BY NATASCHA YOGACHANDRA
On February 8th, I had the privilege of attending an event at the Brooklyn Museum entitled Mother Tongue: Monologues for Truth Bearing Women, For Emerging Songs and Other Keepers of the Flame. The three-hour-long performance brought together artists, activists and writers to engage in a conversation about violence against women in black communities. Nearly a dozen speakers shared stories of rape and abuse to an audience of a few hundred. They called out to their brothers in the room—those men who work to engage other men in eliminating gender violence. They didn’t wipe their tears but let them fall. The wrinkles in their palms deepened and darkened as they clenched their fists. They smiled wildly after each story of survival.
Following a few dance performances, these brothers stepped on stage to talk about accountability, a word often used in sexual violence prevention work. For Quentin Walcott, an anti-violence activist who works at CONNECT, accountability is simply the answer to rape culture. For Darnell Moore, a writer from Bed Stuy, it means recognizing that while he is oppressed as a black man, he is also the oppressor of women. But Dr. Oliver Wilson, the co-founder of the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community, pointed out arguably the most important bit about accountability. “What’s been interesting to me is the fact that every time I go to an event, and we have this conversation about accountability, people leave it for the last thing to talk about,” he said. In fact, the conversation had to be cut short because of time restraints.
I’ve spent the past five months examining the role of redefining masculinity in the elimination of sexual aggression towards women. In my interviews with psychologists, social workers, educators and activists, accountability was one of those words that kept resurfacing. But like many other key terms that are used in this field, they are continuously being redefined as we learn more about the dynamics between males and female victims in sexual violence prevention work.
Many of the men I’ve talked to have expressed disappointment in the lack of published research about the effect of machismo on sexual violence. According to what is out there, men who strongly adhere to traditional notions of masculinity are in fact more violent than their less masculine counterparts.
Yet conversations about masculinity are rare. Things like accountability are hardly brought up, and when they are, the discussion is cut short, just like what happened at the Brooklyn Museum. The reasons range—the issue is considered too sensitive or “girly,” young men may not consider it cool, or some just don’t realize how serious the problem really is.
Robert De Leon is the founder of BroModels, an organization that engages men in conversations about masculinity. One of the biggest challenges he faces is getting non-violent men to talk about these issues. “A lot of times I’ve been told, ‘I’m not a violent individual, so there’s no need for me to participate, but thanks anyway.’” But that’s precisely the reason for involvement. “In a way we’re shedding light on the positive things men and boys are doing already”—which gives them the chance to act as role models for the young boys who lack them.
Which is why, at Facing History High School in upper Manhattan, Courtney Robinson wants to reward his male students who choose to do the right thing. “The street has a hold on some people sometimes, ‘cause you’ll get attention for doing the wrong thing,” said the dean of students. So when these boys do something positive—let’s say stand up to other men who act violently—they should be positively rewarded as well.
This is where accountability comes in. Dr. Bud Ballinger has been treating sexual offenders for the past several years in upstate New York. For him, it was “essential” to have an “aha moment” in which he realized that he grew up in the same culture as the offenders sitting across from him. “There’s a decent chance that you’ve done some kind of sexually coercive behavior at some point in your life [as a man],” he said. “It’s engrained in our culture, this idea that men have a right to sex.” For him, it’s vital to acknowledge where this behavior originates in order to provide better treatment. So accountability is realizing that we all have the potential to be abusive—and perhaps have been—but have made the choice to consciously work against those engrained habits of masculinity.
1. Reidy, Dennis E.; Shirk, Steven D.; Sloan, Colleen A.; Zeichner, Amos. (2009). Men who aggress against women: Effects of feminine gender role violation on physical aggression in hypermasculine men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 10(1), 1-12.
2. Parrott, Dominic J.; Zeichner, Amos. (2003). Effects of hypermasculinity oh physical aggression against women. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 4(1), 70-78.
3. Levant, R. F. (1996). The new psychology of men. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 27(3), 259-265.
Natascha Yogachandra is currently a senior undergraduate student at New York University. She is completing a journalism thesis on male advocates for female victims of sexual violence.