Man Up

Man up!

You pussy!

Grow a pair!

These are insults that are so commonplace that we have all encountered them at some point, be it on a playing field, in a locker room or in any other situation where being “strong” and “tough” is paramount. They’re all based on the generally accepted premise that the worst thing you can do/say to a man is to question his masculinity.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that I really considered what’s being communicated when men say things like this to one another. All of these statements are related to a man showing vulnerability or weakness, which is immediately connected to them being feminine. So taking things a step further, if appearing feminine has all of these negative connotations, how does that affect how men view women on a societal level?

It’s truly astounding how many awful things that occur in this world because men are afraid of appearing weak.

So what’s the opposite of weakness? Power.

And oftentimes, how powerful a man is is directly associated with his sexual exploits. And that’s what I’d like to discuss.

The dehumanization and objectification of women are not issues that are specific to male athletes. They are societal problems. But they tend to be more associated with athletes in part because we are often idolized because of our athletic ability. In many ways, we’re considered models of masculinity, which is at the very root of a lot of these issues. So in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I want to use my platform as an NFL linebacker to discuss how we talk about rape and sexual assault — because not enough men are.

Sexual assault takes many forms, whether it’s a woman assaulting a woman, a man assaulting a man or a woman assaulting a man. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to focus on the most common form of this crime, which is when a man assaults a woman.

Let me start with clearest version of the message I’d like to communicate:

Consent only occurs when a woman clearly says yes.

Consent is not being naked, it’s not kissing, and it’s not touching or flirting. It’s a clear, freely given yes, which is not the same as the absence of a no.

When I was a freshman in college, I was completely clueless about the true definition of consent, just as I was completely clueless about most things in the world. My first month of school, I remember hearing stories about wild nights in the dorm. One time I heard a group of guys joke about “running a train” on a drunk girl. At the time, my 18-year-old brain didn’t process this as anything bad. Maybe those guys were just engaging in a display of bravado. But what if what they were describing was true? A decade later, I carry guilt for not acting after hearing a story (and many others) that painted a picture of what I would now identify as rape. This speaks to just how toxic and backward the culture around sexual assault still is. I was 18 years old — “man” enough to drive, vote and go to war — but somehow I didn’t have the courage, or the maturity, to see what they were talking about for what it was: a serious crime.

I was pretty ignorant on this topic for a long time. I think a lot of men are, because it’s often talked about as a women’s issue. The focus always seems to be on teaching young women how not to get raped and on what steps they can take to “stay safe.” But why are we not also focused on educating young men about the definition of consent and what constitutes rape? We’re essentially dealing with the problem by telling women to be more careful.

And that’s bullshit.

As a society, we need to get more serious about this. The issue of sexual assault is a lot more nuanced than what most men think. We need to teach young men how to be allies — explain to them the emotional and psychological effects that abuse victims often carry with them for their entire lives. We need men to understand that there are likely women close to them who have experienced an assault and never told a soul.

It’s truly astounding the number of awful things that occur in this world because men are afraid of appearing weak.

When I was younger, I heard racy stories so often that I either thought nothing about what was happening, or dismissed it as “boys being boys.” So this is what’s normal, right? At that age in particular, men are taught that women are essentially trophies. I knew in my heart that what was happening in the stories I was listening to was wrong, but my mind was muddled with what ifs. And I used those what ifs to give guys the benefit of the doubt. And this is the same culture that’s still alive today.

For the last couple of years, as a result of multiple off-the-field issues, the NFL has given players a presentation on domestic abuse and sexual violence. It truly opened my eyes and caused me to reflect. It led me to challenge ideas that I had internalized, that were part of a culture that often turned a blind eye to sexual assault. The what ifs that many of us ponder actually have clear answers:

Using the example I mentioned earlier, what if a woman says yes to letting a handful of strangers engage sexually with her while she’s under the influence of alcohol?

That’s called a gang rape.

What if everyone else was also drunk?

Still a gang rape.

What if everyone was sober, but she said yes — a response that was likely prompted by her fear of the many men in the room?

Yes, still rape.

What if she initially said no, but after persistent pushing she eventually says yes?

This is sexual coercion and still qualifies as rape.

Now let’s discuss some of the common ignorant statements and questions that some men use to justify this behavior:

Why would she get so drunk?

Is she not allowed to partake in the same activities that men may deem to be fun? A night of drinking with her friends doesn’t give a man clearance to make assumptions about what a woman wants.

Look at what she’s wearing. She wants someone to get at her.

A woman’s choice of clothing isn’t an open invitation to sex.

But she’s a ho. Just look at how many men she’s slept with?

This is irrelevant. A person’s sexual history is in no way related to their right to consent. Look at how many women you’ve slept with. Do you think that should negatively affect the perception others have of you? I doubt it.

Well, if what she said really happened, why wouldn’t she tell someone?

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), seven out of 10 sexual assaults are never reported. When they are reported, almost 98% of assailants will never spend more than a day in jail. It’s also worth noting that four out of five assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. Imagine the horror of having something like this done to you by someone you know -— a person you once trusted or even loved. The embarrassment, guilt, blame and potential shaming that can come about from reporting one of these crimes is a big part of what enables this culture.

My understanding is that most women have heard the talk about how to avoid becoming a victim, but growing up, I was never involved in a conversation about what consent is. I was never even flat-out told not to rape or sexually assault anyone.

It’s important to challenge many of the basic beliefs men have about what their relationships with women should be like. Sexually “conquering” as many women as possible is expected and admired — so much so that there’s often a silent competition amongst groups of males over who can get the most women. An athlete’s sense of entitlement to a woman’s body is exacerbated because he has been idolized and put on a pedestal in a hyper-masculine culture. Not only am I a man, but I am also a strong and successful man. Why would someone say no? You should all want me.

Of course in a broad sense, everyone knows that rape is wrong. But it wasn’t until after I got out of college that I learned exactly what it is, what it looks like, how prevalent it is and how truly damaging it can be. And honestly, I’m still learning.

We need men to understand that there are likely women close to them who have experienced an assault and never told a soul.

Now I’m asking men everywhere to consider the possibility that their mother, sister, girlfriend or grandmother may have experienced a sexual assault at some point in their lives. Personally, I know and love a woman who was a victim of sexual assault, and I suspect other women in my life have also been the victims of assault. When you approach this issue as a mother’s son, or as a partner, or as a sister’s brother, rather than as a bro, it looks very different.  But it shouldn’t take a personal relationship to stand up for this.

It’s important for men, especially in a hyper-masculine culture that breeds so many assholes, to stand up and challenge the values that have been passed down to us. This is not just a woman’s problem.

Almost 10 years later, the same ignorance I had as an 18-year-old kid was still apparent in the conversations that I had with colleagues following the presentation on sexual assault.

Victim blaming? Check.

Slut shaming? Yep.

Lack of understanding of what constitutes rape? Absolutely.

Quiet snickering at the idea that a man can also be a victim? Of course.

This isn’t about the NFL. It’s much bigger than that. But I’m asking my fellow athletes to take this opportunity to step up.

Some of the funniest, most insightful and honest conversations I’ve ever had in my life have taken place inside a locker room. But this particular topic is one that has never come up.

As professional athletes, we have the prominence in our communities to effect real change. When we talk, people listen. So in a sense, our general silence on this issue is condoning it.

So let’s change that. Speak out with me. Man up.