The Macho Paradox

Jackson Katz, on discussing his book, The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help (excerpted from an interview by Kendra Olson Hodgson, Media Education Foundation).

Fundamentally, the problems of sexual and domestic violence are problems of boys’ and men’s attitudes and behaviors, and (white) male-dominated power structures that produce, perpetuate [and] condone these attitudes and behaviors. I’m hoping that my book contributes to a paradigm-shift in the field, a move toward holding men accountable on both a personal and an institutional level.

I’m saying that we need to think about the subject differently, because if we continue to think about men’s violence as a “women’s issue,” it’s not going to get us very far in terms of truly preventing the violence. In spite of all of the services for victims and survivors that the battered women and rape crisis movements have been able to provide, and all the judicial and legal reforms, the rates of men’s perpetration are still shamefully high. I’m arguing that until we acknowledge that the reason for men’s violence is not anything that women and girls are doing or not doing, but that it lies in boys’ and men’s attitudes and behaviors, and the functioning of institutional structures that are largely controlled by white men. Until we name the problem as men’s attitudes and behaviors in patriarchal culture, then we’re just cleaning up after the fact.

We need a whole lot more men involved in this work; we’re not even close to having a critical mass of men involved for it to be culturally transformative.

An exercise I use in my trainings powerfully illustrates this. I use a chalkboard or a whiteboard, and I put a line down the middle. Then I draw a male symbol on one side, a female symbol on the other. Then I ask the men what they do on a daily basis to prevent themselves from being sexually assaulted. Usually the answer is nothing. I’ve done this exercise around 1,300 times, and I’ve gotten about four straight answers from men. In most cases a man will finally raise his hand and say, “I don’t do anything. I don’t even think about sexual assault on a daily basis.” And then I ask the same question of the women, and the board fills up with things that women do. Whether they live in an urban, suburban, or rural area, it doesn’t really matter. The board just absolutely fills up. The point is that the threat of sexual violence is a pervasive part of women’s lives… and whether or not a woman has already been victimized by a man—and millions have—the threat of men’s violence is an omnipresent reality in women’s lives. So, knowing that, men who claim to care about women, social justice, or simple decency, need to figure out what they can do about this horrendous problem.

I really hope that my book contributes to this paradigm shift that I’m talking about. Instead of thinking that the way to address the issues of domestic and sexual violence is for a handful of good guys to help the women out—if we can shift that perspective to make it one where responsible men, by definition of that responsibility, address these issues head-on and take sexism seriously, as seriously as they take all other forms of oppression, including imperialism, racism, and poverty, and other forms of exploitation. If men take sexism as seriously, then we’re going to begin to start to see significant positive changes. I have to say that one of the persistent problems on the left is there is more lip service paid to sexism than there actually is work against sexism by many, many men who claim to care about social justice, who claim to care about oppression and other forms of exploitation. When it comes to sexism, it’s just kind of an add-on, ‘Yeah, and the women too, oh yeah, we have to pay attention to sexism, too.’ As opposed to understanding that sexism is one of the central oppressions in human societies, and one that directly—not tangentially—intersects with all other forms of oppression. Sexism, or male dominance, is part and parcel of oppression at every level, and it needs to be understood as such.

I want to mention a chapter in the book called, Guilty Pleasures: Pornography, Prostitution, and Stripping. In this chapter, I look at the ways in which the pornography culture, and the prostitution and stripping industries, if you will, are helping to shape boys’ and men’s attitudes toward women and girls and their sexuality—as well as men’s sexuality. This is a national conversation that is long overdue. You asked what my dream was about the book—well, one piece of the dream is that I hope my book helps to catalyze a more thoughtful conversation between men, as well as between women and men, about pornography, prostitution, and stripping. Ideologically, these are enormously influential industries. I think there has been very little thoughtful conversation about them in male culture, and certainly even in [academia]. For example, pornography is by far the most influential form of sex education—or sex (mis)education—in the United States. There is so little quality sex education in the schools in our sex-crazed country. The right has successfully squelched the responsible sex education movement that arose in the seventies. In the void, you have this enormous multi-billion dollar industry that has profit as its motive, not education. The pornography industry is serving as the vehicle for so many boys’ and men’s sexual socialization. And the level of brutality that has been normalized in mainstream pornography, the level of sexist brutality, is just astounding. Many people have not been paying attention, but I think they need to pay attention. It’s very disturbing, I think, for a lot of people to see—with eyes wide open—what boys and men are masturbating to. But I think it needs to happen. Sadly, in recent years many feminists have been leery of going down this road because this issue is seen as divisive, and fraught with both ideological and interpersonal conflict. I think that’s really sad because the industry hasn’t slowed down one bit—in fact, it’s only been accelerating in the last few years.

I also want to call attention to the ways in which discourses about race and violence often shift attention off of white men and onto men of color. I’m turning that around and saying that when we talk about race and culture, we also need to talk about white men and white culture, and how aspects of that culture contribute to men’s violence against women. I examine how the racialized ‘other’ as the rapist or as the batterer is one technique, conscious or unconscious, to shift focus off of white men’s actions and responsibilities. I think it’s important for white men to talk about this.

I also discuss heterosexism and homophobia, and the relationship between men’s violence against women and men’s violence against other men, especially gay men. There are all kinds of links between these phenomena. In my book, I talk about how homophobia is used as a policing mechanism in male culture—in other words, one of the reasons why so few men speak out against men’s violence against women is the fear that they will then be constructed as less than fully masculine, or as gay. In a culture where homophobia persists—although significant progress has been made—in a culture where homophobia persists, a lot of young men and boys will not speak out, if speaking out will call upon them homophobic animosity, anger, and potential violence. The point I’m making more generally is that while the focus of The Macho Paradox is men’s violence against women, I do weave in a critical discussion about racism, heterosexism, and even neo-colonialism, and how all of these social oppressions interact and intersect.

Jackson Katz is a leading anti-sexist activist. An educator, author, filmmaker, and cultural theorist, he is internationally recognized for his groundbreaking work in the field of gender violence prevention education and critical media literacy.