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The One Thing That Connects the Las Vegas Shootings, Hazing Deaths and Sexual Assault

A conversation with sociologist Tristan Bridges, author of ‘Mass Shootings and Masculinity’

The hazing death at Penn State. The mass shooting in Las Vegas. Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby. If you believe that people are inherently good, you have to ask: What makes men commit such evil acts?

“Toxic masculinity,” says Tristan Bridges, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara — as do many, many, many others. It’s a topic he’s uniquely familiar with. In addition to studying man caves for a living, Bridges had written on topics like “Marketing Manhood in a ‘Post-Feminist’ Age,” “Fag Discourse in a Post-Homophobic Era,” “Mass Shootings and Masculinity” and” Exploring Masculinities — Identity, Inequality, Continuity and Change.”

Do you think C.J. Pascoe’s “Good Guy” phenomenon is at play with regard to Weinstein, Cosby, Ailes et al?
The “wolf-in-sheep’s clothing” stuff definitely does happen. But far more often, men have a sexual interaction and are completely unaware that they were in the wrong. They don’t imagine themselves as wolves in sheeps’ clothing because they’ve bought into toxic ideas about what sex is and how men and women relate to one another. When I teach my students about this, I put up this survey from the 1990s that asked American men and women if they’ve ever been coerced to have sex against their will:

Just 1 to 2 percent of men said they’d been coerced, and 1 to 3 percent of women said they’d coerced men, so the numbers match up. When you flip it, however, more than 20 percent of women said they’d been coerced but less that 3 percent of men admitted that they’d ever participated in coercing.

I ask my students to make sense of that: How is it possible? Usually someone will say, “It’s a really small number of men who are doing all of the assaulting.” There’s probably some truth to that about super-predators. But the scarier way of making sense of the data is that two people left a sexual interaction and one understood it as sexual assault and one did not. So these men don’t actually know they assaulted someone because they don’t have an understanding of what sexual assault actually is.

What about the element of power, though — especially as it pertains to the workplace?
Some of it has to do with power differentials; some of it has to do with organizational cultures that purport to police themselves despite inequality being embedded within them. Like when you have one person who has the ultimate authority to decide who has stepped over the line. It then becomes really complicated to call anyone out.

As it was with Harvey Weinstein?
Yes. Harvey Weinstein is alleged to have done some truly horrible things. But it’s easy to vilify a person. The commentary I’ve enjoyed the most questions the culture that created a safe space to engage in that kind of behavior. That’s one of the most important pieces of this conversation. If anything good comes out of this, it’s restarting a conversation we need to have about workplace harassment and sexual assault.

Like the #MeToo campaign?
Yes, it’s really powerful. The criticisms of #MeToo, though, have been about how it’s now falling on the shoulders of women to teach men how and why they’re dominating and why this continues. That’s unfortunate.

Are things like the Shitty Media Men list helpful?
Historically, networks of women have collaborated to try to protect themselves from horrible men. The Shitty Media Men campaign sounds a lot like what sex workers have done for a long time. They have blacklists of johns who get violent. It’s horrible, but it shows that this kind of thing happens everywhere.

What should men who consider themselves allies do?
It’s important to stand up when we hear these kinds of allegations. Often people don’t come forward because they’re worried about what the allegations will mean for them and whether people will stand beside them. So it’s really important as an ally when you see this kind of stuff to recognize that that’s the moment you need to speak up.

What else can we do?
Men are often in positions where they can provide a bridge for meaningful change to occur. It’s a risk, but men are much more likely to be connected to positions of power. Men need to participate. They could disrupt the culture of silence by saying, “No, this behavior is shameful, as is turning your back to it.” It also should be considered shameful to not believe someone’s story or keep things quiet to preserve a culture of silence.

How do you make something shameful?
I don’t know—that’s part of the puzzle.