By David Nevins
In September 2011, young women at Fairfield University in Connecticut organized a “Take Back the Night” event. It was a drizzly, grim evening and a group of about 40 undergraduates assembled then with lit candles walked to a series of stations around campus where volunteers read narratives of rape and sexual violence. Each narrative was written in the first person. Many were graphic and specific. Some focused on crimes committed in the exact spot on campus where we were standing. All of the talks were beautifully rendered and excruciatingly moving. It was unclear whether the stories were “true,” whether they were things that happened to the readers themselves or to other people, but each was wrenchingly real for somebody and was made real for us, the audience. Between soliloquies, the crowd moved solemnly between stations, speechless or muttering, candles guttering in wind. There were very few men in the group, maybe five total, but both of this article’s authors were there—one as a speaker (Nevins) and the other in the audience (Crawford).
There were several things that struck us about the event that we thought were worth sharing. These are not necessarily coherent opinions or suggestions; these are not the words of specialists in the topic of gender-based violence, but observations from the perspective of a class of persons—men—who are generally absent or radically underrepresented at events focused on violence against women.
First is the general question of the role of men at such an event. Should we be there? If so, how should we be there? What ought we do or not do? Each of the readings (except the one performed by Nevins) featured a man or men as perpetrators, so there is an odd feeling of being there representing (literally) the bad guys. It is hardly necessary to do deep sociological analysis to understand that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence. This is not to say that women are naturally pacific, but that the majority of all violent crime is undertaken by men and this includes rape, abuse, and gender-based violence. What, then, is my role as a man, as a member of the group perpetrating the violence, in attending a group bearing witness to the human costs of this same violence? What does it mean to “be a man” when it is men causing the pain? Perhaps all men should attend such events. Perhaps young men, especially, should be required to gain a visceral understanding of the impact of date rape, physical violence, misogynistic jokes, and the trauma produced by American sexual norms. But they are not. There are a few of us scattered in the crowd, usually at the back, and we’re unsure of what exactly we should be doing.
What should we be doing? It is not as easy as it sounds. When one author (Nevins) was asked to speak and agreed to do so, his performance became a focus of media attention. There was minimal coverage of the Take Back the Night event in the school paper, but the one published picture was—embarrassingly—of David Nevins. The embarrassment sprang not from being involved in a “women’s event” (though he got plenty of ribbing from his classmates and friends), but rather that in an attempt to play a positive role he instead became a focus. Does men’s involvement necessarily segue to centrality in a project not rightly theirs? Is it better to remain on the sidelines and allow for a space where white men are—just once!—not the center of attention? How do we become productively involved and on the sidelines at the same time?
And from a professor’s perspective, Crawford wonders whether both his sex and status were unsettling to the spirit of the evening. Crawford had several students in the event, at least two speaking and several others organizing and supporting it. Does it make it harder to talk about painful events with your professor in the crowd? It felt awkward to be standing in the night listening to the most brutal events a person could endure while knowing that the next day we would be back in “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology” pretending all was normal. Is a Take Back the Night organized by students really for students? Can professors “show support” without upsetting the student-teacher dynamic?
We want to be clear that both authors were encouraged to attend and participate. We didn’t show up unannounced. The feedback we had from other participants was wholly positive. Still, if there is a general consensus that men should be more involved in preventing violence against women (which makes sense because it’s men who are primarily doing it), how do we involve them in prevention? Part of attending Take Back the Night is precisely about being uncomfortable with the levels of sexual violence in our lives and on our campuses, so this is not a call to make men “comfortable” at such events. Rather, how do we encourage more men to be productively uncomfortable? How do we define their participation? How can we “be men” and still “Take Back the Night”?