Men preventing men’s violence against women: What we know, what we’ve done, and what to do next

I have five messages today.

  1. We know a fair amount about the problem – about men’s violence against women.
  2. We can end men’s violence against women.
  3. Engaging men is making a difference.
  4. We face real challenges.
  5. It’s time for a fresh approach.

1. We know a fair amount about men’s violence against women.

We know a fair amount about men’s violence against women. The phrase ‘men’s violence against women’ refers to a wide range of forms of violence, abuse, and coercion perpetrated by men against women. We know now that there are a wide range of male behaviours which women find to be threatening, violent or harassing. We have names now for forms of violence and abuse which had been invisible, or seen as normal or acceptable.

Say the words “domestic violence”, and lots of people think of a man hitting his wife in the face. Sure, this is sometimes part of domestic violence. But what defines domestic violence is that it’s a pattern of controlling and coercive behaviours. He is putting his wife or girlfriend down, controlling her movements, pressuring her into sex, and threatening her or the people she cares about. He may not be hitting her, and he may not be obviously breaking any laws. Domestic violence is about one person using a whole range of controlling and abusive strategies against his partner.

We also know a lot about the causes of men’s violence against women. Above all, this violence is shaped by gender inequalities – by patterns of inequality between men and women. Whether you look at relationships and marriages, or communities, or entire countries, there are strong links between violence against women and unequal gender roles and sexist gender norms.

That’s what we know. So what have we done about it? I’m glad to report that in Australia, there has been real progress in reducing and preventing men’s violence against women. This has been pioneered by the women’s movements, and it’s been taken up by communities, governments, and others. Laws have changed, there are services for victims and survivors, although not enough, and people’s attitudes in Australia slowly have begun to improve.

2. We can end men’s violence against women.

My second point is, we can end men’s violence against women. This violence can be reduced, and it can be prevented.

I say this not only because I have to believe it is true. I say this not only because I and many other women and men have dedicated our lives to ending men’s violence against women and we hold the hope, the faith, that we can make a difference. I say it because there is evidence. There is evidence: black and white, statistically significant, methodologically sound, evidence.

As well as being an activist and an educator, I’m a researcher, so I often say, “Show me the data.” Well, there is data.

There is now solid evidence that violence prevention efforts can make a difference. In the past decade, there have been a series of international reviews of interventions involving men or boys in preventing and reducing domestic violence and sexual violence. What do these reports tell us?

  • Interventions can change boys’ and young men’s attitudes towards rape, domestic violence, and other forms of violence against women. And they can change the gender-related attitudes associated with these.
  • Interventions can change behaviours, although there is less evidence for this. But well-designed interventions can lower rates of perpetration and victimisation.

It would be wrong to proclaim that ‘engaging men to end violence against women works’. Most interventions and programs have not been evaluated. Existing evaluations often are poorly designed. And some evaluations show that particular programs have little impact or even a negative impact. Still, there is now a high-quality, although small, evidence base for the effectiveness of efforts to involve men in violence prevention. So, when someone says, “Show me the data,” you can say, “Here it is.” Or, “Ask Michael Flood, he can send you copies.”

3. Engaging men is making a difference.

My third point is that engaging men is making a difference.

I’ve been involved in this field for 20 years now. But in the last few, I’ve seen some encouraging shifts. Large numbers of men have participated in anti-violence groups, networks, and campaigns, although with varying levels of involvement and commitment. Some large masculine organisations and workplaces – national sporting bodies, trucking companies, and others – are showing support for men-focused violence prevention initiatives. There are some productive and inspiring alliances between women’s and men’s networks and organisations.

Globally, there are some inspiring trends too. There are new regional and global networks such as MenEngage and Partners 4 Prevention. There is increasing diversity in the prevention strategies being adopted, from fostering fathers’ involvement in non-violent parenting, to working with men in situations of civil war and conflict, to holding policy-makers to account for addressing violence against women.

Now, there is little data with which to gauge the impact of these trends. For example, large numbers of men take part in the White Ribbon Campaign, but what impact does it have on their attitudes and behaviours or on wider patterns of violence? Yes, over 200,000 people wore the White Ribbon last year, but what did it mean for them, and what impact did it have? We just don’t know, although the research I’ve just had funded will examine this. But there is energy, and momentum, and that’s got to be a good thing.

There is a condition among men which I don’t want to reinforce though. This is getting a bit personal, but has anyone in the room ever suffered from premature congratulation? Premature congratulation, especially self-congratulation, is a common condition among men.

It’s too early to say we’re making a huge difference. And this brings me to the fourth point.

4. We face real challenges.

My fourth point is that we face real challenges.

The biggest problem, is that men’s violence against women is rooted in entrenched gender inequalities, and these are hard to change. It’s a social problem. Bugger. A systemic problem. Bugger.

Many of you will remember the public attention given to the rape and murder of Jill Meagher, in Melbourne, by Adrian Bayley in 2012. Soon after, 30,000 people marched through the streets of Melbourne. Jill Meagher’s husband Tom wrote a powerful newspaper piece in April this year, “The Danger of the Monster Myth”. He describes his disturbing realisation, that violence against women is not a problem of a tiny number of mad, bad men. It’s a problem of normal men, of men like him and me and other ordinary men. It’s your mate, your brother, the guy down the road, the nice guy who makes your morning coffee. This violence is not an aberration. It is a predictable reflection of the ways in which many normal men have been taught to behave and think, a reflection of sexism and entitlement and violent masculinity.

So we’ve got a big job ahead of us.

We’ve got to be honest too: there are ways in which men’s violence prevention is limited. The number of men in Australia who are regular advocates for the prevention of men’s violence against women is pretty small. They wouldn’t all fit in my kitchen, but I reckon they might fit in my backyard. Some men’s support for campaigns like the White Ribbon Campaign is tokenistic. They wear the ribbon, but they don’t do much else. There is a backlash by angry, anti-feminist, men’s groups.

Two other limitations. First, violence prevention efforts often focus on changing men’s attitudes. But attitudes are only part of the problem. When a man abuses or rapes a woman, he does so in part because he can – he already has power over her in other ways, and he is already putting her down, controlling her movements and dress and behaviour, and getting his needs put first. In other words, their relationship is already unequal, and his violence both reflects and maintains that inequality. When a man abuses or rapes a woman, he does so in part because he lives or works in a context or a community based on male dominance, on traditional gender codes, or high levels of other forms of violence. When a man rapes a woman, he does so in part because he, and she, live in a culture which tells them both that men are entitled to access to women’s bodies, that women are dishonest and fickle, and that men should be strong and forceful and dominant. So, a focus only on attitudes misses this. It neglects the structural and institutional inequalities which are the bread and butter of men’s violence against women.

Second, violence prevention work often treats boys and men as all the same – and I’ll come back to this.

5. It’s time for a fresh approach.

My fifth point is that it’s time for a fresh approach. I won’t try in these 15 minutes to map an entire plan for how to prevent men’s violence against women – that would take 25 minutes. But I want to give weight to some particular strategies.

Make it personal.

First, men have to make it personal. In the report Men Speak Up, I wrote a whole lot about the everyday steps men can take to make a difference to men’s violence against women. But here are some more thoughts on making this personal.

Learn a language for speaking about violence against women. Learn how to tell your mates that violence against women is a men’s issue.

Wear your heart on your sleeve. I don’t have a tattoo, but if I did, it would be a heart on my sleeve. Get used to being political – to speaking up and making trouble.

Get comfortable with the F-word and the G-word. This work is feminist work. Like feminism, it’s based on the simple idea that women are people too, that women (and indeed, men) have the right to live free of violence. The G-word is “gay”. Question the homophobic assumption, the anti-gay belief, that men who care about women must be gay. Say, “so what?” Welcome gay and bisexual men into this work, and question the hierarchies of gender and sexuality which limit everyone’s lives.

Find and build communities of support – through friends and groups. You’re not John Wayne, and you can’t go it alone.

And finally, figure out what you are for, not just what you are against. Have a vision, have a dream.

(Make it big.) Scale it up.

I’ve just said, “Make it personal”. But I also want to say, Make it big.

I know I know, size doesn’t matter. But here, it does. To really transform gender inequalities, we need systematic, large-scale, and coordinated efforts. We need big. We need to scale up at every level of intervention, from community education in schools, to mobilisations among activist networks and movements, to organisational and institutional change.

Focus on ending gender inequalities.

Our efforts have to focus on ending gender inequalities, as these are at the heart, at the root, of men’s violence against women. We have to build a world of gender justice.

We owe a debt here. It is feminist activism that placed violence against women on community and policy agendas. And it is feminist scholarship, feminist research, that provides the most comprehensive and credible account of violence between men and women.

So what does this mean in practice? Men should work with women and women’s groups. We should draw on feminist frameworks and feminist research. And we should tie our efforts to end men’s violence against women to wider agendas of gender justice.

Deal with the intersections.

Two more points.

Deal with the intersections. Men’s lives are not all the same. There are systematic inequalities in Australia, to do with race and ethnicity, class, sexuality, and disability. The life of an indigenous man in remote Queensland, is different from the life of a middle-class white boy in Adelaide, is different from the life of a Sudanese man who’s a refugee, is different from the life of a working-class gay man in the Western suburbs of Sydney. You get the picture. Some men reap the unearned awards of privilege, while others are marginalised and disadvantaged.

So, we need an intersectional feminist approach. Gender is a central part of the story, but it’s not the whole story, and gender intersects with other forms of social difference and inequality. These intersections shape women’s and men’s experiences of violence and gender, in all sorts of ways. And they shape our abilities to reach and engage men in this work.

Mobilise men.

To prevent violence against women, we also have to mobilise men – through events, networks, and campaigns. We have to get men on the streets, into grassroots men’s groups, and in coalitions and networks. We need men doing the work – not just up the front here, holding the microphone, but making the lamingtons and typing the minutes. And yes, we need stroppy activist movements, making noise and trouble and change.

Now, don’t think I’m just making this up. Research last year documented that across the world, the single most important influence on a country’s adoption of robust laws and policies on violence against women was the presence of a strong women’s movement. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Conclusion

These are my final words.

Men – men who care for women, men who care for justice and equality, and men who care for the wellbeing of our communities and society – must act to end violence against women. The presence of the women in this room tells us that women are waiting for, women want, women hope, that men finally will act.

We’ve made real progress in reducing and preventing violence. We face real challenges. Above all, it is only by ending gender inequalities that we will end men’s violence against women.

Men can make a difference. And men must make a difference.

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Citation:

Flood, Michael. (2014). Men preventing men’s violence against women: What we know, what we’ve done, and what to do next. Speech, JewishCare Men’s Breakfast, November 25th 2014, Sydney.

Biographical note

Dr Michael Flood has made a leading contribution to men’s work in preventing violence against women. As a researcher, he has published a wide variety of papers on violence against women, men’s roles in prevention, and other topics. As a community educator and activist, he has made a significant contribution to community understanding of violence against women. He has worked with sporting organizations, community services, and governments, participated in international expert meetings, and contributed to social change campaigns.