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Confronting masculinity: facing up to a patriarchal legacy

By Phil Barker

Men who adhere to sexist attitudes and behaviours are more likely to use family and domestic violence than men who consider women to be their equals … of course, right?

While this may seem a self-evident truth to some, it is not obvious to everyone.

The fact that family violence and men’s violence against women more broadly is gendered – and that rigid adherence to constructions of masculinity is a key driver of this violence – is still being openly and publicly debated.

Men in focus, a new report released by Our Watch, draws on 374 pieces of international research notes that “dominant forms of masculinity intersect with gender inequality and other structural inequalities and forms of disadvantage to help shape men’s violence against women.”

Recently, another domestic violence report from the Australian Institute of Criminology caused a loud public disagreement in the Australian media. There was a perception amongst some that it demonstrated the influence of poverty, alcohol and mental illness as the major driving force behind repeat family violence offences.

CEO of No to Violence, Jacqui Watt said that “in NTV’s experience of men using violence – there is no single typology of a man choosing to use violence to control his partner or family. You could take all the alcohol in the world away and you’d still have violence in the home.”

Commenting in The Guardian, Dr Karen Williams, a psychiatrist and founder of Doctors Against Violence Towards Women, argued against this take on the report, noting that the report is based on police data. “We need to remember that police are much more likely to charge and incarcerate an Aboriginal person for all types of crimes.” Police are also more likely to do a blood alcohol check on an Indigenous person.

In addition, it’s not just the incidents that police get called to every two minutes that constitute family or domestic violence, it’s also controlling behaviour and non-physical forms of violence.

These are not illegal, therefore not reported, but the AIC report noted “non-physical forms of violence such as shouting, provoking, arguments and controlling behaviours were found to be more common among offenders with higher levels of education and employment … more likely to have completed year 12 or above and earn $100,000 or more.”

Dr Williams said, “the study immediately identifies that reporting rates of violence are only about 30%, in other words, 70% of women are abused do not report the abuse at all … in essence, the paper does not represent most cases of domestic violence.”

The connection between family violence and adherence to the norms and expectations of masculinity was outside the scope of the AIC report.

Yet it is clear that the performance of being a man, often policed through male peer groups and the wider culture is a significant contributing factor in family violence.

The fallout from adapting to aspirational characteristics of masculinity – being tough, strong, athletic, charismatic, a leader, rich, stoic, contained and unemotional – all the things we’re told we need to be to be a man – can be detrimental to us, our families and communities.

The Our Watch report is clear:

“In line with existing research on the prevention of violence against women, this review found there are differences in how men and women perpetrate and/or experience violence, with the majority of violent acts – including physical, sexual, financial, emotional and cultural forms of violence – overwhelmingly perpetrated by men.

“Rather than focusing only at the individual level, or seeking single-factor explanations, prevention efforts require a comprehensive focus on how masculinities and gender inequality operate at all different levels of society. Prevention efforts should aim to be gender transformative. That is, to actively challenge dominant forms and patterns of masculinity that operate at and across structural, systemic, organisational, community, interpersonal and individual levels of society.”

It’s clear that it’s not just about individual men but about how gender operates at “all levels of society”.

The deeper “understanding of masculinities” is at the heart of prevention work. It is at the core of behaviour change programmes, helping men who are violent towards women to understand they are not entitled to control, or her body, just because they are a man.

Men seeing women as equals, can have a profound impact on the prevalence of family violence. It not an easy task, but the way forward has never been clearer.

If you need help addressing your use of family violence, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491. Lines open 24/7.