|Students at Chicago Quest High School learn about the realities of the sex trade.|
Imagine a laser beam – a perfectly straight line of colored light – that is part of the lighting design for a rock concert. The beam itself would remain unseen by the audience, much like a laser pointer in a lecture hall, if there were not also fog machines putting haze in the air. The haze elucidates the presence of the beam, allowing the audience to appreciate its existence. If the existence of sexual violence and exploitation is a laser beam I am a fog machine blowing smoke so that young people can see it.
Sexual violence and exploitation exist on a continuum that is often hard to detect. All of us, simply by living in this cultural moment, are positioned somewhere on this continuum and gradually move back-and-forth along it. At one end, there are seemingly benign actions like buying a ticket to a romantic comedy that reinforces gender stereotypes. At the other end reside the far more obvious actions like buying sex.
When I accept a stereotypical movie plot line that presents the love of a woman as a prize to be fought for and won, then I will have an easier time accepting the woman herself as a prize to be won. Prizes like trophies and medals are often awarded for persistence and hard work. When I view some women as prizes, it becomes easier for me to view some women as objects. And if I then continue down the road where some women can be treated like objects, then I eventually come to the end where some women can be purchased for sex.
Nearly every high school student I have worked with identifies buying sex as “bogus” and believes that it is something only “desperate losers do.” As Dante told me,“If you’re paying for sex, there is obviously something wrong with you, man.” Most of these same young people, however, indicate having absolutely no reservations about patronizing a strip club, watching pornography, or calling a girl they know a “slut” as a way to insult or degrade her. (Actually, in the spirit of full disclosure I should note that “slut” is actually rarely used by young people, as the word has been replaced with “THOT” – an acronym for That Hoe Over There. But, I think you see my point.) All of these behaviors clearly lie somewhere along the continuum, but most young people are not able to see that because these actions are seen as normal, if not acceptable, parts of society. Our society typically blames the victims of sexual assault for wearing the wrong clothes, or walking on the wrong street, or going to the wrong party, but rarely holds perpetrators accountable. Our society typically arrests and re-arrests people in prostitution, yet the men paying for sex generally get to go home with little more than a warning. When we take a step back to examine our societal responses to some of these problems, the reality of what exploitation looks like becomes clear.
Throughout the four sessions of Empowering Young Men, the students and I examine the continuum and wrestle with a few of these challenging questions.Why are men celebrated for their acts of dominance, and forgiven for their acts of violence? Based on my actions, where am I situated on the spectrum? What can I do to make our society better?
During one class we listen critically to a variety of songs, and look for the subtle ways in which violent gender-norms are reinforced in current popular music. While listening to one of the songs, Zac had an epiphany.“That’s like the first time I’ve listened to the lyrics that closely, but he hit the woman.” In a later workshop, Zac pointed out that there is no single source responsible for normalizing sexual violence and exploitation,“so we all need to be more aware and just do something.”
Zac is not alone.
Most of the young men who go through our program, leave saying they intend to stop calling girls “THOTs.” Most of the young men also say they intend to never patronize a strip club, and some even go so far as to say they are going to stop watching porn. When asked what they will do, many respond like Antwan. “Man, we need to start respecting women. And when your friends say things like,‘She’s such a bust-down’ you need to say,‘Bro you trippin’!”
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