April is Sexual Violence Awareness month. But Jackson Katz doesn’t like that name. Awareness may have been the goal in decades past, he says, but it’s short of where we need to be in 2017.
Katz is an acclaimed sexual violence educator and activist. He’s written books, made movies, and given a TED talk that went viral. I had first heard of him through his documentary “Tough Guise,” which is often used as an educational tool in high schools. It struck me as one of the few movies that didn’t speak down to students, even though it wasn’t anything approaching radical.
In his speech on April 4, Katz had a different tone. He was more energetic than on film, a little less polished. He went on tangents, cracked jokes, and called defensive male responses to feminism “bullshit.” All told, he spoke for over two hours.
Katz, a captain of his high school football team, has always linked his activism with sport. His program, Mentors in Violence Prevention, began at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. The MVP program was initially rolled out within sports teams, before branching into other groups, such as corporations and the military.
At one point, Katz asked all the athletes in attendance to raise their hands. The majority of the people in the room put a hand up, including the entirety of the first four rows.
Perhaps athletes are the group that needs this talk most. It’s not hard to find examples of male sports teams committing sexual assault. One only needs to take the Green Line a few stops to arrive on the campus of the University of Minnesota, where a number of football players where found guilty of gang-raping a fellow student. In response, a number of players threatened to boycott their bowl game unless the rapists were declared innocent. This protest was led bya team captain, and it was endorsed by their coach.
We can also look south, to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where it was discovered that over 50 rapes had been committed by football players since 2011. Perhaps more insidiously, coaches and university officials, including the school’s president, had conspired to cover up the assaults.
In other words, when athletes commit sexual assault, they are protected by people in power who refuse to condemn the behavior.
Katz believes that the problem doesn’t begin with the players. In all of these cases, the players were supported or protected by their coaches or other university higher-ups. This is important; Katz asserts that problems of sexual violence are cultural, and that culture is determined by the people at the top of a hierarchy. Within teams, when coaches and captains fail to act, it normalizes and encourages problematic behavior.
To counter this, Katz encourages his audiences to act as leaders within their communities. Sexual violence (and the factors that create an environment where it is more likely to happen, such as sexist language) can’t just be something opposed by a few “good guys”; it has to be part of the culture. Katz describes this as a “paradigm shift,” and it’s a key part of his bystander training program.
On the topic of bystander training, Katz had some criticisms to offer for “bystander intervention” programs. Macalester offers training in one of these programs, the Green Dot method, multiple times a year, and the entire Football team went through one of these trainings during their preseason. Katz believes that these programs create “glorified nightclub bouncers.” While it isn’t bad that these trainings created vigilance, simple prevention shouldn’t be the end goal. The real target is a culture where all members simply find sexual assault and sexism unacceptable.
He feels that athletes are great vehicles for this sort of change, citing Muhammad Ali, among others, as examples of advocates for social justice.
However, I walked out of JBD feeling let down. At many points, it felt like he was not paying proper respect to the work of feminists before him, especially women. While he was quick to name male colleagues and peers, I don’t recall him referencing a single female activist or intellectual by name, until the conclusion of his speech when he presented a poem by Eve Ensler. There was a frustrating implication that it takes a white male to get audiences to care about violence against women, something Katz never addressed.
Additionally, his discussions of gender were outdated. He spoke almost exclusively in binary terms; trans and gender nonconforming people were given nothing more than lip service, and these mentions were so brief as to be condescending. Other speakers on campus, such as the I Heart Female Orgasm speakers, have modified their presentations to be more trans-inclusive. At a historical moment where showing support for trans and gender-queer people is more important than ever, why couldn’t Katz make an effort to expand his consciousness, and therefore the consciousness of his audience?
I was disappointed by parts of Katz’s presentation, but I walked out feeling inspired. He promoted critical thought, introspection, and activism throughout his time on stage. Moreover, he was promoting these things to an audience made up in large part of male athletes, a group of people who often don’t receive these messages. That made him effective. There were a number of holes in his presentation; in his view, it is the duty and responsibility of those in attendance to view him with a critical eye. His message of leadership was crucial and necessary. Let’s take that message to heart and find fault with his erasure of women activists of the past and trans people of the present.