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In the spirit of springtime renewal, a Harvard student group recently got a facelift. Harvard Men Against Rape re-launched itself last month as MenSpeakUp.org, a media campaign seeking to raise awareness about gender-inequality issues. Unfortunately, far from being a refreshing alternative to the tired rhetoric of more established campaigns against sexual violence, MenSpeakUp is not only uninspired, but it also serves as yet another reminder of a movement that ultimately harms women more than it helps them.
MenSpeakUp is a group with big plans. At the site’s Cambridge launch event in April, Hugo Van Vuuren ’07, a leader of MenSpeakUp efforts, suggested that the campaign has set its sights on the world beyond Harvard. “Because if I am the 14-year-old guy in Nebraska, I will see that these cool guys at Harvard care about this, so if I care about this, it won’t make me any less cool,” he told his audience.
Van Vuuren’s self-congratulatory Nebraska-bashing may indicate the group’s sincere hopes of effecting positive change, but such a vision also embodies the elitist idealism and lackluster social theory that characterizes the campaign. In this affair, the old adage rings true: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Van Vuuren and his colleagues have fashioned themselves as warriors of gender equality while failing to consider what they’re promoting—essentially, a program that misrepresents the reality of modern sexual violence and reduces women to passive victims.
These problems are neither new nor uncommon. What has happened at Harvard—and to the gender equality movement in general—is something that is as dangerous as it is strange. In our post-sexual liberation society, a woman is now encouraged to embrace her sexual autonomy until an unspoken, invisible line dictated and measured only within her own head is crossed, at which point she is catapulted into decorated victim status. In advocating this philosophy, the movement reduces women to passive victims and, worse still, takes away from the women who are victims of truly egregious sexual violence.
A brief skim of MenSpeakUp’s website betrays this sort of haphazard agenda. “Because not being a rapist is not enough,” writes one member. In a video, another encourages his fellow males to speak out against rape jokes. (Is this the sort of innovative thinking that makes the Harvard man?) But where the site is not merely bland, it is alarmist and misleading. The site provides little in the way of actual rape statistics, except for reporting that, “by most estimates, between one in three to one in five women will experience sexual or domestic violence at the hands of a male friend, partner, spouse, or date.”
In promoting this statistic, MenSpeakUp fails to elaborate. If it did, it would become clear that this statistic does not refer exclusively to women who were the victims of serious sexual assault—for instance, rape—but includes women who report so little as having engaged in unwanted sexual acts. This is a fairly low threshold, if ever there were one.
In her 1994 book, The Morning After, Katie Roiphe ’90 traced the rapid rise of movements like Take Back the Night at Harvard as well as the culture surrounding this increased “awareness.” Roiphe argued that women must take at least some responsibility for what goes on in her sexual interactions, in light of the active role they tend to play in their own day-to-day lives. For the most part, Roiphe’s observations were dismissed as anti-women.
Fifteen years later, Roiphe’s criticisms still ring true. At Harvard, administrators who have attempted to inject a similar dose of reality into the sexual violence debate have been ridiculed. As noted by Sahil K. Mahtani ’08, a seemingly anomalous one-time poster to MenSpeakUp.org, when former College Dean Harry R. Lewis ’68 encouraged female undergraduates to walk with companions late at night, he was accused of “blaming the victim.”
For better or for worse, we are no longer a part of a society that encourages women to be chaste or careful—that is, a society in which reports of sexual assault were likely just that, rather than intimate exchanges that went on too long or signals that were more mixed than we might have hoped. The mentality in which we blindly protect the women in our lives from supposed male predators is not compatible with our can-do credo, through which we encourage the same women to grab life by the horns, even in the realm of sexual risk-taking. What we need in the gender-equality debate is not another half-assed website, but instead a campaign that can effectively adjust to our times.
The very name “MenSpeakUp” is indicative of this awkward collision of traditional morality with a left-wing agenda. The idea that what has been missing from this movement was a gaggle of boys swooping in to save the day suggests that women can’t take care of themselves. That is a notion that, when reinforced, is unlikely to help women to feel more in control of their sexual interactions. And this is perhaps the cherry on the sundae that is MenSpeakUp’s failure—however benevolent its intentions, the group’s very basis is an act of dominating women, not of empowering them.
In revamping itself, MenSpeakUp had a chance to style itself as a bearer of straight talk and a mandate for cultural change. Instead, it chose to promote old rhetoric and stifle the chance for new debate. The group’s entry onto the scene will do little more than to push the chance for real dialogue farther away from the surface. Inevitably, the people this hurts the most are the true victims of sexual violence whose stories are drowned out by the distractions of an exaggerated and intellectually bankrupt movement.
Lucy M. Caldwell ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House.
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