U-M Counseling and Psychological Services

In our previous article, we focused on men’s roles in supporting those who have experienced sexual assault through the lens of the #MeToo Movement. The first step in the process, believing the experiences of sexual assault survivors, is necessary in positioning oneself as an ally, but is not the only way of offering support. Men are uniquely positioned within the movement to end sexual assault by not only believing survivors but also reflecting on their own behaviors, thoughts, and assumptions related to intimacy, sexuality, and masculinity.

In this article we provide insight into this process of examining past behaviors and assumptions. The intent of this article is not to dictate how men “should be,” but rather how men might thoughtfully reflect on their current way of being in relation to others. Our hope is that in our unique role as Counseling Center professionals we can provide support and structure for those who wish to help change the culture that enables sexual assault.

The focus of this article is to help men examine, and ultimately change, behavior on an individual level. This process can be difficult and examining one’s own actions may cause men to feel confusion, anger, or altogether stuck. These reactions are normal when a man recognizes some of his past behaviors misalign with his values or have harmed someone, regardless of his intent. The next step, then, is not to remain stuck but to see this as an opportunity to acknowledge, address, and correct the hurt that they may have caused. While it may not be a man’s intent to make a woman feel pressured, coerced, or fearful, impact and not intent is what is important as allies in the #MeToo Movement.   

A Word On Allyship

Allyship naturally leads to personal reflection on our own behavior, both past and current. In what ways have we contributed to a society that allows for sexual assault to occur? It might feel natural, even comfortable, to separate ourselves from those who have been prominently featured in the news for their sexual assault histories. We can easily distance ourselves or our friends from public figures and celebrities who’ve engaged in overt and repeated sexual assault and violence. Think of #MeToo related events and news stories from the past year—these situations often involve clear, direct, and repeated unwanted sexual misconduct and assault. What results is a stereotyped profile of who does and does not commit sexual assaults, sacrificing degrees of nuance and complexity when we make this distinction.
What about less obvious instances of aggressive norms or behavior: when one person feels pressured into saying yes, when someone feels uncomfortable with sexual behavior after the encounter, repeated romantic advances that social norms might label “chivalrous” or “sweet” but actually appear threatening and insistent to the woman they are directed toward. No man can avoid the masculine gender norms and expectations within which he was raised, but that does not mean those norms should be left unexamined to perpetuate the many ways women are made to feel targeted and pressured by men who are otherwise unaware of their impact.

As men, we can’t examine our own thoughts and actions without also examining our own beliefs and assumptions about masculinity. The now commonly used phrase “toxic masculinity” might lead us to believe that masculinity as a whole is something we need to distance ourselves from—this is largely unhelpful. Being an ally requires us to determine what aspects of masculinity are healthy and empowering to ourselves and others, and what aspects come from a place of fear, degradation, and the desire for power. Consider what you learned about masculinity from media, other people, or athletics, among other sources. How did these norms contribute to your perception of what it means to be a man? These explicit and implicit messages affect how we think about what it means to “be a man.” Allyship requires us to identify what these messages are for ourselves individually and to contemplate both the intent and possible impact of such messages on others as conveyed by our thoughts, words, and actions.

1. The process of examining your own/others’ behavior

  • The process of examining your own behavior is like many other processes in that there is no one right way to do it. However, there are a few core components: it will take time, vulnerability, honesty, and dedication. Even more, it takes courage for a man to examine his own or others’ behavior. Many times, it is the “harder road,” but one that is worth it. In the end you may feel a wide variety of feelings: encouragement, embarrassment, anger, relief, or others. No matter what feeling the outcome provides, the process of examining your behavior is essential for growth. Below are a few steps that can be important in this process.
    • A. Examine Your Power and Privilege.
      • 1. Privilege is any unearned benefit, opportunity or advantage given to someone because of their identity and can be a source of power in relationships (Source). Men have to start by naming the moments in relationships, and there are many, where they have power and privilege. This could be physical, emotional, mental, societal, or cultural power. Do you determine where you go for a date, when the night or relationship is over, or how fast the relationship moves physically? Having power is not, by definition bad. Power is fluid, depends on context, and can change over time. When we recognize that we have it, we can use power and privilege as an opportunity to foster empathy, increase understanding, and play a role in correcting some of the inequities that exist in our society (Source). When you recognize the impact of power and privilege, you can begin to take action by giving it up or giving it back.
    • B. Practice Reflection.
      • 1. One of the keys to growth is a practice of reflection. Taking time to ask sometimes difficult, yet honest questions. These questions may leave men feeling exposed, vulnerable, ashamed, assured, satisfied, etc. Everyone receives explicit and implicit messages about what it means to “be a man” and some of these are harmful: messages that men take what they want or don’t take “no” for an answer may affect how they treat others in relationships. Awareness of and reflection on how these messages affect behavior is essential. In the end, it is these questions that must be examined if men are to move forward. Here are a few that we encourage men to ask themselves: “Did I ask if I could do ______ behavior? Did I get consent?” The other person didn’t specifically say “no,” but did they say “yes?” Silence is not consent. Consent is clear and unambiguous; therefore, it is important that you clarify by asking.
    • C. Understand the Complexity of Informed Consent
      • 1. What assumptions about relationships and sexual experiences do I have? Do I need to revisit those assumptions?
        • a. “If ________ was okay last time, did I assume it was okay this time?”
        • b. What are my assumptions and expectations in this relationship/interaction? “I bought dinner so...” “You came over which means...” “You traveled from out of town...” “We were already doing _______ and the next step is _______.”
        • c. Simply put, consent is not something to be implied, it should be checked in on consistently and in an ongoing way. It is natural to want to feel connected to a person to the point where you can know what each other wants without saying it. However, when it comes to intimacy, it always better/safer to check in, get approval, and stay in tune with your partners needs and desires.
      • 2. “I thought my behavior was okay, but how else could it be interpreted?” This comes with the understanding that how we see things is not always the way they are seen by others. It may not be our intention, but we must be responsible for the impact. The impact may come during or right after the sexual experience, but it also may come days, weeks, months, or even years after. There is no time limit on when someone may experience reactions to an unwanted sexual experience. The question of “interpretation” also helps us develop empathy. Empathy allows us to be better partners in relationships.
      • 3. Some men talk about their sex with friends. If we are going to move forward, progress, and make consent the standard, men have to learn how to encourage and model consent with their friends. Making rape jokes is not okay. Objectifying partners is not okay. Speak up: Challenge these comments, hold your friends accountable, and help them grow. Be a person that respects what a partner wants and doesn’t ignore their boundaries.
      • 4. So what does consent look like (Source)? Here are a few ideas:
        • a. Ongoing verbal and/or physical communication of “Yes” You should have permission for every activity at every stage of a sexual encounter. It’s also important to note that consent can be removed at any time — after all, people do change their minds!
        • b. Renewed each time
        • c. Is for more than just sex (i.e., for any behavior in a relationship)
        • d. Can’t happen when the person is too intoxicated
        • e. Consent for one act is not consent for any other act
        • f. Doesn’t involve manipulation or pressure
        • g. Is specific and happens before and during
        • h. Goes both ways in a relationship
        • i. Continues to happen in committed relationships
      • 5. A study released in 2017 found that some men confuse sexual interest with sexual consent, or believe that a previous sexual encounter with a woman implies consent for potential future encounters (Source). Additionally, research consistently shows that men believe women are more sexually interested in them than women actually are (Source). Sometimes it can be difficult to know if someone really not into you instead of just “playing hard to get.” Some men believe that asking for consent ruins the mood. In fact, when you are sure your partner wants to be with you, it can make the mood even better and make you more confident in both what you are doing and what they want. While there can be differences between being in a committed relationship versus hooking up, when you check in and ask about needs, you are showing concern for well-being which is one of the most attractive things someone can do.
      • 6. The University of Michigan’s Policy & Procedures on Student Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence defines consent as, "a clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed outwardly through mutually understandable words or actions, to engage in a particular activity." Consent can be withdrawn by either party at any point. Consent must be voluntarily given and may not be valid if a person is being subjected to actions or behaviors that elicit emotional, psychological, physical, reputational, financial pressure, threat, intimidation, or fear (coercion or force). Consent to engage in one sexual activity, or past agreement to engage in a particular sexual activity, cannot be presumed to constitute consent to engage in a different sexual activity or to engage again in a sexual activity. Consent cannot be validly given by a person who is incapacitated.”(The University of Michigan’s Policy & Procedures on Student Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence)

2.  Now that we have our answers...

  • A. We understand that the process of confronting our own behaviors can be discomforting and confusing. This is normal. Part of this process is acknowledging the discomfort but still taking action. Action might be owning certain behaviors and acknowledging times we might have made mistakes. This can also be very challenging, however, it can be helpful to remember that our regrets or things we feel guilty about don’t necessarily mean we are a bad person. CAPS will have a follow-up article exploring this idea more in depth - stay tuned!
  • B. Practical steps you can take:
    • Acknowledge and change current behaviors
    • Acknowledge and confront someone else's behaviors (consider attending a Bystander Intervention training)
    • Commit to advocacy and allyship

3.  How can CAPS help?

  • For non-survivors
    • Help students better understand their own definition of masculinity
    • Help readers better understand the questions they have about their own past behaviors
    • Help readers engage with and understand their emotions about this topic
    • Help readers be better allies to others
  • For survivors
    • Help students learn to feel safe, grieve loss, and develop new meaning after being a survivor of sexual assault, sexual violence, and/or sexual misconduct
    • Help survivors empower themselves and others