Men, masculinity and violence: A speech (1993)

Speech, Thursdays in Black launch, Canberra, Australia

Michael Flood, 21 October 1993.

My name is Michael Flood, and I am one of the members of Men Against Sexual Assault, a community group concerned about violence.

I want to talk about the connections between men, masculinity and rape and violence, and war. I will then talk about the positive ways in which men help end the violence.

Historically, wars have been intensely masculine endeavours. 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. Most murderers are men. Almost all armed robbers and muggers are men. Nearly all rapists, most domestic bashers, and most people involved in street fights and riots are men. [Here, I am quoting Connell, R.W. 1985 "Masculinity, violence and war", in Patton, Paul and Poole, Ross (eds) War/masculinity, Sydney: Intervention Publications.]

So, whether you are looking at the organised violence of states and governments, or unorganised violence between individuals, most of it is at the hands of men. What is going on? What is the connection between being violent and being male?

There is a widespread belief that it is all "natural". Human males are supposedly programmed, because of our genes or hormones, to be killers and fighters.

However, there is practically no evidence to show that men are naturally or biologically more aggressive. 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.

Instead, we now know that war, murder, rape and other forms of violence are social and cultural facts, not biological facts. The link between men and violence is the product of society and history, not biology. It is an article of faith for Men Against Sexual Assault that men are perfectly capable of being loving, caring human beings.

In Western countries, to "be a man" is to be tough, in control, self-reliant and dominant. Many men are taught to adopt an aggressive and violent masculinity. One of the central images of masculinity is the murderous hero, the specialist in violence: Rambo, James Bond, Bruce Lee and many others. In times of war, this cult of masculine toughness is exploited to mobilise men to fight. You are a wimp, a sissy or a poof if you don’t fight.

I am not suggesting that we can reduce wars to masculinity or to gender relations. But I do believe that gender is very important for understanding who fights, how they fight and what is fought over.

In former Yugoslavia, rape and sexual violence are being used as tactics in the conflict. Men’s violence is being used as a way of terrorising and humiliating the population, and as a means of "ethnic cleansing". This use of rape in war is not a new thing—the same things occurred for example in the Vietnam War, in Bangladesh in 1971 and in many other conflicts. And Amnesty International reports that rape is often part of torture, used to extract information, degrade and punish the victim.

In short, rape is a tactic of power and social control. Rape and domestic violence act as a form of social control on women, limiting women’s autonomy, safety, freedom and their access to paid work and political decision-making. And men’s violence against other men, such as poofter-bashing and bullying, maintains hierarchies of power among men themselves.

Many men are not violent. On the personal level, some men are more likely to be violent to women than others—those men who believe that hitting their wives is okay, 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.

Last year I read Diana Scully’s study of convicted rapists. She found that sexually violent men identify with traditional images of masculinity and male gender role privilege; believe very strongly in rape stereotypes, and for them, being male carries the right to discipline and punish women.

The men who are more likely to rape are those men who believe the myths about rape, and who see their victims not as human beings with rights and feelings, but as objects, pieces of property to be used or dominated.

Given this connection between masculinity and violence, some of you may be wondering why men would be concerned about rape and violence, why there are groups such as Men Against Sexual Assault. So I’d like to briefly describe some of the reasons why I and many other men have decided to take action against men’s violence.

" For many men, being opposed to violence is an extension of our commitment to religious, ethical or political principles—men’s commitment to love for one another, to justice or to pacifism. We have recognised that men’s violence is simply unacceptable.

" For some of us, it’s because we know in our hearts that rape and domestic violence are terrible, horrifying things that no-one deserves to go through.

We have found out about the pain and injustice that violence involves, and we will no longer condone it.

" Some men speak out against violence because of their loyalty to or love for a particular woman: a wife or partner, a mother, sister or friend.

" Some men are here because they’ve been sexually assaulted themselves, perhaps as a child or adolescent boy. They’re joining in the struggle for freedom from abuse, because they know it’s what everyone should have.

" And many men take action against men’s violence because we have made the connection, seen the link, between violence and the ways in which men are brought up.

Sexual violence, wife-battering and child abuse are widespread in Australia. And there is substantial popular acceptance of the legitimacy of these forms of violence, which is only now being challenged by feminists and others.

What can we do to change all this? This campaign is demanding "a world without rape and violence". I believe that men have an especially important role to play in creating such a world. So, what can men do to end violence?

Men need to examine our own involvement in violence. I will focus here on sexual assault, because that is the issue I’ve thought most about.

Men are taught to be sexually violent. Men are taught to behave in aggressive and coercive ways, and we’re taught to believe that it’s okay to do so. Men are taught that we should take the sexual initiative with women, and see how far we can get. What all this means is that men learn a rapist sexuality.

Men need to reject the lie that women mean "yes" when they say "no", we need to take no for an answer. We need to reject the myth that we have uncontrollable and unstoppable sexual urges, and to take responsibility for our sexual behaviour.

Men need to inform ourselves of the facts about rape—the fact that no one asks to be raped, that the men who rape are not loonies but ordinary men, and that men ourselves can be raped.

So, the task for men is to create a sexuality based not on coercion and aggression, but on consent, respect and mutual pleasure. I see this as one vital way in which men can contribute to a peaceful and just future.

Men Against Sexual Assault also believes that men have a lot to gain personally from stopping physical and sexual assault:

  • We will gain more caring and honest relations with women;
  • A healthier, emotionally in-touch and proud masculinity; and
  • We are less likely to ourselves be bashed or raped by other men.

MASA believes that if we are to create a world free of men’s violence, we will need to create a different masculinity. We need to create a role for men that is healthy, life-loving, and non-oppressive. The sorts of qualities I think are important here include sensitivity, pride, nurturance, courage, passion, expressiveness, kindness, strength and humility.

This requires more than just individual change. We need to change social attitudes and social institutions. Feminists have been doing this social change work for at least two and a half decades:

  • providing support for the victims and survivors of violence;
  • reforming laws to do with sexual assault and domestic violence; and
  • running educational campaigns.

MASA supports this work—the work for example of the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre and the Domestic Violence Crisis Service.

But Men Against Sexual Assault has also adopted a special role, in educating boys and men. In Canberra, men from MASA go into high schools and run workshops with boys on rape. MASA groups around Australia work with men in prisons, universities and workplaces, hold public forums, and run rallies and educational campaigns.

We see community education as a preventative strategy, designed to make it less likely that boys and men will be violent. At a broader level, MASA’s efforts are intended to bring about a cultural shift in attitudes, so that virtually all men will come to believe that to be violent is shameful and unmanly.

MASA’s next big campaign is the White Ribbon Campaign, to be held on December 6th to 11th. The White Ribbon Campaign encourages men to show their opposition to men’s violence against women, by buying and wearing a white ribbon during that week. So, look out for this campaign in early December.

I believe that to understand why violence happens, and to prevent violence, we have to look at masculinity—at the models of how to be a man that we have. And I believe that violence will only end when men take responsibility for ending it, and when men adopt a positive and non-violent masculinity.

I’ve discussed some ways in which men can help stop men’s violence. A further thing you can do is to support Men Against Sexual Assault: by becoming a member, or becoming involved in our activities and campaigns.

And of course, I encourage all men, as well as women, to support the Thursdays in Black Campaign, Show that you are concerned about rape and other forms of violence, by wearing black or wearing a black badge every Thursday.