When I was a young man, I thought myself quite unique in my choice of clothes, my sense of humor, and my kind, nonviolent manner. Yet actually, I was average in one particular manner that many young men are today. Whenever I was alone with my male friends, we spoke of our female classmates. With them I spoke of their bodies and I rated them too. I spoke of my desires to do various physical acts with them, forgetting that I was speaking of other human beings. I could go on, but in summary I was engaging in the kind of objectification that is common among men of all ages today. I set myself apart from women, consumed by this cultural manner of expressing my budding sexual desires, with no concern for how these women would feel if they knew how I spoke.
In college I discovered that many men participated in this kind of talk. The most popular music videos and movies were my guides, and enforced my vocabulary for referring to women in derogatory terms when I was with my male friends. At the same time a friend of mine came out about a sexual assault she had experienced. Her description of the event horrified and angered me, yet I never thought then that there was a connection between the way that I talked about women, and these ghastly acts of violence. Like most men who engage in this kind of speech, I would excuse myself by admitting that I would never commit a sexual assault.
As I attended graduate school in a Women’s Studies program in Tucson, I found myself teaching a life skills and gender class to a group of urban youth. I had to challenge a lot of sexist beliefs that the young males in the room expressed. Ironically to my former self, I was working to demonstrate to them that sexual assault was about power and was woven into other cultural ways that men assert their power over women, such as speech. Within myself I made a connection that sexist speech had the same oppressive power as committing a sexual assault.
That is why I believe in challenging through the power of speech the negative aspects of masculinity. Speech is a very powerful tool, for it can be used to propagate and transmit negative ideas and behaviors; but its real power lies in its ability to act as a counter-culture agent. Speaking against the conflation of masculinity and violence that is common today, I can be an ally to women and men who wish to confront such violence. Back in the classroom I remember one particular instant where a male was affirming a common sexual assault myth. As I was drawing in some air to form a response, another young man jumped in ahead of me, refuting what the first young man had said with an account of his own experience. The first young man said he had never thought of it that way. I could see a change in his thinking happen. This is the power of speech.
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