I am a grad of the University of Ottawa and I think it is safe to say that things haven’t been going so well at my alma mater lately. It is only Tuesday and already this week has seen the resignation of four student politicians as a result of threatening sexual comments they made regarding the Student Federation president. Yesterday the University announced that they had suspended the men’s varsity hockey team. Media outlets have since indicated that the incident in question was a sexual assault in Thunder Bay a few weeks ago. To say the least I am disappointed in the behaviour of all of these men.
In my student days at uOttawa I was a student politician and I don’t recall ever being a part of conversation in which anyone suggested sexually assaulting someone. This scenario was not a part of my experience as a student politician. When I was a student we didn’t have any female student federation presidents and only a few female vice-presidents for that matter so at least there has been progress since I graduated. We also didn’t have tools like Facebook where we could be idiots online.
I would never be mistaken for a hockey player let alone a varsity athlete of any sort. I don’t know the culture of the locker room. I suspect that I would not feel comfortable in many locker rooms. I always try to assume innocence until guilt is proven. I do not know what happened in Thunder Bay. I do not know any of the players on the team and I do not know who may or may not have been involved in the incident. I do not wish to make accusations nor tarnish innocent people with a guilty brush. I am not going to comment further on this incident except to say that if it turns out that there was a sexual assault and if other members of the team covered up that assault, they should also be charged as accessories.
Some of the reaction I have seen online from the male student politicians and from other commenters suggests that it is ok to have private conversations about sexually assaulting women, so long as it is in private. I have also seen commentary along the lines of boys will be boys. I am going to call bullshit on both of those ideas.
It is never ok to have a conversation about assaulting another person. Not in even in private or if it is a “joke.” If a physical assault actually occurred because one of the participants took the conversation as approval to do so, that conversation would be evidence of pre-meditation. Admittedly my daughters hit and threaten to hit one another every day. However they are five and seven and we are working on that. The boys – and I chose to call them boys because they are not behaving like the men they presumably aspire to be – in this situation seem to have fallen into the trap that is the male box.
I am talking about the box that supposedly defines maleness. Don’t talk about feelings. Don’t be effeminate. Don’t show weakness of any sort. Trash talk women and those perceived to be weaker than you to build your status. Overall be mentally and physically tough.
Some people have been writing about the situation at uOttawa as an example of Rape Culture. Maybe it is. In my mind it is a symptom of the training provided by society to males from a young age about what it is to be a man. That male box is about power. Rape and other forms of sexual assault are also about power. Gay-bashing is about power. Racism is about power.
In this particular case it they were unhappy that the incumbent president had won a second term. So be it, politics is like that. Someone wins, someone loses. Supporters of the winner are happy, supporters of the losing candidates are less happy. In my experience, student politics are more personal than politics at other levels. Opposition to ideas is more often taken as a personal attack. People on the losing side of an argument or campaign feel personally slighted. So it seems that these guys decided to work out their dissatisfaction with the outcome of the election through violence. I know that they did not actually physically assault the president of the federation. They did however verbally assault her. Regardless of whether they actually believed a conversation online could be private, they spoke about doing violence to her. If they had that conversation in her presence those comments would be taken as threats. They then followed up their private threats with public threats to sue her for exposing their online threats.
It is about power. They were feeling like they had lost some power as a result of her electoral success so they lashed out. Then they were feeling pretty vulnerable having their stupidity and violent comments exposed and tried to bully her into backing down. According to the rules of the box of maleness they had to fight back in order to not look weak. I do give them credit for eventually acknowledging that they were not suitable student representatives and resigning their elected positions and ultimately deciding not to pursue legal action against the president.
So how do we change this culture? How do we empower men to reject the traditional ideas of male power? What can we do to move past this stupid idea that boys will be boys?
First of all, let’s recognize the masculinity training we provide to boys and men. I remember watching this film (Tough Guise) in university – the same uOttawa where these issues have arisen this week. It is now somewhat dated, but the core message holds true.
Let’s recognize that “rape culture” is an outgrowth of the violence that we men are taught to use to gain “respect” or demonstrate that we fit within the male definition. That violence can be physical and/or verbal as was the case in this situation at uOttawa. This violence is encouraged by society. We need to push back against all male violence, including male on male violence. We need to challenge this as a way to resolve issues and gain respect. Obviously not all males and likely a majority of us choose not to use violence in this or any way.
It starts with parents and teachers and media representations of maleness. It starts with us dads modelling positive behaviours. It starts with employers and mothers encouraging men to take parental leave and government/employer policies that make parental leave possible. It requires women and other men to respect a decision to take parental leave or become a stay-at-home dad. It starts with giving our daughters the same kinds of opportunities to take risks and learn from those experiences that we allow boys to take so that we don’t set up a definition of girls as inferior from childhood.
We need to challenge those borders of maleness. We need to challenge the media representations of the ideal man or woman. We need to allow boys and men to step outside of the traditional boundaries of what it means to be a man. We need to recognize that men struggle with the training we receive throughout our childhood and youth.
Changing the circumstances that lead to boys and men thinking it is ok to trash talk women or act out those violent behaviours is going to take more effort than just calling out rape culture or demanding that boys and men do better. We all have a role to play. We must not condone or tolerate behaviour like this. We must call out this behaviour whenever we see it. Kudos to the person who sent the details of this conversation to the subject of the conversation. Kudos to the president for exposing the content of the conversation about her.
What do we do about these boys and others like them once they have been exposed? I would suggest that we give them a second chance – assuming they haven’t already been given a second chance for other comments or actions in the past. Also assuming that they have not broken any laws. The past week has no doubt been very educational for them. Once they get over the anger and shame they are likely feeling, they will hopefully come out of this experience as better people and better men. That this is unacceptable behaviour is clearly not a lesson they have previously learned. Let’s give them an opportunity to learn it now and demonstrate by their future behaviour that they are better men as a result.