Real men? Not all men? How can we all work towards safer, happier relationships?

While the overwhelming majority of family violence consists of men using violence toward current or former heterosexual partners, it is common to hear disclaimers that the majority of men do not use violent behaviour. If it’s a well intentioned campaign  advocating for “good” or “real” men to call out the violent minority of men, or a derailing rebuttal of “not all men are violent”, in both instances something that is clearly a men’s issue can’t be discussed as such without it being distanced from the majority of men.

As a Family Violence Counsellor, I’ve spoken with hundreds of men who have used violent and controlling behaviours toward former or current partners. These men are from all walks of life and social contexts, but the common theme in these conversations is around  taking individual responsibility, and that violence is a choice of behaviour that can be changed. And rightly so. But if family violence is purely an individual choice issue, why is it men overwhelmingly choosing to use it? What are the gendered drivers of men’s use of family violence, and do these relate at all to the majority of men who don’t use any form of family violence? Here are some reflections I’ve made on these questions:

Taking responsibility is only one step toward meaningful change

As discussed in previous blogs, an important step toward changing abusive and controlling behaviour is taking responsibility for choosing to use it. It’s an obvious perspective; that in order to change a behaviour you must first acknowledge you are in control of it. With the men I work with this involves them challenging the common blaming, justifying and minimisation and attempts to externalise responsibility for both their behaviour and the impact that it had, or is having, on their partners or family. However, for many men I have worked with, this is by no means the end of their journey of change toward safer relationships. I often speak to men who take responsibility for their choices, but are frustrated and confused as to why they continue to use behaviour that is abusive and controlling. They may be able to change and stop their use of explicit physical violence, but issues may continue popping up in other areas; their partners may still feel controlled, intimidated or fearful due to their behaviour. For the many men I work with who are struggling to understand what is driving their choices of abusive and controlling behaviours, often their reflections reveal an underlying imbalance of power in their relationship. Consciously or not, the men I work with hold beliefs and attitudes which frame their role in the relationship as dominant and controlling. These beliefs may directly contradict other desires they hold for a respectful, loving relationship. In exploring these beliefs and attitudes, men I work with describe them as heavily gendered; different ideas of gender roles that have been adopted and normalised from a range of life experiences. Change for these men does not only involve choices of behaviour, but also tools to understand the competing ideas of what their role is as a man, and the ongoing way these ideas are reinforced on a day-to-day basis.

Aspects of men’s culture that provide the context for family violence

Let’s take a break from thinking about men’s family violence for a moment, and think about a rock concert. When popular rock group, The National, played outdoors at the Sydney Opera House to tens of thousands of fans, they dedicated a song to an absent band member who was back in the US, having just had a baby with his partner. As they prepared to play, they realised they had just dedicated a song named ‘I need my girl’ to a band member who was, like the entire group, a man. They turned this inconsistency into a joke, telling the audience that the absent bandmate was “the bitch of the band…we miss you, bitch.” While the intent seemed to be poking fun at a friend, joking that he has a subordinate position amongst a group of other men, they did this by choosing a derogatory and dehumanising term for women. Not an uncommon go-to in men’s bonding banter, comparing a men friend to the lowest thing they think he can be amongst a group of men; effectively, a woman. All of this communicated to tens of thousands of fans, some who laughed along, all who absorbed the implicit, pervasive messages that such a joke reinforces; that there is a hierarchy, and men, specifically non-feminine men, are on the top.

This is one example of how gendered messages in different forms can echo throughout different levels of our language and popular culture. With minimal reflection I can recall countless examples throughout my life where I’ve received messages like this, where I’ve been praised for ‘manning up’ or ridiculed for being ‘sissy’ or ‘girly’. Beyond language, this power imbalance is woven through many western heterosexual cultural practices; normalised relationships where ‘breadwinning’, the control of finances, is assumed of men. In a more concrete form, the fact that within many of our own lifetimes, Australian law allowed men to rape women in such contexts (i.e. marriage), provides quite a literal, concrete form of a power imbalance and socialisation of men’s dominance. When such a power imbalance is normalised and such beliefs and attitudes of entitlement and dominance are adopted and internalised, choices of controlling, abusive and violent behaviour are devastatingly unsurprising.

We can all be part of cultural change toward respectful and accountable masculinities

This is where the issue of men’s family violence is as much a social issue as it is about individual responsibility of men who use violence. For men I work with who want to change and have respectful relationships, a crucial step is taking responsibility for any choice of violent, controlling behaviour. But stopping there seems like cutting weeds at the stem; without trying to pull out the roots, they will likely grow back in some way. For men I work with who use family violence, meaningful change includes having the tools to question the normalised power imbalances that are learned and reinforced by many aspects of our day-to-day life and language, consciously or not.

But men who use family violence don’t exist in a vacuum. We all live in the same communities, move through the same schools, sporting clubs, social events and workplaces. We use the same language, consume the same media and engage in the same daily practices. Our own beliefs and attitudes are influenced by the same cultures we are part of, and we collectively influence these cultures. We all have the potential to say and do things that reinforce harmful attitudes and beliefs. Therefore, unconsciously maintaining gendered power imbalances. Importantly, we all have the potential to change things. We can challenge learned gender roles which contradict our desire for respectful, loving relationships. Put simply, it’s unlearning these harmful gender roles. There is great work being done on national and local community levels to promote this cultural change; Our Watch, Gippsland Women’s Health’s “Make the link” campaign, and grassroots organisation Undercurrent. Additionally, during the 16 Days of Activism campaign, we rolled out our social media behaviour change campaign. You can watch our behaviour change videos here.

Let’s enhance opportunities to explore what an equal, respectful relationship looks like. How collective understanding may lead to social change, and effectively, to safer, respectful and loving relationships.