Let’s Talk about Sex(ual Violence).
I’m literally sitting here disgusted. I just have read about and heard discussion of the latest gang rape allegations in Cleveland, Texas. This allegation includes at least 18 young men and an eleven year old girl. The details of the case are still coming up, but there was videotaping of the rape and its circulation which went viral around local schools. We, as in the Black community and men in particular (trust me women have been doing a better job of this than us), need to have some serious conversations about sexual violence. As a young Black man, my education around rape and other forms of sexual violence was a slogan, “no means no.” If you are like me and product of the 80s then you know slogans like “just say no” gathered more laughter than followers. It’s time for a different conversation with our boys.
In fact, I wonder, are we even talking to boys and men about sexual violence? We need to engage boys and men in conversations not just about the mechanics of sex, but the responsibilities that accompany it (beyond pregnancy and STIs). While sex and sexuality are often discussed as private, in a puritanical sense, sex and sexuality are all around us. Youth are inundated with messages about sex, violence and power. Most boys have watched a pornographic film by the age of 11. You can chose not to talk about sex and sexual violence but they’ve likely already witnessed it.
Anytime one thinks about adolescents or children, the role of peer group looms large. As an adolescent I knew which friends had access to “adult materials” and also which friends or family were having (or so I thought) sex so they could tell me what I wanted to know. It was in this private context that I was taught about “running trains.” For those not familiar, that’s a colloquial reference to multiple men having sex with a single woman in succession. I was taught that if you found a real freak, everybody could participate. When I heard Snoop’s album and they sang, “It ain’t no fun, if the homies can’t have none” that was my reference and the image that came to mind. I was casually socialized into thinking that there was no gang rape, instead there were only gang bangs. Whether it’s Kid Cudi saying “me first” on I Poke Her Face or Wale ending his verse referencing “a train” on No Hands, our boys continue to learn gang rape is just a casual part of partying and growing up.
Some scholars estimate that between 10 to 33 percent of sexual assaults are multiple assailant (gang rape). Psychologically most common to these occurrences is an emphasis on power, displaying heterosexuality to other men, and drifting – where people commit crime that they may not agree with following others in a group. In short, gang rape is a group problem that makes clear we have to collectively change how we think about what it means to be a man and the role of power in our lives. At the core of the heinous act is often an attempt to validate one’s masculinity to others. Non-participation could mean being pushed out of the group or being “outed” (read: labeled as gay and this ‘not a real man’). If we don’t teach our boys to think differently about what it means to be a man, we will continue to be plagued by this issue.
This however is not simply an issue of peers. I can recall uncles saying, “you ain’t no real man till you’ve had some” or have seen parents questioning if children “have sugar in the tank” in attempts to legislate what it means to be “a real man.” When you couple these types of messages with misinformed sexual commentary, it creates a dangerous brew. As we are teaching boys about their journey into manhood, we often start with the ideas of power and control. I can’t recall how many times I’ve been in households where a 10 year old is referred to as “the man of the house” and told to “protect his mother and sisters” (I’m not even going into family structure here, just bear with me). This gives boys the idea, from an early age, that manhood is about power over women and about protect of girls and women from dangers. What if we pushed our boys to think about power sharing with girls and women? What if we restructured journeys into manhood to emphasize that best qualities of adults are neither masculine or feminine, they transcend both? What if we actually began to listen to our kids and talk to our kids about what we want our communities to look like? What if we envisioned spaces that were safe for girls and boys and women and men?
While I spend most days trying to crack the achievement gap, I cannot help but think the same questions of how do we shape peer influence and build individual personalities that can buffer against negative messages play out in sexual violence as well. In the case of education, we haven’t figured out how to transform peer influence and that’s with a million messages saying “stay in school” and “school pays.” But education has the advantage of being on the radars of millions. In the case of sexual violence, adults suffer from a lack of communication. The teenage years are guided by adults suggesting that youth not “follow the crowd” when it comes to drinking, drugs, and other speakable maladies, but sexual violence remains silent and untouched.
If we are going to provide a safe environment for boys and girls as well as men and women, we cannot afford to be silent. We cannot afford to flinch and/or turn away when they are honest about what they’ve learned about sex, relationships, and power – even if when we hear our “messed up” messages that we’ve passed echoing back at us. We have to stand and have real conversations about gender violence and its severe consequences for all involved. This summer, I’m Program Coordinator of the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.S. (Boys Rising Organizing to Help End Racism and Sexism) where we will be working with adolescent males to become allies against sexism and gender based violence. Sexual violence is a collective issue and one that is sadly often framed solely as a “women’s issue.” I hope this post helps to highlight the extreme need of men and boys to be allies against sexual violence, if not we’ll find our boys and men being allies against it.
For resources on coping with and ending sexual violence: