No, Richard Cohen, Appealing to “Real Men” Isn’t the Way to End Campus Rape Culture

“Where,” asked the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen in an op-ed published earlier this week, “are the men?” If you read last week’s disturbing Rolling Stone article about the culture of rape at the University of Virginia (and the institution’s disastrously inadequate response to it), to which Cohen’s op-ed is a response, you might answer that they’re probably upstairs planning a gang rape. But no, argues Cohen, men who do such things aren’t “real men.” He writes with studied confusion, asking, “How can a rapist walk to class the next day without other men confronting him? How is the rapist or the witness allowed to feel he has exercised some masculine privilege when, in fact, he has just violated the cardinal rule of masculinity? Be respectful of women.” If only it were that simple. But the problem isn’t violation of the cardinal rule of masculinity — it’s looking to masculinity for morality in the first place.

Put another way, the problem isn’t, “Hey, you’re doing masculinity wrong!” — the problem is that you’re deriving your ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong from some sort of abstract idea of what a man should or shouldn’t do. The reason for not sexually assaulting women isn’t that it doesn’t conform to your idea of what “real men” do; it’s that sexually assaulting women is objectively wrong. Manliness, or the lack thereof, doesn’t enter into it.

More generally, this is the problem with viewing ethics as something imposed externally upon you, as opposed to something derived internally from a basic understanding of what one should or shouldn’t do to another person. Cohen speaks of his vision of “real” men as follows: “I am talking about men who live by a certain code, who know that rape is repugnant, that gang rape is vile and that so-called men who do these things are criminals.”

But you don’t need a “certain code” to know that rape is repugnant; if you’re a decent, considerate, non-sociopathic human being, you already know that any sort of assault on another human being is wrong, and you know that because you view other humans as people, not as pneumatic human sex dolls to maneuver into bed by whatever means you can justify to yourself and your idea of what real men do.

That said, Cohen is correct that there’s clearly something very, very wrong with fraternity culture. As a foreigner, it’s one of those peculiarly American things — like the word “snickerdoodle,” endless abortion debates, and poor people voting against universal healthcare — that you look at and sort of shake your head in bewilderment. There are equivalents around the world, of course — the combination of booze, testosterone, and peer pressure is a powder keg, no matter where you are — but the idea of institutionalizing this with a bunch of Greek letters and secret handshakes and weird hazing procedures, and also providing the men in question with houses in which they can have parties to their hearts’ content, seems… unwise.

In the wake of these most recent revelations, there’s been a smattering of calls to end fraternity culture for good — Jordan Sargent wrote an excellent piece for Gawker, in which he argues:

Fraternities facilitate a substantial number of rapes on college campuses that would not otherwise happen. To say that we must keep fraternities around even though they manufacture rape is to say we must accept one of humanity’s most heinous acts as an unavoidable cost of operating a college campus. It is not, and we must not.

Indeed. Removing the veneer of respectability would certainly be a start, not least because ending fraternities would go a long way toward minimizing opportunities for rapes to be carried out. But Sargent points out, correctly, that “some young men on college campuses [would] just find somewhere other than fraternities to commit rape.” If you really want to get at the root of the problem, then, you need to look at what lies beneath the fact that fraternities exist in the first place.

And that comes back, ultimately, to ideas — either positive or negative — of what men should and shouldn’t do. This is a form of gender essentialism, namely the idea that the actions of people with a Y chromosome are somehow defined by this biological fact. This is wrong, destructively so. There is no “what men should or shouldn’t do” — there is only “what people should or shouldn’t do.” Clearly, the circumstances in which ethical questions might arise is determined, to some extent, by the gender of the people involved — a man hitting on a woman in the street, say, is fundamentally different from a woman hitting on a man in the street, because of millennia-old power imbalances and, often, the simple question of physical strength and the potential for coercion.

But ultimately, these situations come back to universal questions of ethics. If you’re the man in question, looking at a pretty girl on the street and thinking about whether you should wolf-whistle, or sit down next to the girl to strike up a conversation, or compliment her appearance, or flat-out just ask for her phone number, you shouldn’t be thinking about this in the context of what your ideas of masculinity allow you to do with a clear conscience. You should be asking, “How might any of these acts make her feel? Is she just reading her book with her headphones on, not wanting to be disturbed? Yes? Then I should probably just leave her the fuck alone.”

The other problem with basing your ethics on your gender is that it encourages a polarized view of the world, one that reinforces a gender binary that’s in reality entirely arbitrary. If you think about your actions in the context of what a “real man” would do, you’re thinking of yourself as a man first and a human second. This is the wrong way round — men are a subset of humanity, not vice versa, and they need to start thinking of themselves as such. There are no real men. There are just people, who are either contemptible rapey dickheads, or not.

All of which is to say, anyway, that if you’re Richard Cohen, or anyone who subscribes to similar views, you need to stop thinking about what real men should or shouldn’t do, and start thinking of yourself first and foremost as a human being. Men and women aren’t so different — they have different bodies, sure, but beyond that, we’re all people. If we start from the idea of treating each other as people — with care and respect and love — then ethics become self-evident. We don’t need any sort of code, be it based on gender, or religion, or whatever else. Just: be good to one another.