At the beginning of his presentation at Metro State University, Keith Edwards showed a slide of a poster that upon first glance read: Men Rape. That certainly got the attention of a packed classroom full of educators, there for the first statewide summit on sexual violence on college campuses.
If you looked a little closer, however, the words “men” and “rape” were sandwiched around the words, “can stop.” Both statements are true, but Edwards was trying to make the point that his social change approach to sexual violence turns the traditional way of looking at rape upside down.
For decades, we’ve taught young women on campuses how to kickbox and how to avoid dangerous situations and dangerous men. We’ve taught cops and counselors how to better interview victims and how to treat them with empathy.
“The fact that men rape is obvious to us,” said Edwards, a speaker and consultant to higher education institutions on sexual violence. “Yet we always focus on women, on the numbers of women who are raped, the percentages, as if we are unclear about who is perpetuating it. You can’t take a gender-neutral approach.”
The summit, organized by the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA), and others, could not have come at a more opportune time. The recent conviction and lenient sentencing of Brock Turner, a Stanford student who sexually assaulted a woman, has drawn nationwide attention to a phenomenon the 300 participants at the summit see nearly every day.
The big difference was that Turner was caught and convicted, something that rarely happens. For a change, millions of Americans were alerted to the problem. They were disgusted at the judge who sentenced him to just six months in jail, as well as by the plea by Turner’s father not to punish him further for “20 minutes of action.” They were also moved by the victim’s passionate letter to the judge about the effect of the assault on her life.
“The Stanford victim’s story illuminates many flaws, errors and bias in our response system,” said Jeanne Ronayne, executive director of MNCASA. “It also gives us a glimpse in such a raw and poignant way about the trauma, shame and embarrassment that is suffered by victim survivors.”
Edwards was glad people were outraged, but they should also understand that 99 percent of rapists face fewer consequences than Turner faces.
For Edwards, focusing on women when talking about rape is akin to addressing the escalation in cars running over pedestrians by teaching classes in how to cross the street. “It makes no sense,” said Edwards. “Sexual violence is a men’s issue. That’s scary, but it’s also empowering. I can be part of a solution on a massive scale. No one has more power to do something about sexual violence than men.”
Edwards said that studies have shown most men to be unaware of what actually constitutes sexual assault. Given a list of sex acts and asked to check which ones they have done themselves, 84 percent of respondents are unaware that an act they admitted to anonymously was illegal, Edwards said.
“They don’t see the acts as rape, they are behaving normally,” Edwards said. “They do it again and again and again because they are ‘hooking up.’ We don’t call them serial rapists, but that’s what they are.”
Experts such as Edwards hear the same thing, over and over, from perpetrators: “I believed the encounter was consensual. I now recognize she does not view the incident the same way I did.”
That’s because movies, magazines, television and pornography teach men that women are something to be conquered and that one way to do that is alcohol. “Not in the mood, have another drink,” is a common device in dramas and comedies, he said.
“We can’t just put guys in a room and say, ‘Hey guys, rape is bad,’ because they agree with you,” said Edwards. “We like to think rapists are deviants in our natural culture, but they are natural in our deviant culture.”
As for the reaction of Turner’s father to his son’s actions, Edwards says, “He’s not a horrible father, he’s learned that all his life. He’s learned that to get a girl, you get her drunk.”
When he talks to young men, Edwards talks about the posters of nude women on their dorm walls and the atmosphere of “competitive recreational sex” at college. He discusses T-shirts with demeaning messages and he encourages them to intervene in the problem by challenging bad behavior by friends.
He knows many of the young men will walk out and never give the topic another thought, but some will. He knows from experience: When someone gave him a similar message when he was a Hamline University student, “I argued with him for 20 minutes,” Edwards said. That Edwards came around doesn’t make him overly optimistic, however.
“I’m not optimistic because the data doesn’t allow me to be optimistic,” Edwards said. “But I am hopeful.”
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