Several recent tragedies in the United States have a common factor: rampant misogyny and sexism against women and sexual and gender minorities. In May, Before killing 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school, the Uvalde shooter shot his grandmother. He also had a history of violently threatening teen girls online.
The mass shooter’s misogyny and history of violence against women is not an outlier: A study published in Injury Epidemiology in 2021 reported that in two-thirds of mass shootings committed between 2014 and 2019, the perpetrator either killed at least one partner or family member, or they had a history of domestic violence.
In contrast with the violent misogyny of mass shootings that takes people’s lives, the violence of anti-abortion activism robs women and sexual and gender minorities of their self-determination and bodily autonomy. The leaked draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which signals that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, vindicates a concerted effort by anti-abortion activists and policymakers to undermine and eradicate the constitutional right to abortion.
Abortion bans and restrictions perpetuate gender essentialist and benevolent sexist (paternalistic and “positive” thoughts about women that places them on a pedestal) beliefs that women’s proper role in society, as dictated by their reproductive autonomy, is caregiving and motherhood. Negative beliefs about women and other marginalized gender identities, also known as hostile sexism, predicts a man’s endorsement of controlling another person’s reproductive health decision-making.
Blatant misogynistic violence and discrimination permeating our cultural zeitgeist are nothing new—the infamous leaked Access Hollywood tape from 2005 depicted the eventual 45th president bragging about sexually assaulting women, kissing and groping them without their permission because of his celebrity status. Trump’s comments were sexist on several levels: They not only normalized sexual violence but also perpetuated sexist gender stereotypes about women as weak and lacking autonomy. Given that at least 26 people have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, sexist comments become the bedrock of and justification for sexist behaviors.
To create a society where people of all genders can live without the fear of gender grievance-motivated violence and have the right to bodily autonomy, we must confront sexism. Ultimately, it should be the responsibility of men to create an anti-sexist society via male anti-sexist peer education that disrupts this socialization and teaches boys and young men about sexism’s societally corrosive effects.
Because men are responsive to other men, peer education is a good avenue to pursue an anti-sexist society. Traditional male gender socialization facilitates the introduction of cis boys into cultural norms of masculinity via fraternities, the manosphere, and other communities. These enclaves of gender policing demonstrate that cishet young men look up to each other and seek each other’s approval and confirmation of their individual masculinity. Sociologists and masculinities studies researchers have proposed the male peer support theory, which posits that men who perpetuate various types of gendered violence are encouraged by and find community with others who engage in similar behaviors. In the abortion rights context, men lead the anti-abortion movement and author anti-abortion policies.
With the imminent overturning of Roe before the Supreme Court term ends, some reproductive rights supporters have reflected on the lack of abortion rights advocacy from a powerful group in our country: cisgender, heterosexual (cishet) men. Cishet men who openly and vocally advocate for abortion rights are scant (with a few exceptions). Anti-abortion policies obviously affect cis and/or heterosexual men, who have sex with people who can get pregnant. Under 6 percent of young men under the age of 20 who were involved in a teen pregnancy that resulted in the birth graduated from college, while nearly 59 percent of their peers who were involved in an unplanned pregnancy that ended in abortion obtained a college degree, according to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Regardless of abortion’s positive effects on cishet men’s educational achievement, cishet men should advocate for abortion rights because of bodily autonomy and self-determination concerns.
Researchers have thoroughly documented the detrimental effects of sexism on women. Having college-aged women witness an instance of benevolent sexism, a form of sexism where the perpetrator holds positive yet paternalistic views towards women, made them report high levels of body surveillance and shame. A study published by Sex Roles demonstrates that when women experience sexism, they start smoking for weight control. Sexism in the state in which a woman is born may affect her later career and salary. Because of all these negative effects of sexism, we need interventions, like male peer education groups, that will prevent and mitigate further sexism.
There are a variety of male peer education groups across the United States targeted toward college students. Some focus on confronting negative gender socialization, like Brown University’s Masculinity Peer Education, or preventing sexual violence, like Penn State University’s Men Against Violence and Michigan State University’s Collaboration of Male Peer Educators Against Sexual Assault and Stereotypes (COMPASS). Their collective curricula comprises lessons about male privilege, gender socialization, gender stereotypes, intimate partner violence, assisting survivors of gender violence, and more—crucial topics for young adult men to learn. Yet, none of these male peer education groups focus directly on educating men about sexism, connecting sexist beliefs to sexist behaviors like interpersonal violence, and teaching them how to confront these sexist biases.
Additionally, these male peer education groups are inaccessible outside of the ivory tower of the university and unavailable to teenage boys, who greatly need these interventions.
Thankfully, anti-sexist peer education is starting to become available at the secondary school level: Some high schools in Iowa utilize a program called Mentors in Violence Prevention, where older students discuss relationships, intimate partner violence, and gender violence with younger students. Despite these drawbacks, male peer education has been successful in challenging sexist attitudes: After undergoing presentations by male and female peer educators that underscored male responsibility in preventing gender violence, high school boys in a Detroit suburb exhibited a decrease in rape-tolerant attitudes.
Psychological research has demonstrated that men are sometimes willing to confront sexist bias. Men who espouse a more masculine ideology are more likely to confront sexism perpetuated against women who have some type of relation to them; the researchers thus concluded that paternalism could motivate some anti-sexist confrontation. For male anti-sexist peer education to be successful, though, there needs to be intrinsic yet less problematic motivations for participating. Luckily, there are many incentives for young men to participate in peer education groups: Male peer educators gain intrapersonal and interpersonal development skills, including having a positive self-concept and talking with a friend about risky behaviors, communication skills, and an awareness of the importance of promoting diversity. Additionally, these male anti-sexist peer education must help all women and marginalized gender identities, not just those associated with the male peer educators.
I was a member of my college’s peer education group for anti-gender violence, Pards Against Sexual Assault, which is primarily staffed by students who are women or nonbinary. I found the presence of cishet male peer educators refreshing, especially those who were in fraternities, because of the powerful changes they can make with their same-gender peers. Their participation demonstrates to me that there are cishet men who acknowledge their responsibility in creating an anti-sexist society that is safer for people of all genders.
Perhaps with greater societal investment in anti-sexist peer education groups for cis boys and men, we won’t have any more Billy Bushes, who laugh instead of confronting sexism, or Jonathan Mitchells, the lawyer behind Texas SB 8. Male anti-sexist peer education is one way to produce the next generation of abortion rights or anti-gender violence advocates— or just cishet men who will stand up for women and sexual and gender minorities in their daily lives.