Three principles for violence prevention work with men and boys

What principles and approaches are most likely to generate change among men and boys? There is a wealth of guidance on dimensions of effective practice for violence prevention in general, and this typically emphasises that prevention efforts should be (1) informed; (2) comprehensive; (3) engaging; and (4) relevant. First, violence prevention interventions must be based on a sound understanding of both the problem – the workings and causes of violence – and how it can be changed, showing both an appropriate theoretical framework and a theory of change. Second, interventions should be comprehensive, using multiple strategies, in multiple settings, and at multiple levels (Casey & Lindhorst, 2009; Nation et al., 2003). Third, interventions should involve effective forms of delivery which engage participants, in terms of their content, implementation, and practitioners. Fourth, effective programs are relevant to the communities and contexts in which they are delivered. They are informed by knowledge of and collaboration with their target group or population and their local contexts (Nation et al., 2003).

Efforts to engage men and boys in particular should seek to live up to these criteria, but they must also be guided by further principles. There are various articulations of the principles that should guide violence prevention work with men and boys (Flood, 2019; Wells, Flood, Boutilier, Goulet, & Dozois, 2020), complemented by guides to engaging men and boys in general (American Psychological Association, 2018; Flood, Peacock, Stern, Barker, & Greig, 2010; Greig & Flood, 2020; ICRW, 2018; Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Promundo-US, & Sonke Gender Justice, 2015; VicHealth, 2019). Although there is diversity here, most accounts share three emphases: a concern with sexism and gender inequalities, a concern with men’s and boys’ own wellbeing, and attention to differences and inequalities among men and boys themselves. We can think of these therefore in terms of three principles: 1) feminist: intended to transform gender inequalities; 2) committed to enhancing boys’ and men’s lives; and 3) intersectional: addressing diversities and inequalities.

Feminist: intended to transform gender inequalities

Sexual violence prevention efforts among men and boys must be feminist. They should be grounded in principles of gender justice, recognise the systemic gender inequalities that structure society, and seek to transform oppressive gender structures, norms, and practices. A feminist approach should be foundational to the work’s aims and agendas, its content and processes, and its structures. There is a growing emphasis in the ‘engaging men’ field on the need for interventions to be ‘gender-transformative’ – to transform gender inequalities and generate more gender-equitable relations (Barker, Ricardo, & Nascimento, 2007; Casey, Carlson, Two Bulls, & Yager, 2016; Dworkin, Treves-Kagan, & Lippman, 2013; Wells et al., 2020). Although the term is used in varying ways, in general it seems synonymous with the term ‘feminist’ (Flood, 2021).

Effective violence prevention efforts among men and boys will have feminist content, addressing the gender-related factors known to drive sexual violence perpetration. Educational programs should include content on power and patriarchal gender inequalities. This is evident, for example, in the Manhood 2.0 curriculum among young men (Kato-Wallace et al., 2019) and among six male-based sexual violence prevention programs on U.S. college campuses (McGraw, 2013). However, prevention efforts aimed at general audiences frequently treat sexual consent as a gender-neutral issue and do not address the gendered aspects of sexual violence (Beres, 2018).

Prevention efforts among men and boys also require gender-transformative processes. They should involve boys and men in critical reflection on masculinities and gender and seek to foster their support for gender equality and non-violence (Flood, 2019, pp. 197-199, 324-332).

Finally, work with men and boys requires feminist structures: it must be done in partnership with, and be accountable to, women and women’s groups (Flood, 2019, pp. 92-96). Accountability is a key strategy to minimise the risks, first, in working with a group, men or boys, who are privileged or advantaged in certain ways, and the risks, second, in work by men. Accountability is intended to reduce the risks of reinforcing gender inequalities, colluding with violence, or taking away resources and legitimacy from women’s rights efforts. The principle of accountability is emphasised among men’s anti-violence advocates (Rosenberg, 2012) and in standards for this work (MenEngage, 2018; Pease, 2017; Wells et al., 2020).

Committed to enhancing boys’ and men’s lives

The second principle comprises a commitment to enhancing boys’ and men’s lives: to address men’s and boys’ distinct needs, recognise them as stakeholders and beneficiaries, and use strengths-based or positive approaches in engaging them.

While men and boys are the recipients of various forms of unearned privilege in the patriarchal gender order that characterises contemporary societies, they also pay important costs. Men and boys who conform to traditional constructions of masculinity may show poorer mental health, greater risk-taking, and lower help-seeking (The Men’s Project & Flood, 2018, pp. 49-50), and boys and men are subject to gendered and homophobic policing and abuse particularly by other males (Reigeluth & Addis, 2021). Prevention efforts among boys and men must be attentive to their distinct needs, including the challenges they may face in accessing and using support services (Pulerwitz, Gottert, Betron, & Shattuck, 2019).

Men and boys themselves have a stake in progress towards gender equality and non-violence. In violence prevention work with men, and in the wider ‘engaging men’ field, there is a consensus that men and boy will benefit, in terms of their own lives, their relations with women, children, and other men, and their workplaces and communities (Flood, 2019, pp. 88-89). There are also caveats: with progress towards a society free of violence against women, men who can no longer perpetrate such violence lose the perceived benefits associated with this, and men in general will lose unfair privileges (Flood, 2019, pp. 105-108).

Strengths-based or positive approaches are widely seen as more effective in prevention work with men and boys. Efforts should acknowledge and build on men’s and boys’ existing commitments to and involvements in non-violence and equality, in particular to minimise the likelihood of defensive or hostile responses (Flood, 2019, pp. 157-162).

Intersectional: addressing diversities and inequalities

The third principle is to be intersectional: to acknowledge and respond to diversities and inequalities among men and boys (MenEngage Alliance, 2019; Pulerwitz et al., 2019; Wells et al., 2020). An intersectional feminist approach recognises that gender intersects with other forms of social difference and inequality, and hence that men in different social locations have differential access to social resources and status. Focusing on sexual violence, an intersectional approach highlights that men’s attitudes towards violence, men’s use of violence, and how male perpetrators are viewed and treated all are structured by multiple relations of disadvantage and privilege tied to ethnicity, class, sexuality, and nation.

This has four implications for work with men and boys. First, with any population of men or boys, we must engage with their specific cultural and material conditions, including both local cultures of gender and sexuality and material and structural inequalities. In contexts particularly of disadvantage, efforts should seek to improve the social and economic conditions of men and communities. Second, we must address culturally specific risk and protective factors, including challenging cultural supports for sexual violence, and building on local resources, texts, and norms in promoting non-violence and gender equality. Third, prevention work should be developed in collaboration with the communities in which it is being delivered, to help ensure that it as relevant for participants as possible (Burrell, 2018; Zounlome, Wong, Klann, & David, 2019).

More generally, sexual violence prevention among men and boys must acknowledge intersectional disadvantages and privileges. Initiatives among men and boys from ethnic minority and indigenous backgrounds should highlight the links between racism, sexism, and sexist violence and address common racist myths about violence. However, an intersectional approach is relevant for any group of men or boys and not just those who are different from the dominant norm.

Summary: Three principles for violence prevention work with men and boys

  1. Feminist: intended to transform gender inequalities
  • Aimed at addressing the gendered drivers of violence against women
  • Oriented towards transforming gender roles, relations, and structures
  • Including:
    • Feminist content
      • Curricula on gender, gender roles, and gender inequalities
      • Explicit attention to privilege and power
    • Feminist processes
      • Involve men in critical reflection on masculinities and gender
      • Foster men’s support for gender equality and non-violence
    • Feminist structures
      • Done in partnership with, and be accountable to, women and women’s groups
      • Accountability: personal, interpersonal, institutional
  1. Committed to enhancing boys’ and men’s lives
  • Address men’s and boys’ distinct needs
  • Recognise men and boys as stakeholders and beneficiaries
  • Use strengths-based or positive approaches in engaging them
  1. Intersectional: addressing diversities and inequalities
  • With any population of men or boys, engage with their specific cultural and material conditions
  • Address culturally specific risk and protective factors
  • Develop the work in collaboration with the communities in which it is being delivered
  • Acknowledge intersectional disadvantages and privileges. With any group of men or boys



Excerpted from:

Flood, M., and Burrell, S. (forthcoming) Engaging Men and Boys in the Primary Prevention of Sexual Violence. In Rape: Challenging Contemporary Thinking, Eds. Miranda Horvath and Jennifer Brown. Routledge.


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