Break the man box to halt gendered violence

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You'd hear him before you saw him — the early 30s, big money-spinning alpha male of the office. Full of confidence, he'd always have the final say. It was my first year of university and my first experience in an office. He'd show us young fellas pictures of swimsuit calendars on his computer and make suggestive jokes about the female receptionist.

Cartoon of a man with a weight labeled 'real man' dropping towards his head. Artwork from the Men's Project.Even other women in the office would laugh along — on reflection, nervously. I felt uncomfortable but didn't speak up. I should have been better. As a young man back then, I struggled to find the words or the way to call him out.

These behaviours — aggressive, hyper-sexualised and controlling — are the bedrock of violence against women. They occur in myriad ways in our communities every day. Over the last few months alone we've seen many instances of hostility directed at women — misogynistic chants from schoolboys, Pauline Hanson being named chair of a family law inquiry after accusing mothers of making up domestic violence claims, high-profile leaders playing down violence against women.

This is not, however, an issue of a few incidents or individuals alone. It's a deeply engrained societal issue and some concerning attitudes are widespread. A research report by Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety, for instance, found that 43 per cent of young Australians aged 16-24 think it's natural for a man to want to appear in control of his partner in front of his male friends.

These findings were mirrored by the 2019 Man Box study* which found that a majority of young Australian men feel significant pressure to conform with what we define as rigid masculinities — such as using violence to get respect and acting strong at all times. Men who personally endorsed these views, those 'inside the Man Box', were more likely to perpetrate physical violence and sexually harass women.

These views are not good for men themselves either. Men 'inside the Man Box' were more likely to be victims of violence, to report poorer mental health, to experience thoughts of suicide, and to be involved in road accidents.

All of this lines up with what frontline workers tell us about working with boys and men who engage in risky and violent behaviours — young men are often reluctant to seek help when they are struggling, and many take the shame and self-loathing about their behaviour out on others.

 

"Addressing these broader issues without focusing on masculinities would be like trying to tackle obesity without targeting a reduction in sugar intake."

 

As Queensland University of Technology Associate Professor Michael Flood wrote in the Man Box report, dominant ideals of masculinity do not materialise out of thin air. They are produced and reproduced by people, institutions, policies and other social forces, and there are places in Australia where efforts to promote or defend traditional ideals of masculinity seem particularly energetic.

Not all men use violence of course, although making progress involves all of us. The role of leaders is particularly critical. Our attitudes, and therefore actions, can be shaped by leaders and role models. Attitudes towards women and the use of violence are no exception. What role models do and say matters.

That is why we need to support those who work with boys and men every day — like sports coaches, teachers, social workers and community leaders. Jesuit Social Services' Modelling Respect and Equality program, for example, aims to equip these men and women with the language and tools they need to engage effectively with boys and men. In doing so, it seeks to shift cultural attitudes related to stringent adherence to masculine norms at a grassroots level.

This work must be embedded into everyday life — not just one-off workshops or training sessions. Programs that seek to reduce different forms of violence, sexual harassment and bullying should explicitly seek to positively influence masculine norms. Addressing these broader issues without focusing on masculinities would be like trying to tackle obesity without targeting a reduction in sugar intake.

To change deeply engrained attitudes and behaviours is a massive challenge. But when we look at the success of campaigns related to road safety and smoking, to name just two, we know that long-term change is possible.

I've come a long way since that experience in first year university. I'm far from perfect but I'm more aware of the impact of harmful masculine norms than I would be without positive role models in my own life. For these influences, I am thankful.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence runs from 25 November to 10 December 2019.

 

 

Matt TylerMatt Tyler is Executive Director of Jesuit Social Services' Men's Project, a project that was established to provide leadership on the reduction of violence and other harmful behaviours prevalent among boys and men, and build new approaches to improve their wellbeing and keep families and communities safe.

*'The Man Box: A study on being a young man in Australia', by Jesuit Social Services' Men's Project, is the first comprehensive study that focuses on the attitudes to manhood and the behaviours of young Australian men aged 18 to 30.

 

Topic tags: Mike Bowden, Northern Territory, homelessness

 

 

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Existing comments

It is heartening to read about the work being undertaken on this important topic. This is an ingrained problem in society and stems from systems of patriarchy. How many times do we read in the media of a "daughter, wife, mother, grandmother" in a story? These categories place women in relation to other people and, because of male dominance in society, most overtly in relation to men. This does not mean those roles are not important in women's lives, however the descriptors are symptoms of categorisation. Thinking deeply about our relationship with each other is key to changing attitudes.
Pam | 02 December 2019


Matt is right. The notion of male privilege is embedded in our society. Not just the obvious, like the exclusively male roles in the Church or the differences in the amounts of money poured into male and female sports, but also in myriads of un-noticed ways, like letters addressed to Mr and Mrs --, invitations to 'Bill and Mary', where the male is mentioned first, or through traditionally gendered boss/subordinate roles (how many male secretaries or 'man-Fridays' do you know?). There's a role for each of us, especially me, to step up and call out every example of misogyny.
Ginger Meggs | 02 December 2019


I am very glad Jesuit Social Services are doing something about a serious matter. This problem, as far as European society in this country goes, arrived with the First Fleet. If you read about how women were treated in the Early Colonial Days, you weep. It was indeed a male dominated society. Indigenous Society has its own violence issues, which probably need separate treatment. Does the deconstruction and talk of 'patriarchy' help? Sometimes, but other times it's just repeating clichés, which is no real help. Some very violent people are, I think, genetically inclined that way. That doesn't help their victims much. Nothing short of incarceration and placing the victims off limits works. To really change family violence you would have to commit major resources, far beyond what our politicians will sign off on. What else? Good example and proper mentoring might help.
Edward Fido | 03 December 2019


Yes, let's construct another stereotype, use it to put people in a 'box', firmly seal the lid, vilify them and blame them for our problems. Sophisticated, rich and enlightened men everywhere, can now sleep soundly at night. I have been placed in the 'man box'. It is not pleasant and not helpful. In the meantime the violence continues.
Michael Taouk | 04 December 2019


Great article Matt. It is certainly engrained in our society, and especially in the culture our governments look to for direction- the Corporate. I did in fact begin as a 'man-Friday' in my earlier corporate career. Although the firm had stated "strict policies" regarding diversity, preserving a "decent safe workplace", and particularly that "sexual harassment will not be tolerated," several incidents against women were ignored simply because the perpetrators were mostly successful salesmen. The onus was on the victims to directly take action; Their own management would not support or advocate for them unless they did so. Advocacy by their female and male colleagues (actual witnesses) was similarly shut down. I now work for charities with very healthy and vibrant cultures of respect for all. The corporate world may have changed as their PR would have us believe, but in a system dependant on continual profit, I expect many "breaches" are excused while the money keeps coming in.
Kevin Wilson | 04 December 2019


In the Jewish bible, women are clearly very inferior to men. This concept is adopted and reinforced by almost all christian and Islamic denominations. Misogyny will dominate our culture while ever these religions persist with their current attitudes and practices. If the government of the Catholic church is serious about ending violence against women it needs to end its own practice of treating women as inferior by denying them meaningful leadership roles. Yes there has been some progress, but the bishop who dared to suggest we should talk about this was sacked. The men who want to be seen as controlling their partners are echoing religious practice.
Liam | 04 December 2019


I read this article a few days ago and was a somewhat uneasy about it; it did inspire me to read the Man Box project, so some good came of it. Men are pretty soft targets at the moment; anyone can make any criticism with impunity and this article has been a bit deceptive, although perhaps not deliberately. The Man Box demographic is (1,000) males 18 - 30, yet on the basis of this data and Assoc Professor Floods 18 - 25 years demographic the article doesn't identify it is about young men. Consequently, the comments which throw a blanket over men in general are ill-founded; perhaps valid generalization but opportunistic. The throw away line "not all men use violence" could use some numeric data, particularly when we can be so precise with other stats. If one wrote so freely with similar criticisms of women it would be viewed as mysogyny; recently Leunig was cut to pieces as a mysogynist for his cartoon which dared to challenge a distracted mother. Then several children died being left in cars by their mums... I wonder if they were on Facebook? Violence may be a scourge but don't alienate readers.
Ray | 04 December 2019


Matt, I completely agree with you. Years ago I taught in a catholic boys high school, indeed I was the product of a Catholic congregational GPS College - all male. In both situations, masculinity was the name of the game-literally; you played Rugby and smashed the --- out of the opposition . Any other sport was for the "sissy's" . We had no female teachers at my College, just Brothers and one lay teacher. There was no sex education or instructions on behavior/manners with /towards the opposite sex .Having a mother and sisters, whom we only saw on holidays, was our only exposure to the gentle sex. No wonder you see silly behavior from so called sportsman towards women.Many of these guys come from male only schools. As teacher,I worked with a number of female staff in this all male environment . There were significant instances of harassment of female teachers, but fearing for their jobs, few reported incidents to management, and often were not believed if they did. Those brave souls often left at year's end. It was very refreshing to move to mixed sex schools to finish my teaching career - totally different vibes. There is a real need to educate males from an early age and for older males, whether they be dad's, uncles, cousins, teachers or coaches , to lead by example . The media and advertising groups need to stop inappropriate portal of women in their promotions and shows. A certain furniture company comes readily to mind.
Gavin | 04 December 2019


As long we define ourselves by "form" ( quoting Eckhart Tolle) , there will always be discrimination. That is human nature - to see in terms of my tribe/your tribe. We need to teach persons to meet persons because deep down we are all "formless" (and for want of a better word) spirits. In reply to another commentator, if we read the Bible properly, it will be seen that Jesus elevated the status of women as did St. Paul. Jesus was the first feminist and St Paul the second.
Alice Phua | 07 December 2019


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