Higher ed and masculinity

It is well known that when straight adolescent males are put into a gender-segregated setting, a vicious cycle begins wherein they will egg each other on to ever more extreme performances of masculinity. These performances necessarily entail the objectification and degradation of women. We can see these dynamics even in gender-segregated “nerd” subcultures such as science fiction or video game fandom, where women routinely complain of harrassment. Yet it is above all the case where the purpose of the group is directly and explicitly to bond over displays of masculinity — such as sports teams and fraternities. These types of groups are proverbially given to destructive behavior, and when women are added to the mix in a setting where the male group sets the agenda (i.e., a frat party as opposed to a classroom), the situation can easily become very dangerous for the women involved. It’s not by accident that horrific stories of gang rape in the United States are almost always tied to frat parties and althletic teams.

It’s also not by accident that colleges and universities are such breeding grounds for rape, because colleges and universities strongly promote the formation of such groups and stake much of their identity on them. Fraternities remain the primary site for the type of social networking that is the real purpose of college for upper-class and self-consciously upwardly-mobile students, whereas athletic teams provide an ongoing bond with alumni and the broader community. Hence colleges and universities grant considerable leeway to fraternities, and they spend millions of dollars on athletics, to the extent that one can say that athletics are objectively much more important on many campuses than the academic program.

Many critics of higher ed rightly point out the waste of resources on athletics as compared to academics, but the problem is even worse: by promoting such groups, universities are virtually guaranteeing that rape will be a routine part of campus life. They are not merely letting themselves be distracted from their primary academic mission — they are creating a situation where women, who now form the majority of the student body on most campuses, are put in serious danger. The fact that administrators so routinely cover up rape cases or try to convince the victim not to press charges is a kind of backhanded admission of complicity, of awareness that taking the problem seriously would mean calling into question the primary forms of social bonding and solidarity that have formed the university community and guarantee continued loyalty across generations.

10 thoughts on “Higher ed and masculinity

  1. It’s frustrating that WordPress isn’t smart enough yet to take our comments from Twitter and include them as comments here. But I did want to leave a note extending your point to academic departments as well. You wrote on Twitter:

    “Isn’t it weird that it was precisely Penn State’s football program that was harboring a sexual abuser, and not, say, its Writing Center?”

    To which I think the natural reply is a “yes, but.” There *are* tons of academic departments harboring and abetting known, long-term abusers, but their abuse isn’t typically the sort of violent rape you’re talking about here. But toxic masculinity certainly infects a lot of other spaces in the university, including the still mostly male and highly masculinized professorate. And so, as if by magic, within those masculinized spaces of academic departments you see departments not taking harassment seriously, and even (as in the toxic notion that access to grad students or even undergrads is a “perk” of the job) sometimes egging it on. As I mentioned on Twitter, I see this reference to academic departments as not a criticism of the logic of this post but an extension of your point that masculinized spaces breed cultures of rape and abuse.

  2. From a slightly different direction honing in on the same issue, I want to speak about an experience I had as a campus police officer.

    I was on patrol with one of my supervisors, and we got a call—nothing over the radio—from our dispatchers about a mandatory reporting of a rape. What the mandatory reporter told our department was the incident occurred on campus but the victim was at the hospital. So, we go to see the victim in a secluded area of the ER. The victim knows her rapist, is very clear on the order of events, and tells us all that she chooses. It’s more than enough for probable cause once facts are confirmed. But she refuses to proceed with the criminal case because her rapist, who lives within the same dorm and talks to all the same group of friends, she knows will not be as harmed by the judicial process as she will be. She came to this decision on her own, before we got there, as she had no intention to say anything about this to our department but only to the SANE, the counselors, and her own immediate group of friends whom she trusts. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t ‘in shock’. She was calm and deliberate. Pressuring her to prosecute or open up a case would have been wrong. None of this went over the radio because it was never meant to be public unless a case were opened. The dispatchers and the supervising team all have this understanding about when the official investigations for certain crimes have to start.

    I had a lot of bad experiences during the time I was a cop. I very much agree that there is an institutionalization of sexual violence in the university, with my observations at my one university matching the correlations you’re drawing out here. It takes a very patient approach with students to open them up to seeing how they unwittingly replicate this institution rather than the one they believe helps form bonds of love. But the institution doesn’t always have to pressure victims directly to remain quiet. It succeeds when it works with the culture to rob us of systemic hope but gives us only space for personal triumph, where the best one can hope for is what works for one’s self. If nobody can trust the institution, then we’re back to figuring out what individuals are trustworthy.

    I guess I’m saying it’s difficult to work out how I was complicit in the institution, or still am. I struggle to remember the events and things that happened to and through me and let that shape what I want to impart to my students in the classroom about how to find larger resources, from within and without, for hope of the greedy, demanding, unsettling kind.

  3. “Isn’t it weird that it was precisely Penn State’s football program that was harboring a sexual abuser, and not, say, its Writing Center?”

    Its also weird that mainstream American cinematic/television fantasies about sexually abusive/manipulative older males on campus never involve football coaches, but very often English professors (or some sort of intellectual at least). Football coaches are mostly represented as stand up, plain spoken, do right guys (Coach, Friday Night Lights, etc). No one seems very worried about loud men with big shoulders and a few Coors lights in them. But slim, bespectacled men in cashmere with a few books in them are up to no good.

  4. Thing is … what about classical music education? I think it’s really going some to describe that as a hypermasculine space or even a stereotypically male one. But it’s notoriously got one of the very worst problems with systematic abuse.

  5. I did not know that, but it’s not totally surprising. Perhaps, as with the Catholic Church, there’s something about organizations made up of a self-selecting elite who believe themselves the only ones capable of judging “their own” that allows for the emergence of such abuse — and, more importantly for its perpetuation, a culture of cover-ups.

  6. Well in classical music, it’s often argued, the culture of masterpieces/great men (deriving from 18th c theoretical ideas of transcendence, organicism, and universalism in European instrumental music) is as much to blame as anything else, creating a disciplinary framework of obesiance and patriarchal authority as it does.

    For more on the explosion of (publicity around allegations of) abuse across specialist music schools in the UK, see e.g. http://ianpace.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/new-stories-and-convictions-of-abuse-in-musical-education-and-the-film-of-the-institute-of-ideas-debate/

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