Positioning Violence Against Girls and Women as a Men’s Issue
The 1960s and 1970s brought us the second wave of the women’s movement. It was called by many the feminist movement or the women’s liberation movement. The issue of equality as it relates to ending men’s violence against women was very much a part of these efforts. It should also be noted that while many changes have been made over the years (and there is still work to be done) this was largely a white women’s movement. We are talking pre- and recently post-civil rights act.
For men this was clearly seen as a women’s issue. There were very few, if any, men at the table, and let’s be honest if they were invited to the table far too many of them would have been a distraction with alternative motives. Women’s concerns about men’s behavior (and their agenda), if and when to invite men to the movement, and men’s lack of interest in the experience of women all helped define this as a women’s issue.
When I joined this movement in the early 1990s, the landscape had not changed much. At most events and gatherings maybe five to ten percent of those in attendance would be men. Men’s involvement was primarily focused on law enforcement, perpetrator accountability programs (formerly batterer intervention programs), and the political arena — all male dominated disciplines. Women’s organizing efforts included getting laws on the books regarding domestic and sexual violence enforced. There were also efforts to get needed laws created and awareness efforts to help communities and human service organizations develop a lack of tolerance for violence against women. And, of course, the needed services for those who had been victimized. The majority of all these efforts were (and continue to be) led by women.
Around the mid 1990s efforts began surfacing to focus on domestic and sexual violence prevention. Prior to this time, most, if not all, efforts had been focused on accountability. In 1994, with the signing of the Violence Against Women Act and support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some resources were geared toward prevention efforts.
Over the last 20 years there has been a concerted effort to develop initiatives and programs to engage men and boys in domestic and sexual violence prevention. These efforts have created a purposeful place for men’s work in the movement. Nevertheless, men’s work in the movement continues to be on the fringes.
So how do we get men and boys to no longer see violence against women and girls as a women’s issue? I believe at the core of this issue is to socialize men and boys to have an interest in the experiences of women and girls. It also should be noted that homophobia runs ramped in the collective socialization of men and is also at the root of this problem. And to be frank as men and boys we have been socialized to have an interest in the experience of women and girls as it relates primarily to sexual relationships. When you take sexual relationships off the table the collective socialization of manhood teaches men to have a limited interest in the experiences of women outside of those they love and care for.
The reason homophobia is central to this issue is because for men and boys who show interest in the experience of women and girls with sexual relationships not being of interest risk the chance of being victimized by heterosexism. Let me explain this is the form of a story.
One day when my son was twelve years old he was cutting the grass and called me on the phone asking if he could go to Nicole’s house, that a bunch of his friend were there. Nicole is a girl from his school who lives down the block from us. I told him he could after he finished cutting the grass. I arrived home about 10 minutes later to find my son standing on the lawn next to the mower with five girls. As it turns out his friends decided to walk down the block to visit him instead of waiting on him to come and see them. As it also turns out (unknowing to me) all of the friends he was referring to were girls.
I have shared this story with many men asking them what they believe were the thoughts that went through my head as I pulled up in the driveway seeing my son standing there with five girls. The men largely have had two thoughts; praise for him having so many girls or wondering which one he likes. And when I stated to the men what if he doesn’t “like” any of them, what would be the thoughts then? By and large the majority became concerned that he might be gay. Many also made mentions that they would ask their son, “which one do you like?”. Many also made mention that if he said he didn’t like any of them that he would be asked “what are you doing with them then?” It’s both interesting and disturbing that none of the men took the time to think about the 12 year old girls that they are sexually objectifying in the course of this conversation.
So, what are we teaching our sons and boys? Far too often we are teaching them to have a lack of interest in the experience of women and girls outside of sexual relationships. And if they have an interest then their manhood is in question. And if their manhood is in question they are at risk for victimization. While we have seen positive growth in this area with boys and young men there remains a tremendous amount of work to do.
I have found that the path of least resistance to move men in a conversation that it’s not a women’s issue, that it’s a humanitarian issue is to ask them about their daughters and other women they love. Asking men about the world they want to see for their daughters changes the conversation completely.
Asking men about their daughters and other women they love, is a strategy to make use of the emotional connection between men and women they love. Once the conversation has been emotionally solidified, we can move to an intellectual discussion that includes all women.
In my opinion it is vital that we continue to make progress in the inclusion of men and boys in our work to end violence against women and girls. If women and girls could end the violence by themselves they would have already. Men are required as part of the solution to ending violence against women.
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