Canberra Men’s Centre has a deep and abiding interest in understanding men’s commitments and concerns, their strengths and capacities, and the diversity in men’s individuality and identity. We are committed to transforming that understanding into real outcomes for men, and for their partners, families, and communities – outcomes which are in alignment with what really matters to men, and which express the value we know men to have. In the spirit of this commitment, we seek to create and participate in an open exploration of men’s lives, to find out who men are and who they can be for themselves, their partners and families and their communities. Rather than being dominated by grievance or ideology, this conversation is a context for reflection, observation, sharing of ideas and the creation of new possibilities. Conversations about men inside of the feminist project are mostly about what’s wrong with men, but this needs to be considered in the light of women’s experience of men.
The much-repeated comment that ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them., has its source in a radio interview with Margaret Atwood, who was referring to comments made by one man and a group of women students. Not a representative sample, by any means, but what Atwood was pointing to was that the concerns which women have about men are quantitatively and qualitatively different to men’s concerns about women. We know that most women will die for reasons other than being murdered by a man. But we also know that, when men cross the line in how they behave towards women, they have much greater capacity and willingness to act in ways which inflict harm and suffering – particularly physical harm, but in psychological and emotional consequences as well.
Some men react negatively to public campaigns aimed at raising awareness about sexual assault and domestic violence on the grounds that it doesn’t apply to them because they’ve never done it, and complain that the campaigns treat all men the same. This message has never been designed, overtly or covertly, into any campaign in Australia that I can recall, which makes me wonder why the complaint is so often made. Perhaps it’s because there’s no trumpeting disclaimer emphasising that not all men are violent to their partners or perpetrators of sexual assault. Unfortunately, it may be simply a ‘shoot the messenger’ reaction to the message’s inevitable harshness, inevitable because these campaigns turn the public’s gaze to the ugliness of violence to women, without apology.
This can be a particular problem when the campaigns are sending the message that other men’s violence is men’s responsibility. Men who fully accept this responsibility understand that it means taking action, and so too do many of the men who refuse to accept responsibility – they don’t want to have to take action. Why not? For as many reasons as there are – don’t really value women, it’s somebody else’s problem, none of my business, don’t care, don’t understand what’s at stake, too lazy, would feel embarrassed, more comfortable saying nothing…
Rather than dance around the edges of this point of view, we should take it on. Because there is one fundamental way in which any domestic violence or sexual assault awareness campaign treats men the same, and it’s this. It doesn’t matter whether you have the right to say nothing or do nothing. As a man, you will find yourself in a situation where you have the opportunity to speak up, to take a stand, to take some action – to challenge the meaning of someone else’s joke, to provide a different point of view in a conversation, to let people know what your personal values are, to intervene when a man is threatening or using violence (even if you’re afraid for your own safety, you can always get your companions to stand with you, or call the police). Every time you do nothing, you’re another brick in the wall. In this respect, all men are the same. If you’re not the solution, you’re the problem. There are no bystanders.
I think we can draw great inspiration from the great public health campaigns of the past, particularly the anti-smoking campaign. There was a time when non-smokers were a voiceless and powerless group. Not any more. Even the people who still struggle with nicotine addictions generally recognise that the days of having free reign in polluting the air, disregarding the impact on their own health and dismissing requests and complaints from other people are over. No-one gets to make this about their personal freedoms anymore. Shared space is public space, and smokers have a responsibility for the interests and well-being of non-smokers. There were strident backlashes when we made government offices and other workplaces and restaurants and cafes and shops and public transport and other shared spaces everywhere smoking-free. Now Australia sets a standard for anti-smoking public policy and practice that other countries are starting to follow.
People who don’t condone violence to women have voices, and we’re not afraid to use them. And we’re not just going to be taking violent men into a quiet room and speaking to them privately. We’re going to be making this public. Very public. So if you’re someone who thinks that it’s ok for you to stay silent when you hear people dismissing our campaigns, if you resent the suggestion that “men’s violence is your concern because you’re a man and you have a contribution to make in changing the attitudes which allow violence to survive and flourish” because it means people expect you to get out of your comfort zone and speak out…we’re not going away. Ever.
So how does this fit with what I said at the start about our interest in understanding men’s commitments and concerns, their strengths and capacities, or about seeking seek to create and participate in an open exploration of men’s lives? It’s unarguable that the interests of women who have been on the receiving end of sexual assault and violence, and the interests of children who have been living in its presence and its aftermath, will always come first.
However it’s hard to imagine how men who have used violence (or at risk of using it) can be engaged in making a profound and lasting change in their behaviour and dealing with the impacts on partners and family, without understanding that they continue to be human beings whose commitments and capacities are where their willingness, motivation and ability to change are to be found.
One reason we provide services for men who have used or are at risk of using violence to women is to support and bring greater safety to women and children who have experienced and live in fear of violence. The other, and equally important reason, is to assist men who have used violence to turn their lives and relationships around, to reconcile with irreversible consequences, take responsibility and help to build a safer community, and in so doing, start to create better futures for themselves.