I was in my local cafe a few weeks ago when the men and women at the table next to me began a conversation about the stories being told by survivors of child abuse at the Royal Commission. These stories, which are available on the Royal Commission website, demonstrate the endemic nature of child abuse in Australia and the repeated failures by governments, churches and NGOs to act on reports of abuse. Anyway, after an uncomfortable and brief discussion about child sexual abuse, one of the women at the table in the cafe said with some asperity, ‘What is the problem with you men?’
I thought it was a very reasonable question. And while a title like ‘The Problem with Men’ might seem more appropriate for a 1930s screwball comedy, it is worth thinking about. Because what the perpetrators of family violence, sexual abuse and public and private violence have in common is this: they are mostly men.
When I first started working professionally in the area of family violence, in a service that works with men who use violence, I thought I was becoming unnecessarily paranoid. It worried me a bit. It seemed to me that violence against women and children was everywhere, in every street. Eventually of course, I managed to pull myself together. I realised that male violence IS everywhere. It’s one of the cornerstones of Western culture. And of course just as neoliberal panoptic capitalism elides its own practices of coercion, so the gendered of violence gets quietly erased, even when it is perfectly obvious.
If ‘feminism’ has become a dirty word, ‘patriarchy’ is an even dirtier one. Whenever there is a public naming of the gendered nature of violence, a variety of voices collude to manage out that gendering: he was really a good guy. He just ‘snapped’. Anyway, not all men are violent. Women are just as bad. He just drinks too much, that’s all. He was young and so his brain hadn’t developed properly. It wasn’t his fault. He was just a sicko. If he’d just been allowed to see his kids it wouldn’t have happened, and so on.
When men are the victims of violence it is usually at the hands of other men. Earlier this year there was considerable media interest in the deaths and injuries of young men in Sydney in what were referred to as ‘alcohol-fuelled’ attacks. The fact that the attackers were men and the victims were also men was never named, and a ‘king-hit’ was always referred to as a ‘coward’s punch’, as though a fatal punch to the face preceded by a threat was somehow heroic.
When Phoebe, Fletcher and Mia Hunt and their mother Kim were murdered last month by the man who was Kim’s husband and the father of her children, the gendered nature of the crime was rapidly and industriously and urgently erased by most print and internet media. And this is always the case when men murder their partners or children. It’s not unusual for attention to be shifted away from the gender of the perpetrator of the violence, and toward the faults of the victim. A hint is enough: the way she dressed, or where she was, or what she said, or what she thought, or the way she looked – that’s what made her responsible for her own murder. And the more responsibility can be pushed onto the victim, the more sympathy can be generated for the perpetrator.
To say that it is men who are the perpetrators of violence is to front up to a key question in how our social relationships are ordered: What is it about the construction of masculinity that is responsible for so much violence? This is not the same as blaming men, a distinction that misogynists often fail to make. And while it might be fruitful to look at the ways that boys are gendered as ‘not-girls’, that too can be an easy way out. It can very easily become a problem of parenting, or even more perniciously, a problem of mothering.
It might be more useful to look at the characteristics of abusive men as a way of getting a window into what makes men do the violent things we do and the foundations that masculinity is built on. And that’s the crux of the matter. Abusive men are not a sub-species of men generally. One of my male colleagues made this clear at a professional forum recently. He said, ‘It’s not about “us” – the good men – working with “them”, the bad men. They ARE us.’ Another colleague emphasised this when he said to me, ‘If I raise my voice to my partner, I’m trying to control her. There isn’t any other reason for me to do that.’
To think otherwise is to take the first step into the world of collusion, which is a big part of working with men who use violence.
Collusion occurs when we subtly or unsubtly support the narrative that men do not need to take responsibility for male violence: there are extenuating circumstances. It’s not really violence or abuse. Women are partly to blame. One can change abusive behaviour without challenging misogyny and patriarchal power. Abusive behaviour is really just about managing anger. Abusive men are just bad apples, and so on. Collusion supports the continuation of gendered violence by reframing and naming it as something else.
Collusion can happen when we find excuses for male violence or invent other perpetrators or duck the question. When Matt Damon condemns gun violence but continues to make Bourne films he is colluding with an idea that violence has no gendered underpinning, and that fiction has no bearing on reality or any moral weight. When the gaming company EA refuses to condemn the vicious misogyny of Gamergate but says only that it is ‘wrong for any person to threaten another’ it colludes with the negation of the gendered nature of abuse. And I do the same if I attempt to add ‘balance’ to a debate on male violence by arguing that not all men are violent.
The actions of abusive men exist on a continuum of sanctioned male behaviour, and are just an articulation of male privilege and control. Men who use violence usually blame others and see themselves as innocent. Faults and, indeed, evils always lie in others.
In 2009 Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His acceptance speech in Oslo, a speech both terrifying and deadening, was not just a narrative of the history of the world culminating in triumphant American exceptionalism, but also a glorification of violence as a driver of moral responsibility. The world is permanently in blood-debt to the US, said Obama, and furthermore does not truly acknowledge the benefits that American violence has brought to millions.
Obama’s speech, boring and pedantic and yet built of the most egregious lies, misrepresentations, and contradictions so disturbing that one experiences vertigo reading them It was a frightening revelation of the state of mind called ‘violent innocence’, a state that men who use violence have made their own.
What was most terrifying about Obama’s speech was his deadpan sincerity, his tedious insistence on the narrative of his own unchallengeable omnipotence and goodness and the thuggish description of the history of the world as an enterprise that American violence corrects and purifies through the dispensation of violent justice.
Men who use violence situate it as a moral force for good, as a method of reluctant correction and purification and as an act of justice. This is as true of the man who uses violence against his partner and children, and men who are mass murderers, as it is of Barack Obama.
This production of violence is always innocent of gender except when it is carried out by women. There’s a strange doublethink at work. Women who murder their children tend to do so, as far as we know, because they are in intolerably dangerous situations and can see no other way of protecting their children. Men who murder their children do so as a way of punishing the children’s mother.
Any abuse or violence perpetrated by women is hyped and fetishised. The mother who kills her children has transgressed boundaries that many people find inconceivable and aren’t willing to forgive, unlike a father who murders. It is easier to rationalise Agamemnon’s murder of Iphigenia than Medea’s murder of her usually unnamed children. Agamemnon can be a tragic hero or a ruthless careerist depending on your point of view. Medea doesn’t get off so easily. She is deemed to be both monstrous and mad.
The idea that ‘not all men are perpetrators’ has become something of a common trope lately, and is particularly invoked when the gendered nature of a violent crime is pointed out. It is also an attitude common to the more public anti-violence campaigns such as White Ribbon. White Ribbon takes the position that drawing attention to the gendering of violence can leave men feeling blamed and alienated. To avoid this, goes the argument, men need to be engaged with positive messages and sold the idea that not all men are bad. Otherwise they won’t engage with violence prevention.
Work to end male violence that worries about offending men is never really going to get off the ground. Suggesting that men might be alienated if they aren’t spoken to in a nice enough way about violence is absurd.
This kind of collusion – and I think it is collusion – can be a way of steering away from examining the structural and cultural embeddings of masculinity. And of course it’s a very small step from saying ‘not all men are violent’ to ‘women are violent, too’. At which point the argument has gone completely pear-shaped and collusion has burned everything to ash.
It seems to be true that we are seeing an increase in interpersonal violence among women and girls. But the most recent research I have been looking at suggests that this is related to practices of male violence and control. For example, teenage girls who are violent are often in abusive relationships in which their violence – usually against other women and girls – is supported and encouraged by their male partners.
The structure of innocence in the violent is also a description of victimhood. It is the abusive nature of violence, its double whammy. The user of violence always situates themselves as the real victim – not as a conscious strategy of abuse, but because that’s how things seem to them: they are unappreciated, imposed upon, misunderstood, vilified, even as they go about their duty of imposing moral order on the world.
As much as we may like to think otherwise, nobody can step outside gender. Gendering deals everyone a hand. We can learn to resist or queer or reconstruct it if we wish. But there are generalities about being male in a western capitalist order that every man has to face. They involve narcissism, false victimhood, the casual assumption of control and power, the othering of women, a refusal to take personal responsibility, and so forth.
The abusive man is a frightened man, and work with men who use violence can make you wonder about the fear that lies at the heart of masculine identities. Getting millions for counter-terrorism against imaginary baddies who want to take our freedoms is a piece of cake. Getting a few bucks for women’s services to work for the safety of women and children, or for services like mine that work with violent men who terrorise, abuse and kill women and children every week of the year right in our own streets, is like pulling teeth.
It’s not surprising really. Vanquishing baddies with missiles only strengthens the paranoid status quo. Responding effectively to the problem of male violence and prioritising the safety of women and children cuts right to the heart of our punitive, exploitative social order.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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