My preoccupation with the upcoming Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture and Consultation (Click for full details and access to online registration) has kept me from following up on Rus Funk’s remarkable Light + Lunch presentation and conversation this past Tuesday, March 11, in the Women’s Center until now. That’s unfortunate, because it might give the impression that the conversation Rus initiated on the issue of gender respect, its connection to violence – particularly violence perpetrated by men against women, and the pursuit of just and equitable gendered lives didn’t matter much to us. And that would definitely be the wrong impression!
We saw a number of new faces at this presentation, thanks in part to Frances Adeney’s inclusion of the lunch event in her Human Rights as Mission course being offered this semester. (Note to Women’s Center: think about more ways we can coordinate programming with course offerings, to enhance everyone’s learning, and to bring to light the gender issues that are present, often unexplored, in the theological work we do around here.)
And we’re glad we did! Because the discussion of the issue of gender respect, and its connections to violence against women, was wide ranging, eye opening, and thought provoking. It was also at times conversation-stopping, as 14 or so of us sat around the Women’s Center trying to wrap our heads around statements like “we work a lot on knowledge and attitudes, and research shows that knowledge and attitudes don’t produce changes in behavior.” (This shouldn’t have come as any surprise to us had-a-hard-time-becoming ex-smokers, but for some reason it did.) Of course, there’s the corollary, that without changes in knowledge and attitudes, the changes in what people actually do won’t happen either. So, there’s just a LOT of work to be done to fix the problem of men’s violence against women.
From Rus’s perspective, a lot of that work needs to be done by men. MENSWORK, a fledgling organization of which Rus is co-founder, is dedicated to the goal of making men the solution to the problem of men’s violence against women.
Rus’s opening example drawn from work with youths – “How do you know when a girl likes you?” – was particuarly striking. Our culture makes it difficult for a boy or man to know how a girl or woman feels about him without transgressing one or more masculine taboos while simultaneously respecting the other person’s integrity and agency. I, for one, felt like I was getting a glimpse of a side of “the gender issue” that I myself have rarely, maybe never really, taken very seriously. That is, what do the conflicting and contradictory expectations and demands made on women and men, in all their partiality and injustice, do to men? I have paid a lot of lip service to the platitude that “sexism hurts men, too,” without thinking particularly concretely about what that “hurt” looks like, since I’ve focused (understandably enough, I think) on the damage done to women. Rus attached some stark specifics, in the form of debilitating codes of masculinity (like feeling like it’s uncool just to ask someone how they feel), attitudes that go hand in hand with violent behavior (like the pervasive code of entitlement, whereby “if I spend a lot of money on her (or fill in the blank), she should . . .”), and contradictory identities that stymie interpersonal growth (like being “a man who respects women” – which might imply listening and taking women’s opinions and preferences seriously – and being “a man who doesn’t let women tell him what to do” – which might require the opposite).
Another point that came out in the course of the roughly hour-long conversation was the pervasive influence of male privilege. “Oppressed people know they’re oppressed; privileged people usually don’t know they’re privileged.” Privileged people do, however, notice the erosion of privilege that comes with changes in oppressive arrangements, and feel it as a real loss. The task is to be able to identify that loss as a loss of privilege (so, something that needs to be lost, even though it requires real, possibly uncomfortable, adjustment) rather than a loss of basic rights (which loss of privilege often feels like, to the privileged).
After hearing from Rus on Tuesday, we’re looking forward even more to April 7, and the “Male Spirituality Inside and Outside the Box” forum which will be led by Rus Funk as well, and for which the Women’s Center is one of several sponsors.