A man who fights against a culture of sexual violence may sound like the ideal romantic partner, but according to Matthew G. Kessler ’09, many males find sexual assault awareness demasculinizing.
“A lot of guys equate being aware with being crybabies,” he said
Kessler first became involved with efforts to raise sexual assault awareness his freshman year, and now he is an active member of the fledging group Harvard Men Against Rape (HMAR).
“It’s an issue that most men tend to not pay attention to, and I think it’s a shame,” he said.
Almost 98 percent of all reported sexual cases are male-perpetrated, according to the Department of Justice.
Yet the dialogue surrounding sexual assault has also predominantly been pegged as a women’s issue.
Harvard Men Against Rape, a growing group of Harvard males, has tried to reverse the social norm that sexual assault is a female issue, separate from the male world.
“Men should be expected to speak out and try to create a culture of manhood that does not look to violence to make them feel good about themselves or dominant,” said HMAR member Noah Van Niel ’08.
HMAR began in the spring of 2007 under the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR). Gordon W. Braxton, a prevention specialist at the office, was first introduced to the concept of an all-male community concerned with sexual assault as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia.
Braxton said the experience was “transformative,” providing him with an open forum for issues that he said are “not often socially acceptable” for males to discuss.
Through weekly small-group discussions and partnerships with other campus groups, HMAR is trying to spread awareness at Harvard that the dialogue on sexual assault affects everyone—regardless of gender.
“It’s important to realize that almost everybody has some connection to sexual assault on this campus,” said HMAR member Benjamin P. Schwartz ’10. “And it’s not something that’s always openly talked about.”
HMAR was first organized as a student-run and student-initiated group in the spring of 2003, according to the director of OSAPR, Sarah Rankin.
But without official support, the group dissipated when the core group of students graduated in 2004.
According to Kessler, Braxton spoke during the past two years of resurrecting HMAR, and so he and other OSAPR members restarted HMAR in the spring of 2007 as a subset of the OSAPR Student Alliance, a co-ed undergraduate outreach group aiming to raise awareness about social issues on campus.
The newly-formed HMAR receives more guidance from OSAPR than its predecessor and is “democratic” without official positions, Braxton said.
Van Niel, who is also a Harvard varsity football player, said HMAR seeks to create a safe college environment in which women can enjoy themselves without having to be afraid of the consequences of a man losing control.
Van Niel, who worked with sexual assault, violence, and rape issues in high school, said HMAR allows him to address issues about which he is passionate.
According to its members, HMAR has become a visible community of eight to twelve members which provides males a space and permission to voice their support of ending sexual violence.
HMAR also educates its members how to fight misconceptions about sexual assault and even how to intercede as bystanders, Rankin said.
“A lot of guys want to do those things and understand the need for them,” she said, “but maybe don’t know how to do them.”
“It’s extremely essential that people understand that men are combatting this issue,” said Schwartz, who is a member of both the OSAPR advisory board and HMAR.
A MISSION FOR ALL MEN
The members of HMAR say that people, both at Harvard and in the larger community, must recognize that sexual violence happens and affects females and males alike—as friends and lovers or as victims and perpetrators.
According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Statistics, 97.8 percent of sex offenders in 2005 were male.
Although this statistic only includes reported cases, it is still a “staggering statistic,” Rankin said.
At OSAPR, Rankin said that 95 to 99 percent of sexual assault cases are male-perpetrated. Even when males are the victims, Rankin added, the perpetrators are more likely to be male.
“I want to be really clear. The majority of men are not perpetrators,” Rankin says. “But the majority of perpetrators said men.”
As a male, Van Niel said that he feels responsible to fight sexual assault.
“Just because you don’t rape people doesn’t mean that your job is done,” he said.
Schwartz agreed, noting that almost everybody on campus has some connection to sexual assault. He said they seek to reframe the issue as a problem for everyone.
“If I think of four women I know, chances are, one of them will be sexually assaulted,” Van Niel said. “That’s a scary statistic.”
BOYS SPEAK LEADER
According to Rankin, the issue of sexual assault is perceived as inherently divisive between the sexes because instead of hearing the fact that most rapists are men, most people hear the untruth that most men are rapists.
“That’s not the case obviously or the message, but it’s sometimes what some women and men hear and therefore get defensive or simply tune out, especially when the message is being delivered by a woman,” Rankin said in an e-mailed statement.
Men often feel as though they are being “bashed” during conversations about sexual assault, said Van Niel, when this is not the case at all.
But “when another man challenges [men] on their attitude, they listen differently,” Rankin said.
Van Niel said he agrees: “I wish it weren’t that way, but where we are in our culture, a man taking a positive, progressive stance on this issue speaks more to men than a woman doing it.”
According to Rankin, many men care about the issue of sexual assault and feel offended by sexist comments, jokes, or actions but underestimate how many of their male peers feel the same way.
“When you feel like you’re the only one that thinks a certain way, the likelihood of you speaking out in a group is less,” Rankin said.
Because the male voice can resonate loudly with other males, HMAR’s identity revolves around its all-male membership at its weekly meetings, said member Austin D. McLeod ’09. The group also meets weekly with the predominantly female OSAPR Student Alliance.
MEN OF THE FUTURE
Still in its early stages, HMAR has been actively recruiting new members, mostly through word-of-mouth.
While the group has sent recruitment invites to different e-mail lists, its members say they prefer to personally reach out to friends, acquaintances, or classmates.
“We’re not a huge group on campus, but looking at the fact that we didn’t even exist a year ago, I’m very happy with how far we’ve come,” Van Niel said.
Even as HMAR has been trying to increase the male involvement in discussions surrounding sexual violence, Schwartz says that the group is still defining its long-term role on campus.
The group currently partners with other organizations who are interested in sexual assault prevention, according to Van Niel.
HMAR has led male-only workshops during freshman week, co-sponsored the White Ribbon Campaign to end male violence against females, volunteered during Harvard’s production of the Vagina Monologues, and organized a March presentation by Jackson Katz—an advocate of anti-violence against women. HMAR will also be organizing activities for the Take Back the Night campaign in April that promotes awareness of gender violence.
Though HMAR members said they would like to get its name out more on campus, they treasure the little successes as well.
“I think we realize our greatest successes when we raise awareness about the issue in the minds of our friends,” Schwartz said.
—Staff Writer Esther I. Yi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.