By Barry Goldstein
At the same time the media fails and refuses to cover the crisis in the custody courts in which thousands of children’s lives are destroyed by the use of outdated, discredited and biased practices, the NY Model Batterer Program I work with is frequently invited for television shows and interviews with reporters if we would provide a “reformed” batterer. We always turn down these requests and explain that there is no way to know a batterer has truly changed and that in any event he would not be someone with the expertise to help their audience understand the issue. This is no problem for most journalists. They simply find a program with less ethics and a greater desire to appear on television.
I believe the idea comes from a common practice where former prisoners are asked to speak with at risk youngsters to tell them what a life of crime and time in jail is like. This can be an effective tool to provide that message because it is coming from people who once were where the young people are now. The same approach is often used in substance abuse programs. Those who have experienced life using drugs or excessive amounts of alcohol are perceived to understand the temptations and results better. These types of programs can be effective, but a mistake is made when people attempt to expand the program to offenses involving sexism, racism or other oppressions. For these issues, the experts are those in the marginalized groups and not the offenders who took advantage of the unearned advantages they enjoy in this society based on being a member of groups that are treated as if they are superior. One of the privileges members of advantaged groups receive is the ability to define so that men can define what is included in abuse and whites define what constitutes racism. An earned privilege is something earned through work such as a doctor allowed to perform surgery based on education and training in comparison to a man who has the privilege of walking anywhere without risk of sexual assault or having people pay more attention to what he says than they do to what women say which is an unearned privilege. Members of the dominant group are often oblivious to the privileges they receive.
A good, or perhaps I should say bad example of this common mistake occurred at Minnesota State University, Mankato last month. The school paid Adam Ritz $2500 to speak to the students about the dangers of drinking. The event was sponsored by the Residence Hall Association, a fraternity and Men Against Violence. The Women’s Center expressed its opposition to the presentation but was ignored by these organizations including Men Against Violence which claims to be an ally of the Women’s Center.
Adam Ritz is a former local media personality. He is also a convicted sex offender. He reveals this as part of his presentation, but only towards the end. Mr. Ritz came home and attempted to rape the young woman who was baby-sitting his children. He was convicted, but served only six months and is on the sex offender list for his crime. His presentation sparked a controversy on campus that has spread throughout the country. A Facebook page was created to protest the decision to invite him to the school. Rather than treating the student body with a modicum of respect and addressing these concerns Mr. Ritz and the organizers of the program made many mistakes and I would like to look at them in hopes they can be avoided in the future.
1. Take Leadership from Members of the Marginalized Group: Men are not the experts about rape, just as it would be foolish to look to the wealthy to learn about poverty or a heterosexual to learn about the risk of being outed. Men can go virtually anywhere they wish without worrying about being sexually assaulted. Women have to pay close attention to the behavior or men and carefully restrict their activities in order to reduce the risk of rape. Women and even young girls have to learn and pay attention to information needed for their safety and so become the experts. Accordingly when the Women’s Center objected to the program with Adam Ritz, the male organizations should have recognized the Women’s Center as the experts on campus and stopped the program. Even better they should have consulted with the Women’s Center before scheduling Adam Ritz. It is unsurprising that they didn’t because they were exercising their privilege. Maya Angelou, the poet, says when people show you who they really are, believe them.
2. Rapists are not Qualified to Speak about Addressing or Ending Sexual Abuse: The many egregious, inappropriate and downright hurtful statements made by Adam Ritz illustrates why it is a bad idea to have perpetrators of sexist or other crimes based upon oppression speak to these issues. Rape, like domestic violence, is committed because of a belief system of male entitlement and the common view that the value of women has to do with their appearance and sexual attractiveness instead of their intelligence, talent, hard work, character and so many other attributes that women possess. At most, Adam Ritz may have learned that there can be moderately negative consequences to him for sexually assaulting a young woman, but there is no indication that he understands the magnitude of the harm he caused and the wrongness of both his actions and his beliefs. Society tends to measure whether a sex abuser or domestic violence offender has reformed by determining if he has been arrested again. This is an ineffective approach to these crimes which have the lowest rates for reporting of any crimes. In other words, the fact he was not rearrested does not mean he has not committed further crimes. Furthermore domestic violence offenders may switch to legally sanctioned (as we live in a patriarchal misogynistic culture) domestic violence tactics and sexual abusers may continue to treat girls and women as if their main value is their appearance even if they do not commit further crimes. Accordingly the school should not use a rapist to discuss sexual abuse particularly when so many on campus object.
3. Substance Abuse does not Cause Rape: Substance abuse causes a lot of societal problems such as premature death, days missed from work, lowering the GNP and additional burdens on the health care system. Certainly colleges and universities are justified in creating programs to respond to a problem that causes absenteeism, undermines the academic work of students and too often results in deaths from drunk driving and binge drinking. That seems to be the genesis of this program, but the speaker attempted to use his excessive drinking as an abuse excuse for his attempt to rape the young woman who was watching his children. While alcohol can reduce inhibitions, it does not cause people to engage in activities they would otherwise never consider. This truth makes us aware that Ritz is an even bigger danger than people want to believe because he is inclined to rape. We know this because with inhibitions reduced this is what he tried to do. If this wasn’t already on his agenda he would not have committed sexual violence as alcohol does not a rapist make, though, some rapists turn to alcohol in an attempt to justify or minimize the violence and harm they commit If Mr.Ritz had a belief system that sexual activity is supposed to be mutually pleasurable and based upon consent his excessive consumption of alcohol would not have caused him to do something out of character. The same is true with domestic violence where many abusers mistakenly blame alcohol for their more serious assaults. Millions of people drink too much, but never abuse their partners or attempt to rape someone while under the influence. Men on and off campus often seek to encourage women they are with to drink alcohol in the hopes it will reduce their resistance to having sex with them. It is based on a belief system of men wishing to be able to do things to women often degrading, demoralizing or dehumanizing, instead of sharing mutually pleasurable and meaningful activities with women.
4. Sending the Message of Serious Consequences for Men who Sexually Assault Women: Adam Ritz could have put out a message that there are now serious consequences for men who abuse and mistreat women. That would have been a useful message because the fear of consequences to them might make men change their behavior even when they do not fully understand the harm they are causing. The message was profoundly undermined by the extremely mild sentence Mr. Ritz received. It was further undermined by his approach which was to minimize all his transgressions and instead focus on how much he had suffered and lost. His failure to acknowledge the tremendous harm he did to the young woman and others demonstrates his failure to understand the consequences of his actions and a complete lack of accountability for his crimes.
As men generally do not worry about being sexually assaulted it can be hard for them to understand the magnitude of the harm they cause. Our patriarchal culture structures privilege to shield men from the realities of the harm they cause. Newsweek ran an interesting article right after the 9-11 terrorist attack. They compared a variety of traumatic events in terms of what is most likely to cause Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD). This is a horrible experience commonly caused by the worst possible experiences such as war, earthquakes, kidnappings, hurricanes and killing sprees. The reason they wrote the story at that time was because the type of event second most likely to cause PTSD was a terroristic attack. At that time the closest example we had was the Oklahoma City bombing. Significantly, the type of event most likely to cause PTSD was rape. It may be hard for a man to imagine being raped, but they can certainly imagine what it would be like to be in the middle of a terror attack as it is a subject about which the media always provides comprehensive coverage. My purpose is not to compare rape and a terror attack, but to consider that rape is even more likely to cause PTSD. That should help men understand the magnitude of the harm they cause when committing rape.
5. Men Must be Open to Questions and Challenges: The organizers promised that there would be an opportunity for questions and comments. This was an absolute necessity after a discussion of such an emotionally charged topic and particularly one led by someone with unearned privilege. The organizers appear to have never intended to provide a question and answer session and just announced there was no time for questions and abruptly ended the program. This permitted wrong and disturbing messages to remain to further support a rape culture. An ethical speaker would have wanted to hear what community members had to say in order to make sure he had not caused further pain. Apparently, Mr. Ritz continues to be concerned only with himself and his needs.
6. Focus on the Impact on Victims not Offenders: Many of the women in the audience were offended because Adam Ritz focused on the moderate consequences he brought on himself by his actions instead of concentrating on the severe harm he had caused his victim. Supposedly he was paid to speak because he had learned some lessons that he could share particularly with the men in the audience. Instead it is clear that he has not learned the right lessons because he continues to focus on what happened to him which was more than deserved instead of the horror he inflicted on the young woman he attacked who did nothing and could not possibly do anything to deserve what Mr. Ritz did to her. Mr. Ritz discussed his shameful behavior as if he was a victim rather than the perpetrator. Too often in this society, perpetrators of outrageous and offensive conduct say something like “mistakes were made” instead of accepting complete and total responsibility and acknowledging the harm he alone caused. While society encourages such meaningless insincere apologies with a boys will be boys mentality, Adam Ritz must share the blame for his unaccountable message.
7. Consider the Impact on the Audience: The rate of rape and sexual abuse on college campuses is frighteningly high. This means there was a good chance that victims of this crime could be expected to be in the audience. This is especially true because there was no warning in the publicity materials that the speaker was a rapist. The approach of Mr. Ritz in minimizing his responsibility and focusing on the legal sanctions and consequences to offenders rather than the harm they caused their victims was likely to be offensive to caring people who oppose misogynistic messages in society and support the work to end men’s violence against women. His deeply flawed presentation has the potential for severely harming survivors who had been victimized by other rapists. Again this is why it was so crucial to get feedback from the Women’s Center.
8. The Focus Should be on Changing Men’s Behavior: Most programs and approaches to preventing rape and sexual assault are based on changing women’s behavior, and hence collude with rather than meaningfully address the rape culture. Certainly there are many actions women can take to reduce their risk and these can sometimes be useful responses, but the danger is that it promotes the blame-the-victim approaches that predominate as responses to sexual assault. Better approaches would involve holding men accountable for their own actions and putting the responsibility to prevent rape on men where it belongs. Only rapists can stop rape and to think otherwise is to accept the premise that men are entitled to rape if they can get away with it. This is exactly what Adam Ritz, still clinging to his privilege, refused to do and more importantly what the school failed to do when they selected such an inappropriate speaker.
What Can Colleges Do to Prevent Rape on Campus?
1. Hold Offenders Accountable: Schools should make it clear that there will be zero tolerance for sexual assault. Lesser offenses like harassment or verbal abuse must be treated seriously. Athletes should be warned that charges of sexual assault will result in suspension from the team and confirmed findings will result in removal from the team. When any charges are pending the alleged offender should have no access to the alleged victim even if he has to change classes. The strongest deterrent will occur when men see other men punished for behaviors they had always thought were no big deal. This is exactly what American Colleges and Universities fail to do when they impose gag orders or even expel survivors, fail to make required reports of sexual assaults and protect student, faculty and staff rapists.
2. Train Staff: Students tend to pay more attention to what they observe than what they are told. Therefore it is important for colleges to train staff about domestic violence and sexual assault. They need to know more than what the rules are and how to enforce them. Teachers and administrators need to set an example for treating women in a respectful manner. Sexist jokes and comments should be avoided and sexual harassment rules strictly enforced. Placing women in positions of authority sends a strong message about the value of women.
3. Consult Women’s Organizations: When colleges develop policy, practices and particularly programs aimed at preventing sexual assaults, the administration should consult with Women’s organizations with an interest in the issue. This will give administrators a viewpoint that will help them understand what coeds are facing on campus and what they think could help them.
4. Men Must Earn Ally Status: Men have an important role to play in ending men’s mistreatment of women. We certainly want men to become actively involved and to support women, thus creating a healthier humanity. At the same time the men must avoid thinking they have all the knowledge and that they can take the lead on this issue. I belong to the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS). We aspire to be considered allies of women and organizations working on behalf of women. It is not up to us, however to proclaim ourselves allies, but to listen to the women and hope they will consider us allies.
Adam Ritz, without taking the time to earn the trust of women and without understanding the issues he speaks about, took it upon himself to create a for-profit business where he would be paid large sums of money to speak about very sensitive subjects that he is unqualified to address. In doing so, he caused tremendous harm and subjected himself to much deserved criticism. I also often speak when asked on behalf of women and for such organizations as the Battered Mothers Custody Conference and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The difference is that I worked a long time on these issues and earned the trust of the women who are leaders in these organizations. I learned the importance of taking direction from women which I must admit was not always easy because it is so different from what men learn in this society. Unlike Adam Ritz, women leaders asked me to speak on their behalf and I continue to listen to their feedback in order to be accountable to the women in the movement. Adam Ritz was never part of the movement so speaks for profit and to minimize his responsibility for his crimes instead of encouraging men to stop acting on their sexism and male superiority. Men in the movement to end men’s violence against women often receive undeserved praise for doing what ought to be normal. As long as men’s mistreatment of women is the norm, men have substantial unearned advantages over women and a substantial portion of the population provide misplaced sympathy for rapists like Adam Ritz because he spent six months in jail for his attempt to rape a young woman in his home, while minimizing the lifetime of pain, fear and trauma suffered by survivors of Adam Ritz and other rapists, it will be important for men to listen to women and be open to the idea that a lot of our beliefs must change.
I wish to acknowledge and thank Genevieve Brackins for her assistance in preparing this article.
Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence expert, speaker, writer and consultant. He is the co-editor with Mo Therese Hannah of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY. Barry can be reached by email at their web site www.Domesticviolenceabuseandchildcustody.com