This week, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, affirmed his commitment to issues of domestic and sexual abuse. In his weekly address to the nation, Obama announced the development of a White House task force to reduce the number of sexual assaults on college campuses. Current statistics reveal that 1 in 5 women will be the victims of sexual assault in college, a number that Obama calls “totally unacceptable.” The task force will help colleges prevent sexual assaults by providing examples of policies and protocols, measuring the success of existing and future programs, and suggesting resources to victims (for more on the goals and initiatives of the task force, see this White House memorandum). In addition to the work of the federal task force, Obama urged parents, especially fathers, to teach young men that “real men do not hurt women” and that they should be outraged by men who do. In other words, Obama has called out masculinity, implying its role in sexual assault and asking for a redefinition of what it means to be a man.
I am impressed that Obama has taken a gendered analysis of sexual assault seriously. Instead of glossing over the gender dynamics, Obama puts a gigantic spotlight on the issues and forces us to consider the role of masculinity in perpetuating sexual assault. He also reminds us that there is nothing inevitable about gender and specifically masculinities. We can change what it means to be a man; real manhood does not have to include violence. Of course, this idea is nothing new to scholars and activists of men and masculinities, but it is refreshing to hear a public official, the President of the United States no less, invoking not only a gendered analysis of violence, but also the social constructionist type of thinking that many of us believe is important for changing contemporary gender relations.
The main element missing from this task force is the well-established grassroots work already performed on college campuses. Most colleges have at least one group aimed at reducing gender and sexual based violence on (and off) campus. These groups are uniquely situated to understand issues specific to populations of college students, including the college culture and the campus climate. The White House task force could learn a lot from these organizations. Will this work be acknowledged and incorporated into the task force’s efforts? Or will the task force take a top-down approach?
What do you think should be the task force’s first initiative should be? How can we, as scholars and activists, work with the task force on our own campuses or in our own communities?
Flood, Michael. 2011. “Involving Men in Efforts to End Violence Against Women.” Men and Masculinities 14(3): 358-377.
Sanday, Peggy Reeves. 1996. “Rape Prone vs. Rape Free Campus Cultures.” Violence Against Women 2(2): 191-208.