Domestic violence, boys, men and masculinity (1997)

Talk to the forum, "Domestic violence and young people", hosted by the Dept of Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, 4 June 1997, Canberra.

Introduction to domestic violence, and violence in general

The term domestic violence is usually used to refer to interpersonal violence between intimates in the home: most often, it refers to what has also been called 'wife-battering', but it refers in general to any violence perpetuated in homes and among families.

The term domestic violence may suggest to some that we are talking only about physical violence. But as many domestic violence agencies and services argue, men's physical violence to women and children in the home very often is accompanied by emotional, psychological and verbal abuse. And many people use the term domestic violence in a broader way to include these other forms of abuse and harm.

Violence is an important concern for a large majority of Australians, with a recent national survey showing that 77% of the Australian adult population are worried about violence [Office of the Status of Women, 1995].
From at least three decades of speaking out, research and activism, we now know that women are subject to a range of forms of violence, including sexual violence, battering, child abuse, harassment and murder. We know that this violence, and the threat of this violence, has a profound effect on women's sense of safety and women's fear. We know that domestic violence and rape act as forms of social control on women, limiting women's autonomy, safety, freedom and their access to paid work and political decision-making.

We know that men too are subject to violence, including bashings in the street, bullying and the sexual assault of boys. And we know that when boys and men are subject to violence it is overwhelmingly at the hands of other men.

Men, masculinity and violence

If we look at interpersonal violence in general, we find that the overwhelming majority is perpetrated by males. Nearly all rapists, most domestic bashers, and most people involved in street fights and riots are men. Most murderers are men. Historically, wars have been intensely masculine endeavours, and the vast majority of the world's soldiers are men. So are most of the prison warders, the police, and almost all the generals, admirals, bureaucrats and politicians who control the systems of collective or institutional violence [Connell, 1985: 5]. Most men are not violent, but when violence occurs, it is mostly men who do it

Whether one looks at unorganised violence between individuals or the organised violence of states and governments, most of it is at the hands of men. What is going on? What is the connection between being violent and being male?

One dominant explanation of this pattern is that males are born violent; that men's sexual assault of women, other men and children is the product of too much testosterone, or men's genetic makeup, or men's innate aggressiveness. This simply isn't true. The result of this belief is to excuse men from being responsible for their violent behaviour, and to justify the status quo. It is also a deeply pessimistic belief

For a start, there are many boys and men who are not violent, who don't practise these behaviours said to be somehow essential or intrinsic to being male. And as feminist anthropologists such as Peggy Sanday have pointed out, there are entire cultures in which gender-based violence is absent or exceedingly rare [Sanday, 1981b].

Instead, we now know that domestic violence, rape and other forms of violence are social and cultural facts, not biological facts. The link between being male and being violent is the product of society and history, not biology. Boys and men are perfectly capable of being loving, caring human beings, and it is manhood or masculinity which creates this intimate link between men and violence.

Men's monopoly of violence is the product of a lifetime's training in how to be a "real" man. The dominant model of masculinity offers to boys and men such qualities as aggressiveness, control, a sense of entitlement to power, and emotional callousness, as well as a series of myths which justify men's violence and men's power. In Western countries, to "be a man" is to be tough, self-reliant and dominant. Many males are taught to adopt an aggressive and violent masculinity, to be repressive of empathy and extremely competitive. One of the central images of masculinity is the murderous hero, the specialist in violence: Rambo, the Terminator, James Bond and many others [Connell, 1985: 6]. Thus, boys and men who are violent are in part acting out the dictates of what it means to be a "normal" male.

Many men are not violent. On an individual level, some men are more likely to be violent to women than others: those men who believe that hitting their wives is okay in some circumstances, as one quarter of Australian men do; those young men who believe that it is okay to hold a girl down and force her to have intercourse, as 30 percent do according to a recent survey in Brisbane.


An important link to make here is between violence and power. Men's violence both maintains, and is the expression of, men's power over women and children. From feminist research we now have the important insight that men's violence is an important element in the organisation and maintenance of gender inequality. In fact, rape and other forms of sexual violence have been seen as paradigmatic expressions of the operation of male power over women. As Miller and Biele state, rape "is the final expression of sexism, a perfectly designed weapon of social control." [Miller & Biele, 1993: 53]

Violence is targetted at and inflicted on women as a gender. Men's violence serves a political function, of subordination. There are ways in which all men benefit from some men's violence against women. And many men collude or are complicit in some men's violence.

Linked to this, feminists make a crucial link between violence and sexism. Men's use of violence in intimate relationships "is particularly reinforced by sexism, the ideology of male supremacy and superiority" [Gamache, 1990: 71]. Patriarchy, the institutionalisation of male dominance in both the public and private spheres, is central in accounting for violence against women.

Men's domestic violence for example can be the product of possessiveness and jealousy; men's sense of the right to punish 'their' women; their belief that violence is a legitimate form of punishment; expectations regarding women's domestic work; and the importance for men of maintaining and exercising status and authority over women. [Adler, 1992: 269] Men's domestic violence in families and homes is only understandable in the context of power inequalities and gender norms, and can be seen as a development of dominant-submissive power relations that exist in 'normal' family life [Hearn, 1996b: 31]. Men may resort to violence when their power and privilege are questioned and other strategies have failed, or when they feel threatened when women do not do what they expect [ibid].

Violence is also involved in power relations between men themselves, and male/male confrontations are a way to confirm masculinity and test and establish power [Adler, 1992: 269]. Men's violence against other men, such as poofter-bashing and bullying, maintains hierarchies of power among men themselves.

Boys and violence

For boys and men, violence is both an important way in which to prove or exercise their manhood, their masculine status, and an important way through which they are kept within the boundaries of manhood. Focusing on boys, for boys being violent can be a means of demonstrating one's toughness, dominance, top-dog status, prowess or bravery - through bullying other boys, through aggressive sport, through putting down others. Attempts to prove oneself or gain status among male peers can also take the form of violence directed at girls, eg sexual violence in the form of date or acquaintance rape (including trying to 'get sex' to gain status), physical violence towards one's girlfriend, and sexual harassment.

And, violence is also a means through which boys are kept within the boundaries of acceptable masculinity - through bullying and homophobic and gender-based harassment. Step outside the boundaries of masculine behaviour, through behaving in ways that are seen to be "poofy" or "wimpy" or "girly", and you are immediately faced with verbal and physical attack.

Such violent ways of relating are reinforced by a culture of male violence, which defines violence as normal, legitimate and functional x as a reasonably way to get what you want. Violence is routinely represented in exciting, glorifying, desensitising and even sexy ways in films and on television, in women-hating song lyrics, in pornography, and through boys' toy box arsenals. Boys practice and are subject to violence on the sporting field, either as an outbreak of the aggressive character of the game or as central to the playing of the game itself. There are other ways in which boys are routinely subject to violence, although these are not seen as "violent" themselves, such as corporal punishment in schools and 'physical discipline' (such as spankings or beatings) in the home.

In terms of violence in the home, many young men grow up knowing the male perpetration of rape, domestic violence and child assault, often by a father, male caregiver or male relative. This includes witnessing domestic violence, which can reinforce the idea that it is okay or normal to mistreat women in this way.

(Effects on children) In homes where there is violence, children are likely to learn that violence is an appropriate form of conflict resolution and stress management, that violence has few socially negative consequences, and that victims of violence are at best to tolerate this behaviour and at worst to examine their own responsibility in bringing it on [Friedman, p. 23, citing Wilson].

In the home, boys are both the victims and survivors of domestic violence, and can perpetuate domestic violence against their siblings and against their parents.

Recent research on boys' attitudes to sexual violence shows a disturbingly high support for the acceptability of forcing a girl into sex in certain situations. In a Brisbane study of Year Nine boys, nearly one in three believed that it is "okay for a boy to hold a girl down and force her to have sexual intercourse" if she has "led him on", while one in five boys were unsure. One quarter of the boys thought that it was acceptable to force a girl to have sex if she gets him sexually excited, and another fifth were unsure [Domestic Violence Resource Centre, 1992]. In a 1997 survey by Family Planning Australia, nearly a third of the 15x25 year old males interviewed agreed that it was "okay for a male to force a female to have sex" in one or more of a range of situations [Family Planning Australia, 1997].

Strategies for change among boys

Given all this, what needs to be done? I will focus my comments on what we can do in relation to boys, as the focus of this panel.

I spent three years working with boys in high schools, as part of the community group Men Against Sexual Assault. Our efforts were preventative, designed to make it less likely that boys and men will choose to be violent. Our work with boys in schools had a number of basic strategies;

  • Offer basic information about domestic violence, rape and other forms of violence.
  • Challenge attitudes that are supportive of violence.
  • Encourage empathy with the victims of violence.
  • Show how violence is part of the dominant model of masculinity/how to be a man.
  • Show that violence is unacceptable, encouraging a sense of ethics or fairness.
  • Model new forms of non-violent masculinity.

One important emphasis in such work is to start with boys' own experiences, circumstances and needs, and to go beyond this experience. Work with boys' already existing interests in and commitments to non-violent relationships and relations with girls and women x their criticisms of violence and their desires to be liked, respected and trusted by girls and women, and by other boys and men.

Boys in general share an interest in male power and status. At the same time, they can be motivated by other interests, such as those shared with girls and women in general, and interests created in particular relationships, such as with mothers, sisters, girlfriends and female friends.

A second important emphasis is to build on already existing occasions when boys have chosen non-violent ways of relating and being, the times when they've resisted dominant codes of masculinity. Encourage the boys to find examples in their own lives of resisting dominant codes of masculinity and practising alternative, non-dominant masculinities; build on these exceptions to dominant masculinity; and find support for these in the boys' personal histories. Also find support for alternative identities and ways of relating from significant others, such as peers, family and girlfriends.

This involves reintepreting "failures" to do dominant masculinity as successes, and affirming and celebrating them. It involves working with the boys' stories or narratives of their pasts, present and futures, looking at dominant and alternative paths.

Behind both of these emphases is the assumption that boys and men will only gain from the diminishing of violence in their and girls' and women's lives. There are powerful incentives and reasons for boys and men to choose non-violence, and they include;

" The knowledge in our hearts that domestic violence and rape are terrible, horrifying things that no-one deserves to go through;

" Our loyalties to or love for particular women: a sister, a girlfriend, wife or partner, a mother or a friend, and our unwillingness to see them suffer the pain and injustice which violence involves;

" Our own experiences of violence, sexual assault and harassment, which have convinced us to join in the struggle for freedom from abuse because we know it's what everyone should have;

" Our commitments to religious, ethical or political principles, commitments to fairness and to justice which force us to recognise that men's violence is simply unacceptable.

Boys and men have a lot to gain personally from stopping physical and sexual assault. We will gain more caring and honest relations with women. Instead of experiencing distrust and disconnection, we may find closeness and connection. We will be able to take up a healthier, emotionally in-touch and proud masculinity, and we are less likely to ourselves be bashed or raped by other men.

While boys do choose the violent behaviours in which they engage, and boys also have incentives to choose to act non-violently, we should not place the entire responsibility for tackling violence with boys themselves. This would be to individualise what is a social problem, and blame boys for the larger social systems through which the dynamics of gender, sexuality and so on are organised [Denborough, 1996: 100].

Young men's efforts to adopt non-violent ways of being depend also on broader communities of support, at such levels as the school, the family and the local community. Focusing on the school level, any effort to tackle violence, including domestic violence, requires a 'whole school' approach which addresses the relationship between gender and violence at multiple levels. We need more than one-off courses which are optional inclusions in a school's curriculum, but a systematic set of strategies which address violence at all levels, of policy, curricula, classroom practice, and the entire range of formal and informal teacher-student, teacher-teacher and student-student relations.

Before I finish, I should mention that there are already a number of programs in Australia that embody these recognitions and approaches. In Canberra, David Denborough's work with young men ranks as some of the most cutting-edge and innovative work in Australia. Brook Friedman's Boystalk program, developed in Adelaide, presents a thorough approach to non-violence and relationships, and was awarded a Certificate of Merit in the 1995 Australian Violence Prevention Awards.

In the ACT, there is the PAIR program (which Pru will discuss), and also the Quakers' "Alternatives to violence" program and Relationships Australia modules on violence, which may be used in some colleges. Thus, we should not re-invent the wheel here, and we can draw on these excellent resources already in use.

Finally, domestic violence and other forms of violence will only be eradicated through fundamental changes in the notions of gender, especially manhood, and the gendered power relations of this society. Men's violence, and the violence which boys both perpetuate and are subject to, will only end when violence and manhood or personhood are mutually exclusive terms.

Programs cited

Denborough, David 1996 "Step by step: developing respectful and effective ways of working with young men to reduce violence", in McLean, Chris, Carey, Maggie and White, Cheryl (eds) Men's ways of being, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press

Domestic Violence Resource Centre (QLD) Preventing Abuse In Relationships (PAIR): a program for adolescents, Lutwyche, QLD

Friedman, Brook 1996 Boys-Talk: A program for young men about masculinity, non-violence and relationships, Adelaide: Men Against Sexual Assault

Further references cited

Adler, Christine 1992 "Violence, gender and social change", International Social Science Journal, No. 132

Australian Bureau of Statistics 1996 Women's safety Australia, Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics (No. 4128.0)

Connell, R.W. 1985 "Masculinity, violence and war", in Patton, Paul and Poole, Ross (eds) War/masculinity, Sydney: Intervention Publications

Domestic Violence Resource Centre, 1992, Boys will be& A report on the survey of Year Nine males and their attitudes to forced sex, Brisbane

Family Planning Australia 1997 Survey, part of Guys Talk Too project

Hearn, Jeff 1996 "Men's violence to know women: Historical, everyday and theoretical constructions by men", in Fawcett, Barbara, Featherstone, Brid, Hearn, Jeff and Toft, Christine (eds) Violence and gender relations: Theories and interventions, London: Sage

Miller, Peggy and Biele, Nancy 1993 "Twenty years later: The unfinished revolution", in Buchwald, Emilie, Fletcher, Pamela and Roth, Martha (eds) Transforming a rape culture, Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions

Office of the Status of Women 1995 Community attitudes to violence against women, Canberra: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Sanday, Peggy Reeves 1981b "The socio-cultural context of rape: A cross-cultural study", Journal of Social Issues, 37, pp. 5-27