Though the #MeToo campaign started long before it became a trending topic last fall, it now has the power to bring about real social change. It’s led to #TimesUp and has empowered many survivors of sexual violence to come forward with their story. It has also started a much needed conversation about consent and created an environment that has given advocates renewed hope about moving the needle on sexual and gender-based violence.
The most pressing question is: Now what? As a global organization that is striving to make equality for girls a reality, and one that has been discussing how violence impacts the lives of girls and women around the world for a long time, we are encouraged by the momentum of #MeToo. And believe it provides an opportunity for us to have open, honest and potentially uncomfortable conversations about gender, gender norms and stereotypes and the power dynamics that result from them.
Before we dive in, let us talk a little about how we got here. For generations and across societies, men and women have been systematically labeled and placed into boxes based on notions and stereotypes regarding their attributes, capabilities, aspirations and roles. These boxes work to uphold a patriarchal system patriarchal system*Social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line; broadly: control by men of a disproportionately large share of power. and along the way many have challenged it and pointed out its dangers.
The boxes we put men and women in have resulted in the straight-jacketing of men and boys in negative ideas and expressions of masculinity. And have kept women and girls from reaching their full potential. On a societal level, putting people in boxes has resulted in systemic discrimination, harmful policy decisions and inequality.
In order to achieve gender equality, it’s time to unpack these boxes and redefine our understanding of gender. Given the prevalence of violence against women committed by men, we’re going to focus this preliminary discussion on masculinity and sexual violence in heterosexual relationships.
The box labeled man
How do you define being a man? Do words like: strong, muscular, successful, handy, decision maker, leader, logical, sporty, resonate? If they do, it’s because these are stereotypical attributes associated with men that you have been socialized to accept.
What’s the problem with associating men as strong or as leaders? For one thing, not all people who identify as male are strong or leaders. When we claim these attributes for men, women by default get labeled as the opposite. The danger in associating specific attributes to certain gender identities is the pressure for people to possess those attributes. Men who are not, for example, seen as strong (however you may choose to define that), see their authenticity as a man questioned.
Gender is a social construct – one that we consciously and unconsciously embody and perform. The concept of masculinity refers to how men are socialized and the narratives and practices associated with all the different ways of being a man. Though there are many types of masculinities, most cultures have predominant ideas of what it means to “be a man”. This is known as hegemonic masculinity, which is about a standardized, accepted, reproduced and legitimized way of defining how men should feel, think and behave.
What’s the connection between the traditional definitions of masculinity and #MeToo? Men are socialized to be competitive, violent (under certain circumstances) and demonstrate virility, to name a few things. And we live in a patriarchal society, where hegemonic masculinity prevails, masculinity is assigned greater value than femininity and violence against women is normalized. All of this helps to create a power imbalance between genders and complicates our understanding of consent.
The absence of a no is not a yes. If someone is scared to say no (because of a power imbalance or fear or reprisal), then they are not consenting. Women are not socialized to enthusiastically say yes in the context of sex but advocates are calling for enthusiastic consent to be the new standard. But how can that be widely implemented if harmful gender norms still persist? Gender norms are deeply ingrained in our society and changing them will require girls and boys to be socialized differently. In order for us to eliminate violence against women, we must work to create a world where:
- Women can feel safe and empowered to say no
- Women are socialized to believe that sex is healthy and that sexual pleasure matters
- Men feel safe and empowered to redefine masculinity
- Men are socialized to respect women’s bodily autonomy
This list is not comprehensive. A lot of work needs to be done for us to unpack why so many people, especially girls and women have #MeToo stories. And it begins with us working together to redefine the boxes and fix the power imbalances that enable sexual violence to flourish.
Marching towards a safe and equitable future
Around the world, every single day women are murdered by their boyfriends, partners or husbands. 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence. These stats aren’t going to change until we unpack why this violence is happening and how we have collectively created an environment in which it flourishes.
Change begins with conversations about gender and consent. Both of these things are influenced by a myriad of factors, including but not limited to culture, religion and socioeconomic status. This post is just the beginning. There is much more to say on this subject; our objective is simply to open the dialogue.
As we march on in our fight for gender equality, we must march together, in solidarity with all genders. This fight needs everyone’s voice and support, or equality will never be a reality.