"Boys will be boys."
If rape culture ever had a rallying cry, that phrase would be the top contender.
Unwanted advances at fraternity parties? Predatory flirtation aimed at women on college campuses? Sexually hostile behavior? Oh well, boys will be boys.
This phrase reflects the normalization of male violence. And it's the reason rape culture still plagues our universities.
Rape culture, which refers to the regularization, justification and trivialization of sexual assault and rape, is a term that gets used often when administrators and students discuss the high rates of sexual violence on college campuses.
Universities offer rape treatment centers and Title IX resources that students can use should they witness or experience rape or sexual assault, and for the most part, these are necessary and beneficial efforts. But there's one key facet of the discussion about sexual violence and harassment on college campuses that hasn't seen much light: toxic masculinity.
Most students have experienced or observed the idolization of "masculine" students and their ability to impress their peers by acting aggressively or violently, particularly in fraternity settings. Male students who act sexually aggressive at parties are seen to be engaging in normal college behavior, and their actions are often not perceived as violent. This is because toxic masculinity gives way to hypermasculine behavior. For example, men in certain environments are expected to demonstrate sexually aggressive behavior, a norm that students can see in spaces, such as fraternities.
But being sexually violent, aggressive or dominating shouldn't be acceptable at any university. Students are capable of putting an end to these notions by being critical of how they and their peers engage with this sort of behavior. By actively questioning unhinged masculinity when they see it, be it at parties or in everyday conversation, students can slowly, but surely, dismantle rape culture on college campuses.
Judith Butler, a gender theorist and professor of comparative literature at UC Berkeley, theorized gender is something that people are socialized to perform rather than something that is biologically inherent. Men are pressured to perform hypermasculine characteristics in order to prove themselves as “real men," such as by pursuing sexual conquests, keeping their most vulnerable emotions to themselves and being physically strong.
The aggressive behavior that some male college students display isn't because of a biological predisposition, but more so because of socialization prior to coming to universities. Exposure to things like commercial media, in which hegemonic ideals of gender are portrayed with female characters being shown as docile while male characters are shown as aggressive and dominant, causes young children to unconsciously perceive this behavior as how they themselves should act.
Rhonda Hammer, a lecturer at UCLA who teaches courses in women studies, communication and education, said that even broadly placing the media at fault doesn’t accurately represent how wealthy men, who themselves often conform to hegemonic masculine ideals, are the ones producing this commercial media.
“The kinds of sexist values and beliefs which embed our relationships are often communicated through commercial media, which reflects these men’s own values and beliefs,” Hammer said.
At a university like UCLA, this manifests itself in men at parties behaving as sexual aggressors who are only seeking out sexual interaction with women.
Abigail Saguy, a cultural sociologist and professor at UCLA, said fraternities are generally a good example of toxic masculinity on college campuses, as all-male spaces can cause male students to look at themselves as an "us" and women as a "them." This makes it easier for men to dehumanize women, and enforces a strong conformity to hypermasculine archetypes.
"This leads to objectification that can take the form of toxic masculinity, policing masculinity and having to prove themselves through sexual conquests," Saguy said.
Rape and sexual violence are often framed as women’s issues – something that only affects women and therefore, can only be solved by them. Yet this ignores the role that men play in perpetuating rape culture. The college social scene encourages male students to objectify women, rather than see them as actual human beings.
We need only look at the case of Brock Turner, a former Stanford University swimmer who raped a graduate student at a party. Turner's actions were defended by his lawyers and father as being just a brief indiscretion that shouldn't result in him being punished for the rest of his life.
Of course, it's easy to fall into the argument that not all men sexually assault or harass women. However, nonparticipation isn't enough to address rape culture, said Rocío R. García, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UCLA. Students have to move beyond the bystander mentality of simply not partaking in – and consequently ignoring – rape culture and instead become allies who challenge the norm.
“What’s your role as an ally? To intentionally be involved and not perpetuate, but also (to abolish) rape culture,” García said. “We teach students to not be a part of it, as opposed to being opposed to rape culture.”
It is not enough to just say that you don't participate in rape culture: If you don't actively work against it, you're not doing anything to stop it. To actually put an end to rape culture on college campuses, students must become conscientious about it and challenge how they are expected to perform gender roles.
We Bruins need to recognize how we reinforce toxic masculinity by encouraging hypermasculine behavior in men, be that in parties or other aspects of college life. Only by becoming critical of this norm – calling out cavalier acceptance of toxic masculinity in everyday conversation or intervening in social settings where we witness women being objectified – can we challenge the regularization of rape, as well as the normalization of aggressive sexual behavior, on college campuses.
Hearing about male aggression and violence and thinking “boys will be boys” might seem to be a natural response. But it's about time we retired the phrase – and the mentality behind it.