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'Anti-sexist' Jackson Katz pushes forward with his gender-jarring messages

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As a "fearless" 19-year-old University of Massachusetts Amherst student in 1978, Jackson Katz looked around and realized his female peers had limitations that he didn't. At the time, young feminists on campus were organizing to get the school to provide better lighting for their safety.

"I remember thinking if I were a woman and I had to worry about this — which I wasn't at all worried about when I was young — I was like, this is so wrong, that women should have to live like that," he says. "And seeing women stand up for themselves was not to me off-putting, but rather inspiring."

It became the push he needed to stand up and speak out against what he saw as an injustice. As a student journalist, Katz wrote his first anti-rape editorial that same year. And he began to ask, "Where are the men? Obviously men are the ones doing this. Why aren't there men out there speaking out about this?"

Thirty-four years later, Katz is still speaking out, at educational institutions, through television and via Huffington Post columns. His award-winning 2000 video, Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity, is used by teachers and professors across the country. (Tough Guise 2 is in post-production, and will release sometime next month.) A quarter of pro football teams have adopted his Mentors in Violence Prevention Program (MVP), and he's also worked with the military: When we spoke with him last week, Katz was in Norfolk, Va., doing MVP work with the United States Navy, and he's trained cadets at the Air Force Academy.

He'll return to Colorado Springs for a free presentation Wednesday at Colorado College. In anticipation, we interviewed him and excerpted his responses on topics as they relate to gender violence, from the recent MTV Video Music Awards uproar to high-profile school shootings.

On language: "Most people think that these are women's issues that men help out with. That frame itself is part of the problem — identifying this as a women's issue.

"For example, rape, it's something like 99 percent of rape is perpetrated by men. Whether the victims are female or male, the perpetrators are overwhelmingly men. And yet we call rape a women's issue, and by calling it a women's issue it shifts the focus off of men, and puts it onto women, so naturally lots of people think, 'Oh well, the people that should be and are concerned about rape are women, [and those] who are working against it, or to deal with it, are mostly women.' ...

"We use the passive voice all over the place in discussions about violence, and gender violence in particular. So we talk about, for example, how many women in Colorado Springs were raped, or at colleges in Colorado or something, were raped last year. Not how many men raped women. Or we'll say things like, how many girls in a Colorado Springs school district were harassed or abused last year, not how many boys harassed or abused girls. ...

"In each case, the use of the passive voice has a political effect and the political effect is to shift focus off of boys and onto girls. Even the term 'violence against women' is a problematic term — there's no active agent in the sentence. It's just something that happens to women, like the weather."

On Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke: "If there was a way to judge what percentage of the conversation about those [MTV] Video Music Awards was about Miley Cyrus versus Robin Thicke, I'd say it was at least 80/20, maybe 90/10 in favor of discussions about Miley Cyrus and questioning her behavior and her choices. Critically commenting on her for role modeling and stuff like that, right?

"Very little conversation of Robin Thicke, and here he is, a 35- or 36-year-old man, and he's the songwriter of a song which has extremely sexist lyrics and a very sexually objectifying video, and he participated actively in Miley Cyrus' — their mutual performance, if you will — and yet the criticism was heavily toward Miley Cyrus.

"And then discussion amongst so many people was, How do we talk to our daughters about Miley Cyrus? And it's like, How do we talk to our sons about Robin Thicke? And that's the paradigm shift.

On change in the military: "So there's a huge amount going on right now in the military. It's hard to, I couldn't illuminate it. ... The Navy is implementing MVP all over their system. The Air Force has MVP [though they're calling it Bystander Intervention training].

"System-wide [though], I think these problems are much bigger. ... There's many different layers to what has to happen, and change that has to take place in the military.

"I work on the prevention side — that's different than changing the accountability of command for sexual assault cases. It's different than victim advocacy or victim services. What my work, and my colleagues' work, is about is about changing social norms and changing the cultural climate, and changing peer cultures. Empowering people to speak up and challenge each other, and for young men, and young women, to play an active role in doing that. And that's happening in the military.

"Again, it's a long way from perfect. I wouldn't say we're anywhere near where we need to be, but a lot has been happening over the past 10 years of trying to put in place changes in systems that are deeply rooted in big, huge institutions of the military."

On school and other high-profile shootings: "One of my big areas of focus is linking the domestic and sexual violence pandemic to larger cultural situations: socialization of boys, definitions of manhood that underlie so much of violence, and not just domestic and sexual.

"I think that so much of the conversation in the mainstream journalistic discourse doesn't make those connections, and so you think, 'OK, domestic violence is one problem, and sexual violence is another problem, and bullying is a different problem.'

"School shootings is another level of problem. And there's always some explanation to the phenomena, right? Like with school shootings, it's often mental illness, in the mainstream conversation, and gun availability.

"Our argument in Tough Guise 2Tough Guise as well — is that there's a connecting point to all of this, and it's gender. And it's masculinity and our cultural definitions of masculinity.

"And one way to see that is to say, if it was mental illness, for example, that was the root problem for school shootings, why have something like 61 out of the 62 last school shootings and rampage killings been done by men and young men and boys? ... Aren't there girls that suffer from mental illness? ... And girls live in the culture with drug and alcohol problems, right?

"Why are the overwhelming majority of school shootings and rampage killings done by boys and men? Because it's not about mental illness, or gun availability. It's about gender and mental illness, and gender and gun availability, etc."

On male activists being 'anti-male': "The same system that produces men who abuse women, produces men who abuse other men. The violence in our society — of men killing each other, and beating each other up and sexually assaulting each other, and adult men sexually abusing boys, as well as girls — all those problems are linked to the same system that produces men who abuse their girlfriends and wives. And men in the military who rape their fellow service members, and college students who rape their fellow college students.

"It's like, we're in the 21st century, we know enough. We can begin to connect these dots, and make these connections. And just doing that, and just critically examining how masculinity is constructed and defined and reinforced, is not anti-male. I think it's anti-male not to do that. I think it's anti-male to keep the current system in place.

"And I think ... men owe it to women and girls, but we also owe it to other men and boys, to challenge us to aspire to a healthier definition of masculine strength.

"The idea that somehow men who speak out about these subjects are somehow weak or not strong, or self-hating, I just completely and utterly reject that analysis. I think it's completely wrong and intellectually indefensible."

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