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VIDEO: Air Force Academy, aiming for culture change, offers 'Men and Masculinity' class

By Erin Prater Updated: September 8, 2013 at 12:13 pm 0

Behavioral sciences major Trevor Langford could have signed up for any of a number of electives this fall.

The junior Air Force Academy cadet opted to enroll in "Men and Masculinity," a new class that fulfills an elective requirement for his major.

The course, open to all cadets, aims to reduce the rate of sexual assaults at the school by encouraging students to think critically about gender constructs, resist peer pressure and laude peers who do the same.

Langford's friends have made him pay for the class choice ever since.

"They'll say, 'I'd validate that class on day one, so I don't need it,'" he said.

Or they'll ask him questions like "Are you not secure enough in your masculinity?" and "Do you need to learn how to be a man?"

Langford, an aspiring social worker, doesn't let the comments bother him.

"I don't judge people," he said. "I'll call them out on it, bring it to their attention that they're not right at all."

Changing the culture

Langford handles the course-inspired teasing exactly as his instructor, Christopher Kilmartin, wishes all cadets would.

A bit of verbal bravado can go a long way in changing the cultural climate of the academy, the military and society as a whole, Kilmartin, a psychology professor from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., said during an Aug. 15 class session.

Kilmartin gave an example: On the golf course, it's not uncommon to hear men to chide each other to "hit the ball, Alice," or to blame a bad shot on getting the putter caught up their skirt, he said.

"I never let that go," Kilmartin told his students, most of whom are female. "A well-placed phrase indicating your disapproval can be very, very powerful. I'll say something like, 'Oh, I don't know. I think Michelle Wie could have gotten it a little closer.'"

It may be a small gesture, but it requires courage, an attribute that often is associated with masculinity, Kilmartin said.

His contention: Real men would speak up.

"A lot of men think courage means running into a burning building," he said. "But isn't it also courageous to say, 'I don't like the way you talk about women?' Or, 'I don't want to go to the strip club with you. I don't want that to be part of my life?' That's courageous."

That won't stop sexual assaults. But it can cause a ripple effect that slowly changes military culture to one that doesn't tolerate rape and sexual assault, crimes that are typically committed by men against women, Kilmartin said.

"The social construction of masculinity is anti-femininity," he told the class. "We learn from a very early age what women do, and for God's sake, don't do it. The worst insult you can give to a boy is that 'you run like, act like, look like, dance like, throw like a girl.' So when we tell little boys that being like a girl diminishes you, what kind of attitude are we building? We are teaching them to disrespect women.

"My job as an educator is to name the pressure" that exists for males to conform to unhealthy masculine stereotypes, Kilmartin continued. "If I can help you name the pressure for yourself, you can learn how to resist it when it conflicts with important life goals or hurts another person."

More reports, fewer assaults

Teaching at the academy is a temporary gig for Kilmartin, who is participating in the school's distinguished visiting professor program this academic year.

This fall, he's teaching two sections of "Men and Masculinity," as well as consulting with faculty and conducting research.

In the spring, he'll teach "Interpersonal Violence."

The author of popular gender study text "The Masculine Self,"Kilmartin has spent his career teaching similar courses at civilian universities, where most of his students are usually women.

More recently, he's taken his expertise to the military. Kilmartin has worked with the U.S. Naval Academy to revise its sexual assault and harassment prevention curriculum and wrote a script for an Army training film on the same topic.

His goal for the 10 short months he'll spend at the Air Force Academy: increase the reporting rate of sexual assaults - a move he calls a "prevention strategy" since 90 percent of acquaintance sexual assaults are committed by serial offenders, he said.

Reducing the occurrence of sexual assaults will require those who would never dream of committing a sex assault doing their part to cultivate a healthy climate, Kilmartin said.

"With regards to disrespectful behavior, a lot of people think, 'I need to refrain from that,'" he said. "The message we want to send is, 'We need more from you than that.' The way I put it to cadets is, 'Is your goal to graduate from the academy with a 2.0 GPA and exit the service at the same rank you entered at?

"We want to increase the kind of attitude of respect for everybody that's a core value here, but maybe isn't always followed," he said. "Every college, university and service academy in the country has issues with sexual assault. We want to reduce that and amplify the healthy voices, which are the vast majority."

Though it's early in the semester, students such as Langford may have already started the ripple effect Kilmartin is hoping to create.

The more Langford talks about discussion topics from the class with his fellow cadets at lunch, the more positive responses he gets, the cadet said.

"A lot of them are like, 'Oh, man. I really wish I was in that class too,'" he said.

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