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16 ways over the 16 days to be a better man

By Phil Barker

On Monday, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women kicked off 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, which runs until December 10.

The “16 Days” started in 1991 and has become an international time of “global actions to increase awareness, galvanise advocacy efforts and share knowledge and innovations,” organised by the United Nations’ Center for Global Women’s Leadership.

It is almost always women driving the incredible activity around the world over these 16 days –marching, speaking, loudly raising awareness, pressuring government and business for change.

So, what can everyday men do in support? Gendered beliefs and attitudes about the entitlements, roles and responsibilities of men is a known driver of men’s violence against women, so what are men’s responsibilities over the 16 days?

For this 16 days of activism, I have compiled 16 things all men should understand and try to put to work in their lives.

1. An Alpha male is not what you might think it is. The term comes from a 1983 book, Chimpanzee Politics, Power and Sex among Apes, by Professor Frans de Waal. It was on a reading list for young congressional republicans, but it wasn’t read properly. The Alpha male in ape society is an empathetic leader, a consoler-in-chief, working for the good of the group. If he becomes violent, he’ll be ousted. The Alpha male is not the strongest, he’s the most caring. 

2. Consent. Just because she doesn’t say “stop” or “no” doesn’t mean a woman has given her consent to a sexual act. NSW is reviewing its consent laws following the 2017 acquittal of Luke Lazarus, accused of raping 18-year-old Saxon Mullins, who froze during the attack and couldn’t speak. The NSW Law Reform Commission published a series of draft proposals late last week to “strengthen and simplify” consent. Clear, enthusiastic consent is the absolute baseline for all sexual interaction.

3. Coercive control is the part of the domestic violence iceberg that’s under that water. It’s not yet classed as domestic violence, therefore a crime, but a man can be abusive through years of manipulation, emotional torture, financial control and verbal abuse without raising a finger. International law is swiftly catching up. Awareness of the red flags that signal coercive control can be a valuable toolkit for men and women to understand the power dynamics in their relationships.

4. Cisgender. We keep hearing it but what does it mean? It simply means if you were born in a male body and feel male, then you are cisgender. That’s the opposite of transgender. The majority of people are cisgender. If you are, be aware that your gender is categorised as the accepted norm and you aren’t discriminated against because of it

5. Domestic violence is defined by the Family Law Act 1975 as “violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family or causes the family member to be fearful”. It causes massive psychological and physical damage across the generations and can only be classed as a national emergency we’re only just beginning to understand. Fixing domestic and family violence is a transformative, nation-building exercise.

6. Feminism is simply the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes. There’s massive economic and social benefit from sexual equality, yet many men still resist feminism as somehow diminishing or demonising men. Feminism is about the liberation of women from patriarchy and expanding the definition of human to truly cover all genders. Feminism, ultimately, benefits men.

7. Gender is a construct What we believe to be traits of “masculine” and “feminine” are not related to our bodies but created by society. Consider this, from a 1918 American sales pamphlet for children’s clothing. “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls, the reason is that pink, being more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” The whole idea that boys and girls are a certain type pf person based on their sex constrains us all, throughout our lives. Boys learn they have to be tough, to be a man, from the moment we’re born.

8. Adhering to rigid masculine roles is bad for your Health.  Seeking help, going to the doctor for our physical and mental health is often negatively viewed by men as exposing vulnerability. We don’t take days off when we’re sick. We self-medicate with alcohol and suffer in silence from loneliness, stress and depression. Men also account for more than 90 percent of workplace fatalities which is in part attributable to our increased likelihood to engage in risk-taking behaviours.

9. Language and jokes, the words that come out of your mouth, matter.  A joke may be funny to you in one context but it’s about how it’s received, what offence and hurt is taken, not how you intended it. The harm caused by these comments is about impact, not intent.

10. Whenever we speak about men’s violence against women, we inevitably hear a chorus of comments proclaiming, “not all men”. For my daughter, walking home at night, there is no way for her to distinguish potential attackers from non-violent men and statistics suggest that if she is attacked, it will be a man.

11. A woman is not an Object. To reduce women to their appearance is not just offensive, it’s dangerous. Objectification can lead to dehumanisation with often leads to a lack of empathy and an understanding of other human beings as ‘less than’. This, as human history reminds us, can have devastating consequences.

12. Patriachy is a male-dominated society. We live in a patriarchy in which almost every sector of business, government and religion is dominated by men. No group in human history has ever given up power voluntarily. The backlash against feminism and the rise of the conservative men’s rights movement are a result of a challenge to that power by women and young people.

13. The tools that men are given to deal with shame are shockingly inadequate in our society. Shame is an endemic part of how we are taught to be men – shame at not being a “real man”, at feeling vulnerability, at needing help. Recognising and dealing with shame in a safe way is a key component in overcoming men’s violence against women, ourselves and one another.

14. Change can happen if men Speak Up. Be the man at the party or the barbecue who says he doesn’t think the sexist joke is funny. You may open the door to other men in the group who feel the same. Be the start of a ripple effect that will make men think twice, not just about sexist remarks, but about how these attitudes and beliefs impact their lives and the lives of those they love

15. Sexual harassment is simple to understand, yet most people can’t clearly define it. It is the “legally recognised form of sex discrimination and includes any form of sexually related behaviour that is unwelcome and that offends, humiliates or intimidates a person …” Think about that. It’s anything sexual that can offend anyone and has nothing at all to do with your intent.

16. Suicide. Six men a day end their own lives every day in Australia. That’s three times the rate of women. Adherence to impossible masculine roles and standards, the imperative to be stoic, and not ask for help, can be fatally damaging.

If we know adherence to a strict set of gender roles can be detrimental for men and women, then it is simply, logically and clearly, up to all men to reflect and act on this. Our future depends on it.

If you need help addressing your use of family violence, our counsellors are trained to support men. Call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491. 

Phil Barker is a journalist, speaker, advocate and author of The Revolution of Man. Phil’s book is an uncompromising and thought-provoking look at what it means to be a man in Australia in these uncertain times. Phil has been an outspoken advocate for NTV for five months writing for the NTV blog and speaking on the role men’s socialisation on family violence, as it relates to NTV. Order your copy of the Revolution of Man here.