For men who begin to take action in their everyday lives to end violence against women, there are some common mistakes to avoid.
Seeing only other men as the problem
It is tempting for individual men to think that the problem of men’s violence against women is a problem only of other men. To speak personally for a moment, it may be easy or comforting to think, “I’ve never bashed a woman. I’ve never held a knife to a woman’s throat and forced her into sex. Violence is a problem of other men, men not like me”. But once we realise that violence and abuse can take various forms, it’s not so simple. For me for example, I would not say that I have raped a woman. But I have realised that there were times when I have used ‘soft pressure’, guilt-tripped a woman into sex, or done something or kept going even when I knew she wasn’t quite comfortable with it. I’ve become more aware of how using pornography in my teens shaped my sexual attitudes in dodgy ways. I’ve become more conscious of the ways I sometimes treat my partner unfairly. In short, I’ve realised that there are ways in which I too am ‘part of the problem’. In involving ourselves in ending men’s violence against women, men must critically scrutinise our own attitudes and practices, and avoid ‘exceptionalising’ ourselves as fundamentally better than other men.
While dedicating myself to ending violence against women has involved personal and troubling challenges, it has also had had profound personal benefits. It’s deepened my relationship with my partner – I’ve learnt skills in communication, and respect, our relationship is deeper, and yes, the sex is better too. It’s enriched my parenting. It’s helped my friendships with men too, encouraging me to move beyond bravado and boasting to more intimate forms of connection. My male friends and I still do ‘boysy’ things, but we don’t bond by putting others down. More widely, I’ve been able to take part in networks and communities of amazing and inspiring men and women.
Related to the issue of men making exceptions of themselves is claiming to be free of sexism. While it is valuable that some men wish to see themselves as free of sexism, it’s not quite accurate. In a sexist society, all of us are sexist to some degree. All men learn sexist thoughts and behaviours, all of us receive patriarchal privileges whether we want to or not, and all of us are complicit to some degree in sexism. Our task is not to be non-sexist, as this is impossible, but to be anti-sexist. Yes, we can rid ourselves of particular sexist assumptions and stop certain behaviours, but in a sexist culture we can never be entirely free of sexism, because as men, we will still receive patriarchal privileges. For example, our voices and beliefs will usually be given more authority, we will be assumed often to be more competent and promotable workers than women, and we will experience levels of physical and sexual freedom denied to many women.
Waiting until you’re perfect
While some men claim that they are free of the problem, others know they are not and feel they must wait for perfection before they can speak up. Instead, for men to play a positive role in ending violence against women, we do not have to be perfect. We do not have to have achieved sainthood. The White Ribbon, for example, is not a badge of perfection. And, in getting involved, even with the best of intentions, at times we will make mistakes, say the wrong thing, and so on. The bottom line is that we take responsibility for our actions and attitudes, recognise the hurt we have caused, and strive for a higher standard.
Talking the talk but not walking the walk
Another common mistake is ‘talking the talk but not walking the walk’. Perhaps some kind of gap between our political aspirations and our personal practices is inevitable. Personal change is partial and uneven, and our personal lives are messy and complex. Still, men have a responsibility to shift what we do, not just what we say.
Reflecting their socialisation as men in a sexist society, some men deliberately or inadvertently behave in dominating ways in anti-violence work: using their new-found knowledge to do power to women, claiming to be better feminists than women, playing off one women’s group against another, or taking over women’s spaces. Men and women learn to relate in ways which advantage men as a group and disadvantage women as a group, because of wider gender inequalities and gender norms. It should not surprise us that these same gendered patterns of interaction are visible sometimes in anti-violence work. Men may struggle with complicity in patriarchal behaviours and attitudes. Many men have carried an ‘invisible backpack’ of privilege, a taken-for-granted set of unearned benefits and assets… When women and men work together, gendered norms of male-female interaction can hinder egalitarian relationships and drain women’s labour and emotional energies. In ways that mirror the patterns of traditional heterosexual relationships… men may expect nurturance and emotional support from women and women may comply with unequal relations because of their internalised sexism. (Flood 2005: 464)
As men come to be involved in ending men’s violence against women, inevitably we make some mistakes. There is much to learn, and we will sometimes get it wrong as we learn and grow.
EXCERTED from: Flood, Michael. (2011). Men Speak Up: A toolkit for action in men’s daily lives. Sydney: White Ribbon Prevention Research Series, No. 4.
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For more guides on what men can do to reduce and prevent sexism and men's violence against women, see the XY collection here.