Harmful language and what can be done about it

by Joseph

It has been a good long while since I last wrote on the Youth4Change blog and it’s definitely come a long way from its beginning days of “living on blogger”; it’s good to be back. Recently, Joe C and I (Joe and Joe), have been developing the foundation for a Men’s Program here in Calgary that will work to educate and engage men in doing their part to end sexual violence against women. Part of that, so far, has been a small conversation group that has been held at various locations over the last year or so. The group was first proposed a while back, during the first days of the very first Youth4Change, but never really saw the light-of-day (so to speak) simply due to the fact that we didn’t really know how to set the framework of the group and what it was hoping to accomplish.

Recently there has been a growing emphasis on the need to engage men directly as allies in the fight for gender equality and eliminating men’s sexual violence against women; based around the idea that most men are good; most men are not offenders; and us good men can inspire other good men to engage and join the fight as allies. So, the CCASA/Youth4Change Men’s Group was born. The group takes a conversational/casual approach, as opposed to strict education-based engagement, aimed at breaking down traditional, harmful conceptions of masculinity and redefining them in a way that is healthier for men. The idea is that men and masculinity can be positive forces and that redefining things does not mean destroying them; men can retain their masculinity but not be burdened by harmful expectations established by the patriarchy.

During a recent meeting the group had been discussing intervention, specifically speaking up in your own peer group and how difficult this can be. Current notions of masculinity have in place a number of different behaviors that discourage men from questioning each other’s behavior, especially when it comes to sex. One of the more famous terms is “cockblocker” or “cockblock.” Supposedly written to the ridiculous “guy code” is the notion that we as men are not allowed to question a fellow male’s behavior if that behavior will lead him to sex. Regardless of how he’s getting to the end goal of sex, if sex is a prospect, it is a serious male faux pas to intervene and question if he knows what he’s doing or encourage him to make a different choice. Of course most men would say that if they knew their buddy was about to sexually assault someone we would certainly step in; however, there are all kinds of rationalizations we go through to convince ourselves that what is about to happen is not sexual assault. We have been conditioned through mainstream media (news, movies, etc) and peer groups to look the other way or accept what is happening as normal.

But it can’t just be that we look the other way with sexual assault because we are good at rationalizing certain things, because when you look at another horrible crime, drinking and driving, there is significantly less rationalization going on to protect the offender, especially if the offender ends up killing others. So what is the difference between the two crimes? While there are cases of offenders killing those they choose to sexually assault, there are instances of drunk drivers not killing the people they hit; so this particular difference isn’t really significant. In both cases someone’s control over their own lives is taken away by another and in both cases the offender is making a choice. So, again, why is it that society’s position on drunk driving is clear, while its position on sexual assault is so murky? I would propose that it is the patriarchal, male privilege that separates the two.

This is where the term “cockblocker” comes into play. Here is term that has come to define the behavior of preventing a male from achieving some degree of sexual penetration with a person; the thought process being that men are entitled to sex and that preventing them from having it is seen as an overly negative thing. If, as males, we are preventing a buddy from driving drunk, there is no issue (I would even go so far as to say we are given a significant amount of praise for doing so). Yet, when we are preventing a buddy from sexually assaulting someone there is a term with serious negative connotations to persuade use from doing so.

And through all of this I would like to remind you that it is the survivor that faces the worst aspects of our inaction, while we may feel uncomfortable challenging our buddies it is the victim/survivor that this crime is impacting as they are the ones being sexually assaulted. With this in mind I’d like to consider the drunk driving analogy again.

It would be absurd to suggest that victims of drunk drivers were asking to be hit; “what were they doing driving at that time of night?” “Why were they stopped at that intersection when they know drunk drivers are about?” Yet we do this with survivors of sexual assault. If victims of drunk driving cannot be blamed, why are survivors of sexual assault blamed? Again, the only difference I see is the Male Privilege that has been established and constantly reinforced in our society; men are entitled to sex and women are required to comply. In addition to this social expectation, men are actively dissuaded from intervening when they are expected to adhere to some “guy code” and not be a “cockblocker” by their peers. It is important to note that this is not an excuse.

Stepping up against sexual violence against women starts with recognizing how harmful our language and behavior can be, even when it is just amongst other men. The next time you hear this kind of “man code” language, stop and think. What are you actually reinforcing when you use this kind of language or allow it to continue? It doesn’t even have to go as far as an outright challenge to the individual using the language, simply asking why they feel the need to adhere to the “code” is enough.

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