Re-Authorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed in 1994. It provided $1.6 billion for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. It has subsequently renewed in 2000 and 2005.

According to Federal Department of Justice statistics, intimate partner violence has declined by 67% between 1993 (when the government began focusing on these statistics prior to VAWA’s passage) and 2010. Intimate partner homicides against women have declined 35% against women and 46% against men between 1993 and 2007.

Moreover, VAWA has promoted both victims services AND prevention efforts across the country These efforts include prevention programming funded through grants by the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) and the establishment of the National Domestic Abuse Hotline (which reported receiving 22,000 calls a month, many callers indicating it was their first time requesting help). VAWA also provides state funding through grants to encourage training of police officers and prosecutors, establishment of statewide networks of shelters for individuals and families affected by domestic violence, and the enforcement of no-contact orders across the country.

While the trends are positive, the statistics still show that there is a major problem. A census taken of the 27 remaining domestic violence shelters showed a significant need for services. In a single 24 hour period, crisis lines recieved more than 15 calls per hour and over a 1,000 victims served. Unfortunately, 119 requests for services were denied. This may not seem like a lot, but when research indicates that victims often do not seek services until abuse becomes so significant as to threaten physical safety, then 119 cases can become substantial for any community. 81 of these cases involved a request for emergency shelter which could not be provided in what experts consider a safe space (space secured, separate  and inaccessible from perpetrators).

December 14 marks the last day that the Violence Against Women Act re authorization is in affect. Currently, there are two bills (one in the US Senate and one in the House of Representatives) which have been passed but not reconciled. If Congress fails to act, then funding for services nation wide will be cut leaving an even more significant gap in services (both prevention oriented and victims services) will develop during the holidays which is when domestic violence typically increases.

The current House bill unfortunately provides several key caveats to types of victims who can be helped under federal funding.

According to the National Task Force to End Sexual Violence Against Women, House Resolution 4970 will eliminate the requirement that state grant administrators work with community organizers and other stakeholders in developing plans to distribute the state’s federal grant money. This reduces the effectiveness of comprehensive state wide initiatives and focuses domestic violence funds directly into the sole discretion of the elected authorities and their political preferences.

HR 4970 also excludes services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer victims of domestic or intimate partner violence. A 2010 task force regarding LGBTQ services found that even though members of the LGBTQ faced slightly higher rates of violence than the general population, nearly 85% of victims were denied services because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. More than 50% of victims were denied protective orders for similar reasons and state laws defining co-habitation and domestic partnerships which are pre-requisites for services and legal protection in many states. And only 7% of survey respondents said they would report violence to the police.

HR 4970 also creates added burdens on immigrant victims by allowing the perpetrator to be present at hearings for temporary residency which allow undocumented victims to receive immediate protections. It also requires states to hold separate hearings to determine emergency residency status for victims which increases the likelihood of retaliation and joint deportation which does not remediate the problem of domestic violence, only changes its location and likelihood of escalation. It further limits the number of visas that can be given to victims who cooperate with authorities to bring violent perpetrators to justice. This can have a chilling affect on community relations with police and hamper investigations against violent perpetrators of a wide variety of crimes regardless of documentation status.

Last, but certainly not least, is that HR 4970 fails to protect Native Americans against crimes perpetrated by non-immediate family. Native American women face rates, according to the Department of Justice and Indian Affairs, at rates twice the national averages. Estimates are as high as 1 and 3 Native American women will be raped and that 4 out of 5 of those cases will involve men from outside of their tribes, usually white. Under HR 4970, Tribal Authorities, already overwhelmed with a large number of domestic violence and sexual assault cases and claims, would have no jurisdiction to investigate cases where one of the parties is not a part of the community. This creates a serious gap in jurisdiction because of restrictions on US authorities within tribal territory as well. The Senate version (S.1925) addresses this particular gap by granting explicit jurisdiction to Tribal Authorities to include domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protective orders which can be sought in Tribal Courts against anyone who meets the already stringent requirements.

This issue is too pressing not to act. In an ideal world, we would not need these funds nor these emergency services but we are not there yet. No one should live in fear of an intimate partner. We must all work together to make the world a safer place not just for a few, but for all.

Speak out and call your congress person. Reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act now. Reauthorize it for everyone.


EDIT: In the interest of full disclosure, the Men’s Anti-Violence Council was founded at the University of Iowa with the help of an OVW grant. Like many programs, the seed money was critical in generating interest and developing critical mass in terms of participation. Now, thanks to the work of Linda Kroon of the University of Iowa Women’s Resource and Action Center (along with many in the Division of Student Life), MAC is a part of the institutional budget. Grant money is still used on occassion for campus programming, but is rapidly becoming an accepted and acceptable use of institutional resources. We could not have started though without Linda, Jerrod Koon, the University of Iowa, our wonderful volunteers, and the seed money provided by the Office of Violence Against Women.

Reinforcing the Gender Boxes: A Critique of the “War on Men”

Nature versus nurture. This is a debate that has been on people’s minds since at least as early as Victorian England. It has also been a cornerstone of the debate in the violence prevention field. I am not here to answer the debate, but I am here to critique the reliance upon the “nature of man” that has become a center piece of the counter-feminist movement.

Sometimes these authors act under the banner of being “pro-men” and is best represented by Suzanne Venker’s recent article “The War On Men”.

Venker concludes that “Women have the power to turn [the marriage wars] around. All they have to do is surrender to their nature – their femininity – and let men surrender to [their masculinity.]”

What are the marriage wars you ask? The marriage war, according to Venker, is the natural extension of the feminist movement which “changes the dance” between men and women because women are increasingly obtaining degrees in higher education and obtaining jobs while simultaneously wanting to get married.

Men, on the other hand, do not want to get married. This is leading to the “dearth of good men (also known as marriable men).”

There are two common elements of Venker’s argument that I would like to highlight in particular, the first is male entitlement and the second is the nature of gender. If left unchallenged, these arguments lead us back to an unhealthy gender binary that not only fundamentally reinforces exclusionary (or hegemonic) gender norms but also makes it impossible for both men AND women to inhabit gender spaces on their own terms. As a result, I will argue that if we accept these exclusionary spaces we will only perpetuate gendered and interpersonal violence.

1) Male Entitlement

Venker argues that feminism taught women to hate men, to push men off their “pedestal,” and as a result, men have no where to go. Though Venker does not discuss in depth in her article what the “male pedestal” is, one can surmise based on recent trends what that pedestal is.

Physicality is one such pedestal. The rise of Title IX has given rise to claims that men are losing their rightful place in college athletics. This is particularly present in varsity wrestling, lacrosse, boxing and football. All of these sports are traditionally thought of as “men’s sports” for reliance upon violence and physical strength.

Bread winning is another pedestal which men were traditionally perceived to hold. Think of the nuclear family of the 1950s and the TV show “Leave it to Beaver” where the Dad is at work all day and the Mom is home cooking and cleaning all day. Women are increasingly joining the workforce in higher numbers than ever before, especially in areas where they have been traditionally under represented including the law, medical practices, and the science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Pay discrepancy has also decreased in the past several year. Although according to the Economist, women are still making, on average, about 80% of what men are making for comparable work. We see the practical affects of this argument play out daily in the political debates of this past presidential election cycle in the United States. It seemed like on one hand there was a war on women and the other there was a war on moms.

Leadership, or control in a broad sense, is a third major pillar traditionally associated with men and masculinity. In a study by the Harvard Business Review, women (in the abstact) are ranked by business leaders as having stronger skills in 9 out of 11 core competancies of leadership however, women only make up 16 percent of executive positions in fortune 500 companies. Women in the workplace make up a little less than half, but approximately 60% of women above the age of 16 are in the workplace compared to almost 70% of men above the age of 16.

Though the numbers are bad, there is still a significant problem with PERCEPTION of what men are entitled to. As Venker argues, men feel like they have “no where to go.” This a feeling echoed by other men in other studies, included by noted author and scholar Michael Kimmel in his book “Guy Land.” You see arguments of entitlement in so-called “reverse discrimination” cases regarding affirmative action and in tv shows and online articles (such as in about someone taking “my” job.

2) Men’s Nature

The other area of focus on I wanted to look at is why this sense of entitlement exists. Part of it is the historical trends of jobs, gender roles, and societal expectations. The numbers may still show discrepancy, but even as short as forty years ago, legalized discrimination was still the law of the land in many localities in the United States and Abroad.

Venker admits as much when she says that “there was no revolution [demanding] men change.”

Venker also argues that is “in the DNA of men” to “provide for and protect” their families. Unfortunately, this argument is shallow at best. Yes, men did develop a proclivity for producing testosterone and women estrogen, they do not guarantee behavior. It would also be a harmful argument to make that just because men produce testosterone, they must engage in violent or dominant behavior.

The last time I checked, companies did not test for testosterone when it came to selecting qualified candidates nor was estrogen a requirement for stay at home care takers.

Moreover, the use of genetics (or the nature argument) fundamentally discriminates against people who adopt masculine or feminine behaviors that are not affiliated with their sex. It creates a reason to commit violence for no other purpose than to restore a supposedly natural order. Under the nature argument, gender violence (either physical, verbal, or emotional) becomes a natural response in restoring the gender boxes to their proper pedestal, thus re-affirming a hierarchical and hostile environment.


One of the most problematic statements of Venker’s argument is that it is women’s fault for upsetting the status quo. “Men,” Venker argues, “do not have to change.” Yet men have already changed. That’s why Venker’s article is so harmful to everyone.

First and foremost, there is no singular monolithic hegemony. Some people are strong, some are rich, some exist in positions of power and others hold leadership titles. Very few people, even people who identify as male, exist at the top of all of those pyramids. If a man is not all of those things. As a result, there is a tendency to engage in unhealthy or violent behavior to defend one’s place in the hegemonic masculine spectrum. Men in particular, argues Michael Kimmel, will go to great lengths to prove their masculinity to other guys even if that means putting down other guys, women, members of the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual community as well as the transgender community.

The second problem is that by casting anyone who is opposed to the hierarchy as “man hating” you create the necessity to have other, lesser pillars, and you ultimately engage in the very hate you condemn. You hate that men can step out of the box and be the person they want to be. You hate the men who do not see themselves as being on the same pedastal. Socio-economic status, race, sexual orientation, and religion all becomes way to discriminate against others because not all men are created equal. You also hate the people who want to change.

The third problem is that this model of gender binary does not give anyone the permission to be different from their supposed nature. There is a reason why men suffer higher rates of depression, alcohol / drug abuse, violence as perpetrators and as victims, lower grades, and heart disease than women. If you cannot be yourself, then the literature shows you are more likely to engage in violence either towards yourself or others.

It is no surprise that a vast majority of perpetrators of men, but it is also a well known fact that not all men are perpetrators of violence.

If men really cannot change, nor do they need to change, then there would be no need for men to comport to unrealistic gender norms not on their own terms.

Being masculine or feminine is not inherently bad, but by reinforcing these gender norms, we take away individuals rights to be the respectful healthy people they want to be.

Even masculine men pay a cost when they do not have the freedom to be ok with themselves.

Suzanne Venker, you may call these statements man-hating, I actually think it is more like love and respect. For men. For Women. For All.

Dating Violence and the Red Flag Iowa Campaign

Hello friends,

Today (November 5), marks the first full day of the University of Iowa’s roll out of the national Red Flag Campaign in order to raise awareness of dating violence on college campuses.

According to the Department of Justice, nearly 30% of all college couples will experience some form physical abuse from a significant other during their lifetime. Similar surveys suggest that college women in particular are nearly three times as likely than the national average to experience either physical, emotional, or verbal abuse during a relationship. These incidences occur WAY too often and often go unreported as well for a variety of reasons. When we talked with students on campus, many said that they thought the incidences were isolated, an act of mistaken anger, or just “not that bad.” Most of the students we talked to about dating violence admitted to never telling anyone about these incidences. Most students thought no one cared or that “what happened behind closed doors should stay behind closed doors.”
All of the stories we heard from students on campus were heartbreaking. They confirmed anecdotally what the research has long shown – dating violence, and violence in general, is rarely talked about either because of fear of social repercussions, worry about personal responsibility, and / or confusion about what constitutes abuse.

These stories also show a surprising commonality in that they often preclude the ultimate positive outcome of safe, healthy, and positive relationships. The damage, these students discussed with us, were constantly on their mind in other relationships even where abusive behavior was not present.

The Red Flag Campaign seeks to encourage conversations on campus and in the community about the red warning flags of dating violence as acts that are not just physical. These red flags can include physical violence (often the last escalation of dating violence), sexual assault, stalking, isolation, extreme jealousy, and / or victim blaming. Often times these types of violence occur in overlapping incidences, however, even a one time incident can be a precursor to further violence. If you think you may have seen a red flag of dating violence, we encourage you to speak out.
If you are not sure you have seen a red flag or would like to find out about more resources for victims of dating violence on the University of Iowa campus, visit the campaign website at:

You can also find more detailed information regarding dating violence at the national Red Flag Campaign website.

Some people doquestion the efficacy of awareness raising campaigns, especially those built around posters, facebook, and twitter.

You should be right to challenge empty words and inaction. The Men’s Anti-Violence Council is built on the principle that doing nothing is not an option anymore if we want to see a violence free future, but we would also argue that this campaign is a strong first step.

The students who we talked to in the process of planning the two campaign events, even those who did not want to share their stories publicly or under their real names, did thank us for opening the door for what can be a very difficult and sometimes awkward conversation. The Men’s Anti-Violence Council is based bystander model built on the premise that individuals can notice an event, interpret the event as problematic, and then feel responsible for helping intervene in the inappropriate situation. Without being able to meet these basic criteria, few people are likely to engage in actual interventions of ANY kind.

While the Men’s Anti-Violence Council is not naive or foolish enough to think that one campaign will change a culture of violence and violence acceptance, we hope that this campaign can empower even a few students to come forward and feel safe to tell their stories and that students who have not personally been exposed to violence may be more cognizant of their role in supporting their friends and promoting healthy relationships.

In those two regards, we are glad that we are already seeing anecdotal progress and hope that we can see further, more comprehensive results by the end of the month. Ironically, this may mean that more people report, but these increases will mean that we can get more students in touch with the resources and knowledge they need to not only get the support they need but to help intervene in the future! We must simultaneously help educate students about the problems that exist, provide intervention skills, and also keep talking about what a violence free future. As we discuss not just dating violence but a host of other important topics, we open our community to a world where we are told not just what NOT to be and do as a community of liability to what we CAN be and do as part of a community of care.

For these reasons and many more, the Red Flag Campaign is an important component of the Men’s Anti-Violence Council’s mission in promoting a violence free world through education and activism.

We are proud to join a large number of campus and community partners including the Women’s Resource and Action Center, the Division of Student Life (including the Center For Student Involvement, Fraternity and Sorority Life, and the cultural centers), University Housing and Dining, the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, the Rape Victim Advocacy Program, Domestic Violence Intervention Program, Monsoon, and others on the Red Flag Campaign which will go from November 1 through 31. Collectively, we hope to raise the visibility of the red flags that have been on campus for three days now as well as the acts of violence (physical, emotional, and verbal) that they represent. Together, we hope we can engage a large number of students to have conversations and seek out further information about dating violence and what they can do to prevent it.

We also stand with our campus partners in the Red Flag Campaign because we believe that all individuals – regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity – deserve to be in relationships that have a strong focus on two way honest communication, trust, balance, respect, and safety.

If you would like to stand with us to promote safe, respectful, and healthy relationships at the University of Iowa, like the Red Flag Iowa facebook fan page. You can also join the conversation on twitter to talk about what healthy or unhealthy relationships look like through the hashtag #RedFlagIowa. Through the website and the facebook page we will be sharing resources, stories, and images about not only what makes harmful relationships, but what relationships have the potential to be!

We also will be posting videos throughout the month of stories from students and staff on the Men’s Anti-Violence Council YouTube channel. We invite you to record your own stories as well and email them to
Thank you for reading. Thank you for being a part of the conversation. Thank you for being willing to challenge the status quo, to dare to dream about what a violence free future might look like, and for speaking out against inappropriate behavior as well as what appropriate behaviors are and how they benefit all of us.

When you see the red flags of dating violence (or any type of violence), step forward and speak out.

Healthy Counter Narratives and Violence Prevention 3.0

Many of you may have already read about the tragic wisconsin spa killings that left seven women dead including the seperated wife of the male perpetrator who had only recently renewed a restraining order on her husband.

On the tale end of domestic violence awareness month, the story reflects similar paths of aggression in relationships publicly and privately across the United States.

Rather than dwell on Wisconsin in particular, or the theory of male aggression, heteronormity and privilege in general, what if we changed the script today? What if today’s blog was not about facts, figures, assessments, or research but instead asked for stories, thoughts, concepts, and conversations? With that in mind, I want to pose a potentially controversial idea based in ideals and dreams.

Maybe it is time we reconsidered our definition of prevention work?

In my introduction to violence prevention work, I was introduced to prevention 1.0 as a consultant in my national fraternity. “Don’t break the law assholes” as my boss jokingly put it. Basically, prevention 1.0 was about educating students about the laws of the land and telling men not to rapists (or perpetrators) and women not to be victims. To date, we still do some of this prevention 1.0 work through campus affirmative consent campaigns, self-defense classes, buddy programs, or safe rides.

That is not to say that we as society should abandon self-efficacy and policy education. It offers a solid foundation for the many non perpetrators to maintain their current behaviors.

So then we introduced prevention 2.0, or how to move from non-perpetrator/non-victim to an active bystander model engaged in promoting campus safety. This model has had noticable impacts on college campuses and communities across the country. It is reflected in the number of “speak up” campaigns, the Mentors in Violence Prevention Program, the Coaching Boys to Men, and the Green Dot program among many others. Bystander education is a fundamental component of the model that the Men’s Anti-Violence Council utilizes in its own professional development and educational programming. But at the same time, bystander behavior is also predicated on the perpetrator/victim binary but adds a tripod to help stabilize what was once a very dangerous campus and community climate by giving so called “non-engaged” participants a voice in violence prevention.

What if we looked at the noticable changes and said that what we were doing wasn’t prevention work at all, per se, but rather intervention work at the systematic level? What if we wanted to redefine what prevention actually meant and instead focused on fundamentally redefining the system in which we lived? I ask this question because both prevention 1.0 and 2.0 work is fundamentally grounded in the idea that violence or inappropriate behavior of some form or another WILL occur. But SHOULD it occur? Can we even imagine a world in which verbal, emotional, or physical violence in some capacity is NOT the norm? On one hand we might call them interventions of sorts, but I do believe there is a significant role for prevention work 1.0 and 2.0 in the foreseeable future.

Participating in the Healthy Masculinity Action Project’s Healthy Masculinity Summit in Washington DC was an eye opening experience for me personally and professionally. It forced me to ask this very question because, I certainly do not want to abandon the necessary work we’re doing now, but is prevention 1.0 and 2.0 work ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy if we don’t offer some other world vision. Even if we did offer something different, what would prevention 3.0 look like?

I am still not entirely sure, but the summit certainly offered a few stories that offered an alternative. I think the most compelling of these stories was shared by facilitator and guest panelist Cole from the Brown Boi Project (I would HIGHLY encourage you check out their work) around the idea that there was not just one masculinity, but MANY masculinities. It correlated with the many stories I had heard in the research from Jackson Katz’ “Macho Paradox” and Michael Kimmel’s “Guy Land” and William Pollack’s “Behind the Masculinity Mask.” In all of these books and in the stories I hear on a day to day basis, there is a constant need to prove, to yourself, your best guy friends, and compared to men around you that you are somehow “man enough” in today’s society.

The Brown Boi Project asked a different question. Do you feel healthy, whole, and you? None of those questions depended upon others for healthy or positive responses. None of those questions required the denegration of others as affirmation of your own responses. In an effort to seperate sexual expression and identity from gender expression, it offered the first true counter narrative to mainsteam masculinity that I had been working with in my short time in the field of violence prevention. For the first time, it offered a world where masculine and feminine were not diametrically opposed statement of values but societal descriptors of strengths that could be inhabited by any gender or sexual identity .

Most importantly, these strengths could be values neutral and more or less appropriate based upon the individual in the context of a given task or situation.

If strengths, in the context of the StrengthsQuest persuasion, not just physical strength, could be values neutral, then could we have a society that values cisgendered men who demonstrated feminine strengths, a trans man who demonstrated mixed masculine and feminine strengths, or a cisgendered woman who demonstrated masculine strengths?

Furthermore, if strengths no longer needed to be affirmed by others and reinforced though gender and sexual binaries, what role would violence have in society? Other than perhaps the organized spectacle of sports, violence would no longer be the last resort of the binaries out of control assuming that we could foster a true counter narrative in today’s society based less on affirmation through others in the binary and instead focused on promoting respect, integrity, and compassion for everyone.

As I said at the beginning of this blog entry. This narrative is by no means complete. It may even be pretty inarticulate. Counter Narratives and healthy masculinities on a spectrum conversations are not easy put in a box with a catchy slogan and shipped from campus to campus. Moreover, the conversation is only in its infancy, so to speak. But if we are serious about violence prevention, is it not worth exploring our own stories about what a world without violence might look like? Rather than focus so much on what people SHOULD NOT do (or look out for others doing) what happens if we spend a little time each day talking about what we think ourselves and our communities SHOULD be doing and how we can help each other do those things?

This blog entry is the personal reflection of Jacob Oppenheimer and certainly does not reflect the policies and practices of any of my respective organizations, however, I chose to post on the MAC blog because I think it is important that men in particular, spend more time now thinking about what does it mean to be a healthy masculine guy to whatever degree we feel appropriate for each of us. Moreover, when we next think to laugh about something “frilly” or “overly sensensitive” or otherwise “unmasculine” what does that say about our own discomfort about masculinity.

I don’t think it is a bad thing to be a man and / or have masculine strengths. I just think it’s time we spend a little time loving our own masculinity and re-affirming what positives our strengths bring to ourselves and our community and how we benefit from working with many people with many strengths.

Let’s create a healthy and whole counter narrative as Cole told me. Let’s start talking about what prevention 3.0 might look like!

I invite you to continue the conversation here on this blog, on other forms of social media, in your community, and with the organizers of the Healthy Masculinity Summit. The Men Can Stop Rape Organization is a wonderful collection of professional practitioners and researchers and the Healthy Masculinity Action Project is only in the beginning of its two year time frame. Check it out here!

Things I Would Tell My Younger Self

There are many things in my life that I regret. I wish I could say otherwise, but it’s the truth. Some of these experiences are experiences that I needed to have to learn how to be a better person, but many of these experiences I now realize were silly expectations that they would help me fit in.

That’s why this article from the Huffington Post about the 25 things I would like my sons to know resonated with me so much. It gave me a new perspective and made me wonder what I would tell myself if I could go back in time.

Often times it is easy to get lost in the plethora of messages about unhealthy masculinity, failure, violence, and assault that comes with the mission of violence prevention. By definition and practice we often need to start with the bad and work our way to the good parts of who we are as individuals and as men. But sometimes it’s nice to see articles that focus on the positives! In this particular case, it is the role that older men play in helping guide and mentor young boys.

In a lot of ways, the role of a mentor can provide a positive inspiration for boys. Many groups around the country are based on this concept including the YMCA, Big Brother/Big Sister, and the Boys to Men Mentoring Network which does programming in Iowa City ( It is only natural that we look up to our elders. From a very young age we’re taught to not only respect but emulate them through games and teachings.

But as boys grow up, they also feel a distinct need to emulate and fit in with their peers. No one wants to be “the odd man out” in their friend group. In the absence of a strong mentor or with a bad mentor, traditional notions of masculinity will be the defining nature of a boy’s upbringing. In pursuit of being a man’s man, young boys are getting the message that sex (in particular heterosex), fighting, drinking, and drugs are all ways to prove not only how cool they are but how much of man they can be.

If Hollywood sells us what we want to see, then it doesn’t take much to see the preponderance of this mentality in the movies and tv we watch, the music we listen to, and heroes we idolize.

If I could go back in time though, I would say that it’s ok to be who you are.

It’s ok to be a nerd, an intellectual, a crier.

It’s ok not to be right 100% of the time.

It’s ok to be insecure and that security does not come by taking down others.

Check out the article for yourself. Ask yourself “what would you tell yourself?” Then take it one step further. Talk to a young man in your life and tell them!

Aaron Sorkin has a Patriarchy Problem

Don’t get me wrong, I REALLY like watching Aaron Sorkin dramas. Studio 60, Sports Night, West Wing, and now Newsroom on HBO. His movies are also really interesting as character studies as well. Whether it is A Few Good Men, Money Ball, or The Social Network; I have seen and enjoyed them all to a varying degree.

But Aaron Sorkin has a Patriarchy Problem. And I don’t think I’m the only one who notices. You can check out some other critiques of Sorkin’s treatment of women here, here, or here.

I am broadly defining patriarchy in this context as a system where men, often prioritized by age, hold power and influence in the absence of and/or to the exclusion of women.

This is by no means a definitive or one size fits all definition, but as a starting point, I think it is an apt definition. Especially when this definition is viewed in the context of some of Sorkin’s more well known and recent works.

Take West Wing, for example. This show convinced me to become a political science major and remains one of my all time favorite shows, however the vast majority of so called “heroic” or “noble” acts are done by the men on the show. Whether it is young aide Charlie Young, Assistant Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, grizzled speech writer Toby Ziegler or the president himself, Jed Bartlett, the male characters of the West Wing are at once deeply flawed but also worth flocking back to in moments of inspirational scripting and music.

The women on the other hand, seem mere props by comparison. Inserted to show each male character’s sharp wit, heal a fatal flaw, or create a sense of chivalrous romanticism. In fact, the only major female character in the whole series who maintains a constant role is press secretary C.J. Cregg whose stories arcs include overcoming her insecurities in the press room and the Oval Office, being frozen out of a major military briefing, and having a long sexual tension with senior white house correspondent Danny Concannon.

Even Bartlett’s wife, played by an excellent Stockard Channing, makes very few appearences. Her major story arc, though it grants her an impressive resume as a Doctor, is one of aiding her husband in times of stress and illness. Again, the focus being to come back and support or challenge her husband, but with few real opportunities to exhibit or possess real power and influence on the show.

It is the Newsroom which has disappointed me the most though. The two major female characters are often shouted down or in the throws of an emotional breakdown while dealing with the male dominated culture of the tv media room. Within the first two episodes alone, each of the characters has show a particular ineptitude with technology and personal relationships that results in a blown newscast on immigration law as well as adds an excuse for main character Will McAvoy to become a persistent “ladies man” who uses his wealth and influence to bed a series of different women over the course of individual episodes.
My personal interest in these stories notwithstanding, Sorkin’s problems came to the fore front when he asked a female reporter if she had watched the pilot episode twice because she “really liked the show or didn’t understand it the first time.”
So why is Sorkin’s male dominated culture a problem?
First, in many cases, his episodes make light of serious problems such as sex trafficking for prostitution and sexual harassment. In his sweeping and idealized world, he gives power to the myths that encourage harmful behavior of men and fan the flames of disbelief when real victims come forward. Though I doubt he would say this is intentional, but the impact is important.

Second, he reinforces the negative and sometimes harmful characteristics of masculinity that reinforce behaviors that few would say would be appropriate in the every day work force. Hetereonormitive behaviors are king (no pun intended) and repeated sexual conquest is the way to prove it. Drinking “real drinks, not cocktails” is expected. Men are all capable problem solvers. Abusive behavior is ok and should be permitted if the end goal is noble. And should you fail these criteria or not be fabulously wealthy? Then either fake it or be relegated to being a bit player on grand mission of life.

Third, and perhaps most challenging, is that Aaron Sorkin’s reputation for idealism and chivalry masks his ability to critically analyze his own actions. I admire Sorkin’s intent, but it is the intent masks the impact that his actions have within his fictional world and the world we all live in.

As Jay Smooth so eloquently puts it, “If someone steals my wallet, I am not going to chase the person down to find out why they are a thief. I am going to chase that person down to get my wallet.”
None of this means we cannot like Sorkin’s work. Far from it. Only that we look at what assumptions we make and how that impacts our actions. If we’re idealizing a fictional world where men play dominant roles and women are bit players, what hope do we have for creating the just and equitable world that we all are seeking?
Jacob Oppenheimer

“Legitimate” Rape Fallacy

By now, many of you have already heard about the “unfortunate” word choices of Represenative Todd Akin (R-Missouri) when discussing his opposition to any exceptions to abortion law.

“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that [babies concieved as a result of rape are] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

There are many things that are fundamentally wrong about this statement (beginning with the fact that somehow the body can prevent insemination at will), but what bothers me in particular is the ignorance about rape in general and how Akin’s comments remind us of how much further we as a society need to go in recognizing the importance of mutual, respectful relationships.

First, let’s talk about the law. In Akin’s comments, he is talking about forced, non-consenual sex at weapon point. It also harkens back to the days when the law put the burden of defense on the victim rather than the attacker. First a woman was asked if she said no and fought tooth and nail to defend herself. If she didn’t defend herself “to the fullest extent” then the courts were loath to qualify an attack as rape. As we moved away from physical defense, rape became a state of mind, also from the perspective of the victim. Questions such as “did you enjoy it,” “did your nipples harden,” or “did you become otherwise physically aroused” were asked to determine whether the victim wanted to have sex. Again, if the answer was yes, then the courts were loath to convict a perpetrator (generally a man) of rape.

Now we are looking to actions of the victim. What clothes did they wear? Where they drinking alcohol? Did the person go home with the other party. All of these actions are used to defend against accusations of rape by perpetrators against their victims.

The legal definition of rape has always lagged behind the times of social awareness. Up until 2012, men couldn’t be raped according to the Department of Justice. They could be unlawfully sodomized, but not raped. As a result, the courts have reinforced the notion of Akin’s “legitimate” rape and limited to violence against women solely by unknown perpetrators attacking from the shadows.

The second point that follows from the legal argument is that traditional notions of sexual assault are misleading at best and harmful at worst.

Akin is not alone in his thoughts about “legitimate” rape. Many in society cling to the idea of the “rapist in the bushes” and are loathe to find assaults in the bedrooms of partners, at parties with friends, or at bars with drunken strangers. This is despite the fact that a majority of reported sexual assaults involve friends, family, or loved ones (otherwise known as acquaintance rape).

These misconceptions are perpetuated in a variety of ways. The myths are perpetuated by not looking to men as active agents in the conversation about and acts of sexual assault. The myths are perpetuated by the singleminded focus on what people wear and where they come from. The myths are perpetuated by the few public false accusations that occur that hide the far too many private claims that go unreported.

But mostly, this idea “legitimate” rape stems from the misconception that sex is an entitlement. No amount of wining, dining, good conversation, length of committment, can ever overcome the simple fact that btoh men and women have the right to do what they want with their own body.

Without an affirmative yes uninfluenced by excessive drinking, drugs, or mental, physical, or emotional pressure, any sexual contact is a legitimate rape or sexual harassment claim.



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