Men in feminism: how do we preach to the unconverted?

We live in a world in which most men neither notice nor care about the broader context in which women’s voices are suppressed. Can anything be done?

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Spend enough time staring misogyny in the face and you’ll probably end up wanting to flee to a woman-only island, as far away as possible from male “civilisation”. Certainly it’s a scenario I’ve considered. Pros: no men. Cons: I’d want to bring my sons, perhaps even my partner, and no doubt some purist – looking not unlike Tilda Swinton in The Beach – would object. So for the time being I am, like most women, stuck here among the men.

My only hope is that one day, the men might change. It might seem a pathetic hope to cling to – after all, tradition states that men are men and it’s only women who must constantly adapt – but what else do we have? Masculinity is both costly and murderous; we simply can’t afford to ignore it.

This week two events bring male violence and possible routes towards change into focus. The Barbershop Conference  – an offshoot of the UN #heforshe campaign – will take place in New York, looking to find strategies “to engage men to end violence against women and girls”. Meanwhile, in the UK, new research into Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes (DVPPs), conducted by Liz Kelly and Nicole Westmarland, has just been released.

If I’m honest the Barbershop Conference (apparently “almost every man has been to a barbershop. These are places where men talk to each other”) seems to me just a little too nice. While it’s not exactly Promise Keepers, I fear that too great a focus on men as “agents for change” could lead to the neglect of something more crucial: bringing home to men that women have feelings, too. I’m uneasy about the emphasis on “gender equality” – with its overtones of six of one, half a dozen of the other – and statements such as “too often, gender equality is seen as an issue primarily concerning women […] The truth is, of course, that inequality not only harms women and girls, but society as a whole”. It’s not exactly radical, is it? I end up picturing a room full of nice, liberal, well-meaning men wringing their hands, ostentatiously sighing and feeling guilty, and what good does that do women? As Andrea Dworkin told the National Organisation for Changing Men, “you have the time to feel guilty. We don't have the time for you to feel guilty. […] Your guilt helps keep things the way they are” (I get the impression #heforshe doesn’t do Dworkin).

As for DVPPs, here are the things I instantly think of: Fathers 4 Justice; manipulative bullies “doing a course” as a way to gain access to children; a new way for violent misogynists to “prove” that “this time I’ve really changed”; a loophole allowing abusers to avoid a harsher punishment. Given how few resources are available for women and children fleeing male violence, it seems terribly unfair to divert them towards the men who cause the problem in the first place, especially if they’re unlikely to reform. Moreover, I wouldn’t tell a woman in a relationship with one of these men to give him a second chance; why should anyone else? Julie Bindel argues persuasively against the promotion of such schemes, pointing out that the potential effectiveness of the criminal justice system for prevention and reform has not yet been truly tested. She also questions how such schemes could have any broader deterrent effect:

Does the existence of these courses deter others from using their fists to settle an argument? On average, two women in England and Wales die each week as a result of domestic violence, a figure that has remained constant for decades. I can’t imagine a government-led information campaign with the slogan, “Violent men beware! Beat up your wife and go on a course”.

There is, as Bindel notes, a risk that such schemes could change our perspective on domestic violence to the extent that “the impression given […] is that those who beat and rape their partners are in need of support and help, not punishment” (and given the way in which “masculinity in crisis” is still used to diminish accountability for sexual and physical violence, this risk is considerable). Nonetheless, reading the report and speaking to Jo Todd, CEO at Respect, the DVPP umbrella organisation that worked with Kelly and Westmarland on Project Mirabal, I still think there is a positive side.  

Todd is keen to stress that DVPPs are “not a miracle cure”, with change being a complex and lengthy process: “Nearly everyone starts off thinking ‘should we be putting resources into men? Is it worth doing?’”. But the research does suggest that some reform is possible. In particular, there were dramatic and significant reductions in the prevalence of sexual and physical violence, without other forms of abuse moving in to take their place (although some, particularly financial abuse, remain). Improvements in attitudes towards others in general and women in particular were also noted. Kelly and Westmarland describe themselves as having started the project with “a healthy scepticism about the extent to which men choose to change”:

After spending time with thousands of pages of transcripts of men and women talking about their use/experiences of violence and abuse we are convinced that our data shows steps towards change do start to happen for most. Some men make only a few, halting steps forward. A tiny minority take steps backwards. Others start taking small steps and end up taking huge leaps. For many men, women and children, their lives are improved following a domestic violence perpetrator programme.

Of course, “most” and “many” are not the same as “all” and Todd is keen to stress that the safety of women and children remains an ultimate priority. She also points out that if rehabilitation is to be a complement (and not an alternative) to the criminal justice system, “someone needs to be doing that work from a feminist perspective”. It is this uncompromising stance on the gendered dynamics of relationships that I find especially encouraging about the Respect model. Male entitlement is questioned and the accounts of female survivors treated as authoritative. The process Todd describes is not one centred on self-pity or excuses, but on challenging the perpetrator’s view of his “rights” as a man:

People think equality is done now but there’s still domestic violence going on, a lot of which happens because women are trying to assert their own agency. ‘What did you do?’ is often the first thing women are asked whenever they tell anyone.

It is for this reason that the group sessions run by Respect are led by both male and female facilitators, on the basis that perpetrators would be hostile to a female-only team while attempting to collude with a male-only one. The devaluing of women’s voices – which is ubiquitous – is rightly seen as part of the dynamic which perpetuates abuse.

I don’t think men who hit their partners are monsters, or rather, if they are, they are of an everyday sort. The attitudes expressed by men on the DVPPs are not so different to those expressed by men at universities, on social media, in football stadiums, in boardrooms, around the dinner table, in the pub. The risk of seeing violent men as something different, an unchangeable, ever-present evil, is that women will always have to accept diminished lives, coping with that fear that all of us have when we round a street corner, alone, and see a male figure approach, or when we notice the darkening in a new partner’s eyes, perhaps a pursing of lips, and immediately wonder whether this time, we have “pushed him too far”. We will always be asking ourselves “is he one of them?” The quest for change must never put women and children’s lives at further risk. However, there has to be something more than tough sentencing to keep us safe (although obviously we’re not there yet). If the only reason a man does not hit you is that he does not want to be imprisoned, he will find another way to hate and abuse. The hate has to end somehow (and perhaps tougher sentencing can only come with a real, rather than superficial, recognition that women matter).

One paragraph of the report stood out for me in particular:

Abusive men attempt to enforce acceptance of their views, opinions, standards, emotions and needs, creating what women and children experience as disrespectful one-way communication. This can take a number of forms: presumption of automatic respect; speaking to women as if they were children; issuing orders and demands; refusal to countenance criticism; presumption of entitlement to make all the decisions in the relationship/family; needing to win an argument; interrupting, listening and/or a disinterest in the views of others. The principle of this style of communication is that women and children should recognise and adhere to the man’s perspectives.

This form of abuse is, to use a fluffier term, mansplaining. We tend to downplay it when “normal” men – some of whom might even call themselves feminists – engage in it, but it still has the effect of making women doubt themselves and stopping them from valuing their own experiences. We know that men, even the “nice” ones, assume that their take on reality is the only one that matters and that they are disbelieving – if not aggressive – when women suggest otherwise. To quote Simone de Beauvoir, “representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth” (yes, I know, I should have quoted a man, seeing as women have been saying all this for years and still it’s not getting heard – it’s just that women remain the ones who say it best).

The men who leave DVPPs go back into a world that endorses their original view of women. It’s a world that pays lip service to equality while still allowing male privilege to flourish (at the start of the DVPPs, most participants “articulated a belief in gender equality and individual freedom , but at a deeper level concepts of gender operated much more subtly through taken-for-granted ways of being within the routines of everyday life”).There remains an enormous overlap between the “good men” and the “monsters” in terms of their expectations of women and their understanding of women’s inner lives. By this I don’t just mean rape culture, laddism, banter or the remnants of 1950s traditionalism, but the very fact that we live in a world in which most men neither notice nor care about the broader context in which women’s voices are suppressed. Some men might even boast of “never hitting a woman”, as if that is the be all and end all, never knowing the extent to which the women around them will have learned from an early age to hold back, just in case (the report also mentions those women may never be hit but still have their “confidence and sense of self destroyed through the everyday micro-management of their everyday lives”). As Robert Jensen (a man! you can trust him!) notes, male “goodies” have a willingness to discuss rules and regulations but “there is surprisingly little talk about patriarchy [and] about the socialization of men into toxic notions about masculinity-as-domination”:

What are we afraid of? The possibility that we can’t transcend patriarchy, that significant numbers of men won’t engage in the individual and collective critical self-reflection necessary?

If these discussions are taking place it seems to be only at the sharp end, where the most damage has been done and change is most difficult. Wouldn’t it make sense to start sooner? Not just with the specifics – consent lessons or brief discussions of “what equality means” – but through the prioritisation of women’s voices, the validation of our experiences and a new understanding of our role within relationships and families (hint: we are not passive, selfless creatures by default). Every time a woman is shouted down or ignored or belittled for being female, the perpetrator worldview is endorsed. We don’t need men to grant us some abstract form of liberation; we need all of them – even those who think they’re there already – to recognise that women are fully human, too. As Bindel notes, “young women and men need to be educated about what is at the root of sexual and domestic violence – that it is a cause and consequence of inequality and sexism”. Everyone needs to learn this; we cannot keep waiting for the first blow to be struck.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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