The Bro Whisperer

Michael Kimmel’s quest to turn college boys into gentlemen—and improve sex on campus

John Cuneo

One unseasonably warm Wednesday a few weeks into the school year, the sociology professor Michael Kimmel is sitting with several students and antirape activists in a classroom at Long Island’s Stony Brook University, spitballing ideas for how to change the sexual climate on college campuses. He turns to Jonathan Kalin, a recent college grad, and asks him what it would imply if, at his funeral, mourners said he had been “a good man.”

Before Kalin can answer, Kimmel continues: “What I find, when I ask this of men, is words like honor, integrity, doing the right thing, standing up for the little guy.” All of which are crucially different, in Kimmel’s mind, from the words they use to describe “being a man”—words like to win, get laid, get rich.

Not that Kalin, a soft-spoken jock in thick-framed, faux-vintage glasses, is the kind of guy who needs enlightening. During his sophomore year at Colby College, well before campus rape was the focus of national attention that it is today, he sparked an assault-prevention movement called “Party With Consent.” He printed the slogan on red-plastic cups and doled them out at keggers, hoping to encourage students to think twice about their end-of-the-night actions. Since graduating last year, he has continued working on the initiative, which now has a presence on 30 campuses.

For his part, Kimmel, who is the founder of Stony Brook’s new Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, says he hopes to “increase the Jonathans” in the world. More specifically, he is preparing to survey college campuses across the country in order to discover the best male-oriented efforts to prevent sexual assault, and then replicate them nationwide. As the group discusses ways of discouraging sexual misconduct, he suggests that young men are reluctant to give up the traditional notion of being a man. “I can’t sell this idea to men—the end of manhood. They’re sitting there going, ‘It’s the only thing I got!’ ” He is practically shouting in his Brooklyn accent, grabbing at his water bottle as if it were a symbol of embattled manliness. “ ‘You’re going to tell me to throw this away? I’ll have nothing!’ ”

By way of contrast, he says that he might very well be able to persuade fraternity members to show respect for women by urging them to “live up to the ideals you yourself profess in your charter.” He quiets down a little. “I think I can sell that.”

Kimmel has made a career out of being what you might call a man-translator. While working on a Ph.D. dissertation about 17th-century French tax policy at the University of California at Berkeley, he began dating a woman who worked at a battered-women’s shelter. He expressed an interest in volunteering there, but she suggested he interview the abusive husbands instead. “She said, ‘You have a natural constituency of half the human race. Go talk to them.’ ” Now 63, Kimmel has been teaching courses on masculinity for 25 years. He’s written two popular books attempting to decipher male behavior, Angry White Men and Guyland, the latter of which explores, among other things, the so-called bro culture on college campuses. And he hopes to soon enroll students in the country’s first-ever master’s program in masculinity studies.

Kimmel says it helps if a big man on campus is the one leading a rape-prevention crusade.

In the meantime, he’s trying to apply his insights into the male psyche to the question of how to stem college sexual assaults. While not a new problem, rape on campus has become a newly conspicuous one following a wave of antirape activism and heightened media attention to colleges’ sexual-assault policies. Even President Obama has weighed in, citing the oft-repeated (though widely contested) statistic that one in five female students is raped at some point in her college career. The Justice Department is now investigating several dozen schools for possibly mishandling rape complaints.

So far, much of the national conversation has focused on reducing binge drinking and prosecuting perpetrators. A more overlooked problem, according to Kimmel, is that many college men are insecure, unprepared for sex, and desperate to prove themselves to their friends. He says many of them approach hookups with the mentality that “sex is a battle: I have to conquer you, I have to break down your resistance.”

The challenge, then, is to make men want sex that’s less like a battle and more like an unusually satisfying UN meeting, where everybody understands the proceedings and gets a vote. That’s admittedly a long way off: despite recent media scrutiny, fraternities are still caught displaying signs that say things like No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal.

Kimmel says it’s not surprising that inebriation figures into so many sexual-assault cases. Many students arrive at college after having been “helicopter parented,” he argues, with their access to alcohol and sex strictly policed until the day they leave home. They’re then plunked into an environment full of unfamiliar rituals, bravado, enough booze to put the Russian army into a coma, and more sexually available people than they’ll ever encounter again.

Compare this with the experience of many European teens. When Amy Schalet, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, interviewed American and Dutch parents, she found that the Dutch parents were far more likely to sanction their children’s first sexual encounters. Kimmel argues that we could stand to be a bit more like the Dutch. “If you grow up in the Netherlands, you get good sex education. The first time you have sex, it’s usually in your parents’ house,” he says, “when your parents are there.” In his view, what teenagers need is better and more equitable sex. “This is not about ‘Don’t have sex,’ ” he says. “I want you to have good sex. How good could the sex possibly be if you’re like, Can I get away with touching her here without her saying no?

Nationally, several initiatives are already attempting to address rape on campus. Some schools have taken aim at fraternities—whose members are, according to some studies, more likely than other students to commit rape—by forcing the organizations to become coed or to disband entirely. Campaigns like Rutgers’s Scream Theater, Central Michigan University’s No Zebras, and the University of New Hampshire’s Know Your Power encourage students to be vigilant bystanders, preventing potential assaults by personally intervening. California law now requires “affirmative consent” for all college sexual activity.

Kimmel believes that the most-effective approaches will subtly change the power dynamics around sex. For instance, he thinks colleges might try allowing only sororities—not fraternities—to hold alcohol-fueled soirees. “That would mean that there would be women at the door, and they would decide if you were ‘gentlemanly’ enough and trustworthy enough to come into the party,” he says.

He also argues that antirape efforts need to speak more directly to men than they have in the past. For one thing, he says, it helps if a big man on campus is the one leading a rape-prevention crusade. One of the founding members of the long-running Harvard Men Against Rape group, for example, was a popular football player, and Jonathan Kalin was a well-liked basketball star at Colby. Deploying humor doesn’t hurt, either. Kimmel praises a campaign that has put splash guards proclaiming “You hold the power to stop rape in your hand” in urinals at various universities.

One of the biggest misconceptions about both sexual misconduct and sexist behavior, according to Kimmel, is that men “don’t want to talk about it. I think we really do.” In Guyland, he recalls a conversation with one group of fraternity pledges at “an elite private college in the Northeast” who would gather on the frat-house balcony on Sunday mornings to hoot and jeer at women making the “walk of shame” to their dorms. When Kimmel asked whether anyone had ever felt uncomfortable about the ritual, a few of the men said they had, so he suggested that they express their uneasiness the next time the brothers gathered. Later, the entire fraternity held a meeting and agreed to discontinue the practice.

Kimmel sometimes sounds like he’s advocating a return to a romanticized past, in which chivalry is not dead, but boozing, cheating, and misogyny are. Some will inevitably find this nostalgic model “problematic,” as they say in gender-studies circles. At one point in the meeting at Stony Brook, when Kimmel uses the word gentleman, Helana Darwin, a graduate student, recoils. “My critique is that exploiting or glamorizing the gentleman concept requires the binary of the lady. I find the trope of the lady to be extremely limiting,” she says flatly. She resents the idea “that I’m supposed to perform weakness so he can feel good about himself for holding that door for me.”

“I don’t agree with you, Helana,” Kimmel replies. “I think we can hold the door for people out of courtesy without it coming with a sense of entitlement to your body.”