-neutrality might erase women’s experiences.
When asked about the accountability of fraternities in their individual members’ transgressions, Katz answered that he deals with prevention, not punishment, and would rather refrain from making judgements with little information.
Katz said he has faced significant backlash from the “men’s rights” movement, with some calling him a “man-gina.” He compared the movement’s denial of systemic oppression of women to the denial of systemic racism – equally absurd propositions in his opinion.
In closing, Katz said that while many colleges dealing with gender issues emphasize safety as the final goal of their educational efforts, mere safety is not enough. Students at Swarthmore, he said, should take a stand on both small and large scales, in order to lead a society-wide transformation.
Photo courtesy of Vija Lietuvninkas ’14 // The Daily Gazette.