Every day, we teach students who have been targets and perpetrators of sexual misconduct. As stories of sexual harassment and assault continue to fill our news feeds, we have the chance to engage in candid conversations with our students about the ways our culture normalizes sexually exploitative behavior, the forces at work that silence survivors, and the pervasive language that demeans and objectifies human beings as sexual objects. This is one of the great teachable moments of our time.
First, we must explain the role power plays in widespread sexual assault and harassment. Sometimes it is the power of being older. Other times, it is the power of being bigger and stronger. Or more popular. Or wealthier. Or more credible. No matter the source, an imbalance of power is always central to sexual violence.
The use of a power imbalance to target someone sexually crosses identity lines. Approximately 9 percent of rape and sexual assault survivors are men. And, according to the Human Rights Campaign, “around half of transgender people and bisexual women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes.”
For my part, as an educator who identifies as a straight, cisgender man, I am increasingly concerned about the role sexism plays in the sexual violence sown into our collective history. And I want to focus on the ways in which men can help turn the tide of misogyny and rape culture.
Language surrounding rape culture and sexual assault and harassment often presents these issues as “women’s issues.” That’s a problem. Jackson Katz has a great TED Talk about this concept in which he outlines why the root of the problem will never be successfully addressed as long as we view it that way. It is a talk every educator should watch and think about carefully. While the statistics support the fact that more women are targets of sexual violence than men, Katz points out that boys and men are survivors as well. It’s important that young people know this fact.
Men are also largely the perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment against women, and must play an active and vocal role in addressing the issue. Perhaps the easiest way to do that is by identifying sexually predatory language and behavior and speaking out against it. School-age boys are flooded with messages that objectify women, demean them as sexual objects meant to be a source of entertainment, and encourage the idea that sex is somehow linked to conquest. As educators, we need to speak out against this message.
What this means in daily practice is having lots of formal and informal conversations with students. All over high school hallways, teens make comments that isolate body parts in a dehumanizing narrative that has bounced along school corridors for generations. We must encourage them to see that parts of people’s bodies are not sexual objects offered à la carte for their taking, but that they belong to people. Teenagers often use pronouns that ignore their antecedents: “I would hit that” or “I would like to get some of that.” We need to humanize the subjects of this often-unwanted and unsolicited attention. People are not objects, but our language often implies they are.
This is a topic of unspeakable complexity and, often, unspeakable horrors. Still, we must speak. We must speak about what we are reading in the news cycle and about what acceptable language and interaction sound and look like. We must challenge the social norms that objectify people as playthings who exist to satisfy sexual urges. We must challenge the language that dissects people into their component parts. We must challenge each and every comment we hear and gesture we witness. We must exert our influence to make this kind of behavior unacceptable—and model for students how to intervene when they see or hear it.
Knoll is a writer and English teacher at a public school in New Jersey.