Beyond Ambivalence: Reflecting on Male Engagement in Anti-Violence Work

A few weeks ago, I attended a training on gender-based violence, run by a local social service organization, which sought to involve representatives from different community settings in engaging men in anti-violence work. Conversation centered around identifying the ways in which gender-based violence lies on a continuum, ranging from sexist comments and ‘rape jokes’ to sexual assault and domestic violence. Throughout the presentation, the facilitator continuously linked the content to how men have an active role to play in challenging gateway behaviours early on before they become the most extreme forms of violence.

At one point, the facilitator asked for our reflections as a check-in point: how did all of this sit with us? She called on an attendee sitting behind me, a white man in his late mid-forties who worked with youths experiencing complex concerns around mental health, criminality, substance use, and child welfare. After a brief pause, he said:

“I gotta be honest. I’m going to a party this weekend with some friends from high school that I used to play sports with. Everything you’ve talked about here – sexist comments, rape jokes, whatever – will go on at that party. Not sexual assault, but all the stuff on the other end [of the continuum] will happen. And even though I agree with everything you’ve said, I’m not gonna say a word to stop it.”

My first reaction was to lightly cringe. I’d been in the facilitator’s shoes before; when I facilitated mandated domestic violence intervention, there were some comments that threw me for a loop and there were times where I genuinely didn’t know how to respond. This one was interesting: self-aware, blunt, and just a bit disheartening. I, too, stayed quiet, not quite sure how to answer to his comment, but feeling for the facilitator.

After a brief pause, the facilitator replied, “I think that’s a great start. To be aware of these things enough to know when it’s happening.” We moved forward with the remainder of the training and that was the last of it.

However, this comment sat with me for the days that followed. It reminded me of when I facilitated research during my undergrad with male university students on their perspectives of sexual violence on campus, where several participants admitted that they had made sexist comments, told and laughed at ‘rape jokes,’ and were generally unwilling to challenge any male peers whom had done the same despite knowing that their participation in it was “wrong.” The “anything goes” standard appeared to be firmly in place and disrupting the status quo around what sorts of things were condoned within the male peer group did not seem like an option for these young men (Brockbank, 2019).

These examples prompted an ongoing reflection: how do we move men beyond ambivalence – beyond mere acknowledgement of the alarming realities of sexual and gender-based violence – into tangible action? In other words, is awareness without action enough?

A breadth of emerging literature has explored best practices, strategies, and challenges in engaging men in anti-violence work. This body of work has identified various factors shaping men’s engagement, which centre around sensitizing men to the issue of sexual violence by connecting it to their personal lives and ensuring the content of the programming is relevant to and reflective of men’s experiences (Casey, 2010; Piccigallo, Lilley, & Miller, 2012; Casey et al, 2018). Moreover, prevention programs are shown to be more effective when they are single sex/all-male, led by male facilitators, endorsed by influential male peers, and approach men as potential allies to the cause rather than likely perpetrators of sexual violence, among many other strategies to elicit male engagement (Flood, 2004; Pease, 2008; Casey, 2010; Piccigallo, Lilley, & Miller, 2012; Stathopoulos, 2013; Carmody, Salter, & Presterudstuen, 2014; Casey et al, 2018; Flood, 2019). While most men do not see themselves as potential perpetrators or victims of sexual violence (and most men do not commit violence), primary prevention efforts attempt to reveal how sexual violence is a continuum comprised of varying beliefs, attitudes, languages, and behaviours that promote, justify, euphemize, excuse, facilitate, enable, and/or perpetrate violence, many of which men take part in, such as rape jokes, sexist comments, and stereotypical views of gender (Rich et al, 2010; Piccigallo, Lilley, & Miller, 2012; Flood, 2019). By connecting men’s everyday experiences of navigating gender, sex, consent, and identity to the broader issues of sexual and gender-based violence, prevention programs specifically engaging men aim to shed light on how can unwittingly contribute to and benefit from systems at violence, and how they can then identify, interrupt, and challenge these dynamics at the microsystemic level. The overall goal is to facilitate attitudinal and behavioural shifts in male participants that decrease rape supportive beliefs enabling sexual violence to occur.

A major limitation of existing prevention efforts is the lack of available resources to sustain long-term interventions and evaluate programming (Stewart, 2014; DeGue et al, 2014; Powell & Henry, 2014). In their systematic review of prevention programs, DeGue et al (2014) note that a significant portion of existing research on prevention has been dedicated to “brief psycho-educational strategies that are not consistent with the principles of prevention and have not demonstrated effectiveness despite numerous evaluations” (p.359). Moreover, these programs do not tend to integrate “community- and societal-level prevention approaches for sexual violence” (DeGue et al, 2014, p.360), which are deemed critical best practices for prevention, as the focus continues to be placed on individual-level, one-time interventions. This process risks failing to incite sustained behavioural changes where men go beyond identifying these issues and take part in tangible action that prevents sexual violence in its various forms (ranging from rape jokes to sexual assault).

This training I attended a few weeks ago was an example of a one-time intervention, a six-hour event that did not require sustained engagement. Participants in my master’s thesis project emphasized this reality by suggesting that one-time, individual-level anti-violence work fails to sensitize men, personalize the issue, reflect their lived experiences and questions, and hold them accountable for long-term participation (Brockbank, 2020). When the reality is that these brief anti-violence efforts are common (due to lack of funding, lack of institutional support, lack of evaluation resources) and deemed relatively ineffective in facilitating longstanding changes, how likely is it that male participants will exit these trainings with some more awareness than they had walking in, but no real desire to challenge or change their everyday behaviours? When most men do not see themselves as potential victims or potential perpetrators of sexual violence, how do these individual-level efforts (unintentionally) create the opportunity for men to distance themselves from the issue and disengage from the central messaging (Rich et al, 2010; Piccigallo, Lilley, & Miller, 2012; Flood, 2019)? To be blunt, what’s the point of these interventions if there won’t be any long-term changes?

While the clear solution is to increase funding for prevention programs that have proven merit (e.g. those that meet the best practices listed above, among others) and facilitate rigorous evaluation of these efforts, I think it is also important to integrate participatory action approaches into anti-violence work that seeks to involve men in every step of the process, from development to evaluation. When men become part of creating the program, implementing it, facilitating it, and evaluating it, perhaps this sense of ownership will also prompt shared responsibility for being part of the solution to sexual and gender-based violence.

In this process, men might move from ambivalence to accountability around challenging everyday experiences of sexualized violence.

*** My dissertation (as an incoming doctoral student) will be around co-developing a primary prevention program with university-aged men. Stay tuned!

Maddie Brockbank, BSW, MSW(c), is a PhD student at McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada. Her academic publications and information about her forthcoming projects can be found here and here. Follow Maddie on Twitter here.


Brockbank, M. (2019). The Myth of the “Gray Area” in Rape: Fabricating Ambiguity and Deniability. Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence4(4), 2.

Brockbank, M. (2020). Exploring male university students’ perspectives of sexual violence prevention. Master’s Thesis: McMaster University.

Carmody, M., Salter, M., Presterudstuen, G.H. (2014). Less to lose and more to gain? Men and Boys Violence Prevention Research Project Final Report, University of Western Sydney, Australia.

Casey, E. (2010). Strategies for engaging men as anti-violence allies: Implications for ally movements. Advances in Social Work, 11(2), 267-282.

Casey, E., Carlson, J., Two Bulls, S., & Yager, A. (2018). Gender transformative approaches to engaging men in gender-based violence prevention: A review and conceptual model. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 19(2), 231-246.

DeGue, S., Valle, L. A., Holt, M. K., Massetti, G. M., Matjasko, J. L., & Tharp, A. T. (2014). A systematic review of primary prevention strategies for sexual violence perpetration. Aggression and violent behavior, 19(4), 346-362.

Flood, M. (2004, September). Changing Men: Best practice in violence prevention work with men. In Home Truths Conference: Stop sexual assault and domestic violence: A national challenge.

Flood, M. (2019). Engaging men and boys in violence prevention. Springer.

Pease, B. (2008). Engaging men in men’s violence prevention: Exploring the tensions, dilemmas and possibilities. Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse, (17), 1-20.

Piccigallo, J. R., Lilley, T. G., & Miller, S. L. (2012). “It’s Cool to Care about Sexual Violence” Men’s Experiences with Sexual Assault Prevention. Men and Masculinities, 15(5), 507- 525.

Powell, A., & Henry, N. (2014). Framing sexual violence prevention. In Preventing sexual violence (pp. 1-21). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Rich, M. D., Utley, E. A., Janke, K., & Moldoveanu, M. (2010). “I'd rather be doing something else:” Male resistance to rape prevention programs. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 18(3), 268-288.

Stathopoulos, M. (2013). Engaging men in sexual assault prevention. Australian Institute of Family Studies, Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault.

Stewart, A. L. (2014). The Men’s Project: A sexual assault prevention program targeting college  men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 15(4), 481.