Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help: Interview with Jackson Katz, Author of “The Macho Paradox”

Jackson Katz, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and social theorist. Katz has long been a significant figure and thought leader in the growing global movement of men committed to promoting gender equality and preventing gender violence. I consider him one of my intellectual heroes. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his work and its intellectual underpinnings, and the recent release of the updated edition of his groundbreaking book, The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help

According to Katz, the biggest paradox that men often face in their daily lives is that the things that they do and say that make them look “macho” or strong in the eyes of the world and to other men are actually often times the things that make them emotionally and psychologically weak to the point that it makes it difficult for them to create and maintain healthy relationships with the ones they profess to love.

JMA: Why do you think it is important to make the problem of sexual violence personal for men?

JK: For a lot of men, making it personal makes it real in a way that’s not the case when you talk about it as a social problem or some similar abstraction. When it’s close to home, it’s more likely to get their attention, and more importantly, it increases their chances of taking action. Many of the men who are involved in rape prevention education and advocacy, on college campuses and in communities, report that they were first politicized about this issue when they learned that someone close to them was a rape survivor. In some cases, they themselves are survivors of sexual violence. It’s also important to make it personal for men because in many male peer cultures, it takes courage for a man to speak out and challenge other men’s rape-supportive attitudes and behaviors. And when men have passion and commitment on this issue that is borne of personal tragedy and suffering, or proximity to it, it helps to fortify them against the pushback they often receive.

JMA: When it comes to men, and sexual violence, can you briefly explain the difference between guilt and responsibility?

JK: This is a critical distinction which many feminists and progressives had hoped would be obvious almost two decades into the 21st century. But it’s not, especially to the millions of young (mostly) white men who listen to conservative talk radio and podcasts, watch Jordan Peterson videos on YouTube or watch Fox News, and hear repeatedly the old staple of right-wing propaganda, that one of the driving forces behind liberal politics is guilt — whites feeling guilty for being white, men feeling guilty for being men, etc. In my talks, I often make this point explicitly and emphatically: I don’t feel guilty for being white, or a man, or for the fact that I’m heterosexual. That’s silly. It’s who I am, and I make no apologies. I do, however, feel responsible, as a straight white man, to use whatever platform I have to advocate for racial, gender and sexual justice and fairness. As a man living in a society and world with appallingly high rates of men perpetrating sexual violence against women, children, and other men, I have a responsibility to confront that. Otherwise, my silence is complicity.

JMA: What advice would you give a man who sees and understands how serious the problem of men and sexual violence is but lacks the courage or fortitude to speak out against it?

JK: First, it is to find friends — of all genders — who are supportive and willing to talk through some of his concerns and apprehensions. Then at some point, I would urge him to seek out other men who are struggling with this very same dilemma, either where he lives, or, if that’s not possible, connect online to communities of men working to end sexual violence. I would advise him to read articles and books written by men (and others) about this topic – there are many – especially those with an intersectional understanding of gender, ethnicity, and race, and watch videos on YouTube and elsewhere of other men speaking out. There is a strength, safety, and solidarity in numbers. And unlike a few decades ago, when there were only a small handful of men doing this work, today there are many. Not nearly enough, but many more than ever.

JMA: Why are you so highly critical of the concept of “rugged individualism” in American culture?

JK: There has always been a struggle between individualism and community in the American project. Alexis De Tocqueville wrote about it in the 19th century. I think we need both, but the ideology of rugged individualism is not just individualism in the sense that it’s important to affirm and protect individual rights. It’s a hyper masculinist ideology that I believe has done enormous damage to men’s emotional, physical, and sexual health, as well as to those around them – not to mention the environment. Rugged individualism is in many ways a myth: we’re all interconnected and interdependent parts of a fragile global ecosphere. The idea, in essence, is that a “real man” can and should make it on his own, that connection and intimacy are soft and feminine, and that relationships signify dependence and are therefore signs of weakness unless they’re merely transactional. This is a recipe, ultimately, for dysfunction, loneliness, depression – and environmental catastrophe.

JMA: Why do you feel the usage of gender-neutral language is problematic when it comes to describing the perpetrators of sexual violence?

JK: Because men and boys commit the overwhelming majority of sexual violence, whether it’s against women or other men. Gender (masculinity) is the heart of the matter. Not “maleness.” There’s a big difference. It’s not in any way “anti-male” to say that gender norms and cultural beliefs about “manhood” contribute directly to so much of the violence in our society, whether it’s rape on college campuses or school shootings and other incidents of mass murder. If we use gender-neutral language and pretend it’s just a problem of “people” hurting other people, we’re not honest, and we’re not getting to the root of the problem. I don’t believe men are biologically programmed to commit sexual assault. But sexual entitlement is the root cause of much if not most sexual violence. Sexual entitlement is not something male children are born with; they learn it, which means we (as a culture) teach it to them.

JMA: Why do you feel the “boys will be boys” explanation for male behavior is so potentially destructive and counterproductive for males and society in general?

JK: It’s usually said in response to bad behavior by boys and men, but it’s anti-male. It suggests that boys and men are incapable of making rational, ethical decisions, about how to treat women or other men. What do you expect? Boys will be boys. Ironically, feminists are routinely accused of being anti-male, yet they actually want to hold men to a higher standard, because they know that men are perfectly capable of demonstrating empathy and engaging in ethical decision-making, along with other high-level human skills. In other words, you don’t hear feminists saying, “boys will be boys,” because they have too much respect for men than to dismiss their bad behavior by reductive and simple-minded references to hormones and genetics. Also, it’s important to note that “boys will be boys” is usually meant as an explanation of and defense against bad behavior by white boys and men. When boys and men of color act poorly, they are rarely afforded the luxury of that rationalization.

JMA: What part do you think male peer culture plays in preventing and calling out the sexual violence that is committed by men?

JK: Unless we’re going to subscribe to the “bad apples” theory of social problems and say that sexual violence is largely a problem of pathological individuals, it’s absolutely critical to look at male peer cultures as a primary site of struggle. If we’re going to address and transform the gender norms underlying men’s perpetration of sexual harassment and assault, we have to address the role of peer cultures – small and large, local and universal, brick and mortar and virtual — that help to produce and reproduce those norms. That’s the work I and my colleagues — men, women, and others — in the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) universe have been doing for a long time. But it has to be scaled up. We have to make men’s abuse of women in all its forms – physical, sexual, verbal, etc. — socially unacceptable among men. If we can do that, we’ll reduce the incidence of perpetration by orders of magnitude.

JMA: At one point in The Macho Paradox, you emphatically state that “Homophobia…plays a powerful role in keeping heterosexual men from challenging male power and privilege.” What did you mean by that?

JK: In homophobic cultures and subcultures, one of the key ways that men police and keep each other in line to support heteronormative attitudes, beliefs and behaviors are to stigmatize and/or punish expressions of homosexuality, and then to identify any behaviors that deviate from strict definitions of heteronormative masculinity as gay. The message to gay and bi men and others is to hide your sexual orientation, because of the potentially high costs of exposure. At the same time, the message to heterosexual men is to hide any part of yourself that might expose you to stigma or negative consequences. To the extent that we can continue to push for full rights and opportunities for people across the sexual orientation as well as gender identity spectrum, we will diminish the power of homophobia as a policing mechanism that keeps boys and men in silent or active conformity with ideas and norms around masculinity and masculinities that do immense damage not only to gay and bi men and others across the sexual and gender identity spectrum, but also to heterosexual and cisgender men.

JMA: When it comes to men and the sexual violence they commit, what do you mean by the term “bystander”?

JK: I’m one of the early architects of the “bystander” approach to the prevention of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and relationship abuse. The word bystander is just a synonym for friend, teammate, classmate, co-worker. It’s anyone in a given situation or peer culture who is neither a victim nor a perpetrator of some abusive behavior. You don’t have to be present at the time of an assault to be considered a bystander. Unfortunately, some of what is now called “bystander intervention” training is little more than a kind of glorified nightclub bouncer training, where people learn techniques for intervening when they encounter situations of potential harm. But unless you combine this skill-building with robust and honest discussions about gender norms, you’re only scratching the surface. That means in working with men, you have open discussions about the pressures boys and men are under to conform to certain narrow definitions of “manhood,” and how group processes – on teams, in fraternities, the military, in male-dominated workplaces, etc. — contribute to those pressures. Doing bystander intervention training to prevent gender violence and not talking about gender is like doing anti-racist training and not talking about race. If you want to be transformative, you’ve got to do both.

JMA: What is your take on the ongoing Jeffrey Epstein case and the way it relates to a broader picture of manhood in our society?

JK: Epstein’s object of sexual attraction and exploitation was teenage girls, apparently, hundreds of them over many years. His behavior was criminal, and his death in a jail cell most likely allowed him to escape accountability for much more abusive behavior than he ever had to answer for in his life. It’s tempting to see him as a radical deviant, but it’s more instructive to see him as a man whose sexual exploitation of girls and young women places him at one end of a continuum of heterosexual men’s attitudes and behaviors. He wasn’t abnormal as much as hyper normal in the way that he sexualized young girls. His very normalness – and of course the trappings of wealth and luxury surrounding him – provided a cloak of “legitimacy” for the sexist exploitation he and others engaged in.

JMA: Why do you think defensiveness is one of the greatest obstacles to men’s involvement in meaningful discussions about gender violence?

JK: When someone is feeling defensive, they’re much less open to examining their beliefs and behaviors. They’re too busy defending themselves, and their good intentions, to engage in critical self-reflection. But critical self-reflection is an important part of men’s work around issues of sexism, in the same way, that it’s crucial for whites doing anti-racist work, heterosexuals working against heterosexism, etc. Too many men hear women’s pain and anger around issues of sexual and domestic violence and react defensively, asserting that they’re “good guys,” or that #NotAllMen are rapists and abusers. Women either get angrier, and the men more defensive, or the women start doing what so many women in patriarchal cultures are trained to do, which is to take care of men’s feelings. And so, the radical potential of the moment passes. Much of my work as an educator has been devoted to developing pedagogical strategies that acknowledge men’s defensiveness but nonetheless navigate around and through it.

JMA: One of the central themes of this book and your work is that male sexual violence is not a women’s issue like society tells us it is but in fact a men’s issue that is caused by men and needs to be dealt with and fixed by men. How hard do you think it is going to be to change society’s way of thinking on this issue?

JK: I think it’s important to recognize that sexual and domestic violence are “women’s issues” in the sense that women are directly and profoundly affected by them. But calling them a “women’s issue” allows men to evade responsibility and accountability for committing the violence in the first place. To prevent violence, and not just continually respond after the fact, we have to shift the paradigm and shine a light on the perpetrators and the male-dominant culture that produced them. I have no illusions about the magnitude of this task. It’s about shifting responsibility for alleviating injustice off of the disadvantaged group and putting it back onto the group that has more power. On issues of racial, gender, and sexual inequality, this is much easier to do in theory than in practice. It’s so much easier to blame victims for what happens to them than to blame perpetrators. One way to make the shift happen is to describe working toward justice, fairness, and equality as a leadership imperative, and assessing the fitness of leaders in part on how well they handle this.

JMA: What was your motivation to create your widely used and influential gender violence prevention program Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) and what is its ongoing mission?

JK: It was the early 1990s, and I wanted to figure out how to get more men to stand up and speak out against men’s violence against women, children, and other men. Multiracial, multiethnic women’s leadership was at the forefront of the anti-rape and anti-domestic violence movements, and still is, and what they have been able to accomplish has been remarkable, world-changing. But I knew men could and should be doing more. Much more. Prevention education in this field was pretty underdeveloped in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in the ways it dealt with educating men. There was a lot of finger-wagging, refutation of rape and battering myths, warnings about the law and definitions of consent. It was all-important information, but I knew that effective work with men entailed more than merely providing them with accurate information. I chose to work initially in the college male sports culture because I was hoping to utilize the leadership of young men who already had more status in the broader campus community, as well as enhanced credibility with adolescent males, and thus the potential to have a big impact. The MVP model quickly expanded to include women student-athletes as leaders and mentors. But the goal all along was to use the sports culture as a catalyst for working everywhere else – with college and high school students outside of athletics, in the military, the community, in all sorts of workplaces. The ongoing mission of MVP in all of its iterations in and outside of sports culture is to change social and gender norms in peer cultures that provide active or tacit support for abusive behaviors, and to train young men, women and people who identify outside the binary to be leaders in this effort, as well as adults in positions of educational, social, religious, private sector, and political leadership.

JMA: What is the basis for your optimistic statement, which you state more than once in The Macho Paradox, that there are potentially millions of men ready to come forward to combat male sexual violence if they are approached in the right manner about the subject?

JK: There is voluminous data – before but especially since #MeToo — which suggest that many men, in the U.S. and around the world, realize that sexual assault and domestic violence are really big and pervasive problems. Clearly, many men are uncomfortable with the sexist abuse perpetrated by their fellow men. My colleagues and I hear this all the time from men across the ethnic, racial, and class spectrum in workshops, training, and other settings. But there’s an essential difference between feeling uncomfortable and doing something about it. Part of the reason why so few men actually step forward to take on these problems is that it’s often awkward and difficult to do so, and there might be negative consequences in terms of their relationships with family members, friends, classmates, co-workers and others in their peer cultures.

JMA: What are some of the positive steps, which you layout in the book, that men can take in their everyday lives to begin to confront the issue of men and sexual violence?

JK: They can ask women close to them about their experiences, for example, how their awareness and fear of being sexually assaulted by men affect their daily lives. They can ask other men and gender non-binary folks. Of course, they need to ask gently and not push anyone to disclose anything they’re uncomfortable discussing. They can read about the subject, watch videos. If they’re in school, they can take classes taught by feminist professors in a range of disciplines whose insights touch on issues of gender, sex, and violence: sociology, anthropology, philosophy, literature, geography, psychology, etc., as well as gender and sexuality studies. There are so much brilliant analysis and research, as well as quality journalism available today about sexual assault in its many manifestations. They can read and think about the influential role of the porn industry in shaping and molding heterosexual male (and female) sexuality, including perhaps their own, and how the misogyny embedded in mainstream porn normalizes not only women’s subjugation but also men’s sexually abusive behavior. Most people don’t start out as — or ever become — full-fledged activists. They can begin to speak up when they hear sexist comments or victim-blaming statements. Each step they take gets a little easier. Again, this is directly analogous to white people coming to consciousness about and taking action against racism. It’s a process, not necessarily an “aha” revelation after which everything falls into place, although that can happen.

JMA: How big of an effect or influence do you feel Donald Trump, with his open and blatant sexism and misogyny, has had upon the American male culture since he has been president?

JK: Donald Trump’s presidency has in many ways been a giant step backward on the road to gender and sexual justice and equality, and it’s certainly set back the movements against sexual and domestic violence. I wrote a book about how the presidency, historically and to the present day, is an incredibly masculine institution, and as a result presidential campaigns – especially over the past fifty years — are in effect contests of meanings about “manhood.” How the president acts has enormous influence – positive or negative, on both policy and social norms, especially about what it means to be a “real man.” On all counts, the petulant, immature, narcissistic Trump has presided over an enormous backsliding in terms of what is or should be acceptable behavior by men – in this case, the most prominent and powerful man in the world. I believe his election demonstrated that despite decades of modern feminism and its attempts to raise the bar for how men believe and behave, tens of millions of (white) men and women have very low opinions about and expectations of men. 2016 was the ultimate validation of the retrograde idea that “boys will be boys.” Many of Trump’s supporters say it outright: I know he’s boorish and a bully, and I don’t like how he talks about women. But get over it. It’s how men are. You need to look past some of his personal shortcomings and focus on all the good things he’s doing. But Trump’s presidency has also catalyzed a feminist awakening and revitalization of social activism and participatory democracy – on the part of women and people of color primarily, but also, to a lesser extent, of white men. Let’s hope that’s one of the major legacies of this disgraceful presidency and this otherwise disastrous chapter in American history.

JMA: What effect do you think the #MeToo movement has had upon men in this country, and how do you think men in our society should be responding to this movement?

JK: It’s important to remember that while #MeToo has given women (and others) a voice, the fact is there wouldn’t be a #MeToo movement if millions of men hadn’t abused women. The strength, depth, and worldwide scope of the movement is a testament to how much work we have yet to do globally to create more gender-equitable systems and societies, and to raise healthier boys and young men. That said, I understand that many men feel apprehensive and unsettled about how fast norms seem to be changing around gender, sex, and interactions between the genders, in people’s personal lives but especially in the workplace. There is understandable anxiety about where and when new norms are applied retroactively. We can’t simply wave away those sorts of concerns. But for men with the integrity and self-confidence to be introspective, #MeToo is also a wake-up call. I realize that many men are caught in a defensive and reactive posture. Many young men, in particular, feel personally and unfairly, blamed for the fact that men have been abusing women for centuries, millennia. I get that. But as men, we have a couple of basic choices. We can hunker down in a defensive crouch and lash out at the women who we think are unfairly maligning us. Or we can join those women — and other men — and fight against sexual and domestic violence, and the multitude of social ills they help to perpetuate. In that way, we can change the narrative by actively refuting the caricature of men as callous and indifferent to the needs of others, or as sexist abusers, and in the process help to change women’s and men’s lives for the better.

For more information about Jackson Katz and his work, visit his website jacksonkatz.com

“Bourgeois Axe Man”by photographymontreal is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

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