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November 1, 2014

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OTHER VOICES:

Tackling the roots of rape

Steubenville. The Naval Academy. Vanderbilt University. The stories of young men sexually assaulting young women seem never to stop, despite all the education we’ve had and all the progress we’ve supposedly made, and there are times when I find myself darkly wondering if there’s some ineradicable predatory streak in the male subset of our species.

Wrong, Chris Kilmartin told me. It’s not DNA we’re up against; it’s movies, manners and a set of mores, magnified in the worlds of the military and sports, that assign different roles and different worth to men and women. Fix that culture and we can keep women a whole lot safer.

I reached out to Kilmartin, a psychology professor and the author of the textbook “The Masculine Self,” after learning that the military is repeatedly reaching out to him. Right now he’s in Colorado, at the Air Force Academy, which imported him for a year to teach in the behavioral sciences department and advise the school on preventing sexual violence.

He previously worked on a Naval Academy curriculum with that aim and helped write a training film for the Army. At a time of heightened concern about rape and related crimes in the armed services, he’s being welcomed as someone with insights into the problem.

Its deepest roots, he said, are the cult of hyper-masculinity, which tells boys that aggression is natural and sexual conquest enviable, and a set of laws and language that cast women as inferior, pliable, even disposable.

“We start boys off at a very early age,” Kilmartin told me during a recent phone conversation. “When the worst thing we say to a boy in sports is that he throws ‘like a girl,’ we teach boys to disrespect the feminine and disrespect women. That’s the cultural undercurrent of rape.”

Boys see women objectified in popular entertainment and tossed around like rag dolls in pornography. They encounter fewer women than men in positions of leadership. They hear politicians advocate for legislation like the Virginia anti-abortion bill that would have required women who wanted to end pregnancies to submit to an invasive vaginal ultrasound.

“Before you make a reproductive choice, you are going to be required to have somebody penetrate you with an object,” he said. “That’s very paternalistic: We know what’s right. You’re not in control of your own body.”

He noted that discussions of domestic violence more often included the question of why a battered woman stayed than the question of why a battering man struck, as if the striking was to be expected. Men will be brute men, just as boys will be lusty boys.

If Kilmartin’s observations can read at times like humorless chunks of a politically correct tome, that’s not how he actually comes across. He’s loose and funny. In fact he has a sideline hobby as a stand-up comic. No joke.

And he has a trove of less wonky riffs. He mentions the University of Iowa, which for decades has painted the locker room used by opponents pink to put them “in a passive mood” with a “sissy color,” in the words of a former football coach, Hayden Fry.

He mentions the bizarre use of the term “sex scandals” for such incidents as Tailhook decades ago and the recent accusations that Bob Filner, the mayor of San Diego, groped women around him, among other offenses.

“They’re violence scandals,” he said. “If I hit you over the head with a frying pan, I don’t call that cooking.”

The armed services are a special challenge because they’re all about aggression, summoning and cultivating Attila the Hun and then asking him to play Sir Walter Raleigh as well.

But Kilmartin said that’s a resolvable tension, if men are conditioned to show the same self-control toward women that they do, successfully, in following myriad military regulations; if they’re encouraged to call out sexist behavior; and if, above all, commanders monitor their own conduct, never signaling that women are second-class citizens.

The integration of women into combat duties will help, bolstering women’s standing and altering a climate of inequality, Kilmartin said.

But he and the rest of us are taking on fortified traditions and calcified mindsets, and that’s evident in the enrollment in the two classes of Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Men and Masculinity that he began teaching last week. Although female cadets are about 20 percent of the Air Force Academy, they’re more than half of the students who signed up for Kilmartin’s course, he said.

He said one of them, during the very first session, recounted that someone at flight school over the summer had told her that women shouldn’t fly planes.

“Oh, so do you fly a plane with your penis?” Kilmartin asked the class.

One of the male cadets responded: “Sounds like you’re issuing a challenge, sir.”

Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.

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