The events of last week in London, and the protests in Australia, forced me, as a man and not a social justice campaigner, to think about and reflect on the issue of men's violence against women. Here are my observations and thoughts.
In the days following the discovery of Sarah Everard's body, one BBC headline read: Sarah Everard: How a woman’s death sparked a nation’s soul-searching. Many news outlets ran similar headlines about how the murder of the 33-year-old woman in London had sparked a national conversation about women’s safety. Two things were jarring to me. First, men were mostly missing from the conversation. That is based on my observation of the conversations I observed on social media. The second was how the mainstream media framed the issue. Most reports and headlines about violence against women placed women, as victims of the violence, at the centre of the issue and treated the perpetrators – men - as invisible agents. Other examples of headlines read as follows:
97% of women are sexually assaulted
It appears that in many reports, women are often cast in the subject position, but the objects - the men who subject women to violence – are often unnamed and therefore invisible. I think therein lies one of the biggest barriers in solving the issue of violence by men against women. To move the conversation forward, we must put men at the centre and single them out for their role in committing violence against women. A lot of news outlets (mostly run by men) and a lot of men will find my suggestion to place men in the subject position and highlighting them as the perpetrators of violence against women 'unfair'. In so doing so, they will fall back on the usual excuses: 'I am not like that', ‘Not all women are attacked by men', ‘Women also commit violence against other women,’ etc.
Well, those arguments are flimsy at best and nonsensical at worst. There is enough evidence to prove that the majority of people who have killed or assaulted women are men. According to a BBC report, nine out of ten killers (overall) are men, and that number is higher for those who kill women. It that case, it is and should be perfectly acceptable to focus the headlines on the killers and the perpetrators of violence and sexual assault – the men! Let’s have headlines like: "one in three men are violent against women" or "three in four men sexually assault women". Those are made up figures and headlines, but they help to make my point. Having headlines like that will put the spotlight on the perpetrators and not only on those to whom the violence is directed. And that, I believe, will drive the conversation about violence against women to focus on the source of the problem – men.
As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, I have noticed a worrying absence of men from the conversations about violence by men towards women. I think the way the issue is framed in the media is one reason men have been generally missing on the issue, generally treating it instead as a women's issue. So, let’s get one thing right. This (violence against women) is not a women’s issue. It’s a men’s issue. And until we treat it as such, progress will be painfully slow. Men should have the spotlight pointed at them, as the perpetrators of violence against women. My hope is that putting them in the spotlight will perhaps force them to come to the table to talk about the issue and, most importantly, find lasting solutions.
From words to actions
The way most of mainstream media hide men’s actions in their coverage of violence against women is deplorable. But how about us, men? Do we raise our hands to make ourselves visible, to take responsibility for this unacceptable state of affairs? The answer to that question is a resounding no. We hide and cower behind excuses like ‘not all men are like that’, ‘I am not like that’, ‘my friends are not like that’, ‘I respect all women like I respect my mother/sister/friends’. But these excuses are feeble; they have never and should never be acceptable. We, men, must take action. There are countless things we can do to start making a difference, but I will boil it down to three things I think will make the most impact: listening to understand, changing our behaviour, and challenging other men.
Listen to understand
To make impact on any issue, you must always start with listening – properly listening to understand and not only to respond. Men must listen to understand. Most of us have women we value and respect in our lives: our mothers, sisters, friends, daughters. Take time to speak to them and listen to their worries and concerns and fears. Make it a habit to listen and to ask them good questions. Ask them how their day was, if anything concerned them or made them afraid or feel unsafe. Ask them how they would want men to behave. Don’t listen to respond or challenge or make excuses, for yourself or other men. Just listen to understand. Empathise with them, try to walk in their shoes. As a word of caution, this not a call to pity women or treat them as weak or worse, as victims. Listen respectfully to truly understand and comprehend their reality.
Change your own behaviour
Now that you have listened and you truly understand and empathise with the women in your life, it is time to change your own behaviour. That’s right, all of us have things we can change, ways we can improve. Drop the excuse that you are not like that. You are like that. All of us are ‘like that’ but it’s a matter of degree. Some of us threaten and commit violence against women knowingly, others do so from ignorance, others condone or turn a blind eye, and some are not even aware of women’s realities when it comes to violence and threat that we pose to them. Whatever you do, whatever you think is probably playful or harmless is likely harmful. When you listen to women, you will know which is which. If you are not sure what to change, think about the way you behave around women in shared spaces. Do you think, based on what you have learned from listening, that your behaviour makes women feel safe? Most of men do or accept questionable behaviours, behaviours we deem ok-ish in certain situations. A few examples come to mind - uninvited sexual/domineering banter, catcalling , unwelcome sexual advances, especially in nightclubs. The last one is a real area of concern and of opportunity. I have been to nightclubs and I have observed men act in deplorable ways: groping women, making unwanted advances, thrusting themselves into intimate sexualised dancing, etc. And yet this behaviour is somewhat ‘accepted’ as normal in those situations. That is wrong. The same behaviour in any other situation will be a punishable sexual offence. Thus by ‘normalising’ it in some situations, we set a bad precedent. We blur the lines of what is acceptable and what isn't. Such behaviour must be unacceptable and inexcusable at all times and in all situations. And the responsibility is ours to change such behaviours.
Call out and challenge other men
Most of us, men, have friends who have acted inappropriatley and in ways that make women feel unsafe and threatened. We know people who have gone too far, whether in social gatherings or on a night out with the boys. Yet most of us have never called out or challenged such behaviour. We can, we should, and we must challenge it. Yes, it will feel awkward at first, but if that is the price for creating safe spaces for women, and for everyone, it’s a price worth paying. The best approach is to start by engaging in the conversation with your mates before any situation arise. Talk to them about your conversations with the women in your life. Talk about how our behaviour and actions can make women feel unsafe. Agree that you will challenge each other if you observe any unacceptable behaviours. By doing so, you make it easy to call each other out and challenge each other constructively.
These three actions alone are not adequate; they only begin to scratch the surface of what we must do to create safe spaces for women, and for everyone. But they provide a good foundation on which we can build our actions, behaviours, and attitudes. First, the media must do its part in putting men in the subject position and shining the light of shame on the violence they commit against women. Then we must do our part. We, men, must take action that makes a real difference. It’s never too late to start.