Beyond Firings and Apologies: 8 Cultural Norms that Perpetuate Harm

by Mauro Sifuentes, doctoral candidate in Education & community-based educator

As a violence prevention specialist, I’ve been a bit reticent to put some of my opinions out in public, because I️ know so many folks are reeling from the never ending deluge of accusation of sexual harm, and the subsequent firings and public’s denouncements, as well as responding to the backlash to it all. I’ve seen so many people share their experiences and feel a sense that perhaps, this time, things might really change. As hopeful as I️ am about the potential for cultural shift, I️ also have a sense of just how deep some of our harmful behaviors run, and how there are many cultural norms that sexual harm is tethered to. Because I️ have spent years working as a queer, feminist violence prevention educator who sees this work through a social justice framing, it would also feel somewhat irresponsible if I️ didn’t share some of the insights I’ve gleaned. I️ provide the following as points to consider, not to discourage continued efforts to address sexual harm, but to expand the scope to uproot some of the most insidious cultural practices many of us participate in, even as we may reject the normalization of sexual harassment and other forma of harm.

1. In the rare instances that sex education is comprehensive, we focus almost exclusively on teaching people to say “yes” or “no” to sexual advances or inquiries. This is important, but it is also only a small part of the equation. While teaching about negotiation, disagreement, communication, and consent across all parts of interpersonal relationships (including the sexual parts), we need to teach people how to hear “no” and how to not take it as a personal rejection. There are so many complex reasons why a person may rebuff a sexual advance and people respond to rejection with different forms of harm and this is not okay – we need to provide people with the skills of ego resilience to not feel like so much is at stake for them when a person refuses a sexual advance.

2. When we reduce sexual harassment to “one victim – one perpetrator” we miss the larger social aspects that contribute to harmful social and professional settings. Every person who witnesses or hears about these forms of harm have an important role to play in intervening and working against the normalization of sexual harassment. People often know when someone is exhibiting concerning – of not outright harmful or violent – behaviors. Unfortunately, this involves confronting something even more insidious…

3. We have a culture of complicity that we mask as a culture of affirmation. We struggle to be honest because we are afraid of hurting a person’s feelings and we have also been trained to respond poorly when we aren’t affirmed or when others disagree with us. We don’t teach people how to have reasoned discussions through disagreement, and this is so deeply practiced that we often feel like our friends and coworkers have to support us 100% or we won’t know what to do. Interactions and relationships are not so black-and-white. I️ have lots of friends who I disagree with across moments and I️ know people who have done things I️ have serious issues with and people often respond badly when I give them my honest feedback. We need to feel more encouraged to tell friends and coworkers that their behavior is unacceptable and we need to learn to not flip out when friends and colleagues bring our attention to the harmful consequences of our actions.

4. We have been taught to invest too much in and expect too much from our work lives. While it is no excuse for harmful behaviors, looking at the prevalence of these things in the context of late capitalism where people are spending far more time at work and far less time developing meaningful social worlds seems to be important. Have these behaviors existed prior to our current moment? Of course. And yet, they do seem to be inflected differently under our current economic conditions. Why are people trying to fulfill their professional, creative, friendship, and sexual needs in the workplace? What does this look like in male-dominated professional realms? People spend more time at work than ever before, and earn less, are stressed more, and are less able to step away from work completely because of the expectation of quick responses to email. We need to look at the larger context of workplaces in the United States to better understand how these toxic behaviors have saturated our contemporary work environments.

5. We need to find ways of delinking criminality and sexual deviance. Many of our cultural myths about criminality and psychopathy carry assumptions of sexual deviance, leading to very harmful – and often untrue – associations. This elision has contributed to the pathologization and criminalization of queer people, and that laws that punish sexual deviance have been less useful for monitoring real sexual predators, but have been historically much more effective at disciplining and punishing girls and women, queer and trans people, and people of color and working class people. Given that these approaches have not been effective in stemming male, white, middle and wealthy class behaviors that harm others, why do we keep trying? Do we just not know how ineffective they are? Has the association of criminality, insanity, and sexual deviance become so “common sense” that we can’t even see the conflation? Or are we hoping that our use of those associations will somehow be more pure, just, and effective? What radical transformations are we performing through this logic to make it effective, if any?

6. I’ve begun to explore something I’m calling “eugenic gender,” a very deeply culturally embedded sense that many might not know how to name. Given that the U.S. (and California, in particular) is the birthplace of modern eugenics, we have to understand what cultural norms have been produced through that legacy. Pre-WWII, eugenics in the U.S. had a narrative of “negative eugenics,” or suppressing the so-called undesirable populations. After Nazi Germany, this narrative was seen as less socially acceptable, and mutated into what was called “positive eugenics,” which was focused on promoting the birthrate in the so-called desirable population. This patriarchal, masculinity discourse portrayed virile white men as the epitome of human existence. White men were taught that they were the best thing the planet had been blessed with and that spreading their superior seed was their God-given right and duty. So, if this is an overt or covert cultural narrative, we can see just how challenging it may be to tell people that they must learn to hear “no” and not experience that rejection as a refusal to recognize their racial and gender superiority, an assumption that buttresses so many of our social norms and institutions. And because this version of (superior, white) maleness becomes the standard against which all others are measured in the United States, the ethos permeates into other groups’ norms as well. Sexual or romantic rejection also “outs” the refuser as potentially degenerate, given that anyone should want to pair with someone who understands themselves as superior. Have any of you ever had a man hit on you, you refuse, and then he says, “You’re ugly anyway!”? There is that logic right there. He is not calling you ugly – he is calling you degenerate or undesirable, as any fit woman or person would immediately recognize his value as a man (gentle sarcasm). Some might see this as a stretch in logic, but it comes through clear as day for me. This is also a very reduced account of a complex phenomenon, and in order to be succinct I’ve tried to distill a lot of context into a small paragraph.

7. The U.S. military is the largest organization to have ever existed across the face of the planet. I’m not here to denigrate people’s decisions that go into the military, nor to debate care for veterans – these are important and pressing topics that deserve attention in their own right. Rather, I’m going to talk about some of the overarching, institutionalized imperatives of our military that have congealed over time, precisely because as our largest national organization, we have to understand that the processes of masculinization and weaponization that are fundamental to our largest national organization are also present in the rest of society. While there are clear differences and stark contrasts between military and civilian life, the larger cultural ethos in support of militarized masculinities are pervasive. How does this relate to sexual harm? Firstly, it’s important to understand how endemic sexual harm and harassment are within military contexts, again, our largest national organization and our primary international representative body. We have been taught to take pleasure and pride from conquest and force. This ethos trickles down to our smallest interpersonal interactions in civilian life as well, particularly as we have valorized and romanticized military masculinity for well decades (if not centuries). We have learned to weaponized almost anything in this country: the law, feelings, words, social justice rhetoric, education, knowledge, power, and yes, sex and sexuality. Sexual harassment and other forms of sexual harm are weaponized forms of sexuality, wielded in the interest of – and as an accomplice to – other assertions of power dynamics, including across divisions of race, class, ability, age, citizenship and immigration status, as well as across and within gender groups. This “within gender groups” piece brings me to my last, most contested point:

8. Sexual harm is so normalized in all-men’s spaces that they have trouble seeing how harmful it is when they do it to other genders. As someone who has spent time in all-men’s, all-women’s, all-trans, all-straight, and all-queer settings, I️ have a unique perspective on this subject. As an educator who veers away from judgment and punishment at all costs, and instead focuses on learning/unlearning and responsibility/accountability, I️ have long wondered to what degree my personal ethics have blinded me from fully understanding just how deeply embedded behaviors of sexual harassment are – and bear with me – particularly those experiences by men, at the hands of men. I️ know, already you are squirming, wanting to retort that in a moment where women are coming forward, how dare I️ ask that we consider how men are experiencing sexual harm. Believe me, I️ understand. I️ never would have believed I️ might be sitting here writing these words, and yet my experiences as a feminist, transgender infiltrator of all-male spaces has forced me to reckon with the reality that some of the most intense targets of sexual harassment by men are other men. I’ve recently begun talking with male friends about this more, to name certain behaviors across the continuum of sexual harm (without calling them that) to see if they will share their experiences with me. What I’ve learned from these conversations is that men struggle to recognize the ways that sexual harassment is a part of sociality and hierarchy in all-male groups. And that it’s so normalized. Talking about and making fun of penis size. Nipple twisting. Ass slapping and grabbing. Seriously or joking trying (or actually) putting things up one another’s butts. Drawing penises on one another’s faces while sleeping. Making sexual advances on one another (often when drunk). Having “bro sex” and never addressing it openly and forcing one another into secrecy. The lines between homosociality, homoeroticism, homophobia, and sexual harassment are so fuzzy and permeable.

Additionally, just as we have not fully reckoned with this sexual harm among male peer groups, we have also not addressed other forms of sexual harm men have experienced outside of these contexts. Recently, the CDC updated their survey that assessed rates of experiences of sexual violence because the previous list excluded acts that could happen to boys, men, or other genders who have penises. After adding in the act of being “made to penetrate” someone with a body part, including a penis, rates of self-reported sexual harm reached near-parity between men and women, evidencing a hidden epidemic of silence around our highly gendered expectations of who has survived violence. I encourage you to not lump this observation into the problematic stages taken by “Men’s Rights” activists because I’m naming these realities not to dismiss other genders’ experiences of sexual harm, but to better understand how all genders experience, respond to, and participate in normalizing sexual harm.

We even think that sexual harassment wielded against our enemies is appropriate. How many times have we heard people comment on Donald Trump’s hand size? We all know that the subtext of that insult is the supposition of small penis size. Commenting on the size and social valuation of someone’s genitals in public is a severe form of sexual harassment. Even one of my heroes, Stephen Colbert, is guilty of this on his show, and he is someone who has otherwise been a vocal supporter of women’s voices in the deluge of sexual harassment incidents, and has called out male celebrities and asked them to reflect on their own participation in sexual harm. We are sending out so many mixed messages that it’s almost understandable that so much harm is circulating. Understandable, yes. Acceptable? Absolutely not.

A lot of the work I️ do with youth and adults relates to understanding how we can hear “no” and not respond to rejection with violence or coercion or weaponized sexuality. Meaningful, relevant, and comprehensive sexuality education must contain conversations about consent. It must also include frameworks that help us understand what constrains and shapes people’s ability to participate in consent-creating, including teaching people how to hear “no” and understand that sometimes it is about them, but quite often it’s not. This is just a small piece of a much larger cultural shift that we need around sexuality education (including making it relevant to queer and transgender youth, working class youth, and people who want to have children at young ages), but I️ know it’s possible to incorporate unlearning of the cultural norms outlined above because I️ do it every day. Engaging in ongoing learning that helps us to get at the root of problems by staving off knee-jerk moralism will only help us identify the problems we must address. This is likely the only way we can prevent the forms of sexual harm that continue to limit women, youth, queer people, and yes, men, as we explore new ways to navigate shared spaces in personal and professional settings.

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