The gang-rape incidents of Noakhali and Sylhet this year have triggered widespread outrage. Protests were organised demanding justice for the survivors/victims of rape and punishment for the rapists involved in these horrendous criminal activities. Netizens and civil society organisations are now discussing ways of addressing rape. While the age-old legal definition of rape (which narrowly defines rape as penile-vaginal intercourse without consent) is being challenged, some commentators are debating the efficacy of death penalty for rape and lengthening jail sentence for the perpetrators of rape. However, there has been little to no discussion around preventing rape through the reconstruction of masculinities or ways of being a man.
Critical studies in men and masculinities is an emerging field of scholarship that can shed new light on rape and sexual violence, and more broadly, on violence. The term 'masculinities' refers to the socially, culturally, politically and historically produced ways of being a man. In contrast to the singular term 'masculinity', the corresponding plural word 'masculinities' is used to indicate the multiplicity of ways of being a man. It is through the process of 'manning up' that boys learn to become a man. Undoubtedly, it is a gendered process through which boys graduate to manhood. Although this process varies across cultures, it basically entails being strong, tough, virulent, sexually potent and adventurous, successful at work, providing, rational, violent, etc. In contrast, femininities are stereotypically associated with care, compassion, emotions, tenderness, weakness, and the home.
Committing acts of violence including rape is one of the many means of enacting 'toxic' or harmful masculinities. Violence allows man to achieve superiority, authority, power and control. Historically, men fought wars, killed other men and got killed at a relatively young age to conquer territories, to expand their kingdoms and to protect their own countries. Feminists argue that men rape not because they cannot control their sexual desires, but because men tend to exert power over women through rape and violence.
Since childhood, boys are told, 'Be a man', and 'Don't be sissy.' It is also said that a man is not a real man if he is harmless and a woman is not a woman if she is charmless. These ideas are sexist. Furthermore, another common expression is that 'boys will be boys'. Men's acts of sexual harassment are often trivialised by saying that they being 'naughty'. Embedded in these phrases is the idea of a violent man who achieves superiority by displaying violence both within the public and private domains. Unsurprisingly, for these reasons, men tend to dominate institutions of violence including policing and armed forces. Scholars have argued that violence including rape and domestic violence are inextricably tied to the construction of masculinities.
Since the production and construction of masculinities are closely linked to violence and rape, it is important to reconstruct toxic or harmful forms of masculinities. This can be done by redefining, reconfiguring, reconstructing and renegotiating new forms of masculinities, alongside other prevention or intervention measures (such as ensuring justice and rape victims' safety). In order to prevent rape by men, we need a new definition of manhood. Research has shown that masculinities are multiple, transient and are subject to change over time. This can result in new forms of masculinities that support gender equality and prevent rape.
An important question that needs to be answered is: how do we redefine masculinities? The best, and perhaps, the first place to start redefining masculinities is family. The family is a primary agent of socialisation which instils norms of gender or masculinities and femininities in boys and girls. It can play a critical role in teaching young boys and girls about the value of respectful relationships and equality, including the need for affirmative consent, in sexual relationships, as well as in all other aspects of life. Fathers can be good role models for boys. If fathers perpetrate violence, boys will grow up learning that violence against women and other men is normal.
Secondly, schools and other educational institutions, the media, government and non-government organisations can play a vital role in teaching and raising awareness of rape and its consequences. Men need to be educated that one's pursuit of sadistic pleasure and/or power must not be a painful experience for another. What is often not talked about is that rape can have some negative health consequences for men as well. For example, body fluids and skin-to-skin contact during rape can pass sexually transmissible infections from one person to another involved in rape. Sex education is therefore essential to prevent rape. Furthermore, public repudiation of rape will be important in sending the message that rape is wrong, sinful and criminal activity. Messages like 'rape is unmanly' or 'real men do not rape' should be disseminated.
The media often tend to sensationalise certain rape incidents. This does not mean that children and men cannot be victims of rape by more powerful men. Rape may occur in all-male sites such as college or university dormitories and prisons. However, male rape or men's rape against children are far more underreported than those perpetrated against women. This too has to do with masculinity in the sense that men do not report being victims of rape or sexual harassment as it conflicts with the perception of being strong and tough as a man. Both men and women feel embarrassment and shame for being victims of rape.
Involving men in rape prevention programme is crucial for effectively dealing with rape because men are both perpetrators and victims. It is important to recognise that all men are not rapists. We have seen that there are men who oppose violence against women. There are men who protested against sexual harassment and violence. Men who have already stood against rape have demonstrated non-traditional and non-toxic masculinity.
The author is a staff member at the Western Sydney University, Australia and an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Social Research (BISR) Trust.