Male/Female Friendships Help End Rape

220px-WhenHarryMetSallyPoster[1]by Michael Kimmel PhD

Cross-posted at Sociological Images

Let me ask you a question: Do you have a good friend of the opposite sex?

Odds are you do. In fact, the odds are overwhelming.

When I first began teaching, 25 or so years ago, I asked my students how many of them had a good friend of the opposite sex. About 10% said they did. The rest were from what I called the When Harry Met Sally generation. You’ll remember the scene, early in the film, when Harry asserts that women and men can’t be friends because “sex always gets in the way.”  Sally is sure he’s wrong. They fight about it. Then, thinking she has the clincher for her position, she says, confidently, “So that means that you can be friends with them if you’re not attracted to them!”

“Ah,” says Harry, “you pretty much want to nail them too.”

Young people today have utterly and completely repudiated this idea. These days, when I ask my students, I’ve had to revise the question: “Is there anyone here who does not have a friend of the opposite sex?” A few hands perhaps, in the more than 400 students in the class.

But let’s think, for a moment, about the “politics” of friendship. With whom do you make friends? With your peers. Not your supervisor or boss. Not your subordinate. Your equal.  More than romance, and surely more than workplace relationships, friendships are the relationships with the least amount of inequality.

This changes how we can engage men in the efforts to end sexual assault, because there are three elements to sexual assault that can be discussed and disentangled.

First is men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, to sex. This sense of entitlement dissolves in the face of an encounter with your friends. After all, entitlement is premised on inequality. The more equal women are, the less entitlement men may feel. (Entitlement is not to be confused with resentment; equality often breeds resentment in the privileged group. The privileged rarely support equality because they fear they have something to lose.) Entitlement leads men to think that they can do whatever they want.

Second, the Bro Code tells those guys that they’re right – that they can get away with it because their bros won’t challenge or confront them. The bonds of brotherhood demand men’s silent complicity with predatory and potentially assaultive behavior. One never rats out the brotherhood. But if we see our female friends as our equals, then we might be more likely to act ethically to intervene and resist being a passive bystander. (And, of course, we rescue our male friends from doing something that could land him in jail for a very long time.)

Men’s silence is what perpetuates the culture of sexual assault; many of the excellent programs that work to engage men suggest that men start making some noise. We know the women, or know people who know them. This is personal.

Finally, we’re better than that – and we know it.

Sexual assault is often seen as an abstraction, a “bad” thing that happens to other people: Bad people do bad things to people who weren’t careful, were drunk or compromised. But, as I said, it’s personal. And besides, this framing puts all the responsibility on women to monitor their activities, alcohol consumption, and environments; if they don’t, whose fault is it?

This sets the bar far too low to men. It assumes that unless women monitor and police everything they do, drink, say, wear etc., we men are wild, out of control animals and we cannot be held responsible for our actions.

Surely we can do better than this. Surely we can be the good and decent and ethical men we say we are. Surely we can promise, publicly and loudly, the pledge of the White Ribbon Campaign (the world’s largest effort to engage men to end men’s violence against women): I pledge never to commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and girls.

Our friends – both women and men – deserve and expect no less of us.

Michael Kimmel is a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stonybrook.  He has written or edited over twenty volumes, including Manhood in America: A Cultural History and Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.  You can visit his website here.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on June 19, 2013, in feminism, men, psychology, rape and sexual assault, sexism, violence against women, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. “However, male and female friendships need to be combine with education which society can have an important role in providing that.”

    This is a huge point that I wanted to agree with based on my personal experiences as a tomboy who grew up with two brothers and a father, with an absentee-mother. My access to males my age made it easy for me to befriend guys, and as I got older I came to have a few close friendships with males, a few which turned into relationships and most that did not. In fact, most ended completely when I got tired of the resentment that comes from the male “being rejected,” i.e. my choosing friendship over relationship. In my experience, men either have extreme overconfidence with me (usually the most masculine/sexist men) or they have no confidence, and either rudely ignore me or shy away. I have made friendships with some of the shy/avoidant men, and have also come to find shocking ignorance about women from men as old as their late 30’s. I end up being the educator, which puts me in a position of caretaking, a role that I don’t feel comfortable with. I am not interested in being a parent at this point in my life, and would like an equal relationship with a man, where both partners take care of each other.

    Where were these men’s mothers to teach them? Why do I have to take on the role in order to teach them to respect the necessary boundaries in order for me to have a safe relationship with them? I am talking about issues as simple as women not being able to have an orgasm from vaginal sex, the fact that I find anal sex, rough sex and certain positions humiliating and degrading (which means that I will never do them) and having my own safety/dignity be offensive (i.e. there is something wrong with me if I won’t meet their sexual needs). There are many more things that I have had to explain repeatedly, to the response of laughter, disbelief, and never-ending argument. I have also heard guys say, “great, now I’m a sexist too?” in full seriousness.

    I feel that if these men ever had a true authority explain some very basic things to them, such as their moms at an early age, or a male teacher, someone they would not be able to question (as masculinity tells them to do with women authority), there could be a strong foundation of education before the age of the onslaught of porn, media images, and masculine institutions such as sports and college fraternities, which will challenge that education. Instead, men are out in the world not knowing basic truths about life, and can really only be educated when they find a woman they trust to teach them. Unfortunately a lot of men will never have that experience, or suffer in their lives greatly before they do. And obviously (per this post) women are hurt immensely from this ignorance as well.

  2. I agree that having an equal balance of male and female friends can lead to healthier and better relationships with each gender. Having both males as well as females in your group, to me, gives one another a better perspective of how the other gender views things. You can ask the same question to both a male and female and their answers will be different. I also agree that this unique relationship between the two genders does help reduce the rates of rape.

  3. F.naghiniarami

    I am agree that male and female friendships can have a positive affect on our society toward women. However, male and female friendships need to be combine with education which society can have an important role in providing that. I have several male friend and I can say that they are my best friend. We have so much fun together and treat each other in equal way. My girlfriends and I have so much positive affect on them and the way that they think on women. However, I sometimes witness their male dominant behavior toward their girlfriends. Additionally, when it comes to sexual relationship they totally switch to their manly attitude. Therefore, I think we have long way to go because male and female friendship and being more friendly to women has a deep cultural root. And we should be so patient until we get to that point of men and women equality. Moreover, we need more education and more social movements to achieve to that point.

  4. Randolph givens

    I truly believe that male and female friendships are great for people. This was a good post.

  5. I love this post. My friend group is split at about a 60:40 male to female ratio, but most of my girlfriends live far away during the school year. It’s not uncommon for me to be the only girl in my group of friends when we hang out. That always felt natural to me though, perhaps because I grew up with older brothers. I think that best guy friends have actually learned A LOT about women through our friendships, and I’ve learned a lot about men as well. But.. believe me, some of the misconceptions I’ve cleared up would either make you laugh or cry– maybe both. Mostly laugh.

  6. While I agree that male/female friendships help end rape, I would also wonder about the limitation of this theory. Getting to know a person personally takes time and effort. And you cannot form relationships with everybody you meet on a daily basis. I also know some men who try to be friends with women, ask them out and then take advantages of them. In some bad situations, it only takes a few seconds for a man to decide to rape a woman when he thinks he has a chance. Besides encouraging male/female friendships, I think we should enforce stricter anti-rape law.

  7. Mikaela Hansen

    “This sets the bar far too low to men. It assumes that unless women monitor and police everything they do, drink, say, wear etc., we men are wild, out of control animals and we cannot be held responsible for our actions.”
    In my opinion, this is the main thing that needs to change, and I do agree it could be changed with greater male/female friendships. Many men use these things to justify their bad actions–blame it all on the woman. Not to say all men are like this, but many are. I definitely think that men who have a good friendship with a female are much more likely to respect women and are less likely to commit sexual assaults against women.

  8. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never heard of the white ribbon campaign, but now I’m on board. Great article, Georgia. Thanks for sharing.

  9. “Men’s silence is what perpetuates the culture of sexual assault; many of the excellent programs that work to engage men suggest that men start making some noise. We know the women, or know people who know them. This is personal.”

    Surely the same can be said of women, after all the CDC found roughly 1 in 4-5 rapes was female perpetrated against a male so there is a huge culture of sillence with male victims and female perpetrators.

  10. Reblogged this on Loss For Words and commented:
    Having friends of the opposite sex can definitely help men and women learn to respect each other and their boundaries.

  11. I could not say for sure that a guy with a female friend would never generate any sexually negative thoughts but I personally do believe that a man who is willing to communicate with friends of the opposite sex is less likely than those who don’t. Within the male/female friendships, gender roles work more vaguely but tacitly. Women can be “bros” while men could be their reliable companions.

    I do appreciate the respect and equalities rising from the male/female friendships.

  12. overcoming depression

    Great post. Yes I do beleive that male female friendship can solve a lot of problems.

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