It’s About Women, It’s About Men

It was announced last week that surgeons at Brigham and Women’s Hospital had performed the hospital’s fifth full face transplant – a medical feat to be heralded. The main characters in this news story were the surgeons. The related story that didn’t make national news in 2007 was that of the patient, Carmen Blandin Tarleton, who was home with her two children when her estranged husband, with whom she was filing for divorce, forced his way into her home and squirted industrial strength lye all over her, burning eighty percent of her body. Doctors called it “the most horrific injury a human being could suffer.”

As Congress was debating VAWA, the Violence Against Women Act, I attended a One Billion Rising event, one of thousands that occur yearly in almost 200 countries.  One of the many women who spoke said, “It’s not about the victim, it’s about the perpetrator”, and others followed suit. Then a male city police officer made an impassioned speech acknowledging the predominance of men as perpetrators of violence against women and girls and called all attending men to stand around him in a show of solidarity with women. In other words, it’s about the men.  (Imagine a Men’s Violence Against Women Act – it would never make it to Congress.)  Everyone applauded.  Some cried.

Is the face transplant story about the healers, the victim, or the perpetrator?  We might say it depends on through whose lens we hear the story.  If history books were the objective “truth” there wouldn’t be so many of them.  Bumper stickers tell us whoever tells the story writes history, and it’s true.  But what is true in Carmen’s story (for now I’m calling it hers) is true in all stories of oppression – it’s about a whole system.

So can we stop arguing who should get the spotlight or the burden of the issue and agree that any incident of violence or oppression is about all of us? None of us are free if any of us are violating and being violated – in our schools, on the street, in our homes, in our conversations, or in our media. It’s the rare man who is saying the shocking level of violence in our society is, in a significant way, a masculinity issue. But if we care about our men and boys, don’t we all need to address that fact and fold it into the whole story, and therefore the whole solution?

Maybe it’s worth looking at our distorted teaching of masculinity. (And by the way, why do we have to teach boys how to be male anyway – aren’t they born that way?) Like the police officer, let’s all recognize that whether the victim is a woman, man, or child, yes, the perpetrators of violence are overwhelmingly male – let’s bring that truth forward, not to blame, but rather to include men. As Jackson Katz has pointed out, we insist boys match both the definition of “manhood” and our definition of a good human being, and, oddly, the two definitions don’t line up.

All problems begin with the way people think. I remember learning in elementary school that a noun was a “person, place, or thing”.  “Person” and “thing” are two separate items.  In the military, soldiers have to be trained to think of the “enemy” as things to reduce the internal conflict that systematic violation of other human beings can produce. Devaluing another person until she or he is a thing makes it easier to violate them.  Our culture certainly cultivates the objectification of women in spades. But perpetrators or predators become objects, too.  A kid who bullies becomes a Bully, and we all have a role.

The collective message of the women who spoke at One Billion Rising was clear: we still are not safe; we have to speak up more; we have to raise our hands; we have to say we’re mad; we have to say STOP.  In other words, we women have to do more of this and this and this. Then one woman demonstrated a gesture she had learned in peace work – one hand up, palm facing your oppressor – STOP – and the other hand held out, palm facing skyward – offering connection.  That implies there’s someone facing that gesture – someone who is being offered something.

If we can stop arguing, think of that peace gesture, and address together a deeply destructive problem in our society, maybe we won’t have to restrict these rallies and testimonials and conversations to a particular grab-it-or-lose-it moment – election month when suddenly there’s a keen interest in what women think, or Women’s History Month when we take a moment to note that women have mattered, or International Women’s Day when we are again reminded, oh yeah, women are human beings, not sexual objects.  Maybe we can all see the need to hear the stories of men.  And the stories of women.  And then make a new story that’s about all of us. Carmen says on her blog that her spirits are really high and she feels blessed, focusing on what she needs to do to move forward: “I had to come up with a different way of thinking.  I couldn’t stay with the way I used to be.”  In the face of epidemic violence, can we as a society do the same?

© 2013 Lillian Hsu