I play guitar. Poorly. I’ve always loved music, and rock music in particular has been a big part of my emotional world since I was a little kid (shout out to Alice in Chains!), and when the first generation of guitar-based video games came out, I was on it. My love/obsession with Guitar Hero got a bit out of hand; by the time I was spending hours trying to crank out “Psychobilly Freakout” on expert, I realized I could probably be using my time in more productive ways. Thankfully, my brother agreed with me, and about three years ago he got me a real guitar starter kit for Christmas. It was a pretty boss looking guitar too; all black with little shiny bits in it. To ensure that I was keeping my pro-feminist cred, I slapped a white ribbon on it which is astonishingly still there. SWEET! Now I had a guitar! I was going to be a REAL ROCK GOD!
Not quite so fast. Sure, I have decent hand-to-eye coordination from years and years (...and years) of video games, but those skills do not automatically translate to playing an open G chord. My learning process has been slow, mostly uneven, and hampered by my complete inability to maintain any sort of reasonable practice schedule. Still, I am better now than I was in 2008, I’ve got a couple of recorded bits and pieces of songs, and I like to boast to my friends that I can play 20 seconds of all of their favorite songs.
As I was learning guitar over the past couple of years, I’ve also been learning more about gender justice and the world, and there developed a nice parallel between the two that helped me understand some of the larger issues I saw at play in violence prevention. Seriously. My brain works in tortured metaphors, honest!
BARCC has been around for a long time. If ending sexual violence, or at least preventing it was easy, then we would’ve done it a long time ago (or made a lot of progress). But it’s not easy, and one of the reasons it’s not easy is that, for lack of a better phrase, the way our culture socializes men creates a lot of violence. Without pushing hard to change that basic socialization, we’re going to see men acting violent. This was a very, very difficult idea for me to understand for a long time. I sort of understood the idea of systemic change, but I couldn’t comprehend it in any meaningful way - until my first guitar.
As much as I love that guitar (and I totally do - it’s still looks really cool, and it was a gift from my brother, so it will always have emotional meaning to me), it was a guitar from a starter kit. It was constructed at minimal cost and using the lowest quality materials that would still allow it to (mostly) function. If I played it for more than an hour at a time (especially if whatever I was playing was bend or chord-heavy), the guitar would lose its tune. It got frustrating after a while - I would look up tabs for my favorite songs, try to play them, and it wouldn’t quite sound right, even when I was playing the right notes and the right chords. Sure, tuning it up helped; changing the strings helped for a little while, and glaring at it wickedly made ME feel better, but it didn’t solve the problem long-term: this guitar was made to lose its tune. The way it was constructed made that inevitable.
There is a lot of great research on rape, the causes of rape and how it represents the broken system of socialization our culture promotes, especially to boys and men. Starting with Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 Against Our Will, the first book to posit that rape was a result of male socialization, the overarching theme of this research has been that the ways we socialize boys and men (primarily) is…broken, and that it makes sexual violence inevitable. When we teach boys and men that violence is synonymous with masculinity, they will become violent (the entirety of the Tough Guise series is awesome, by the way; you should definitely check it out if you haven’t).
In an overarching culture that provides men with a lot of social rewards for being aggressive and violent, the small voice violence-prevention experts have isn’t going to be able to easily budge those messages. Andrew Taslitz, law professor at Howard University, wrote in his 1999 book Rape and the Culture of the Courtroom that, “For most men, aggression, whether physical or verbal, is instrumental, a way of controlling others, attaining social or material benefits, dominance, and self esteem” (emphasis mine). We know from Lisak’s research, and the research about rape perpetrators in general, that perpetrators hold hyper-masculine beliefs (.PDF link; check page 8 for the hyper-masculinity research). They buy into the cultural conditioning that men are supposed to be really hard, and a substantial part of that conditioning is to be violent. Similarly, abusive men (in this study, specifically men who perpetrate domestic violence) assume that other men are much, much more violent than they are. I can understand where they might get that impression. If we didn’t train men that being violent was a necessary component of being male, that would change our cultural landscape dramatically.
A lot of times, working in the sexual violence prevention world sort of feels like trying to play my first guitar. Changing a string here or there or tuning it helped it sound better for a little while, but I could always guarantee that it was going to need tuning again the next time I picked it up, whether it was later the same day or the next day. This was intensely frustrating, especially as I started to get a little bit better at playing it. I tried to play the Allman Brothers Band song “Jessica” for probably two years before I decided that my guitar just wasn’t up to the task of maintaining its tuning long enough to go through the necessary practice. I could almost play the song, but no matter how skilled I was, it never sounded right. It didn’t until my close friends got together to get me a serious guitar for my birthday a few years ago.
This new machine - it is the magnificent. It holds its tune! It plays beautiful music (well, based on my ability, anyway)! Notes sound the way they are supposed to, now. A lot of the old tabs I thought I was playing wrong I wasn’t - my old guitar just wasn’t up to the challenge of those songs, even if I had the skills to play them.
I now see sexual violence in pretty much the same way, which either means that I think way too metaphorically, or I’m way too excited about having a nice guitar. Possibly both. Some of the causes of rape and sexual assault will always be attributed to individual perpetrators. But those issues are like tuning individual strings, or having to do regular maintenance on my instruments - they can be tweaked, adjusted, tailor-made for the situation at hand. The reason sexual assault is epidemic in our culture is because the whole system on which we are trained to be men and women was made wrong. It has lousy components, it is poorly put together, and it will always lead to violence because violence is part of what it does.
What we need in order to replace this broken system is a new model. I’ve harped on this before, but really, major media symbols and messages about what men should be and what is inherent to masculinity are essential to finding that new model. The more we can help those models permeate the mainstream consciousness, the more we’ll be able to have a society that actually is up to the challenge of eliminating sexual assault.
*I realize that this post is very male-centric, and I understand that rape and sexual violence can have many different perpetrators. However, almost all of the research about rates of perpetration still indicate that male-identified people commit the vast majority of rapes, and it is that category of violence that I think we have the most opportunity to combat through new social messaging.
And in keeping with my musical theme, the Allman Brothers Band’s “Jessica.” I would say it’s borderline impossible to listen to this song without feeling happy. And with the newer guitar, I can almost play it (except the piano part)!
Dave has volunteered with BARCC since 2007 and works in higher education administration. He also facilitates a men's pro-feminist group, is a STARZ member of Socializing for Justice, a Yelp Elite '10 member, and sits on the advisory council of the Boston Medical Center's domestic violence prevention board. He got involved with BARCC to further his understanding of feminism and gender justice, and also to get the chance to show his speaking skills far and wide. He lives in Allston, where the music is.