Male feminists: why it’s important to get the boys on board

// 2 August 2013

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By Angelique Mulholland. Angelique is a writer for The Pixel Project and a women’s human rights activist.

men against violence towards women banner.jpg

“You can’t legislate the way men are brought up. We simply haven’t done enough to change the attitudes of men. We need to re-define and challenge traditional notions of masculinity. What does it mean to be a good father, a good partner? We need to work more effectively, and challenge the inherent inequalities in our societies today.”

Todd Minerson, The White Ribbon Campaign

Back in 2010 I interviewed Todd Minerson, head of The White Ribbon Campaign, a leading global charity that engages men in ending violence against women. In the first few minutes of the interview, Todd had me laughing with an anecdote about the first time he decided to stand up to sexism, an anecdote that helped me realise the importance of men in the battle for equality.

Being a typical hockey-loving Canadian, Todd had just finished a game with his hockey team, and all the boys were in the locker room together with banter flying from all corners. Then one of his friends made a sexist joke. Todd had just taken his pledge to The White Ribbon – which involves promising to always stand up for women’s rights – and he knew he couldn’t let it go. He was facing his locker, he took a deep breath, rehearsed an articulate, brilliant response in his head, turned to his friend and then promptly blurted out… “Dude, it’s not funny.” Silence. A man had challenged another man on his misogynist dialogue and attitude. Todd cheerfully told me that after this first challenge, more challenges took place and then eventually the sexist jokes were no longer part of the locker room banter and now all his hockey team belong to The White Ribbon campaign. Including the “sexist one”. Well, the former sexist.

Todd’s anecdote makes a powerful point. Men cannot be ignored in the conversation on inequality. Men’s positive contribution is needed to challenge rape culture, misogynist dialogue and inequality whenever and wherever it arises – whether it’s in the locker room, down the pub, at work, on the street or in the family home. We need men to be women’s advocates and not to be afraid to challenge their peers. Male feminists need to be celebrated and seen as role models for other men.

I saw a great example of this type of campaigning earlier on this year in India. I spent International Women’s Day with a human rights charity called Breakthrough. Their lead campaign, “Bell Bajao”, which began in 2006, galvanizes Indian men to stand up to other Indian men who commit violence against women. This isn’t chivalry. This is about men saying no to human rights violations against women and girls, saying no to inequality, saying no to injustice.

Ignoring the male feminist voice is a huge mistake. We need their perspective on patriarchy and working out where we have gone wrong in raising boys who commit violence against women. Many men will admit they were not allowed to cry as children. They were told to be tough and were never taught how to handle their anger. Boys, as well as girls, grow up with images of pimps being cool and their “bitches” needing a good… well take your pick from the lyrics of a variety of leading music-makers.

We need to discuss these issues with men. How do these messages affect their view of women? How do they affect them in their roles as fathers, brothers, partners? Men’s voices are important on how to prevent the violence before it starts. We need to start talking and then start educating.

We also need male activists to help shift the idea that gender-based violence is a “women’s issue”. Why is it a woman’s issue when it is mostly men committing violence? We all know the stats: violent crime is committed disproportionately by men against men, against women, against boys and against girls. Women and girls are trafficked into Britain and kept as sex slaves because there is a demand, from some men, to have sex with them. We need to start asking why.

Why are so many young men growing up angry, aggressive and treating women like disposable sex objects? Why do they hurt the women who love them? Why did Charles Saatchi put his hand around his wife’s throat and why did all the national papers comment on Nigella Lawson’s character rather than question his? What about his “weaknesses”?

We need to move the conversation forward as it is only by understanding the “whys” behind some men’s behaviour that we can find solutions, and ultimately work towards the end goal of prevention.

Both men and women, boys and girls, are losers in the violence committed by some men. Let’s start talking, as equals and without judgement, on how to end it.

Photo of two men holding a banner that reads “Men against violence towards women”, supporting women marching at Take Back The Night, Ontario, Canada, by Toban Black, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Saranga // Posted 2 August 2013 at 1:11 pm

Well said!

Timothy Heater // Posted 4 August 2013 at 3:32 pm

As a man I have done what I can do to advance feminist thought. However, I look to the leadership of women. No matter how much I do, if women in the U.S. allow themselves to be carried back to the 1950s; we are all lost.

Shree // Posted 5 August 2013 at 12:38 pm

Couldn’t agree with you more!

I have often wondered when a group abuse happens to a woman, why is it that no one among the group protests against the violence inflicted on her? We have had many cases of gang rape. Have not heard of any case of a man taking a stand and telling the others to stop.

Michael Biggs // Posted 5 August 2013 at 2:02 pm

Combatting violence against women is much more important than avoiding offending men like me. But the great strength of this article is that it recognises the importance of conversing with men (as potential allies). This implies that it would be useful to engage with men where we’re ‘at’ (as long as we’re generally well-intentioned?). And therefore not yelling us down, which is what often happens to men who are interested and caring but not obsequious. I don’t know how this can be avoided, when lots of women who have been hurt by men are very ready to be angry at any man, and also are also amazing certain about what is right and wrong. But I do know that if men are to find ways to combat violence against women, we (men) need to find ways that fit with us, and not to call ourselves feminists, and not to feel accountable to feminists, as though women/feminism holds all the correct answers about how we ought to ‘be’ and how we ought to think.

For example, we can find ways to challenge men who abuse women, and challenge ourselves around our own thoughts and actions, without having to start off by thinking we are bad people because our potential for violence is closer to the surface than it is for most women, or because of our lustful drives, or enjoyment of pornography.

Cycleboy // Posted 5 August 2013 at 9:08 pm

“Have not heard of any case of a man taking a stand and telling the others to stop.”

Probably out of simple fear. I’ve often heard it said that women can diffuse a tense situation or stop a fight when men can’t, or won’t. It’s invariably attributed to women’s less aggressive nature, which I think is a mistake.

I’ve rarely been in such situations, but my first reaction would be fear of being attacked myself. When men are fighting men (rape is probably a special case) they are probably reluctant to hit a woman (or at least seen to do it). Consequently, women ‘bouncers’ will often lower the tension whereas the appearance of a big male bouncer might just make the combatants think they can ‘take him’ and he ends up being forced to protect himself from attack.

Freethinker // Posted 5 August 2013 at 9:35 pm

Excellent point about gender-based violence not being a ‘women’s issue’.

I agree that it is important for men to talk about this and challenge sexist comments. Most men have a wife, girlfriend, mother, sister or daughter. How would they feel if the sexist comment was aimed at one of their loved ones?

Dom Aversano // Posted 6 August 2013 at 1:09 pm

Although taking much interest in feminist issues I rarely comment on them, partly because of a lack of in-depth knowledge, and partly because it can resemble treading across an opinion minefield.

I prefer the term ‘gender equality’, due to its similarity to ‘racial equality’, and also because it does not infer being only one gender`s issue; everyone is degraded when a section of society is discriminated or abused.

As I have discussed with you in person I am most concerned by the current influence of market forces. Cuts to welfare land most heavily on the shoulders of women. Leading journalist (at least for now) tend to be from affluent backgrounds, and living in trendy insular slices of London. Could this be why FGM is not a prominent subject for discussion within the circles of media commentariat, but the equally important subject of rape is? The former being a more distant concern them.

That said, new inventive forms of activism and media such as Caroline Criado-Perez`s petition “Keep a Woman on English Banknotes”, Lucy Holme`s “No More Page 3” campaign, and the “Everyday Sexism Project”, seem to be opening a new front for feminism, and the much needed, and currently threatened, drive for gender equality.

Nikki Roble // Posted 21 September 2013 at 2:37 am

This is a great blog to get the word out. It is very important that men also fight for women;s rights as other men will follow. Everywhere, boys are being taught to be the powerful ones in control. They controlled everyone and everything around them. In our society today, boys are taught sexist values. They were taught that if you have sex, then you are “The Man.” Shows such as Jersey Shore, are teaching young boys to go out and have sex with as many women as possible. Our society is teaching men to degrade women. It is important to have men stand up for women because in our society, people like to follow men. If men get steered in a more positive, safe direction, away from sex, then many of the younger generations will follow. Men, along with women can send the positive message of unity, equality, and justice.

cierracaitlyn // Posted 24 October 2013 at 7:19 pm

I could not agree more with this post. Violence against women is a very serious matter that needs to be worked on. If we are going to put an end to violence aginst women, then we ALL need to take a stand against it. Men and and women must work together as ONE. Men and women need to be educated on the issues of violence against women accross the globe, because vioelnce against women takes many forms. Violence against women can be compared to an onion: there are multiple layers that bring tears to our eyes. Women make up a large portion of the worlds population, so they should not be treated as second-class citizens. Men need to learn the importance of valuing women and not contributing to the hardships that they face. We need to work toward ending societies patriarchal tendencies and start living as equals. “Women are not free anywhere in this worls untill all women in the world are free” (Leymah Gbowee). We cannot do it alone.

yesi // Posted 29 October 2013 at 7:49 am

I think it is very important for men to stand up and fight against violence towards women. if men were to stand against violence against women it could really help make a point because most violence against women is usually headed by men. Through history and the social media it has made it difficult for men to see a lot of what women have endured is wrong because they have been trained to think the way they do. I think it is also important for women to converse with men in a more calm manner in order to try and work together. If women just continue to attack men then we do not allow for progress to take place. There are men that believe in helping fight against violence against women but just do not voice those beliefs but that does not give women the right to attack men. Violence against women is an issue that is something that should not be taken lightly.

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