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Voice Male--Spring 2006
Violence Against Women: It's a Men's Issue
Excerpts from the new book The Macho Paradox
By Jackson Katz
Most people think violence against women is a women's issue. And why wouldn't they? Just about every woman in this society thinks about it every day. If they're not getting harassed on the street, living in an abusive relationship, recovering from a rape, or in therapy to deal with the sexual abuse they suffered as children, they're ordering their daily lives around the threat of men's violence.
But it's a mistake to call men's violence a women's issue. Take the subject of rape. Many people reflexively consider rape to be a women's issue. But let's take a closer look. What percentage of rape is committed by women? Is it 10 percent, 5 percent? No. Less than 1 percent of rape is committed by women. Let's state this another way: over 99 percent of rape is perpetrated by men. Whether the victims are female or male, men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators. But we call it a women's issue?
A major premise of this article (and my new book, The Macho Paradox) is that the long-running American tragedy of sexual and domestic violence--including rape, battering, sexual harassment, and the sexual exploitation of women and girls--is more revealing about men than it is about women. Men, after all, are the ones committing the vast majority of the violence. Men are the ones doing most of the battering and almost all of the raping. Men are the ones paying the prostitutes (and killing them in video games), going to strip clubs, renting sexually degrading pornography, writing and performing misogynous music.
When men's role in gender violence is discussed--in newspaper articles, sensational TV news coverage, or everyday conversation--the focus is typically on men as perpetrators, or potential perpetrators. These days, you don't have to look far to see evidence of the pain and suffering these men cause. But it's rare to find any in-depth discussion about the culture that's producing these violent men. It's almost as if the perpetrators were aliens who landed here from another planet. It's rarer still to hear thoughtful discussions about the ways our culture defines "manhood," and how that definition might be linked to the endless string of stories about husbands killing wives, or groups of young men raping girls (and sometimes videotaping the rape) that we hear about on a regular basis.
Why isn't there more conversation about the underlying social factors that contribute to the pandemic of violence against women? Why aren't men's attitudes and behaviors toward women the focus of more critical scrutiny and coordinated action? In the early 21st century, the 24/7 news cycle brings us a steady stream of gender violence tragedies: serial killers on the loose, men abducting young girls, domestic violence homicides, sexual abuse scandals in powerful institutions like the Catholic Church and the Air Force Academy. You can barely turn on the news these days without coming across another gruesome sex crime--whether it's a group of boys gang-raping a girl in a middle school bathroom, or a young pregnant mother who turns up missing and a few days later her husband emerges as the primary suspect.
Isn't it about time we had a national conversation about the male causes of this violence, instead of endlessly lingering on its consequences in the lives of women? Thanks to the U.S. battered women's and rape crisis movements, it is no longer taboo to discuss women's experience of sexual and domestic violence. This is a significant achievement. To an unprecedented extent, American women today expect to be supported--not condemned--when they disclose what men have done to them (unless the man is popular, wealthy, or well-connected, in which case all bets are off).
This is all to the good. Victims of violence and abuse--whether they're women or men--should be heard and respected. Their needs come first. But lets not confuse concern for victims with the political will to change the conditions that led to their victimization in the first place. On talk shows, in brutally honest memoirs, at Take Back the Night rallies, and even in celebrity interviews, our society now grants many women the platform to discuss the sexual abuse and mistreatment that have sadly been a part of women's lives here and around the world for millennia. But when was the last time you heard someone in public or private life talk about violence against women in a way that went beyond the standard victim fixation and put a sustained spotlight on men--either as perpetrators or as bystanders? It is one thing to focus on the "against women" part of the phrase. But someone's responsible for doing it, and (almost) everyone knows that it's overwhelmingly men. Why aren't people talking about this? Is it realistic to talk about preventing violence against women if no one even wants to say out loud who's responsible for it?
For the past two decades I've been part of a growing movement of men, in North America and around the world, whose aim is to reduce violence against women by focusing on those aspects of male culture--especially male peer culture--that provide active or tacit support for some men's abusive behavior. This movement is racially and ethnically diverse, and it brings together men from both privileged and poor communities, and everyone in between. This is challenging work on many levels, and no one should expect rapid results. For example, there is no way to gloss over some of the race, class, and sexual orientation divisions between and among the men ourselves. It is also true that it takes time to change social norms that are so deeply rooted in structures of gender and power. Even so, there is room for optimism. We've had our successes: There are arguably more men today who are actively confronting violence against women than at any time in human history.
Make no mistake. Women blazed the trail that we are riding down. Men are in the position to do this work precisely because of the great leadership of women. The battered women's and rape crisis movements and their allies in local, state, and federal government have accomplished a phenomenal amount over the past generation. Public awareness about violence against women is at an all-time high. The level of services available today for female victims and survivors of men's violence is--while not yet adequate--nonetheless historically unprecedented.
But one area where our society still has a very long way to go is in preventing perpetration. We continue to produce in the United States hundreds of thousands of physically and emotionally abusive--and sexually dangerous--boys and men each year. Millions more men participate in sexist behaviors on a continuum that ranges from mildly objectifying women to literally enslaving them in human trafficking syndicates. We can provide services to the female victims of these men until the cows come home. We can toughen enforcement of rape, domestic violence, and stalking laws, arrest and incarcerate even more men than we do currently. But this is all reactive and after the fact. It is essentially an admission of failure.
What I am proposing is that we adopt a much more ambitious approach. If we are going to bring down the rates of violence against women dramatically--not just at the margins--we will need a far-reaching cultural revolution. At its heart this revolution must be about changing the sexist social norms in male culture, from the elementary school playground to the common room in retirement communities--and every locker room, pool hall, and boardroom in between. For us to have any hope of achieving historic reductions in incidents of violence against women, at a minimum we will need to dream big and act boldly. It almost goes without saying that we will need the help of a lot more men--at all levels of power and influence--than are currently involved. Obviously we have our work cut out for us. As a measure of just how far we have to go, consider that in spite of the misogyny and sexist brutality all around us, millions of nonviolent men today fail to see gender violence as their issue. "I'm a good guy," they say. "This isn't my problem."
For years, women of every conceivable ethnic, racial, and religious background have been trying to get men around them--and men in power--to do more about violence against women. They have asked nicely, and they have demanded angrily. Some women have done this on a one-to-one basis with boyfriends and husbands, fathers and sons. They have patiently explained to men they care about how much they--and all women--have been harmed by men's violence. Others have gone public with their grievances. They have written songs and slam poetry. They have produced brilliant academic research. They have made connections between racism and sexism. They have organized speakouts on college campuses, and in communities large and small. They have marched. They have advocated for legal and political reform at the state and national level. On both a micro and a macro level, women in this era have successfully broken through their historical silence about violence against women and found their voice--here in the United States and around the world.
Yet even with all of these achievements, women continue to face an uphill struggle in trying to make meaningful inroads into male culture. Their goal has not been simply to get men to listen to women's stories and truly hear them--although that is a critical first step. The truly vexing challenge has been getting men to actually go out and do something about the problem, in the form of educating and organizing other men in numbers great enough to prompt a real cultural shift. Some activist women--even those who have had great faith in men as allies--have been beating their heads against the wall for a long time, and are frankly burned out on the effort. I know this because I have been working with many of these women for a long time. They are my colleagues and friends.
My work is dedicated to getting more men to take on the issue of violence against women, and thus to build on what women have achieved. The area that I focus on is not law enforcement or offender treatment, but the prevention of sexual and domestic violence and all their related social pathologies--including violence against children. To do this, I and other men here and around the world have been trying to get our fellow men to see that this problem is not just personal for a small number of men who happen to have been touched by the issue. We try to show them that it is personal for them, too. For all of us. We talk about men not only as perpetrators, but as victims. We try to show them that violence by men against each other--from simple assaults to gay-bashing--is linked to the same structures of gender and power that produce so much men's violence against women.
But there is no point in being naïve about why women have had such a difficult time convincing men to make violence against women a men's issue. In spite of significant social change in recent decades, men continue to grow up with, and are socialized into, a deeply misogynous, male-dominated culture, where violence against women--from the subtle to the homicidal--is disturbingly common. It's normal. And precisely because the mistreatment of women is such a pervasive characteristic of our patriarchal culture, most men, to a greater or lesser extent, have played a role in its perpetuation. This gives us a strong incentive to avert our eyes.
Women, of course, have also been socialized into this misogynous culture. Some of them resist and fight back. In fact, women's ongoing resistance to their subordinate status is one of the most momentous developments in human civilization over the past two centuries. Just the same, plenty of women show little appetite for delving deeply into the cultural roots of sexist violence. It's much less daunting simply to blame "sick" individuals for the problem. You hear women all the time explaining away men's bad behavior as the result of individual pathology: "Oh, he just had a bad childhood," or "He's an angry drunk. The booze gets to him. He's never been able to handle it."
But regardless of how difficult it can be to show some women that violence against women is a social problem that runs deeper than the abusive behavior of individual men, it is still much easier to convince women--of all races, ethnicities, and religious beliefs--that dramatic change is in their best interest than it is to convince men. In fact, many people would argue that, since men are the dominant sex-class, and violence serves to reinforce this dominance, it is not in men's best interests to reduce violence against women, and that the very attempt to enlist a critical mass of men in this effort amounts to a fool's errand.
For those of us who reject this line of reasoning, the big question, then, is how do we reach men? We know we're not going to transform, overnight or over many decades, certain structures of male power and privilege that have developed over thousands of years. Nevertheless, how are we going to bring more men--many more men--into a conversation about sexism and violence against women? And how are we going to do this without turning them off, without berating them, without blaming them for centuries of sexist oppression?
Moreover, how are we going to move beyond talk and get substantial numbers of men to partner with women in reducing men's violence, instead of working against them in some sort of fruitless and counterproductive gender struggle?
That is the $64,000 dollar question. Esta Soler, executive director of the Family Violence Prevention Fund and an influential leader in the domestic violence movement, says that activating men is "the next frontier" in the women-led movement. "In the end," she says, "we cannot change society unless we put more men at the table, amplify men's voices in the debate, enlist men to help change social norms on the issue, and convince men to teach their children that violence against women is always wrong."
Call me a starry-eyed optimist, but I have long been convinced that there are millions of men in our society who are ready to respond well to a positive message about this subject. If you go to a group of men with your finger pointed ("Stop treating women so badly!") you'll often get a defensive response. But if you approach the same group of men by appealing, in Abraham Lincoln's famous words, to "the better angels of their nature," surprising numbers of them will rise to the occasion.
For me, this is not just an article of faith. Our society has made real progress in confronting the long-standing problem of men's violence against women in my lifetime. Take the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). It is the most far-reaching piece of legislation ever on the subject. Federal funds have enabled all sorts of new initiatives, including prevention efforts that target men and boys. There have been many other encouraging developments on both the institutional and the individual levels. Not the least of these positive developments is the fact that so many young men today "get" the concept of gender equality and are actively working against men's violence.
There are a number of studies in the past several years that demonstrate that significant numbers of men are uncomfortable with the way some of their male peers talk about and treat women. But since few men in our society have dared to talk publicly about such matters, many men think they are the only ones who feel uncomfortable.
Because they feel isolated and alone in their discomfort, they do not say anything. Their silence, in turn, simply reinforces the false perception that few men are uncomfortable with sexist attitudes and behaviors. It is a vicious cycle that keeps a lot of caring men silent.
I meet men all the time who thank me--or my fellow activists and colleagues--for publicly taking on the subject of men's violence. I frequently meet men who are receptive to the paradigm-shifting idea that men's violence against women has to be understood as a men's issue. Their issue. These men come from every demographic and geographic category. They include thousands of men who would not fit neatly into simplistic stereotypes about the kind of man who would be involved in "that touchy-feely stuff."
Still, it is an uphill fight. Truly lasting change is only going to happen as new generations of women come of age and demand equal treatment with men in every realm, and new generations of men work with them to reject the sexist attitudes and behaviors of their predecessors. This will take decades, and the outcome is hardly predetermined. But along with tens of thousands of activist women and men who continue to fight the good fight, I believe that it is possible to achieve something much closer to gender equality, and a dramatic reduction in the level of men's violence against women, both here and around the world. And there is a lot at stake. If sexism and violence against women do not subside considerably in the 21st century, it will not just be bad news for women. It will also say something truly ugly and tragic about the future of our species.