COPLEY, Ohio — The Cleveland Browns signing of quarterback Deshaun Watson to a five-year $230 million contract has plunged Northeast Ohio into controversy. Sexual violence survivors reported being triggered by the announcement of the signing, including an Akron Beacon Journal journalist who was moved in its wake to disclose her history of sexual assault. Two grand juries have declined to pursue criminal charges against the former Houston Texans player. However, Watson still faces 22 civil lawsuits for sexual assault and harassment.
We take no position on Watson’s guilt or innocence. We are psychologists who study the psychology of boys and men, and simply want to inform readers about what is known about sexual violence.
Sexual assault is unfortunately very prevalent. Sexual assailants, the vast majority of whom are men and boys, victimize one in three US females at some point during the victims’ lifetimes. And yet most males are never violent. Men who perpetrate sexual violence have strong feelings of being mistreated by women, have suffered abuse, often by their fathers, and subscribe to the belief that women are men’s adversaries.
For many boys, the worst insult is the suggestion that they run, throw, act, or look like a girl, and so masculinity is defined as antifemininity. As a result, some men wind up rejecting and feeling ashamed of essential parts of themselves that are considered feminine – such as empathy, kindness, and compassion.
For boys and men who buy into this cultural fiction, it is not a big leap to go from devaluing femininity to devaluing girls and women themselves. In the process, men come to think of women in dehumanized terms, seeing them as objects for their sexual gratification. In childhood, boys tend to associate only with other boys, so many do not have much knowledge about girls as real human beings. That is, they never get to know girls like they know other boys. When puberty arrives, heterosexual masculine- conforming boys become interested in girls, but as sexual objects, rather than persons. In so doing they tend to view sex as recreation rather than as the expression of love in a romantic relationship. Moreover, sex with many different partners becomes a way of affirming one’s masculine adequacy.
Sadly, many boys’ sex education today comes principally from the ubiquitous presence of pornography, most of which is male-centered and denigrates women. Boys come to expect their sexual lives to conform to what they have seen in sexualized media. According to research, Habitual consumption of pornography, when combined with the characteristics noted above, is a significant risk factor for sexual violence perpetration. The pornography narrative portrays men as dominant over women and reinforces a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies.
It is very difficult to resist a pressure that one cannot name. We should help boys and men understand the social pressure of cultural masculinity and learn to resist it. We need to stop telling our boys and men to avoid all things feminine and to view females as sex objects, and instead convey how to be a man with complexity and compassion. And we need to work to elevate the status of women relative to men
Ronald Levant is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Akron and one of the key scholars responsible for creating the field of the psychology of men and masculinities. He was included in the Stanford University-Elsevier database listing the top 2% of scientists in the world and served as president of the American Psychological Association. Christopher Kilmartin is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Mary Washington. He is an author, trainer, and activist in preventing violence in schools, the military, and the workplace internationally. His latest book is “The Fictions that Shape Men’s Lives(Routledge).
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