“Women’s issues” are men’s issues: Katz talks gender-based violence

(During his talk, Katz urged men to see "women's issues" as men's issues, too. Photo by Ashley Wall.)

[Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault.]

How do we get more men to stand with women as their partners and allies?

This is the question Jackson Katz – an author, educator, and cultural theorist internationally renowned for his activism on issues of gender, race, and violence – has been asking himself and the world since he was in college.

And on Thursday, Oct. 25, Katz brought his answers to Framingham State for “Tough Talks with Jackson Katz,” a speaking event hosted by SGA in DPAC. 

SGA Vice President Alex Backer has been working to get Katz to visit campus for almost a year. 

Backer said, “I started all this because I noticed that on our campus we have had some unpleasant events. I noticed behaviors in the gym toward women that weren’t acceptable, and I knew something had to change.”  

After starting a committee within SGA that focused on ending harassment on campus, Backer decided he wanted to start having “tough talks” about important issues facing students every day. This was the impetus for Katz’s visit.  

Katz began his “tough talk” with a story of an experience he had in college that got him to think critically about the issues women face.

While he was writing for the student newspaper at UMass Amherst, he found himself covering a female-organized rally for better outside lighting after a number of sexual assaults on campus.

He said, “I remember watching them and thinking, not ‘These women hate men’ or ‘These women have an agenda against men.’ … It was more like, ‘That’s what leadership looks like. These women are standing up for themselves. They’re demanding to be treated with dignity and respect.’”

Katz added, “Everybody has the right to walk across campus free from the fear of sexual violence and other forms of abuse. And I was inspired by them, rather than defensive in the face of that.”

Katz said many men react to women’s “righteous indignation” in a defensive manner, rather than with empathy. This realization inspired one of his first pieces of writing on the topic of gender-based violence and discrimination, a column he published in the student newspaper at the age of 19 titled, “Men can only imagine.”

In the piece, he urged men to imagine living as women do with the “daily indignities of sexism and the daily reality of being fearful of men’s violence.”

He said he remembered thinking, “If I were a woman, I’d be pissed off about that.”

This line of thinking led Katz to ask that important question: “How do we get more men to stand with women as their partners and allies?”

Katz had the audience start by considering a “paradigm shifting” perspective on sexual assault and harassment, domestic violence, relationship abuse, and other issues historically seen as “women’s issues that good men help out with.”

Katz said he refused to accept that premise and, instead, wanted to argue that these were men’s issues.

He explained the “transformative” work women have done regarding these issues but concluded that, in order to move forward, men need to become leaders in this field as well.

And he said that is why referring to issues of gender-based discrimination and violence as “women’s issues” is inherently a problem – it alleviates men of any accountability.

He added, “You see people say things like, ‘How many women were raped on college campuses last year?’ rather than, ‘How many men raped women on college campuses last year?’”

Katz argued this passive language has a “powerful political effect” because it shifts the focus to women, who have less power, and away from men, who have more. “This is not sloppy thinking. This is how power works. In this case, through stealth or invisibility or the shifting of accountability off of itself.”

Katz said he even refuses to use the term “violence against women” because the phrase is missing its “active agent” – men. The implication of that term is “it’s a bad thing that happens to women, violence against them, but nobody is doing it to them. They’re just experiencing it, kind of like the weather.”

Katz said the phrase should be “men’s violence against women.”

Katz concluded the same conditions that allow male violence against women also breed men’s violence against other men and against themselves. That’s why, he argues, women’s advocacy is one of the “best things to happen to men” despite the all-too-frequently expressed belief that these women are simply “male bashers.”

He told the audience it is no longer enough for men to silently support women – they need to act.

One tactic he discussed for changing the way men think about these issues was gender transformative programming. In part, this approach focuses on educating men about gender issues in a way that poses them as allies, not perpetrators.

The idea is to “invite not indict” men into serious conversations about gender that can change their understanding of their own actions. This is intended to empower them to act not just in obvious cases of sexual violence or discrimination, but also to speak out against everyday expressions of sexism.

Katz also shared a clip from his newly released film, “The Bystander Moment: Transforming Rape Culture at its Roots.”

Maura Bailey, an English teacher at Nashoba Regional High School, came to the event with colleagues. During the question-and-answer session, she asked for Katz’s advice on having difficult discussions with high school students without getting too political.

She said, “I’ve been using his material in the classroom for a really long time, so it was really cool to meet him.”

SGA President Ben Carrington said, “I feel like I heard the call to action.” He said he was inspired by Katz and hopes that other students were able to learn from him as well.

He added SGA intends to host more events in the “Tough Talks” series in the near future. “This is just the first of many.”

In addition to the Tough Talks, Backer said he hopes to create a “men against violence” group that is separate from SGA. 

He said the group “will challenge conventional ways of modern-day masculinity and embrace new ways of being a man in modern society. This will hopefully build a support network of students who are passionate about making a change in our society and who want to see an equitable shift between gender differences.” 

In a conversation following his talk, Katz urged college students to vote. “November 6 is going to be a very big moment in American history. … Yes, women need to come out and vote, but we also need men to come out and support women candidates and candidates – not just women – who support women’s rights and gender justice.

“If you say you value gender equality, if you think women are equal to men, then put your votes where your values are. ”

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