There’s No “I” in Tweet

Twitter can be a really selfish place.

It’s where we can add noise to a crowded room, trying to shout above the din, to share our day-to-day or cat pictures, quip about the news, recommend what we’re reading or viewing, or try and get retweets from followers: It’s where we can self-promote.

As much as I hate to admit it, I use Twitter for mostly selfish means. It’s a medium to get authors I follow to retweet my mention of them, as I’m about to start their new book. Or, I’ll hope that my quips get favorited by strangers or followers. I even linked this site to my Facebook and Twitter so real-life friends and total strangers alike can see my writing.

In a practical sense, this last one is fine. But I’ve been tweeting much longer than I’ve been writing, so my previous motivation is something more sinister.

When we get notifications that others interacted with our online activities, through likes, comments, retweets, or favorites, there’s a brief rush–dopamine?–rewarding us for our use. So we repeat, hoping for another rush (though for some reason though I don’t get excited about LinkedIn endorsements).

It feels just like successfully overcoming a challenge in a video game: A digital high.

And like a lot of ways that can lead to a high, social media can lead us to regrettable decisions. And, for me, that’s where this intersects with masculine norms.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve reflected on my use of social media sites, and one particular event stands out as the perfect example worth exploring. I was listening to a recent interview with Jen Kirkman, comic and and author of I Can Barely Take Care of Myself on Citizen Radio. At one point, co-host Jamie Kilstein, who is also a stand-up comic, and Kirkman were discussing the hateful and sexist vitriol tweeted at female comics.

So because I had seen some of the shit people tweet at Rob Delaney, my internal motivation machine went in to action. I thought I could come up with something worth getting a retweet from either Kilstein or Kirkman. I got more than a retweet though. The response, though, was not what I was expecting:

When I initially saw the Connect button light up, the rush was on. But then when I read the reply there was this weird adrenaline/anger combination. I felt like “Trust me” was just dripping with condescension, when I felt like I had made a pretty good point. I responded, trying to be civil, but I was actually in over my head. I was so caught up in my own self-interest that I had missed the whole part of their conversation when they were talking about female comics.

It took me a while to process through all of this and really make meaning of it.

My initial motivation for using social media is inherently flawed. The selfish attempts to fuel my reward centers in my brain caused me to bypass the parts that involve critical thinking or empathy.

But I wouldn’t be writing about this if it hadn’t been for that feeling of anger that arose as a result of how I perceived that initial response. While I was aware of my internal motivation and my genuine belief that my comment was a positive contribution to the discourse, Kirkman called me out and with two words took the whole thing down around me. That opened the door to actually explore the selfishness and arrogance that really was the foundation of my tweet, and how I tried to recover to protect my ego from the dissonance.

When I read Kirkman’s tweets, I felt condescended to, and this did not sit well with me. As a (straight white cisgender American) man, consistently rewarded by society and the education system to believe that I am smart and right, I arrogantly believed that my comments were both relevant to the discourse and important enough for Kirkman or Kilstein to share with their thousands of followers. This is, of course, ridiculous.

When Kirkman essentially said that I was wrong and that I didn’t do my research, I didn’t know how to express my anger. I wisely chose to disengage, because I at least recognized that I was wrong, as I my second tweet was both true and a cover for my ego. But I fumed internally, keeping it concealed that my partner didn’t even know it was in my head until she read a very early draft of this post. And the reason I was angry about it was the same reason I didn’t talk about it: Guilt.

Now, with some time to reflect on what I did and didn’t do in this situation, I realize that my lack of comprehension of the interview or the hateful tweets made my initial comment a tacit approval of those hateful tweets (and depicted me, accurately in this case, as a man who has a long way to go in standing against sexism).

So, what I perceived as condescension was more likely Kirkman’s frustration with Internet asshats like me, because she can’t read my (somewhat) good intentions in my tweet. If she could have seen the irony regarding motivations, I would fully expect her to call me out more directly. It took a while to acknowledge that the blow to my ego was dual: as a person, adding noise to the Internet, and as a man who felt condescended to by a woman.

The Internet is filled with noise, ranging from the mundane and banal life updates to the vitriolic and hateful trolling. Because we are so easily motivated by the attention given to our contributions to the noise, we are all veering dangerously away from the ways in which new technologies can foster dialogue, social justice, progress, and change.

The participation-reward cycle of the digital high no doubt plays a significant role in making these new technologies part of an anti-social media, where anti-social behaviors are rewarded and reinforced, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. What is it when a genuinely held belief about white racial superiority or of appropriateness of female oppression is expressed, if not anti-social?

So we have the option to continue using our tweets and posts as a selfish means to share our wit or the fun in our lives, boosting our egos, indifferent to the ways in which that can reinforce hegemony and oppression.

Or we can realize a greater purpose: Instead of aiming for retweets (or WordPress site views, even…), we can work for quality interactions. We can use these tools as engaging online forums where we dialogue, seeking to understand the positions of others, so that the replies are mutually beneficial. Yes, we’ll still receive the rewards from that little blue dot on our Twitter apps, but by sharing and making mistakes and gaining perspective from others, we’ll be rewarded by learning with and from each other–well, at least 140 characters at a time.

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Detecting Serial Rapists on College Campuses

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (in addition to a variety of others that get lost in our daily shuffle). So for me it’s a time to critically think about the way we’re raising awareness, and if we’re not undermining our traditional efforts (which are clearly not enough) by ignoring some key research, published just over 10 years ago.

This past week at work, my campus hosted Dr. David Lisak, who is best known for his research in to the predatory nature of most men who commit rape. He was the keynote speaker for our annual summit for sexual assault and violence prevention and facilitated a discussion for allegation investigators. While I had previously seen clips of the documentary based on his research with college men regarding the incidence of sexual predation, there was a substantial amount of information that really challenges the way I think about sexual assault prevention.

Often, the research indicates that bystander intervention programs, which enlist men and women as disrupters of sexual assaults before they occur, are effective programs. Rather than framing the issue as one of men as predators and potential rapists, it instead tries to train potential witnesses to take direct or indirect action to prevent assaults by others.

This approach is intended to bring men in to the conversation, appealing to them as men (who’ve been socialized to believe they are responsible, decisive, action-oriented) to step in. It is founded on the premise that we have to appeal to men through hegemonic masculine norms in order to converse with and bring them to action in gender equity work, something that is problematic but requires its own separate exploration.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lisak’s research presents a problem. He has found, in studies that have been replicated in other environments, that among college aged men, only 5% admit to actions that constitute sexual assault or rape. Of those men, 63% are responsible for 91% of the rape behaviors. His conclusion in the study is that 3% of men are serial rapists, responsible for 91% of rapes, among other violent crimes against women and children. In McWhorter’s study of U.S. Navy recruits, the findings were even more startling, with 13% of men acknowledging behavior that constitutes rape or attempted rape, and among them 71% are serial rapists responsible for 95% of all rapes.

“Great!” we could say, “not all men are rapists.” This is true. However, the 3% who commit the vast majority of rapes and other violent crimes against women/children are doing so because they are “undetected” as Lisak & Miller refer to them.

So for me the vexing issue coming out of this campus summit, in thinking about prevention in a college environment, is how to address the serial rapist issue. Bystander intervention programs I’ve worked with often treat sexual assault as a one-off event that likely results from over-intoxication by the potential victim, and requires people to notice and step in to make sure that person gets home safe and unharmed.

But if the vast majority of men who are likely to commit rape are predatory serial rapists, as Lisak’s and other research suggest, they are actively taking advantage of their victims in ways that may evade bystander intervention techniques taught to college students.

Not only will they continue to use alcohol to ply their potential victims in to isolation, advantageous to the assault, but they may choose environments where bystander interventions are less likely to occur–crowded bars, clubs, and house parties where anonymity is easier and bystander intoxication is more likely to cloud judgment, and thereby prevent successful bystander intervention.

They may also work collaboratively with other predatory men. Among the men interviewed, Lisak found that there were groups–notoriously, but not exclusively fraternities–that intentionally used parties and their social capital as party hosts to prey on new college women, with the tool of choice being cups of highly concentrated alcoholic punch to incapacitate their victims.

The interview transcript was turned in to a documentary with re-enactments of the dialogue. The language used is both disturbing and insightful. The way the man described the women as objects whose sole purpose was his satisfaction is key to understanding the way some men are viewing women on campus, and indifferent to (or worse, proud of) their own predatory behavior.

The Unintentional Risks of Bystander Interventions

Bystander Intervention can be an effective tool, but if we elide or omit the nature of serial rape among non-strangers, we are undermining our own efforts. If a serial rapist is thwarted by a bystander, who assumes it is potentially just a consent or communication issue, they will adjust their tactics to be more successful in the future.

Additionally, the potential rapist is not being held accountable. They do not feel shame for having tried to take advantage of their potential victim. They will feel anger or frustration for being prevented from accomplishing their goal: rape. This will be highly motivating for them to learn from their “mistakes” and find a way to successfully rape in the future, figuring out ways to avoid bystander interventions.

So in many cases, bystander intervention will prevent individual sexual assaults. But it will also teach predators the means to continue to avoid detection as serial rapists. The intrepid among them will attend bystander intervention programs to learn how to continue to be “undetected.”

Serial Rape and Student Conduct

From a student conduct perspective, we’re also challenged on how to hold alleged rapists accountable, if they are serial rapists. Dr. Lisak appeared on CBS a few years ago to talk about the basic synopsis of his research and its implications for investigators, and that can be extended to campus administrators in student conduct.

The reality is that we’re constrained by Title IX and due process. It can be incredibly invasive or resource-intensive to investigate the alleged rapists background to find out if this is a one-off or if they are a serial offender who hasn’t been caught, who has been practicing or enabled, who has other victims.

As I said above, if random bystander X intervenes in a situation, that information may never come to the attention of campus officials as a prior indicator of predatory behavior that can inform an understanding of the alleged student’s motivation and the appropriate sanctions if they’re found responsible.

An investigation could turn it up, but given the scope and scale of the party and bar environment on my campus, it’s just as, if not more, likely that there’s not a snowball’s chance in June that we’re going to hear about it. At least not with some incredibly invasive investigation, which may then draw both press and Federal scrutiny–risks not likely to be palatable to University administrators.

Of course the flip side is a Title IX lawsuit and negative press coverage regarding the campus’s failure to prevent sexual assault. Personally (and professionally) I’d rather deal with the former.

This may require the development of Campus Threat policies and procedures that empower campus officials (and University law enforcement officers) with these investigative responsibilities in order to justify it under legislative, judicial, or media scrutiny. Of course, serial rapists going ignored or unpunished would constitute a campus environment hostile to women so I think it’ll likely stand up, given the research.

But the campus efforts should not be limited only responding to incidents that are reported. We should be working actively to prevent incidents of sexual violence.

Changing Prevention Efforts

One of my responsibilities this year is in developing some efforts for bystander intervention skill development related to high risk alcohol use. As part of that I’m also reflecting on the ways to incorporate sexual assault prevention in to the program. Student leaders, who are the intended participants of this program, need to be educated on the risk of the serial rapist, without sending the message that all men are rapists.

In my mind this proves to be more challenging.

Sharing the statistics that the vast majority of rapes are committed by a tiny fraction of men on campus may be heartening to some–we who who don’t rape can feel good that we’re the “good ones.” It also may feel daunting to know that confronting a potential sexual assault may not prevent one in the future. Without the expectation to both intervene in the moment, and inform someone in a position of authority, the intervention may only delay the attack to some future victim.

This might conflict with the bystander’s assumptions about the potential rapist: Tarnish an innocent man’s reputation or prevent a potential future assault, without knowing for sure one way or the other.

There may also be a failure to see if group behavior is somehow reinforcing individual serial rape behavior. Like the men in Lisak’s study, there are still some out there who conspire together to use the college party environment as a means to commit sexual assaults (where have prosecutions on that atrocity been?!).

Add in the tendency of college students to distrust authority and resist reporting anyway, unless they’re personally impacted in some way, and you can see the numerous wrinkles to this new way of thinking about sexual assault prevention.

Going forward there has to be concerted efforts to prevent, investigate, and hold accountable serial rape behaviors. To ignore this issue continues to put college women at risk. It can (and it’s only a matter of time before it will) put universities at risk, which may be the interest convergence necessary to start making changes in this area.

For whatever reason, because the research findings have been available for over a decade, it is concerning to me that we unintentionally reinforce rape culture through our lack of resources to fully investigate the alleged offender, our failure to proactively discuss sexual assault with college men in as many avenues as possible, or the meaningful steps to identify “bad actors”: those who have anti-social traits and use alcohol as a means to sexually assault.

These are challenging issues, requiring significant collaboration and education efforts on campus, but to do less would give the message to the predators that if at first they don’t succeed, they can try again.

Battling Our Porn Problem

Among the many reasons that I’m proud to work with the fraternity Beta Theta Pi is the recent issue of their alumni magazine tackled some unusual content: Addictions. I was struck how they took the unusual approach of publishing a piece on the impact of pornography, neurochemically and interpersonally, on the human relationships that fraternities and colleges strive to foster, side-by-side with updates on the achievements of members or the capital campaigns underway.

Before going on, click on over and check out the article at http://issuu.com/betathetapiao/docs/beta_theta_pi_spring_2013/27

Now, I disagree that we need to automatically categorize any viewer of pornography (or other visual aids for arousal) as having a problem. For example, there is actually a growing market for feminist pornography and there are arguments for some things as a healthy component of sexual intimacy–the Kama Sutra has a spiritual purpose in addition to being a how-to guide.

And I couldn’t even venture a comment on the value or critiques in porn for same-sex couples. It’s important to acknowledge that other communities may have a different perspective because they consume pornographic materials in different ways.

However, the author Justin Warren, a Beta alum from SMU, makes some strong points regarding the neurochemical change that occurs with repeated use of porn. The brain can re-wire itself and your expectations regarding sexual intimacy, arousal, and attraction.

Not only that, by engaging more with porn instead of people, it can damage human relationships, which are crucial for young men navigating college or high school especially. At worst, in a fraternity chapter, one member can derail an entire community, if that porn becomes the gateway through which they learn to apply force or coercion to achieve real sex, as mirrored in more hardcore stuff.

What was missing was a critique about the way that porn, especially due to its limitless availability in the information age, has reinforced social norms that demean or objectify women.

It’s all well and good to address the way porn hurts men. That’s one strong way to discourage men from using it, by thinking through their own self-interest in stopping.

But by ignoring the social inequality perpetuated by the pornographic money machine–through sex trafficking in less than equitable production locations outside of southern California, the dehumanization done by showing people as body parts solely for sexual gratification, and as a representative of heterosexual sex as the “norm”–it reads as if there is no greater need beyond addressing it with a fraternity brother who may use porn a little too much.

The unfortunate reality is that the very fabric of our being is strained by the use and abuse of porn. By dehumanizing women, the industry intent on producing profits dehumanizes men by disrupting our ability to have empathy, develop emotional intimacy, or recognize the on-going problems with porn.

Without that deeper connection to social justice awareness, fraternity men will not seek to include themselves in efforts to effect meaningful change in the world. I’m all for philanthropy, but throwing a bar party to raise money to fight cancer is not the same as putting in the time and effort to challenge oppression or make community change a reality.

It’d be amazing to see a chapter of fraternity men take an authentic stand on an issue of gender- or sexuality-based inequality: volunteering with a LGBT youth center, raising funds for a domestic violence shelter, volunteering on a rape crisis line or with interpersonal violence prevention, or developing meaningful self-governance practices that eliminate alcohol and sex for all recruitment, retention, or social activities.

One of the reasons I decided to volunteer with Beta Theta Pi is because as a facilitator for their summer leadership development program, I was introduced to the core values and spirit of the fraternity. It stands for something greater than having a fun chapter or a well-known house–things other fraternities I’ve interacted with have prioritized.

The spirit of mutual assistance and integrity resonate with my personal beliefs. The connection to values, though, is too often not the primary reason I’ve heard men join a fraternity (it’s the guys they meet).

But I continue to give my time to the organization out of the hope that through work with one local chapter, I can begin to make a difference. Growing up I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about porn, for example. I thought using it was okay, or even expected. It was never talked about, but then again it was never discouraged either.

As I became more self-aware as a man, I sought out opportunities to connect with men and open up the exploration of masculinities through a variety of avenues–gender roles and expectations, work roles, group roles, emotional expression, and others. I also realized that it was critical to my personal well-being and the well-being of my relationship with my partner to stop using porn. And these can be hard things to think about or put in to action.

Beta took a bold stand in putting this content out to his thousands of alumni, challenging those men to reconsider what role they thought porn should have in their lives and in the lives of the men who are the future of the fraternity. I worry that there are men out there, some of whom are in the chapter I advise, no doubt, who have not yet considered the harm that pornography can wreak on one’s perceptions of love, intimacy, and sex.

As I spend more time working with this  fraternity chapter, I hope to continue to develop the relationships that will allow those men to feel comfortable seeking out support from me when they are struggling with their own conception of what it means to “be a man.”

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Steubenville, rape culture, and the physiology of alcohol impairment

On the March 16 Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC, Joy Reid kicked off the show by diving in to the ins and outs of the Stebenville rape case. If you’ve missed that story, Jezebel has a whole section devoted to the unfolding story and on-going trial. What stands out to me (aside from the repulsiveness of how this exemplifies the American rape culture) has to do with the biology of alcohol abuse among young people, as someone who works daily with underage drinkers. Recent education efforts by the NIAAA and SAMHSA have started to unpack and disseminate information on the impact of binge drinking for young people, specific to the frontal lobes and brain development. A brief summary of the SAMHSA research is available online.

My thoughts tie in to the victim blaming that is unfolding in the way the defense is shaping the case. The victim, they argue, was drinking willingly and accompanying her alleged attackers. While this may be true, there is an issue of consent that between her extreme intoxication and the (possible) intoxication levels of her alleged assaulters. Rightly, the prosecution is making the case that the victim was intoxicated to the point that she had memory loss from the evening (blackouts typically occur with BACs above .15) and thus she was so impaired that it was impossible for her to give consent. This appears to be corroborated by testimony/social media updates from other witnesses that she was unconscious at points throughout the night.

Related to the alcohol use, what is not well-known is how significant the impact on actual decision making one-time binge drinking episodes can be for young people. We know that the frequency of heavy drinking among adolescents can lead to long term changes in the “wiring” of decision-making neural pathways, among other physiological consequences. What is unclear is if the impairment of decision making in a moment is even more impaired than if the victim had had more “secure” neural pathways in her frontal lobes. It is entirely possible that the extreme intoxication of the victim further impaired her ability to give consent. By arguing that she was drinking, it is reasonable that she was even less capable of giving consent, even at lower BACs earlier in the evening.

At the same time, the extreme intoxication of the bystanders and her alleged attackers, many of whom were also adolescents, may also mean they were significantly impaired beyond what we would see with adults with similar BACs. This reinforces a significant need for both bystander intervention and responsible alcohol use education at all ages, and especially for hypermasculine groups such as athletes and fraternities. By moderating alcohol use we can prevent the more significant impairment of decision making where boys and men cross the threshold from friends to sexual assaulters. By developing strong bystander intervention programs, we can help create a culture that doesn’t endorse rape but instead stands against violence, sexual assault, victimizing others, and other actions or behaviors that dehumanize women or the LGBT community, or further restrict men to the “man box.” Learning one’s limits with alcohol shouldn’t be a process of trial-and-error. From the earliest age, we should be modeling and encouraging moderate alcohol use, even before young people are given alcohol. Combined with strong efforts to mentor boys and young men to view women as people, who have humanity, and who are not just objects, and programs to foster bystander intervention strategies, attitudes, and actions, we can start to steer our cultural ship away from a rape culture towards one of equity and safety for all people.

Of course, we still have to confront the sexism in the media that is marketed to young men and boys, and put public and economic pressure on corporations that contribute to the dehumanization of women. I guess I shouldn’t renew my subscription to Time magazine (part of the CNN/SI/Time news empire).

Sexism Illustrated

Last week I received an offer from Sports Illustrated for a cheesy mass-produced NFL team jacket if I subscribed to their magazine. It’s been years since I’ve read an issue of SI, but this whole month of February, I had had the recurring thought about the Swimsuit Issue and its role in men’s development (as experienced through my own adolescence) and its larger place in our society. Receiving that mail in offer was the catalyst that I needed to actually sort through what I thought and how I felt about the Swimsuit Issue. Not only did I come to view it through my own lens of developing a masculine identity, particularly its role in sexuality and idealizing female archetypes, but also as it relates to the larger issue of gender equity in sports and sports culture. The latter topic is so broad it deserves its own post so look for that, bu the personal is stake we should all feel in this is what I think is most critical.

When I was a teenager, I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated for around three or four years. Each year, I looked forward to the annual Swimsuit Issue, because, in case its not obvious, as a heterosexual teenage male, I viewed the female models as objects that existed solely for my self-gratification. But what wasn’t apparent to me was that I was supposed to view them this way. It definitely could be argued that the very public imagery of the models reinforces existing media efforts to restrict women in American society to fit a certain ideal. That feminist critique is valid certainly, but in this space I’m concerned with the impact that the magazine has on our young men and their expectations for women’s appearance.

Each year, we’re given a new issue filled with women in bathing suits (or body paint) and posed in sexually suggestive positions. In the same way that pornography warps men’s expectation of sexual intimacy, the swimsuit issue warps are view of the ideal woman (in line with most mainstream media outlets of course). That the Swimsuit Issue is more readily available to young males, even with access to the pornography-overrun internet, a young teenage male could easily spend the cover price and pick up the magazine at their local 7-11. Thus with access to this lone magazine, young men and boys are starting to do what society wants them to do. View women as objects, lust (not necessarily in the biblical sense, just the animalistic desire sense) after these models, and by extension other women, and begin to habitually imagine sexual acts with these and other women. When researchers suggest men think about sex every seven seconds, if those men are anything like I have been, they’re imagining sexual acts with strangers they pass on the streets—a tough habit to unlearn. The Swimsuit Issue functions as a gateway of sorts. Once one starts objectifying women in the Swimsuit Issue, how easy does it become to go browsing the internet for porn?

In the digital age the Sexism Issue may be an outdated attempt at boosting revenue, especially with access to bonus content for magazine subscribers, but it’s just one piece in a very large web that serves to keep women and men restricted. Women are supposed to fit an ideal and their athletic (or professional) success is irrelevant. Men are supposed to lust after women, after all its only natural, right? That SI’s swimsuit issue is just taken as normal is indicative of how pervasive the problem has become. We are numb to the things that reinforce the Man Box and keep us trapped by this narrow definition of men.

Instead of subscribing, let Sports Illustrated know that you are disappointed in their exploitation of women. Tweet at them at @SInow or contact them. And you can do what I did if they solicit subscriptions. Send back a note asking them to change their sexist ways. As women’s history month begins this weekend, think about the progress that’s been made and how this magazine is just one of the many remnants that still needs to be swept away as we look to build a more equitable society.