We need to talk about men and masculinities
Sunday National, March 21st 2021
In the aftermath of the Sarah Everard murder and vigil there has been widespread debate about male violence against women. Some has focused on immediate political issues – such as the Police Bill for England and Wales, and the UK Government’s focus on more severe penalties for attacking statues compared to violence against women.
Over the week English and Welsh statistics bandied about showed a shameful level of rape convictions versus reported cases (2.6%), but it is not that different in Scotland (6%). Women across the UK have similar experiences in terms of the judicial system – and the prevalence of violence against women, sexism and misogyny.
The need to do more to reduce violence against women is now widely agreed. But for progress to be made, one of the central issues has to be about men, male attitudes and actions, and what men need to do. “The solution is not about the criminal justice system. It is about men’s behaviour” says John Carnochan, the founding director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (SVRU) which has addressed problem cultures, behaviours and attitudes – predominantly of men.
What should men do?
What should men do in these circumstances? “Man’s silence around issues of sexist language and behaviours is of concern” says Graham Goulden, former policeman and trainer in violence prevention. “Whilst many men as individuals possess healthy views of women, their views on what their friends think is often skewed. Men often misperceive that friends support sexist views which leads to them either joining in or saying nothing. This leads to a perfect storm of non-abusive men doing nothing, and abusive men acting with impunity.”
American practitioner Jackson Katz has worked on gender-based violence and wider inequalities and had a major influence in Scotland on the work of the SVRU. Katz said this week: “Right now in the UK, there’s this huge explosion of outrage. Talk about a teachable moment! The time for men to step up is right now. How are we going to start holding men accountable in a positive way.”
One fundamental is that men – whether they think of themselves as liberal, progressive or enlightened – need to stop being defensive and making excuses. Katz stresses that men (as well as women) saying “not all men” in debates on male violence are not being constructive: “I keep hearing people saying ‘Not all men!’ To which I would say: if you have the impulse to say ‘not all men’, don’t. It’s silly, and it’s not a good look.”
This is not just about semantics: “Because, yes, although men are more likely to die violently than women, and yes, not all men are violent, there’s no doubt that the overwhelming majority of violence that happens between the genders happens by men against women. And the vast majority of violence that men suffer is at the hands of other men.”
One basic step men have to undertake is to start thinking as men. This may sound like an oxymoron but most men do not think of themselves as men but rather as part of humanity – the part with more power and privileges. It is this blinkeredness that sees men appoint other men to posts, boards and the #manels of the speaker panel: many men literally do not see self-selection of men as exclusion of women, and when it’s pointed out are horrified or defensive. This is not an excuse for such indefensible behaviour, but shows that we have to change the way men think and act.
Men and sexism
Men have to recognise and call out sexism in other men. This became – in the work of Katz and the SVRU – known as “the bystander principle” whereby men take responsibility and challenge the problem behaviour of other men; not leaving it to women or leaving it in silence, thinking it can always be passed off as somebody else’s problem.
Talking in shorthand about men as a single category and group is problematic and does not reflect the way we live and experience our lives. Men come in all types, sizes, personalities and backgrounds – and are shaped by class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and a host of other factors. The class divide in Scotland has been as deep as elsewhere despite all our egalitarian credentials – and that class divide in men has become even more polarised as an entire way of life and culture of jobs in manufacturing disappeared leaving deep-seated divisions on health and well-being and life expectancy.
Pivotal to power is the issue of race and privilege which comes with white masculinity. Tommy Curry of Edinburgh University has written and researched on masculinity and does not think it one unified entity, emphasising that the construction of “toxic black masculinity” is used to aid “the supremacy” and privilege of “white masculinity”.
Added to the mix of this is the increasing sexualisation of parts of public culture aided by technological advance and mobile phones through which sexualised images and pornography are spread. This sexualisation seems at times to be saturating public culture and prominent in much contemporary, and often award-winning, TV drama. Within the contemporary vogue for crime thrillers and Nordic Noir are an entire trope of male and female caricatures which are used to frame male violence on women – even when originating from the Nordics who have some of the most egalitarian attitudes on gender anywhere in the world.
Despite this above state of affairs there is a powerful backlash against feminism and the drive for greater equality. This bitter reactionary view can be found in sections of the right, with Sarah Vine in the Mail on Sunday in the past week claiming Sarah Everard’s death was “hijacked by men haters”: one of the most tired, age-old clichés. Rod Liddle wrote that the aftermath of Everard’s death has been distorted into “a wider complaint about men and the nuclear family” – as if that were not part of the discussion.
Amongst older men – many of whom see themselves as progressive and liberal, including in Scotland – there is often a tendency to think that identity politics, social liberalism and feminism have somehow gone too far. There is the claim that #MeToo has amounted to a modern-day witch hunt; in Scotland there has been the Alex Salmond trial and its aftermath, which has seen Salmond attempt to portray himself as the victim who has been wronged – the fallout from which continues.
Can men change?
As an adult, I have always had an interest in this area, and many years ago set up a men’s group in Glasgow – peer support for a mixed group of men opening up, sharing and changing their attitudes and behaviour. The group ran for five years, meeting weekly. It was immersive and challenging, with the group – aged between late twenties and early fifties – getting deep into some of the big issues about what it was to be a man.
These included how long it takes men who are strangers to trust each other, the fear of intimacy of other men, the latent homophobia which can even exist under the surface in even the most liberal men, finding appropriate language to open up, and how to best and most constructively challenge other men. My friend Eddie who attended the group reflected later: “If I were to generalise – when I mentioned I was in a men’s group to a woman it was always the start of an interesting conversation, whereas if I mentioned it to a man it was usually the end of the conversation.”
Such attitudes have seen a significant generational shift, with younger men who grew up with feminism as a major influence seeing it and supporting women as positive. Edinburgh based Michael Gray contends: “It can’t be said enough: for his honesty, emotional openness, feminism, and pride in fatherhood Andy Murray is a fantastic role model for men the world over.”
There are reasons for optimism – in the scale of this debate and that could be a significant moment. There are signs all over popular culture with even last week’s Ru Paul Drag Race UK having in its final of four contestants two working class Scots including the winner Lawrence Chaney from Glasgow. But it is clear that reactionaries like Vine and Liddle are pessimists who say that male violence has been a constant through all history and cannot be changed. It is a message which cannot be allowed to prevail.
What then should men now do – acknowledging all their different backgrounds? Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood and 21st Century Boys says that men “could start by challenging sexist or misogynist banter. All those ‘harmless jokes’ and nudge-nudge-wink-winking about women that feed a culture of toxic masculinity.”
“Men need to speak up” says Carnochan. “They need to think about male entitlement. And they need to think about how to challenge other men, whether it is the jokes that nearly everyone laughs at, and what is called ‘locker room banter’ – that expression Trump tried to use to excuse his sexism.”
“The first thing that individuals can do is to stop separating the likes of rape and ‘sexist banter’’ says Goulden. “They are connected and addressing the banter will help reduce the violence we read about in the media. Abusive men often think their attitudes are supported. That needs to change. Men should speak to women in their lives.”
There has to be an understanding that male entitlement and resentment towards women are two sides of the same thing, and that hate, sexism and misogyny are learned behavior. In the words of Katz, these are reinforced and reproduced by “media culture, sports culture, peer culture and porn culture” until it becomes mainstream and part of the norm of what it is to be a man.
Violence and problematic male behaviour is not just about the individual, but about societal norms and hence it is the responsibility of all of us, and in particular, all men. Silence is not an option but is in reality collusion. Women and men need men to have the courage to speak up, to listen to women, and to challenge other men.