Cross-posted at PolicyMic.
Let me ask you a question: Do you have a good friend of the opposite sex?
Odds are you do. In fact, the odds are overwhelming.
When I first began teaching, 25 or so years ago, I asked my students how many of them had a good friend of the opposite sex. About 10% said they did. The rest were from what I called the When Harry Met Sally generation. You’ll remember the scene, early in the film, when Harry asserts that women and men can’t be friends because “sex always gets in the way.” Sally is sure he’s wrong. They fight about it. Then, thinking she has the clincher for her position, she says, confidently, “So that means that you can be friends with them if you’re not attracted to them!”
“Ah,” says Harry, “you pretty much want to nail them too.”
Young people today have utterly and completely repudiated this idea. These days, when I ask my students, I’ve had to revise the question: “Is there anyone here who does not have a friend of the opposite sex?” A few hands perhaps, in the more than 400 students in the class.
But let’s think, for a moment, about the “politics” of friendship. With whom do you make friends? With your peers. Not your supervisor or boss. Not your subordinate. Your equal. More than romance, and surely more than workplace relationships, friendships are the relationships with the least amount of inequality.
This changes how we can engage men in the efforts to end sexual assault, because there are three elements to sexual assault that can be discussed and disentangled.
First is m en’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, to sex. This sense of entitlement dissolves in the face of an encounter with your friends. After all, entitlement is premised on inequality. The more equal women are, the less entitlement men may feel. (Entitlement is not to be confused with resentment; equality often breeds resentment in the privileged group. The privileged rarely support equality because they fear they have something to lose.) Entitlement leads men to think that they can do whatever they want.
Second, the Bro Code tells those guys that they’re right – that they can get away with it because their bros won’t challenge or confront them. The bonds of brotherhood demand men’s silent complicity with predatory and potentially assaultive behavior. One never rats out the brotherhood. But if we see our female friends as our equals, then we might be more likely to act ethically to intervene and resist being a passive bystander. (And, of course, we rescue our male friends from doing something that could land him in jail for a very long time.)
Men’s silence is what perpetuates the culture of sexual assault; many of the excellent programs that work to engage men suggest that men start making some noise. We know the women, or know people who know them. This is personal.
Finally, we’re better than that – and we know it.
Sexual assault is often seen as an abstraction, a “bad” thing that happens to other people: Bad people do bad things to people who weren’t careful, were drunk or compromised. But, as I said, it’s personal. And besides, this framing puts all the responsibility on women to monitor their activities, alcohol consumption, and environments; if they don’t, whose fault is it?
This sets the bar far too low to men. It assumes that unless women monitor and police everything they do, drink, say, wear etc., we men are wild, out of control animals and we cannot be held responsible for our actions.
Surely we can do better than this. Surely we can be the good and decent and ethical men we say we are. Surely we can promise, publicly and loudly, the pledge of the White Ribbon Campaign (the world’s largest effort to engage men to end men’s violence against women): I pledge never to commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls.
Our friends – both women and men – deserve and expect no less of us.
Michael Kimmel is a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. He has written or edited over twenty volumes, including Manhood in America: A Cultural History and Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. You can visit his website here.
Concerned College Student — April 25, 2013
I'm a little confused with the conclusions of this article. First, I'm not sure how students self-reporting friendships with the opposite gender "repudiates" the point made in When Harry Met Sally. Sally, like your self-reporting students, claims to have male friends. Harry doesn't argue that Sally doesn't have any male friends, he argues that those friendships won't last because the guys will want sex and that will mess up the relationship. This exact scenario does often occur, especially in the sex-intensive culture on college campuses, and it can strain frequently friendships.
I'm a college student, and I can say that male-female friendships are still stigmatized very differently than same-sex friendships among college students. Comments made about male-female friendships reflect a common assumption that one of the two engaged in the friendship is hoping it will become romantic or sexual.
Furthermore, having female friends isn't much of a defense against "the Bro Code" since, in my experience, females who are friends with bros frequently defend patriarchal norms and are unlikely to challenge their male friends' privilege, and may even participate in the victim-blaming behaviors that perpetuate a culture of sexual violence.
Which brings me to another point. Many of my own female friends feel very uncomfortable being friends with males precisely because they feel that the friendship can never be "equal," because of the intrinsic privilege of males. They perceive that the consequences of poor friend behavior are less severe for males, and so fear entering into friendships with men. I would argue that this is especially true for women of color in America, who feel that both the legal system and society at large are unlikely to come to their defense if their male friend violates the trust and mores of the friendship. The danger of being trusting and equal friends with males is demonstrated to females whenever a male friend violates the trust of a female friend by exploiting her sexually.
I recognize that you are an ally of the feminist movement and appreciate your support for preventing sexual violence, but I think it's important to recognize that there are a lot of nuances to this issue that are glossed over in your optimistic vision of male-female equality in friendship.
mimimur — April 25, 2013
That's not entirey true. I'm not the most social person and I tend to reside in progressive circles, but in my experience, mixed gender relationshis tend to work a bit differently. Guys aren't neccessarily more aware or more feminist because they spend more time with women, and the term friends doesn't say much at all about how much they tell each other. Most rapes are still comitted by guys who know the woman on some level, there is still a tendency to take his side, and the feminist movement is still widely disproportionate on the male to female ratio. I'd also wager that most men value their female friends a bit lower than their male ones.
How Friendship Can Help Put an End to Rape - — April 26, 2013
[...] post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner [...]
Not Only Het — April 26, 2013
The whole premise is ridiculously hetero-normative.
Brutus — April 26, 2013
Having friends that cross borders on the patriarchal/feminist divide will help foster the discussions that create awareness of rape culture. Women aren't the only feminists, nor are they uniquely suited to understand or explain it.
Communication is the only important aspect highlighted here, and the narrow description of how to foster communication harms the intent of the message.
What I’ve Been Reading, April ’13 | Here. In My Head. — May 10, 2013
[...] Soc Images on how we can engage men in the efforts to end sexual assault. [...]
Male/Female Friendships Help End Rape | BroadBlogs — June 19, 2013
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