In the fall of 2004, then-senior Travis Reed started the student group Men Active Against Sexual Assault (MAASA) to raise awareness for sexual assault and violence among MSU’s male population. Although the member count was low and recruitment for new members proved to be difficult, it survived for two years before members were lost and its president quit.
Though MAASA rose and fell, men on campus have been involved with Take Back the Night, a day-long event to protest and raise awareness for sexual violence, sexual assault, rape, incest and sexual harassment, all over the world since it began in 1973. The movement’s highlight in East Lansing is the nighttime march, where hundreds of people walk through campus and downtown East Lansing, ending at the 54-B District Court at 101 Linden St. Last year, about 150 people finished the final march, but only about 25 percent of those people were men. This annual event will take place again on April 8.[court]
Although Take Back the Night is traditionally a women’s movement, coordinators of the event especially recognize the need for male involvement and host The Men’s Forum as a counterpart to the Candlelight Vigil. This event gives women an opportunity to share their experiences and emotion they might not if men were involved. Because men are often the perpetrators in sexual assault cases, women might be afraid or intimidated by their presence. “It’s such a powerful experience. People are in tears, people are hugging. It’s very emotional and good for healing,” said Lydia Weiss, a sociology senior and coordinator of Take Back the Night.
But coordinators of Take Back the Night also recognize the need for male involvement, and also host the The Men’s Forum as a counterpart to the Candlelight Vigil. “We don’t want to give the whole ‘We hate men’ vibe. We need to include them and say ‘We’re not mad at you, we want to educate you,'” psychology senior Caitlin Searfoss said. This forum is a round-table discussion where men talk mostly about what their roles can and should be in sexual assault awareness and prevention. “People talk about their own experiences, if they’re a survivor, or experiences they have with their girlfriends, friends, mothers, daughters, sisters,” Reed said. The Men’s Forum happens this year from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Union on April 8 as a part of Take Back the Night. “It’s a space for men to have an open discussion about sexual assault and sexual violence — not only what they can do to help stop it but realize that it does happen to men, too,” Weiss said.[attend1]
Psychology sophomore Mike Oliverio said he is attending the forum because he thinks everyone should be involved. “As a male, it’s important to show that [sexual assault] is not just a one-sided battle. It’s something that affects both sexes.”
This mindset is relatively new to the East Lansing movement. The night march wasn’t always coed. In 2006, coordinators of the event decided it would be open to men as well as women. “Traditionally it was a women’s only space,” Weiss said. Before the change, men walked behind the march or didn’t participate at all. “We decided that because a lot of times for women, brothers, fathers or boyfriends are [survivors’] number one supporters and helpers in the healing process. We hated to deny that to some women who may have needed that support.”
[mens]Men who are involved, although they are far and few between, are not afraid to have their voices heard. Some feel it is their role, as men, to stand up and fight against sexual assault. Dr. Dennis Martell, director of health education for Olin Health Center, was an adviser for MAASA. “It is men’s responsibility to change their behavior, not women,” he said. But when Reed proposed the group four years ago, Martell knew it would have difficulty succeeding. As a senior, Reed was heading to MSU’s Veterinary Medicine School the next year and would have little time to devote to the group. “I just got busier and busier and it was harder and harder to find time,” he said. In 2005, Reed passed the reins to another busy student, who ran the group for a year before it died. “No one has been able to take lead of the organization, but we’re looking to rebuild it in the near future,” biosystems engineering senior Andrew Hoyles said.
While it lasted, the members of MAASA had trouble advertising their group to the MSU community. Reed admitted they didn’t do as much as they could have to announce meetings or recruit new members. “I feel like if we were to advertise the meeting, it would be like preaching to the choir,” he said. “The people who would show up would already be active against sexual assault. The people who needed to get the message wouldn’t actively seek it out.” The key to preventing sexual assault is awareness of what exactly it is and how it happens, and people who would come to the meetings already knew. The topic of sexual assault is still a little taboo in our society, Reed said, and so it was difficult to advertise.
Spreading the word and raising awareness is an integral part of the prevention of sexual assault, and so coordinators of Take Back the Night want to fix this problem. “It’s such a powerful experience to talk about these issues that are so taboo, especially in a culture that is so focused on victim-blaming,” Weiss said.
This concept of “victim-blaming” refers to the practice of questioning why a woman or man was assaulted in a way that implies the victim was partially to blame for the attack. In lots of female cases, people look at what a woman was wearing, where she was at the time of assault or what she had been doing and use these facts as clues as to why she was assaulted, effectively making the woman culpable for inciting such an attack. Women are often warned not to walk alone at night or to dress conservatively when they’re out with friends. “The current focus on educating women blames the victim. To get to prevention, you need to get to the source. Men are raping women. Women aren’t just passively being raped,” Reed said. And women are certainly not asking for it.[lydia]
The men involved with MAASA knew all of these things, and were acting to spread this knowledge, but because of the advertising and recruitment problems, MAASA meetings included very few people. Hoyles said during his time with the group, 10 to 12 people showed up to events. Martell remembered differently, saying that in his experience, only three or four students came to meetings. “It shouldn’t be up to a faculty or staff to keep it going. It should be a men’s group run by men for men to help them change their attitudes and behavior toward women,” he said.
Part of the problem, Hoyles said, is that at MSU, it is difficult to get men interested in a cause like MAASA. “This is a very large campus with a very high drinking culture, a lot of history of sexual assault and rapes year after year,” he said. The instances of sexual assault increases with alcohol use, and the drinking and partying that goes on at MSU doesn’t help the cause. “A lot of men don’t really want to talk about sexual assault or rape culture, anything they have to deal with or realize they’re part of the problem,” Hoyles said.
Although some men are happily and passionately involved in Take Back the Night, no one is stepping up to bring MAASA back to life. Oliverio said he’d support the group because he agrees with its views, but is too busy to devote the time to making it happen. “Those types of groups are important, but I’m not saying that I’m going to go out and join every group with that message,” he said. When the group was active, members’ peers were supportive but hesitant to join. “People like that somebody is trying to do something, but they don’t want to get involved,” Hoyles said. As feminists may encounter stigma and stereotypes, so may the men involved in their cause.
[wall]But the university is trying to put an end to silence and stigma. After the string of reported sexual assaults in the fall of 2004, MSU took action to educate students on what sexual assault is and how it can be prevented. During the Freshmen Orientation for incoming students, high school seniors and their parents are given an overview of the topic. Martell, who is active in this program, said during the orientation, mothers ask every year what self-defense courses MSU offers for women. He tells them the university offers plenty of self-defense programs, but to fix the problem with sexual assault, the men should be taught differently, not the women. “Lots of mothers stand up and applaud to this. Teach [the men] in the homes,” Martell said. “If they know what is appropriate behavior, they’ll understand how to act.” And now, a mandatory sexual assault awareness program is in the works for all of next year’s freshmen.[attend2]
Although it’s important to encourage and appreciate male involvement in Take Back the Night, the women need recognition too. Elizabeth Schrock, an MSU alumna and a sexual assault counselor for The Listening Ear Crisis Center, fears the media’s attention toward men does not correctly portray the movement. “Last year we talked a lot about how men were involved in the march and the media grabbed a hold to that,” she said. “I’m hesitant to talk about how important it is to have men involved because it’s just so important to have women involved as well.”
As for MAASA, it’s still dead. “We need students to activate themselves and activate other students. The staff doesn’t do well in trying to get them involved. We need students for students,” Martell said. “I wish an incoming freshman or sophomore would pick this up and make it go,” Reed said. With raised awareness and university involvement in the movement, this may be the case sometime soon. In the meantime, men who want to take a stance against sexual assault and violence can join the others in Take Back the Night on April 8.