by Michael Kimmel and Phoebe Schreiner
This past week, a community grieved the murder of Maren Sanchez, and the media continued its familiar process of determining “what went wrong.” Was the suspect, Chris Plaskon, mentally ill, or driven by meds gone awry? Are schools unsafe? Did she reject him for prom?
These questions are definitely relevant to the story. But they are not the story. The story here — and the story of at least five murders every day in the United States — is men’s violence against women. And once again, the media is missing it. That’s a problem. Because when the media misses that story, we miss the opportunity to help prevent preventable tragedy, to give all the Marens and Chrises of the world a better chance.
Of course, we don’t know exactly what led to this horrifying stabbing in a stairwell. But we do know that violence against women by men is the world’s largest and most socially tolerated human rights violation. According to The New York Times, in the last 12 years, more Americans, mostly women, have died at the hands of their partners than in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Only very recently has our country begun to pay serious attention to the sexual assault epidemic in our military and on our campuses.
Meanwhile, violence and discrimination against women continue to be normalized. In a new study on sexual violence by Gender & Society, girls who had experienced harassment said males were “natural sexual aggressors” and reported harassment as “a normal adolescent rite of passage.” Most recently, the — necessary — uproar over Donald Sterling’s racism overshadowed his rather spectacular on-record and long-known sexism. Both are equally deserving of censure, but had the NBA taken his blatant, workplace-hostile misogyny seriously, The Daily News speculates, they would have “done the right thing” and held him accountable years ago, perhaps avoiding today’s racism ugliness entirely.
Why are we so myopic? Consider school rampage shootings: all but one in recent years has been committed by a white male. Yet we consider each one a lone gunman, as it were, engaging in scant analysis of the shared factors of gender, race, and culture. Likewise, so often, when men murder women they purport to love — which they do with stunning frequency and in unmistakable patterns — we get out our microscopes: What did she say? What set him off?
Instead, we need to consider what they all have in common. What are they told about what it “means” to be a “man”? What pressure are they under to prove their “masculinity”? What does that masculinity look like? Those are questions we can begin to answer. Young men learn, explicitly and through cultural osmosis, that “real men” are impermeable, independent, in control. These are fine qualities on their own. But we also teach men that they are entitled to that control — and that they are entitled to use violence when it’s threatened. If you don’t feel entitled to use violence, all the vulnerability in the world won’t make you grab a knife when you hear “no.”
Of course, we are all fed some version of that diet. And only a minority of men resort to violence. But that’s exactly why stories like these should be stories about all of us. What duty do we have to change things for the Marens in our schools and families, and for the Chrises? How can we help men as men deal differently, including those with undiagnosed or undertreated illness?
If we are to end discrimination and violence — a vision in which we all have a stake — we must look beyond “troubled” individuals to our broader culture. We need to stop minimizing or ignoring, and thereby enabling, discrimination and violence against women and girls. We need to challenge the rigid norms that equate male strength with dominance and position women as objects, even threats. Making violence and discrimination against women unacceptable means making equality and respect more acceptable — even aspirational. How? We can start by speaking up when peers make even the most offhand sexist comments. We can stop telling boys not to “throw like a girl.” We can foster not only a culture of respect toward girls, but also a culture of support among boys, so that when a boy gets rejected, he can turn to his friends to help him through.
So let’s make sure that every kid who wants to gets to go to prom. Let’s make sure that women aren’t afraid to say, as perhaps Maren did, “No, thanks” — and that men aren’t afraid to hear it.