Lessons from Steubenville: An Interview with Jackson Katz, Part 2

By Jeremy Earp

Director of Production, Media Education Foundation

Posted on MEF blog March 20, 2013

Part 2

JE: When it comes to high-profile cases of sexual violence – or violence generally – there often seems to be less talk about the way the culture shapes attitudes than there is about the responsibility of parents in all of this. What’s your take on that?

JK:  One of the chapters in my first book The Macho Paradox is called “It Takes a Village to Rape a Woman.”  The premise is that while parents play an incredibly important role, there’s a larger culture out there that’s helping to socialize our sons and daughters. It’s naive to think of “the family” as a unit that is somehow isolated from the rest of society; families are deeply embedded in social systems and cultural norms as well. Those of us who are parents have ourselves been profoundly influenced by those norms. So our parenting is shaped not only by how we were parented, but also by our peer-culture experiences, the media we’ve consumed, the cultural practices and social norms we’ve been socialized into, including those having to do with gender. The gender and sexual norms in our culture are way bigger than any individual parent or set of parents can hope to impart. The idea that somehow criminally misogynous behavior by young men can be laid exclusively at the feet of their parents is flat out simplistic and wrong. It’s like saying racism is something learned in the family, as opposed to saying it’s a much larger system of inequality and exploitation, rooted in long-term historical and institutional practices and ideologies, whose pernicious influence and impact is felt in many aspects of our individual as well as collective lives, including experiences in our families. It’s the same with sexism.

JE: In your view, what are some of the most dangerous cultural messages parents are contending with?

JK: The main ones in this case are the devaluation of anything that’s feminine and the depersonalization and dehumanization of women, especially in a sexual context. The message is that women and girls are not full human beings entitled to full dignity and an absolute right to their bodily autonomy. In patriarchal cultures, many boys and men are taught these sexist ideas from a very early age. Look at the role of pornography. Porn culture plays an immensely influential role in shaping the sexual psyches of millions and millions of boys and men. What porn culture constructs as a normative heterosexual experience in most cases is the complete objectification of the girl or woman: the man – or men – are doing something to her; they are ejaculating into or onto an object rather than having a sexual relationship with another human being. In much of the mainstream porn that’s marketed to men and boys, men call women degrading names as they’re having sex with them, order them around, and sometimes are incredibly callous and cruel to them. This is normative behavior in contemporary heterosexual “gonzo” porn. That’s an example of a widespread cultural message that transcends parenting. And because of the availability of porn on the Internet, it’s virtually impossible for parents of heterosexual boys to prevent their sons from being immersed in that world if that’s the road the child is going down. We need to remember that the vast majority of what passes for sex “education” in this society has been coming from wealthy media corporations in the form of pornography – not from schools or parents.

JE: But the cultural forces that parents – and even teachers – contend with go beyond pornography, right?

JK:  It’s not just pornography itself; it’s the pervasive objectification of women across the culture. Whether it’s in advertising during football games, or any other form of mainstream media – especially media targeted at young men – there’s a widespread and casual dismissal of women’s humanity and an objectification of women’s bodies at the core of a lot of the media that boys and men consume, and that girls and women consume as well. So a larger cultural analysis of rape and its prevalence has to incorporate some insight about the role of media in shaping social norms. It needs to pay attention to how media reinforce ideas about women as objects rather than as autonomous subjects. It also needs to account for how the devaluation of what the culture defines as feminine is not just a devaluing of women – but also of core elements of boys and men’s identities and emotional lives as well. Feminists have been saying for decades that when everything defined as feminine is seen as “less than” or contemptible or somehow inferior, it not only hurts women, but also narrows the range and depth of men’s humanity. We’ve come to expect boys and men to shy away from those aspects of themselves they’ve been told are “feminine” – qualities like empathy, compassion, or even concern with personal appearance. All of these things register in the culture – and especially male culture – as unmanly and “girlie.” And I think this has exacted a huge toll on men’s lives.

JE: You mentioned earlier that there were very likely a lot of young men who witnessed the assault on this young woman in Steubenville, knew it was wrong, and yet remained silent. Is one explanation for their silence this larger fear of the feminine you’re talking about – in this case, the fear of being seen as overly sensitive and empathetic if they dared to speak up and defend her?

JK:  I think that’s right. Being “one of the guys” means going along with certain behaviors – even when they’re clearly sexist and abusive – because if you don’t go along with the behaviors, your manhood will be questioned. You risk being seen as feminine, as soft. And these pressures only intensify when the abuse is being carried out and led by popular guys. If being masculine means being aggressive, misogynist, and sexually exploitative towards girls and women, and you don’t stay in line and go along with those things – well, according to our gender binary system, you must not be very masculine. Or you must be acting like a girl.

In the case of gang rape scenarios like Steubenville, if qualities like compassion and concern for the vulnerable are seen as “unmasculine,” or you’re seen as “taking the side of the girl” against your boys, a lot of young men – and older men – are going to freeze and fail to act.  There’s a lot of pressure on men to fall in line and be “one of the guys,” to resist breaking with the dominant ethos of the group – even if they might find some of the things they encounter uncomfortable or worse.

JE: There’s this brutal paradox in male culture that says if you stand up for someone who’s in a vulnerable position – in this case an intoxicated and outnumbered young woman, in other cases maybe it’s a kid being bullied – then somehow you’re overly sensitive and therefore weak. The sheer courage it takes for a kid to stand up to his peers when they’re doing something wrong is somehow flipped into cowardice. This is more or less the perfect way for a culture to perpetuate abuse.

JK: That’s right. The fact is that it takes a lot more strength for a guy – especially for a guy operating within the hypermasculine environment of something like football culture – to challenge his friends and his teammates when they’re acting out in sexist or abusive ways than it does to keep quiet and conform. And yet the guy who has the guts to stand up in the face of these pressures – and to be his own man – gets called “soft,” a “pussy,” a “wimp,” or worse. It’s Orwellian.

JE: This is precisely the underlying principle of the bystander approach you created for the Center for the Society of Sport in Society at Northeastern University 20 years ago, isn’t it? Isn’t it the central premise of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) approach that men are, in some sense, looking for cultural permission to say what a lot of them are already thinking but feel too boxed in by traditional gender roles to say?

JK: Yes, these are exactly the kinds of dynamics we’ve been talking about in MVP for two decades. When we developed MVP back in 1993, our work was focused initially on the college male sports culture. MVP quickly expanded into a mixed-gender program, and we now work with female student-athletes, coaches, and administrators, in addition to women and girls in the general student population. But the original idea was how do you start talking about these dynamics in all sorts of racially and ethnically diverse male peer cultures in a way that begins to change the social norms in that group, or at the very least bring the more positive social norms to the surface. We know that a lot of guys are uncomfortable with abusive behavior by their peers, including sexist and misogynist and gay-bashing behavior, but they rarely speak up. So part of the idea with MVP was to encourage men to break the unspoken code of silence within these peer cultures – to empower them to stand up and say, “Okay, wait a second.  I don’t like this.  I don’t like what you’re saying, and I don’t appreciate this kind of behavior. I think it’s weak, I think it’s stupid, I think it’s bad.” In that way, what we’re really doing is trying to redefine how the culture defines strength in men – so that guys who speak up like this aren’t seen as “going soft” or being a “wuss,” but as strong and having integrity.

I should say that from the beginning, my goal was to see programs like this implemented in every high school, every middle school, every college, and every high school athletic program, in the United States. And while we’ve made some progress — the bystander approach, whether it’s explicitly MVP or a variation of MVP, is being employed by all four major services in the U.S. military at this point – the sad fact is that the vast majority of high schools and high school athletic programs have no sexual and relationship abuse prevention programs at all. The same goes for colleges and universities. There are schools that have comprehensive programming in place, and some that have the beginnings of systematic programming, but they’re still the exception. Too many don’t have these kinds of programs at all.

JE: Why is that? What’s the main source of resistance there? Is it institutional?

JK: Yes. Let’s be clear: the obstacles haven’t been pedagogical or curricular; the major obstacle has been a lack of leadership in secondary education, higher education, and the sports culture in general. The school boards, superintendents, principals, athletic directors, and coaches at the high school level, as well as the administrators, athletic directors, and coaches at the college and university level, with some exceptions, have largely failed to step up and take this stuff on. It’s on the shoulders of the powerful men and women who run these institutions to say this is a priority and that we need to be addressing these issues.

When I heard about Steubenville, the first question that crossed my mind was, “Did they have a gender violence prevention program in Steubenville for student-athletes or other students?” And of course the answer was no. If they had had a program like MVP, a bystander program, would all the kids in that room have behaved the same way and done nothing? Or would some of them have spoken up and said it was wrong? I mean, we’ve been using a scenario in MVP trainings for twenty years that looks an awful lot like the Steubenville case. We ask young men: what would you do if you were at a party and a friend or teammate of yours was trying to have sex with an obviously drunk young woman. We’ve used this scenario in trainings thousands of times. In an interactive dialogue, we play the whole thing out with them: what is their responsibility to her? What is their responsibility to him? What’s your responsibility to yourself, and the kind of person you are or want to be? We discuss many possible options for what to do. If they had been doing bystander training at Steubenville High, would that have made a difference in this case? Obviously we can’t be sure. But I do think it’s far less likely that every one of them would have done nothing in that situation.

JE: So is one element of your approach not only to encourage young men to empathize with young women outside the hypermasculine box of their own peer group, but also to understand how these attitudes and behaviors are destructive to their male friends?

JK: Yes. One of the things the MVP model is designed to do is to get guys to think about their responsibility not just to the innocent girls and women that get preyed upon in these situations, but also their responsibility to their friends, their teammates, who are committing these acts. My first concern in the Steubenville case was – and is – about the young woman who was raped, but the two boys who were convicted of this crime are also facing truly significant consequences. To be sure, they are the consequences of their own actions. But they too have been badly hurt by those actions. Their lives are essentially ruined. They might be registered sex offenders for the rest of their lives. They’ll forever be marked by acts they committed when they were 16 and 17 years old. And where were their friends? Where were the guys around them who said, “I got your back, man. You’re my boy, you’re my friend, you’re my teammate. You shouldn’t be doing this to her. She’s a person, just like your sister or your mom is a person. Just like you’re a person. This is dead wrong. And it’s beneath you.”

These are the kinds of things we talk about with young men in MVP, yet it’s been a struggle, to say the least, to get this kind of programming into high schools, into colleges, into athletic programs. Every student should have access to quality gender violence prevention education. It says something about the priorities of our society that this isn’t yet the case.

JE: But isn’t the reluctance of men in leadership positions to take on these issues in high schools and college sports programs symptomatic of the very problem MVP seeks to redress?

JK: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I think what we have here is a failure of leadership. The first thing I would look at in Steubenville is what is the role of the school principal, the high school football coach, the athletic director? What have they done to address sexism and sexual assault and relationship abuse? And if they’ve done nothing, I’d say that as leaders they’re failing the boys and girls of Steubenville. We need to remember that adult men are in many ways themselves policed into silence around these issues – in the same ways that adolescent boys are. So while we need to figure out ways to encourage boys and young men to speak up and break their silence and show strength and leadership, that’s also true for adult men. It’s not fair to put the burden of leadership on the shoulders of 16- and 17-year-old boys. It should be on the shoulders of adult men as well.

Here’s one suggestion: When athletic directors are interviewing candidates for coaching positions on the football team, they should be asking, straight-up, what their thoughts are about how to encourage boys and young men to respect girls and women. They should make it clear this is considered part of what they’re looking for in hiring a coach. If you take a systemic analysis of the role of various institutions, of various cultural practices, of the various roles of individuals in those institutions in helping to shape the social norms in those institutions, then you have to expand the focus and assignment of responsibility and accountability further than simply a group of kids at a party.

JE: You mentioned the video that was shot in Steubenville the night of the rape, and how it went viral. The thing that was maybe most shocking about this video was how un-shocked most of the kids in the video seemed about the girls’ well-being and the gang rape that had happened just moments before.

JK: Yes. I think a lot of people were really, really put off by the cavalier way this guy talked about the rape of this girl. Some people I know couldn’t watch it. They could only watch 30 seconds of it. I think in many ways this video was a testament to the fact that this case was about more than just this single instance of violence – atrocious as the incident itself was. It revealed that this was also about the widespread cultural attitudes that support this kind of behavior. It pointed to a problem than runs deeper than just two pathological individuals acting out their power games and their abusive mentality. And I think that’s what made the video so unsettling.

JE: So when you think about culture, specifically the relationship between traditional ideals of manhood and gender violence, would you say you’re more concerned with the way these ideals work to silence the vast majority of boys and men who never commit this kind of violence or with how these ideals lead a minority of boys and men to commit these acts?

JK: I’m concerned about both. The first thing to say is that I don’t think culture creates scripts that boys and men simply imitate. I think it’s about how the culture creates scripts that are then normalized. And I don’t think there’s any question that a big part of the way boys and men learn what it means to be a “normal” man is through their exposure to media. If it’s normal and cool for guys to do a certain thing, and that’s enshrined in the media they’re consuming, then why wouldn’t they think that’s cool? That’s the air they’re breathing. But I do think that in spite of the sexism and misogyny they see in media, most men and young men have the capacity to achieve a higher state of moral reasoning and decide what’s right and wrong. So the question, for me, is always about why they don’t say anything. That’s the heart of what we do with the MVP model. We try to figure out why the guys wouldn’t say something, identify the pressures they experience, and then explore what can be done to change things and break the culture of men’s silence around these issues.

JE: So the bottom line, for you, seems to be that while Steubenville raised important questions about football culture and jock culture, we have to be careful not to lose sight of how the stories we tell ourselves as a culture about manhood perpetuate men’s violence, and men’s silence in the face of violence, in American society as a whole.

JK: Yes. We have incidents in the sports culture, and we talk about what’s going on in sports. But we see similar patterns in many different male-dominated institutions and masculine subcultures. Look at the military. There were approximately 26,000 sexual assaults last year in the U.S. military. This has prompted a long-overdue conversation about what’s going on there. We have incidents that happen within gun culture, and we talk about what’s going on with guns. We have incidents that happen in neither sports culture, the military culture, nor gun culture, and we start talking about the variables that are specific to that subculture. Well, the one thing that connects all the men and boys operating within these subcultures is that they’re men and boys, and that they make sense of their lives in gendered ways that transcend whatever specific subculture they happen to be a part of. You can go from one case to the next: sexual violence, gun violence. This violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, young men, and boys, and yet when a big story breaks, we come up with all of these variables to try to make sense of it and ignore the single most important connection – the gender of the perpetrators. There’s just no question about it: if we’re serious about understanding and confronting violence, the larger conversation we need to be having as a society is about manhood.

Lessons from Steubenville: An Interview with Jackson Katz, Part I

by Jeremy Earp

Director of Production, Media Education Foundation

Posted on MEF blog March 20, 2013

This past Sunday in Steubenville, Ohio, high school football stars Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were convicted of raping an intoxicated and barely conscious 16-year-old girl. Author and cultural critic Jackson Katz talked about the implications of the case in this wide-ranging two-part interview with Media Education Foundation (MEF) Production Director Jeremy Earp.

Katz, a leading expert in the gender violence prevention field, co-founded the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program in 1993 at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. MVP’s innovative “bystander” approach has since become mainstream practice in gender violence prevention education, and the MVP program itself has been implemented widely in college athletics, in all branches of the US military, the NFL, Major League Baseball, and in scores of other organizations, including many high schools and middle schools across the country, reaching beyond athletics to the general student population. In addition to his pioneering work with MVP, Katz is the author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women & How All Men Can Help (2006) and Leading Men: Presidential Campaigns & the Politics of Manhood (2012). He is also the creator of MEF’s bestselling film Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity.

JE: What was your immediate reaction to the verdict in the Steubenville rape case?

JK: I can’t say I was very surprised by the verdict, but the entire case and the way it played out with convictions was unusual. First of all, a rape was reported, young men were charged with it, and they were convicted. That in itself makes this case atypical. I also think it’s important to note that because this case was tried in juvenile court, the verdict was rendered by a judge; it’s an open question whether a jury in an adult court would have reached the same conclusion. Then there’s the added dimension that the perpetrators were high-profile members of a prominent football team in an Eastern Ohio town known for its “jockocracy,” which made this a national story and gave the case greater cultural weight and significance. I also think it’s notable that since one of the perpetrators was white and the other was African-American, the story didn’t immediately become about race. I don’t think there’s any question that if both of the perpetrators had been African-American, the discussion around the case would have been very different, especially given the victim was white. Social media also played a role — both in the public discussion around the case, in Steubenville and around the country, and because there was actual evidence in the trial drawn from video from cell phones and text messaging and such.

Rape is a huge problem in the United States and around the world, and those of us who work in this field know that cases like this happen a lot more often than people think. But because of some of these media-friendly aspects, this case has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist in a way that most rapes don’t. The fact is that most rapes are never even reported. And so this case gives us an opportunity to have a discussion about the dominant features of rape culture in ways that might help us prevent crimes like this from happening in the first place. In that way, even though this incident has been sad and tragic for everyone involved, this is a teachable moment.

JE: As you just pointed out, one of the big reasons this case has received so much attention is because the perpetrators were prominent members of the high school football team in a town where high school football is a big deal. In what ways do you think football culture might have shaped the town’s response to this case – and also the media’s coverage of it? CNN, in particular, has been drawing fire for showing excessive sympathy for the perpetrators in its reporting on the verdict Sunday.

JK: The first thing I’d say is it’s not illegitimate to express concern about those boys. That doesn’t in any way excuse their behavior, far from it — but there’s a reason why they were tried in juvenile court. They’re kids. And I hope they turn their lives around. All of that said, though, I do think the degree of sympathy shown for the perpetrators speaks to a larger problem in mainstream media coverage of sexual assault cases generally. The fact is that media coverage of sexual assault tends to spend a lot less time establishing the basic humanity of the victims than it does looking at other aspects of the story. In this specific case, the media frame was all about how the perpetrators were young football players who were held in high esteem in the town and had the rest of their lives before them, that sort of thing. As a result, a lot of the coverage focused on what a conviction would mean for their futures, what the rape said about this town, what it said about the prominence of football in this town. And this carried through the coverage even after the conviction, as we saw on CNN.

Well, the net effect of all this has been to deflect attention away from the victim. The mainstream media haven’t spent nearly as much time focusing on what this young woman went through that night, what she’s been through since, what kind of a person she is, how this will affect her future. Then you add to that all the questions that inevitably arise in sexual assault cases about whether the victim was really a victim or whether she willingly participated in this, that kind of sexist stuff – which in turn plays into all the warped ideas and double standards we have as a culture about women’s sexuality and men’s sexuality – and this adds yet another layer that distances us from the this victim as a person. Part of this has to do with the need to protect the anonymity of the victim. But it also has to do with all these other ideas and norms that circulate in the culture about sex and gender and power and entitlement – and with the pivotal role mainstream media play in reinforcing these norms.

JE: Can you give another example of how the media coverage of this case has dehumanized – or at least distanced us from the humanity of – this young woman?

JK: Well, one thing I’ve seen is that a lot of the news coverage – even on the day the guilty verdict was rendered – has repeatedly used the word “accuser” to refer to the victim of this crime. And this isn’t a new development; it’s become common practice to use words like “accuser” to refer to victims in rape cases. One of the reasons this is so deeply problematic is that it turns the focus of the crime onto her — it shifts the sympathy of the public from seeing her as an alleged victim to seeing her as an alleged perpetrator of a false charge. It’s an extremely regressive and disturbing media convention, and I think it shows how we conspire as a society to silence victims.

JE: What do you make of the football angle in this case, the media storyline that these were high school football stars being put on trial?

JK: The dominant storyline has emphasized football culture in Steubenville, Ohio, how the two young men who were convicted were star players, and how a lot of the people in the town tried to protect them for that reason. I think that’s an interesting and important angle, and I appreciate the fact that it’s the main reason this case was elevated to this level. But I also think there’s a danger that the focus on football will distract us from the bigger picture here – which is that that the problem of sexual violence goes way beyond the football culture in Steubenville, Ohio, and way beyond football culture generally. My fear is that a lot of people will scapegoat this one community, or this one jock subculture, rather than doing the tougher work of looking introspectively at the culture as a whole.

I think another thing that’s bound to happen over the coming days, is that there’s going to be very little discussion about prevention programs and leadership by coaches and athletic administrators. My sense is that the national discussion will focus much too narrowly on student-athletes, rather than on the larger system of values and the role of adult leaders within that subculture. Student-athletes are just symptoms of the problem. And unless and until we change the athletic subculture, the priorities of the leadership in that subculture, and the relationship of that subculture to the larger society, then we’re likely to continue seeing these problems surfacing.

JE: I take it you’re not holding your breath for mainstream media to give people this kind of wider cultural view of the case?

JK: No, I’m not. Based on their track record, and the dearth of real journalism in corporate media generally, I don’t expect the mainstream media to do this kind of work. I think mainstream media do a really poor job drawing deeper analyses and making more sophisticated connections between cultural practices, sociological forces, and individual behavior. They’re much more focused on the criminal justice system, the battle between prosecutors and defense attorneys, the legal steps taken and not taken, than on a broader cultural analysis. And over the years it’s been the source of endless frustration for me and a lot of other people working in this field to see the media treat one high-profile sexual assault, domestic violence, and homicide case after another with a criminal justice focus that has overwhelmed any broader sociological or cultural examination of what’s driving this epidemic of gender violence in the first place.

JE: How would a broader sociological or cultural analysis apply to the football angle in this case?

JK: I think one of the reasons why, initially, this case was covered up to a certain degree was because, like in so many of these situations, the perpetrators — or the “alleged perpetrators” at the time — had more social power than the victim. The fact that they were members of the football team was an important part of their social capital. And in a town where football is king and these guys are football players, there’s an extent to which the town’s identity is implicated in the behavior of the players.

There are some similarities to the infamous 1989 gang rape case in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, which was recounted in Bernard Lefkowitz’s book Our Guys. The book details how prominent members of various sports teams, all of them white boys, perpetrated this planned and staged sexual assault against a mentally retarded girl. Some of the townspeople blamed the girl – who had the emotional and cognitive development of an eight-year-old – and attacked anybody who defended her because they saw it as an attack on “their guys.” The mentality was that “our guys wouldn’t do something like that, she must have tempted them,” and so forth. It’s an embarrassingly predictable response. And I think something similar went on in the Steubenville case, at least initially. There was clearly a lot of denial and defensiveness about the crime. A lot of people there didn’t want to think their community, their football team, had produced rapists.

Cases like these are especially painful because they force a level of introspection on the part of the townspeople – including the parents of other players, the boosters of the football program, and the residents who come to games and celebrate their boys. It implicates all of them on some level, even though – and let’s be clear – they’re not the ones who perpetrated the crime. Nevertheless, I believe this incident does say something about Steubenville, about the football culture there. When people have an identity investment in denying what happened, the most logical course is to blame the victim. It’s much easier – and a lot more self-interested, in many cases – to say that she was either making it up or exaggerating, to suggest it was really consensual, or to minimize it and say, “Well, you know, maybe it wasn’t good behavior, but it wasn’t criminal, just young guys being stupid and callous. Boys will be boys, after all.” All the predictable things you hear in defense of perpetrators in these kinds of cases.

JE: And in fact there were a lot of people in the town who were blaming the girl’s supporters and the news media for blowing things out of proportion.

JK: That’s classic. It happens in pro sports. When a popular professional athlete is charged with a sexual or domestic violence crime, the impulse — especially in the case of sex crimes — is to deny it ever happened, disbelieve the complaining witness, claim it was consensual, imply she had an ulterior motive (often money), or suggest she might have used the false rape allegation as an act of revenge. People often know in the depths of their conscience that something happened, but they refuse to accept that the guy they root for, their star player, would do something like this because it’s too painful to admit and to acknowledge that, yes, he would do something like this. Because you cheer for him – your child might even have his poster on his/her bedroom wall! – you have an identity stake in his good behavior.

I realize some people reject this and say, “Well, they’re just athletes. We know that they’re not model citizens. And we cheer for them on the court.” I mean, after allegations of sexual assault against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a couple of years ago, the eminent sportswriter Frank Deford said, “At a certain point, don’t you just stop caring whether our athletes — who for some reason or other are always called ‘role models’ — don’t you just stop caring whether they behave? Don’t you just want to say, ‘Let the thugs play?'” Obviously I don’t agree with that. I think that’s a completely cynical view and I don’t share it. We should never simply forget these things and move on like nothing happened.

JE: When it became clear the victim in this case was going to cooperate with the prosecution, one of the convicted rapists sent text messages to her pleading with her to back off because he was going to be kicked off the team. My guess is that he wasn’t alone in making football the central concern.

JK: That’s right. Obviously he had a self-interest in squelching the case. But on a larger level I think this speaks to a real distortion of values. You have to wonder about the value system of a culture that places football and the events on the field higher than a young woman’s, or a young man’s, right not to be the victim of violence and humiliation. It’s a truly disfigured value system that defends football over a rape victim’s bodily integrity and humanity.

JE: I know you’re careful to broaden your analysis of sexism and cultural misogyny beyond sports culture, but do you think there’s something about sports culture – more than other societal subcultures – that may be working to reinforce regressive ideas and ideals that lead to sexual assaults like these? And within the sports culture, would you say there’s something about football culture, specifically, that we need to be looking at – given the inherent violence of the sport?

JK: I would see it as an indictment of the centrality of football and football culture in the larger society, rather than the specifics inherent in the sport of football. These kinds of incidents happen in cultures all over the world that don’t play American-style football. Take societies where soccer is the most important sport. Men who play soccer at elite levels are very popular, enjoy great privileges, get all kinds of breaks. Some of the dynamics of the male peer cultures where sports are played are very different — soccer and football are very different sports — but the social position of the athletes is similar. Generally speaking, young male athletes tend to get more attention from heterosexual girls and women, including sexual attention. There’s a certain sense of social privilege and license that’s implied and sometimes explicitly stated. You know, football players can get away with certain things and can act certain ways — their coach will make a phone call or people won’t pursue accountability for them because they have this elevated status.

So I don’t think it’s as much about the game itself as it is about the social position that being successful at that game or sport affords men. I don’t think you can dismiss the idea that football is a violent game, where brute strength and physical aggression are rewarded. But I do think that football players know the difference between the field — where they’re in between the white lines playing against a well-trained opponent with bright lights and referees — and a party or other social situation. I think they know the difference between using aggression in the context of sports, where it’s socially rewarded, and other contexts where it’s illegal. I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand any possible relationship between aggression and violence in sports and violence off the field. I think that would be naive. But I don’t think that’s the most important piece of it.

JE: Is the main issue for you, then, the sense of entitlement that comes from playing sports? Or are you equally concerned about the regressive masculine ideals that circulate and are glamorized within sports culture?

JK: I think a bigger question than “What is the role of the sports culture?” is “What is the role of culture in shaping norms of masculinity, femininity, sex and power?” And I’m also concerned about how race intersects with these other forces. The bottom line is that sports culture is a really important subculture that influences the larger culture, and is in turn influenced by the larger culture. But let’s be clear: this goes way beyond sports. Gang rapes, for example, are perpetrated all the time by men who don’t identify with the sports culture – they’re in street gangs, motorcycle gangs, fraternities, in the military. It’s not just about sports. The dynamics of male peer culture are implicated more than sports culture is implicated, and cultural misogyny is implicated in a more general way than the sports culture’s misogyny. So it’s important to emphasize that gang rape and group sexual assaults happen in all kinds of different contexts not involving athletes or student-athletes.

The most important questions, for me, center on why gang rape remains such a persistent problem in American society and around the world. What is the role of misogyny? What is the role of male socialization? What are the dynamics in hierarchical and non-hierarchical male peer cultures? What is the role of subcultural variation versus the larger culture’s norms? Given the insanely high levels of gang rape around the world, we need to be asking these questions.

Bear in mind, also, that lots of incidents occur under the public radar screen. Take young men’s sexual assault of other young men in various male organizations. Sexualized violence is often a feature of “hazing” rituals. It’s not typically described as sexual violence – it’s euphemized as a ritual or rite of passage – but forced penetration (digital or otherwise) of adolescent boys and young men by other boys and men is a disturbingly common feature in certain types of hazing rituals – especially in the sports culture and in parts of military culture. I’m not saying the Steubenville rape was part of a hazing ritual. I am saying that boys and men do this to each other, as well as to girls and women.

JE: What do you make of that? How do these rituals square with the rampant levels of homophobia we tend to see among guys in these hypermasculine heterosexual subcultures?

JK: The anthropologist Peggy Sanday wrote a book called Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus. Among the book’s insights was that gang rape could be understood as a group sexual experience between men, who use women’s bodies as a vehicle to symbolically have sex with each other. The woman has been completely depersonalized and dehumanized in that context. And I think this makes a lot of sense. In these gang rape situations, guys aren’t thinking about her as a real person. You saw this in that infamous video released by the hacktivist group KnightSec that captured a Steubenville kid making fun of the rape the night it happened. He went on and on about “how raped she was” and “how dead she was.” The most striking thing about it was how devoid his language was of any sense of the young woman as a human being – let alone a human being in a vulnerable position. In so many gang rapes, the woman (or man) is seen as an inanimate object. This is really about the group process between the guys. Another way to think about this is that they’re performing a kind of manhood for themselves and for each other. The girl is just a prop in their theatrical performance.

JE: So in a lot of these cases it makes perfect sense to you that the women are treated like rag dolls, like inanimate objects. They tend to be drunk, passed out, not really there at all.

JK: Yes. And again, you can move this out of sports culture and talk about all these other gang rapes. They happen all over the world. I just read yesterday about the gang rape of a Swiss tourist in central India by a group of guys that weren’t American high school football players in Ohio. Again, the questions we need to be asking have to do with the dynamics of male peer cultures that produce these gang rapes. We need to be thinking about the effects of misogynous attitudes and beliefs about women, and how many people who are not perpetrators nonetheless help to perpetuate those beliefs. These are very uncomfortable questions. A lot of people would much rather say it’s bad parenting, or they’re a pathological community that is obsessed with football. It’s painful to think introspectively about who and what we’ve become as a society. And other cultures need to be similarly inward-looking.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of men are not rapists. The vast majority of Steubenville football players are not rapists. I suspect that most of them are probably good guys. The dynamics in male peer culture, especially on teams and other close-knit groups, are powerful, and some young men do succumb to pressures, or do enact abusive behaviors. There’s no excuse for that, but there’s a difference between trying to understand it and excusing it. I don’t know the details here about how many guys were in the room or heard about what was going on in social media. But I guarantee you there were a number of young men on that football team who were part of this process in some fashion, who were not happy about it and did not approve of it, but didn’t do anything to stop it.

NSVRC “Engaged Bystander” Interview with Jackson Katz – Part I

Posted on nsvrc blog by Joan Tabachnick
April 29, 2011

Dear Engaged Bystander: As my year as the NSVRC blogger comes to a close, I thought about who are the people who can provide insights to carry us all forward. Jackson Katz immediately came to mind. He is one of the first to apply bystander thinking, interventions and strategies to prevent sexual violence. So I am thrilled to have had a chance to speak with him and add his words to these last few blogging days. For those of you who don’t know Dr. Katz, here is a brief bio: Jackson Katz is an activist, educator, author and filmmaker, internationally recognized for his groundbreaking work in the field of gender violence prevention education, particularly in the sports culture and the military. He co-founded the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program in 1993. MVP is one of the original bystander programs; it has been widely influential in the burgeoning field of bystander intervention. In 1997 he created the first worldwide domestic and sexual violence prevention program in the United States Marine Corps, a program he still directs. He and his MVP colleagues also work closely with the Air Force, Army and Navy in the development of their bystander programs. You might also know him through his educational videos for college and high school students, including Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity (2000), Wrestling With Manhood (2002) and Spin the Bottle: Sex, Lies and Alcohol (2004) or his book, The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help (2006).

Joan: What advice can you give to those of us invested in bystander approaches to preventing sexual violence?

Jackson: I believe that bystander intervention – broadly understood – is the future of sexual assault prevention. But to be effective, we need a common and comprehensive understanding of the term ‘bystander.’ I prefer an expansive definition of ‘bystander’ that is rooted in social justice philosophy and education. Many people think of a bystander as someone who is present at the scene of a potential incident. Part of the confusion is how the word ‘bystander’ sounds; it sounds like it means ‘someone who is standing by.’ The way we have always used the term in the MVP program is to describe anyone who isn’t either a perpetrator or a victim in a given situation but is in a position to intervene before, during or after the act. Or a member of a peer culture that contains abusers or victims. Or an authority figure in a position to enact prevention strategies. In that sense virtually everyone is a bystander. The critical question is: are you an empowered/active bystander or an inactive/passive bystander? To really transform our culture we need to go beyond simply teaching individuals the skills they need to intervene in given situations. We need to expand our thinking beyond the individual 20-year-old college or high school student, drinking at a party. For example, a person in a position of institutional authority, whether they’re a governor or mayor, university or college president, school superintendent or the principal of a high school, who does not use their position to initiate, fund and lead sexual violence prevention efforts, he or she is being a passive bystander. Individual skill building is important, but we need to look at systemic solutions. Unfortunately most people hear the word ‘bystander’ and only look at the very narrow frame of the individual response at the site of the abusive act.

Joan: Can you further explain the social justice-oriented approach to bystander intervention?

Jackson: We have different levels of responsibility depending on where we sit on the continuum of social power. Of course individuals have a responsibility to act in their everyday lives and social worlds. But I am concerned that many bystander initiatives have moved away from the social justice roots of the bystander approach in a way that is both degendered and decontextualized. It is useful to compare our approaches to working against ending sexual violence with anti-racist efforts. For example, do blacks and whites have the same responsibility to work against racism in America? Most of us would agree that while we all need to fight racism, whites have a greater responsibility to act. The same is true of sexual violence. Do women have the same responsibility as men to interrupt sexual violence? When men commit the vast majority of it? (Whether the victims are women or men, girls or boys.) I believe women and men have complementary roles to play, but let’s not pretend that responsibility for prevention is shared equally between the sexes. In our work to develop the MVP program in the early 1990s, social justice was our guiding philosophical foundation. The question I was most interested in was: how do we get more men to speak up to challenge other men about how some of us behave toward women? At the time there were very few men involved in sexual assault prevention work. At MVP we settled on a strategy to address men not as perpetrators or potential perpetrators, but, as we said, as ‘empowered bystanders who can confront abusive peers.’ It was similar to challenging whites to speak out about racism, or heterosexuals to interrupt heterosexism. Also, my idea to start MVP was not about the problem of sexual assault perpetrated by male student-athletes. It was about the role that sports play in the larger culture and particularly male culture. Men in sports often have enhanced status, and so we wanted them to use that status to help make it more acceptable for men to start challenging each other about how we treat women along a continuum of behaviors, ranging from sexist jokes and comments to sexual and domestic violence. Fairly soon thereafter we made the program mixed gender, addressing similar dynamics within female peer cultures and empowering women as bystanders as well. We’ve trained many thousands of women and girls, but we’ve never lost sight of the fact that ending men’s violence is more of a men’s than a women’s responsibility.

Joan: How does this social justice approach challenge us in a way that individual change may not?

Jackson: Solutions to social problems of the magnitude of sexual violence have to be social and institutional solutions. For example, there is no excuse for any college or university that has an athletic program NOT to have mandated sexual assault and relationship abuse prevention education for all student-athletes, coaches and athletic administrators. If a college or university does not have this kind of programming – and hundreds do not — it represents a failure of leadership at the level of the athletic director or university administration. Sexual assault prevention education should be part of the student-athlete experience – for men and women, from the first moment a young student-athlete steps onto campus. For this to happen will require a shift in our expectations about the role of campus leaders – university officials, athletic administrators, and coaches. If they are not offering and requiring these kinds of programs, they are being passive bystanders and hence complicit in sexually abusive behaviors, many of which can be prevented. The same logic about institutional responsibility on college campuses applies to leaders of Greek systems, housing, and other entities.

NSVRC “Engaged Bystander” Interview with Jackson Katz – Part II

Posted on nsvrc blog by Joan Tabachnick
April 30, 2011

Joan: What is your vision for creating that institutional change?

Jackson: I recognize that I am using a very broad definition for bystander engagement: ANYONE who has peers, friends or colleagues, or anyone who plays a leadership role in a social group or institutional setting – which means virtually EVERYBODY. What is required is not just individual but institutional change. This is beginning to happen in the military. MVP has been doing bystander-focused prevention training in the military for 14 years, and it is exciting that now all four major branches of the U.S. military have decided to employ bystander programming system-wide to prevent sexual and domestic violence. For example, by the summer of 2012 the Air Force has mandated that all personnel at every level need to go through what they’re calling Bystander Intervention Training. This training includes examining and interrupting behaviors on an abuse continuum, and also includes elements of media literacy education.

That level of commitment represents an institutional shift. It is promising in part because of the potential impact this can have in the larger culture. Just like the MVP program’s initial strategy of targeting men in athletics, men in the military have a kind of elevated status in parts of male culture, and it is possible to leverage that status to make speaking out about sexism and sexist abuse more normal and acceptable among men. When men with traditional masculine authority speak out it gives all of us more credibility – especially with men who are skeptical. When the New England Patriots, the Marine Corps or the U.S. Army does bystander training, average guys can’t as easily write it off as “pc” posturing or anti-male propaganda. At the same time, women in the military play an increasingly important role both in and outside of the military in redefining femininity, and bystander training helps them develop skills that can have a powerful effect in the service and beyond.

Joan: How do you see this affecting those who are not in the military?

Jackson: When President Harry Truman signed an executive order in 1948 that racially integrated the military, it was part of – and had a tremendous impact on — the emerging civil rights movement. Recently, I participated in a U.S. Army Summit on Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention in Washington DC. Many key military leaders were there, including the Army Chief of Staff and the Sergeant Major of the Army, who gave keynote addresses. What the military is doing today in this area is really ahead of the curve. There is nothing in the civilian world of this scope and magnitude. Imagine what it would be like for some of the largest corporations or religious organizations to gather together for this kind of summit and make this kind of commitment. It really is pretty amazing. We need to encourage and pressure civilian institutions – especially schools – to study what the military is doing and take ideas from them.

Joan: How do you see changes in technology affecting our work in coming years?

Jackson: New technologies provide new opportunities – both good and bad. And those of us who do bystander work need of course to integrate the new technologies of communication and social interaction into our conception of the role of the bystander. One scenario we use in MVP is as follows. You are a young man sitting alone in your room, and you receive a text from a friend with a sexually explicit photo attached of his former girlfriend. No one else is in the room, but you are still a bystander — to an abusive act by your friend, who’s sent this picture without her knowledge or consent. What do you do? People generally agree that if you decide to send the text to another friend (e.g., “Jimmy you’ve got to see this” and push send) you are no longer a bystander – you are now contributing to that original abusive act. But what do you do? This scenario does not fit the usual bystander paradigm of seeing a friend getting a young woman drunk at a party.

As educators and activists – and as parents — we need to preemptively initiate conversations with young people about these kinds of situations, where people often make quick decisions that in the Digital Age can have ramifications for the rest of their lives. Here again we need to address the question of institutional responsibility. Educators everywhere need to have these conversations long before that moment of truth! If institutional leaders do not initiate curricular innovations or programming on these sorts of issues then they are being passive bystanders.

Joan: Thank you so much Jackson. I loved having an excuse to call you to ask these questions. Questions that I ask myself every day… And I am truly moved by both your passion and your vision for where we all need to focus for the future. Thank you!

Sports & Hypermasculinity: Violence, Male Culture and the Jovan Belcher Case: an interview with Daryl Fort

An Interview with Daryl Fort, senior trainer, Mentors in Violence Prevention
by Jackson Katz, Ph.D.
VoiceMale Magazine
Summer 2013

Just two weeks before the Newtown massacre, another high-profile murder-suicide dominated the 24/7 news cycle and—briefly—captured the public’s imagination. On December 1 last year the news broke that 25-year-old Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher had murdered his 22-year-old girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then drove to Arrowhead Stadium where he committed suicide in front of his coach and other Chiefs staff. Until Newtown pushed that story off the front pages, there had been an outpouring of commentary from people in the gender violence prevention field, sports journalism, and the cultural mainstream.

Much of the conversation revolved around men’s violence against women as an ongoing national tragedy, and the specific aspects of professional football culture and its unique and often combustible mixture of hyper masculinity, bodily self-sacrifice, and misogyny, along with the stark reality that the players—many of them young African-American men—are under intense pressure to perform in an industry where they can become famous and make a lot of money, but where their physical and emotional health takes a backseat to the demands of the business.

In the wake of this tragedy, many people in the gender violence prevention field called on officials of the National Football League to respond by increasing their efforts to provide counseling services to players and their families in need, as well as to provide training for team personnel in how to detect and intervene in potentially volatile situations, and to implement violence prevention programming league-wide.

The Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) Program, which I cofounded in 1993 at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, has worked extensively with college and professional football players, coaches, and administrators for two decades. In addition, over the past decade MVP has also been called in to work with professional sports organizations after high-profile domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment incidents. Focused workshops at such “teachable moments” can help make future incidents less likely if the participants—individuals and organizations—are willing to forthrightly address some of the underlying causes.

Jovan Belcher’s murderous actions formed one of those teachable moments. Since then, countless people inside and outside sports culture have been talking about domestic violence and asking: what can we do? To provide some badly needed context for the national conversation sparked by the Kansas City tragedy, Voice Male agreed to provide a forum for me to engage in a dialogue with my friend and MVP colleague Daryl Fort. Fort has long been among the most senior trainers with MVP, and is one of the most experienced male gender violence prevention educators in the world. He has worked extensively with NFL players, coaches, and front office staff since 2006. A former senior adviser to the governor of Maine, Fort is a 1992 graduate of the University of Maine, where he played on the football team.

JACKSON KATZ: You’re a graduate of the same college football program as Jovan Belcher, although you’re almost a generation older. That must have hit closer to home for you than it did for most of us. Can you talk about your initial thoughts and feelings when you heard that he had murdered his girlfriend and then took his own life?

DARYL FORT: Like many people around our former collegiate program and among his NFL peers, I felt a deep sadness. Personally, it struck a nerve that was already close to the surface because a couple of weeks earlier, a former high school classmate of mine here in Maine had murdered his wife and committed suicide. On an almost annual basis, the majority of all homicides in this state (as in so many others) are domestic violence related. And almost all of those murders are perpetrated by men against women. It is always disturbing when a man decides to externalize his own pain by lethally assaulting someone he purports to love and care about.

JK: There are hundreds of domestic violence murder-suicides in our society every year. But because this one was perpetrated by a professional athlete, people want to talk about how male sports culture—especially football culture—might be implicated. But as someone who has worked extensively in gender violence prevention with men inside and outside of sports, I was wondering if you could offer any observations about whether football players react similarly to or differently from other men with whom you’ve worked on these issues.

DF: The fact that an NFL player killed his intimate partner is why so many people are talking about this issue now. It’s why many people want to read about it. What makes this a potentially important moment to talk more about these issues is that we know so much about the dynamics involved in the overwhelming majority of DV homicides, as well as the violent and abusive behaviors of many, many perpetrators. We need much more serious dialogue, asking some important questions such as: Why do many men use violence or the threat of violence to gain or maintain control within their intimate relationships? Why do so many people—from professional athletes to, say, mortgage brokers—choose not to “get involved” in the face of this abuse?

JK: It’s important for people to know that in Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), or other programs that utilize the bystander approach, the kinds of abuses we talk about are generally not the sensational murders that happen periodically. Sexist attitudes and behaviors occur along a continuum, and MVP encourages men to interrupt and challenge each other in a range of ways. It’s not just about helping guys know how to detect or what to do when their teammates or friends might be on the verge of killing someone.

DF: No question. At the end of the day, we’re trying to get people to consider the connection between disrespectful, harassing, abusive attitudes and language and the violence and abuse most everyone agrees is unacceptable. We’re looking at rape, murder, and domestic battering at the top of a pyramid of very destructive behavior. At the bottom of that pyramid lies the foundation for those almost universally denounced crimes, things like sexually bigoted “humor,” sexist language, and objectification.

In a larger culture where sexist behavior and sexist media are considered edgy, marketable, and cool, it’s a process to get guys to look past what feels normal and harmless to see the potential harm. Even for guys who are willing to recognize a lot of what they see and hear as abusive and disrespectful, it still takes courage to step into the social backlash they’re likely to get from peers, teammates, and colleagues who are likely to tell them to lighten up for saying, “hey man, why you gotta call women bitches all the time?”.

But with the challenge there also lies an opportunity, when we’re talking about engaging high-level athletes. On the one hand, we’re talking about guys who in many ways are supposed to represent the edgiest, the coolest, and the most “manly.” For them, there is some pressure to go along and uphold rather than buck that system. On the other hand, we are also talking about guys who stand on a cultural platform because of their status. For the many guys who take that responsibility seriously, it’s about leaning hard into that desire to want to do the right thing by shifting the conversation about what “the right thing” is and challenging them to have the courage to take action.

JK: In the Belcher case, many people focus on the violent nature of football, or speculate about physiological factors that might have arisen from head injuries he sustained. I think it’s comforting for many people to think that in cases of horrific violence, “something must have snapped.” But in MVP sessions with men, we talk a lot about manhood and social norms, both in the larger society and in various subcultures. How do you see men responding to that discussion?

DF: Men’s responses are basically the same whether we’re working with college or professional football players, athletes of other sports, military personnel, or corporate professionals. There is almost always a cross-section of responses within football and non-football peer groups; some guys are reluctant—the discussion is especially challenging because of the degree to which some of them have invested in the gender stereotypes of how they are supposed to relate to one another as well as women. We offer an opportunity to have an unvarnished dialogue about these subjects, and guys are often quick and eager to engage.

Men who are reluctant participants at the outset often become the most enthusiastic proponents of taking positive action. For example, at the beginning of an MVP training on one of the largest military bases in the world, a master sergeant with 19 years’ service in the Marine Corps made it clear that he had much more important things to do than talking about sexual violence and how to prevent it. He made everyone in the training aware that he was there because it was required. But by the second day, some junior noncommissioned officers were expressing doubts that they could leave the space and challenge their peers about abusive behavior toward women. The master sergeant firmly told them he didn’t think they had the right attitude, and that he expected more of them.

JK: Many people imagine that football players—because they occupy such a hypermasculine and privileged space—would be particularly resistant to this kind of introspection about men’s violence against women. Do you think that’s the case?

DF: No. I find men want the opportunity to talk about relationships and the challenges that often surround navigating the expectations that the culture can impose on men—expectations to behave in certain ways and represent dominant, in-control roles in their relationships. Elite football players have many of the same issues about masculinity and relationships—and some of the same anxieties—as other guys. But many people see them as “alpha males” who have it all figured out. I believe some of the assumptions other people make about who we are and can be as men trouble NFL players as much as they do regular guys on the street. I’ve had many, many of these guys eager to talk about those pressures when they feel there is a safe environment to do so. Facilitating that space is a big part of my job. It can help when you’re sitting in a locker room or meeting space that some of these guys spend more time in than they do their own homes. It’s literally meeting them where they are.

JK: Some men can get very defensive when you try to strip away the tough exterior.

DF: Often we see an initial defensiveness regarding the subject; I once had a young college basketball player from a Division II school ask me before a session, “I’m from the Bronx, what can you teach me about violence?” Of course he was flexing a little bit, trying to let me know a classroom couldn’t teach him anything of value about life “on the street.” It’s still a surprise to many who work with us that the “teaching and learning” isn’t some kind of PowerPoint lecture. We want to have a conversation – one that is structured, yet, open, honest and frequently raw – and, hopefully, come to some often difficult and also empowering conclusions about our responsibilities as men hold ourselves and each other accountable with courage and compassion.

Another assumption a lot of these guys make coming in is that we’re going to point fingers at them and treat them all as potential perpetrators. For some, that has been their experience. For many others, it is a taught reflex in the wake of the media stereotype of “athletes behaving badly.” Of course, a big part of the real message is that men’s violence against women affects all of us one way or another. What can we do as men, as brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins, teammates, friends, to be part of the solution? Once these guys see they have an opportunity to participate in an honest dialogue, to speak their minds, the introspection, the curiosity about one another’s perspective, and their personal desire to talk about personal wants, needs, and challenges often takes over. Don’t get me wrong—not everyone feels comfortable with the content of these conversations. Far from it. Especially since we focus on their responsibility to address these issues within their peer cultures and interrupt their teammates’ or friend’s sexist behaviors. For a lot of people that’s anxiety-producing. Think about it: How do I tell my friend that taking that drunk woman home to try and have sex with her is a bad idea for him and her, when before we went out, his game plan was to get laid? How do I talk to my boss about how inappropriate and uncomfortable I think sexist banter around the office is when he/she’s one of the participants? When we bring it down to those types of authentic and difficult circumstances, you can see the wheels turning in people’s minds because many of them have encountered those very situations. In terms of inspiring leadership, finger wagging won’t get it done. But in a team/peer group concept we don’t necessarily have to go it alone – we can “have each others back.” That’s also part of the message.

JK: What’s your strategy for motivating men as leaders in gender violence prevention?

DF: A way to do this is to get folks to see themselves as the friends, family, teammates, peers of both perpetrators and victims of abuse. We will ask directly what it might feel like to have a woman they care deeply about be the victim of violence or abuse. Too many don’t have to imagine it—they already know. Others find it upsetting and infuriating. An important dynamic to consider is to ask ourselves how we would feel about someone or a group of people who had the opportunity to do something about stopping that abuse. In the end, most of us want those bystanders to find a way to help, whether they know our loved one or not. The next step is to figure out how individually and collectively we can develop and nurture the tools to actually help. But the opportunity to step up and make courageous choices here comes, in part, from recognizing how much influence we have over our peers’ attitudes and behaviors on a daily basis already. We do it in positive ways and, unfortunately, in negatives ways as well. It is our choice to make.

JK: One particularly sensitive dimension of the Jovan Belcher case is his—and his victim’s—race. Belcher was African-American, as was Kasandra Perkins. I realize you did not know Belcher personally, and so you can’t presume to know the dynamic of his, or their, relationship struggles, and how race did or did not play a critical role. But as a black man yourself, and one who has facilitated countless dialogues with men and women of color, as well as white men and women, can you talk about how race—and racism—plays a role in workshops devoted to men’s violence against women? Do men ever talk openly about race?

DF: Like almost everywhere in our culture, it is often a challenge in MVP sessions to have a nuanced and honest discussion about the dynamics of race. It’s woven through the fabric of American life. One of the issues is an old one: guys in a room mixed along racial lines are usually unwilling to speak to any conflicts over race. Ironically, this is also true within sports and military cultures, where over the years great strides have been made in this country in the ways that people work together across racial lines. You might think some of those bonds help create an environment where enough trusts exist to have those difficult conversations. But as with gender, utopian dreams and some significant denial often overshadow our vision of reality.

Race is always a subtext to the work we do, but sometimes we make it visible and explicit. There may be 40 football players sitting in a stadium meeting room having a conversation and the split is 60/40 black-to-white. I’ve often asked a group of guys who have no issues referring to women as “bitches” how they would respond to a group of white guys using the term “niggers” to describe their teammates of color. Most groups consider the racially bigoted term unacceptable, because, they will say, the word has a history and current meaning that is derogatory. It’s degrading to black people. Well, doesn’t the “b-word” carry the same derogatory status, both historically and in current times? Half may look at me like I’m crazy. Another quarter of the group may take on a contemplative disposition. The other quarter of the group may nod in agreement and challenge the rest to see their point of view. The personal challenge we’re posing to each person in this instance is, “What is the difference between racial bigotry and gender bigotry—in principle? Just because we have normalized one form, does that make it right? And further, don’t we all still make the choice to participate in and/or condone the use of bigoted language?” To be clear, it’s not a magical spell that transforms everyone’s opinion. But people are always engaged and you can clearly see some attitudes change.

JK: In an interview the day after the murder-suicide, Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn said, “When it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently. When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?” Quinn was expressing what many people around perpetrators—and victims—often feel. Could I have prevented something terrible from happening if I knew more, and was willing to act? In MVP trainings we encourage men to speak up and support their teammates and friends when it’s possible, or to interrupt their abusive behaviors—even if they merely suspect something might be going on. We make it clear that being an active bystander is an act not only of friendship but of leadership.

DF: This can feel like tricky and anxious territory for a lot of guys; how do I “get in his business,” meaning issues about a teammate/friend’s personal relationship or apparent depression. What it highlights is the limited emotional range of expression and means of support within which too many people—men in particular—operate. Sadly, in the sports culture, there seems to be even less. Think about what Brady Quinn was suggesting: locker room culture doesn’t allow its male inhabitants to ask for or offer certain types of emotional support. It’s the type of support that is labeled “feminine,” and that’s the last thing many men want to have associated with their reputation—especially among other men. My experience is that there is implicit pressure to limit your range of deeply expressed emotions to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

But think about it: if your teammate is reluctant to share with you problems he’s having in his relationship for fear of being “clowned” as a punk or a “pussy,” can you really say you’ve got his back?