I’ve just returned from the campus of Longwood University, where my husband Dave teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies. Over the years, I’ve visited campus a few times to hear Dave deliver a paper or introduce a speaker. Today, I went to watch him walk a mile in some serious, ruby-red high heels—the kind I wouldn’t wear because they would wreak havoc with my back. In addition to walking the walk, Dave talked the talk: he introduced the event, which is called Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, as a playful way to engage men in the serious and necessary work of confronting male sexual violence against women. Dave praised the men—students, faculty, and staff—who were there for their willingness to confront both stereotypical gender roles and a topic that many find uncomfortable. And he called attention to the fact that the student newspaper had just this week run a front-page story about a female student’s rape.
Before Dave spoke, Longwood’s Wellness Coordinator, Sasha Johnson, emphasized the importance of educational outreach about sexual violence on college campuses: one in four college women will be raped. Ninety-five percent of rapes on college campuses go unreported. Think about those numbers a minute—let them sink in.
That’s what I was doing, as I walked in my running shoes next to twenty or thirty proud-walking, sometimes laughing, uncomfortable men in high heels. I thought about the friends I’ve had who have told me of their rapes. I thought about the student I had at another university, struggling in my class because she had been raped and was trying to work through the trauma while continuing her studies. I thought about the student Dave had mentioned, also at another university, who had told him she must miss class to testify against her rapist—and who returned to report that the defense attorney had grilled her on her clothing and behavior, and the rapist had gone free. I thought about all the women’s stories I have read as part of this work, this feminist work to understand rape culture and call out victim blaming and uncover stories and uplift women’s voices and find justice. I thought about the article I read just yesterday, in which a rape survivor described beginning a global conversation about the ridiculousness, the injustice of the question, “What were you wearing?”
I thought about all of those women—all of those survivors—as we walked, and I also thought about the men walking next to me. Dave had said he was heartened by their presence, and saddened that there weren’t more of them, and I agreed. But as a woman walking next to them, I also felt a wave of fierce gratitude. As athletes and fraternity men turned their walks into athletic performances, as husbands talked about wives kicking off heels before they went dancing, as all of them complained at the pinched toes and the difficulty walking downhill, I felt buoyed by these men willing to consider what it means to be a woman, if just for a mile.
It’s a mile that matters a great deal. As Jackson Katz emphasizes in The Macho Paradox, getting men involved in the fight to end sexualized violence against women is an absolute game-changer. Men’s violence against women is fueled by a vision of masculinity that requires proof of male dominance and violence and degrades women. Many men are aware of this problem, but too uncomfortable to speak out in front of their peers—nearly as uncomfortable as they would be walking in a pair of ruby-red heels.
Walk a Mile in Her Shoes is a wonderful step in the right direction. It began in 2001, when Frank Baird created what the event’s website describes as “… a small group of men daring to totter around a park” that “…has grown to become a world-wide movement with tens of thousands of men raising millions of dollars for local rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters and other sexualized violence education, prevention and remediation programs.”
As men from all over the world participate in this event, they join, in spirit and action, the men of Men Can Stop Rape, who focus on creating and supporting healthy masculinity as the core issue in preventing violence against women. It is these men who give me hope, and these men who I think of when I talk about a future of mutual respect and partnership. It is these men who, alongside their sisters and daughters and wives and friends, will create lasting, systemic change by defining rape as a crime that belongs to the rapist rather than the victim.