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September 2009 was Rape Awareness Month at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The coordinator of the Relationship & Sexual Violence Prevention Center (RSVP), the group sponsoring the month-long series of events, said they chose September because of the high rates of sexual violence committed against new women students during the first few weeks of the semester. As on many campuses around the country since the late 1970s, a Take Back the Night march and rally was the highlight of RSVP’s effort to call attention to violence against women. An RSVP staff member explained that Take Back the Night marches began when women decided, “No, we’re not going to live in fear, we’re not going to stay inside, these are our streets. This is our community; we’re not going to be frightened.” At her own campus, she said, “It’s women getting together and saying, ‘You know what, these are our lives. We own these streets just like anyone else, we walk these streets just like anyone else.’ It’s a very empowering kind of event and evening.” (Silverman, 2009)Silverman, J. (2009, September 1). RSVP educates students for Rape Awareness Month. The Maneater (official student newspaper of the University of Missouri-Columbia). Retrieved from http://www.themaneater.com/stories/2009/9/1/rsvp-educates-students -rape-awareness-month
It was the early 1970s. Susan (a pseudonym), a sophomore college student, wanted to become a physician, so she went to talk to her biology professor about the pre-med program at her school. The professor belittled her interest in medicine and refused to discuss the program. Women, he advised her, should just become wives and mothers and leave the doctoring to men.
At the same college and about the same time, John (also a pseudonym) went to talk to a draft counselor for advice as he considered his options to military service in Vietnam. John said he had something very embarrassing to say and hesitated a long time before speaking. Finally John explained, as if revealing a deep secret, that he had never liked to fight, not even as a young boy, and wondered aloud if there was something wrong with him. It was not that he was scared to fight, he assured the draft counselor, it was that he thought fighting was wrong, even though his friends had sometimes called him a “sissy” and other words for refusing to fight. John was advised that he might qualify as a conscientious objector and was informed about that and his other options to being drafted. He left the room, and the draft counselor never saw him again.
Much has changed during the almost four decades since these two real-life stories occurred and since Take Back the Night marches began. Women have entered medicine, engineering, and other professions and careers in unprecedented numbers, no doubt dismaying the biology professor who thought them best suited as wives and mothers. Many men have begun to realize that “real men” do not necessarily have to enjoy fighting and other traditionally male behaviors and attitudes. Our society now has an awareness of rape and other violence against women that would astonish students of the 1970s. Still, gender roles and gender inequality persist and violence against women continues, with important consequences for both women and men and for society as a whole. To begin our discussion of gender and gender inequality, this chapter begins with a critical look at the concepts of sex and gender.