Most men know that domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong, but we have done little to reduce this violence in our lives, families and communities. Too many men believe common myths about violence, have ignored women's fears and concerns about their safety, and have stayed silent in the face of other men's violence-supportive attitudes and behaviours. At the same time, a growing number of men in Australia are taking public action to help end violence against women.
Violence against women in Australia
Physical and sexual assault and abuse are the experience of substantial numbers of girls and women in Australia. The most recent data come from a national survey of 6,600 women by the Australian Institute of Criminology in 2004. This found that in the past 12 months, ten per cent of Australian women experienced at least one incident of physical and/or sexual violence by a man. And, over their lifetime, 57 per cent of women reported experiencing at least one incident of physical or sexual violence. Of these women aged 18 to 69, just under half had experienced physical violence, and one-third had experienced sexual violence.
Similar findings come from an earlier national survey in 1996 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. These and other surveys consistently find that anywhere from one-quarter to one-third, and even up to one-half, of Australian women will experience physical or sexual violence by a man at some point in their lives. We know too that young women are at greater risk than older women, especially of sexual assault, and that indigenous women face particularly high risks of assault and homicide.
We know too that this violence has a profound and damaging impact on its victims and on the community as a whole. When women are physically assaulted by male partners or ex-partners, or forced into sex, or constantly threatened and abused, this leaves deep physical, and psychological, scars.
A study by VicHealth in 2004 found that, among women under 45, intimate partner violence contributes more to their poor health, disability, and death than any other risk factor, including obesity and smoking. If we want to focus on the economic cost, Access Economics estimated in a report last year that the total annual cost of domestic violence is $8.1 billion, in terms of costs to the victim, others affected by the violence, and the community. Violence against women has long-term effects on men's and women's relationships, on their children, and on communities.
The causes of violence against women also are well known. Violence against women is shaped by a wide variety of social factors, at personal, situational, and social levels. But we know that this violence is more likely in contexts where manhood is defined as about dominance, toughness, or male honour. Most men don't ever use violence against their wives or girlfriends. But those men who do are more likely to have sexist, rigid, and hostile gender-role attitudes. There are higher rates of domestic violence in cultures and contexts where violence is seen as a normal way to settle conflicts, men feel entitled to power over women, family gender relations are male-dominated, husband-wife relations are seen as private, and women are socially isolated. Sexual violence is shaped by norms of a sexual double standard, victim-blaming, and the myth of an uncontrollable male sexuality. Poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse, and mental illness all are further risk factors. And violence against women also is shaped by race, class, sexuality, and other social divisions.
Of course, males too are the victims of violence. While boys and men are the large majority of perpetrators of violence, boys and men often are also the victims. Males are bashed up, bullied and sexually assaulted. Boys and men are most at risk of violence from other boys and men. Ending violence to girls and women and ending violence to boys and men are part of the same struggle — to create a world based on equality, justice and non-violence.
Men's positive roles
Men have a crucial role to play in preventing the physical and sexual violence that so many women suffer, and men have much to gain from doing so. If we are to end this violence, men themselves will need to take part in this project. A minority of men use violence against women. And too many men condone this violence, ignoring, trivialising, or even laughing about it.
There are simple, positive steps any man can take to be part of the solution. Find out about the violence that many women experience. Don't condone the view that the victim is to blame. Check out how we treat the women around us. Speak out when friends, relatives, or others use violence or abuse. Be a good role model, whether you're a dad, a boss, a teacher or a coach. And, beyond these individual actions, take part in public actions and campaigns such as the White Ribbon Campaign.
To really stop violence against women, we will need to change the social norms and power inequalities that feed into violence. Men must join with women to encourage norms of consent, respect, and gender equality ; to challenge the unfair power relations which promote violence; and promote gender roles based on non-violence and gender justice.
A men's issue
In Australia, violence against women is often seen as a women's issue. This makes sense, as its focus is the sexual and physical violence that women suffer. But I want to stress that violence against women is also a ‘men's issue'.
Violence against women is a ‘men's issue' because it is men's wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends whose lives are limited by violence and abuse. It's a men's issue because, as community leaders and decision-makers, men can play a key role in helping stop violence against women. It's a men's issue because men can speak out and step in when male friends and relatives insult or attack women. And it's a men's issue because a minority of men treat women and girls with contempt and violence, and it is up to the majority of men to help create a culture in which this is unacceptable.
While most men treat women with care and respect, violence against women is men's problem. Some men's violence gives all men a bad name. For example, if I am walking down the street at night and there is a woman walking in front of me, she is likely to think, “Is he following me? Is he about to assault me?” Some men's violence makes all men seem a potential threat, makes all men seem dangerous.
Violence against women is men's problem because many men find themselves dealing with the impact of other men's violence on the women and children that we love. Men struggle to respond to the emotional and psychological scars borne by our girlfriends, wives, female friends and others, the damaging results of earlier experiences of abuse by other men.
Violence is men's problem because sometimes we are the bystanders to other men's violence. We make the choice: do we stay silent and look the other way when our male friends and relatives insult or attack women, or do we speak up? And of course, violence is men's problem because sometimes we have used violence ourselves.
I've come to realise that violence against women is a deeply personal issue for men, just as it is for women. I've been saddened to realise how many of the women I know have had to deal with childhood abuse, forced sex, or controlling boyfriends. I've felt shock and despair in hearing about the harassment, threats, and humiliations that women experience far too often. I've felt angry at the victim-blaming I've sometimes heard from male colleagues and acquaintances. And I've been humbled and shamed in realising my own ignorance and in reflecting on times when I may have been coercive or abusive.
At the same time, I've also felt inspired by the strength and courage of women who've lived through violence. I've found hope and energy in participating in a growing network of women and men who've taken on the challenge of working to stop violence against women. In making personal changes and taking collective action, I've found joy and delight in the enriching of my friendships with women and men and my relationships with women.
It has been particularly inspiring to see large numbers of men (and women) take up the White Ribbon Campaign, a campaign inviting men to wear a white ribbon to show their commitment to ending violence against women. The White Ribbon Campaign focuses on the positive roles that men can play in helping to stop violence against women. It is built on a fundamental hope and optimism for both women's and men's lives, and a fundamental belief that both women and men have a stake in ending violence against women.
A better world
In campaigning against sexual and physical assault, it is important to remind ourselves of what we are for . We desire sexual lives based on consent, safety, and mutual pleasure. We hope for friendships and relationships that are respectful and empowering. And we dream of communities which are just and peaceful.
Men have a personal stake in ending violence against women. Men will benefit from a world free of violence against women, a world based on gender equality. In our relations with women, instead of experiencing distrust and disconnection we will find closeness and connection. We will be able to take up a healthier, emotionally in-touch and proud masculinity. Men's sexual lives will be more mutual and pleasurable, rather than obsessive and predatory. And boys and men will be free from the threat of other men's violence.
Dr Michael Flood is a Research Fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University. Michael has had a variety of involvements as a profeminist educator, speaker, writer and activist on issues of men and gender, particularly in community advocacy and education work focused on men's violence against women.
Note that a slightly revised version of this piece was published in VoiceMale, in Summer 2009. See below for the PDF of this article.