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The Role of Violence in Masculinity
Within days of assuming office in 2015, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made a public statement declaring, “Real men don’t hit women.” This declaration reflected his commitment to adopt a zero-tolerance approach towards violence against women in Australia. The media praised his strong stance, describing it as a scathing attack against violence. This sentiment is closely associated with traditional notions of masculinity that emphasize aggression, strength, and the use of violence to protect women. The idea that the problem of gendered violence can be solved by returning to a concept of “real masculinity” resonates with many. But who is a real man? And if real men don’t hit women, then who does?
Over the past 15 years, Australia has made significant efforts to prevent gendered violence by developing policies and programs. The issue of violence against women has gained unprecedented attention, thanks in part to the advocacy work of Rosie Batty, the Australian of the Year in 2015, who lost her son to domestic violence. The media, social platforms, and government have all focused on addressing the subordination of women through violence and other means. This broadened attention has presented the challenge of translating feminist concerns about gender inequality and violence to a wider audience.
Engaging men and boys in the prevention of physical and sexual violence is crucial but remains a complex question. Research in criminology indicates that violence is closely linked to the construction and embodiment of masculinity. On one hand, breaking the connection between masculinity and violence is key to preventing violence against women. On the other hand, framing masculinity solely in terms of violence and aggression may alienate men and hinder prevention efforts. We need effective ways to engage men and boys in discussions about gender and violence that encourage change without stigmatizing them.
That is why slogans like “real men don’t hit women” have become prevalent in violence prevention campaigns worldwide. These messages seek to portray masculinity as benevolent, strong, and fundamentally opposed to violence against women. They aim to validate non-violent men’s masculinity while shaming perpetrators of violence. These messaging approaches also encourage men and boys to take a stand against violence by associating male prevention advocates with the concept of “real men.”
However, whether these approaches will ultimately change male behavior and keep women safe remains uncertain. The commitment to preventing violence against women demonstrated through the repetition of messages like “real men don’t hit women” is unclear. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for example, repeatedly used this phrase while his government made significant cuts to domestic violence services and support systems. Simply telling men not to be violent does not address the root causes of their behavior, even if they genuinely want to change. Perpetrators of violence often do not understand the origins of their violence or how to stop it. They are often deeply ashamed of their actions, so further shaming may hinder them from seeking help.
The focus on slogans like “real men don’t hit women” presents a circular approach to the issue. Violence against women has coexisted with its public condemnation for centuries. Historical accounts from the 19th century in England reveal ritualized displays of masculine authority through the public humiliation of men and women who breached social codes. These rituals extended beyond domestic violence perpetrators to encompass women reporting rape or suspected homosexuals, challenging gender hierarchies of that era.
This history is worth considering as men take prominent roles in public discussions about violence against women. Speaking out against violence may reflect genuine convictions, but conviction alone is not enough to stop violence, especially when it is couched in terms of reinforcing masculine identity. There are substantial risks in allowing the “real men” approach to overshadow the substantial links between violence against women and the normalization of male aggression.
The Problem with “Real Men Don’t Hit Women”
If the message “real men don’t hit women” had the power to prevent violence against women, the issue would have been resolved long ago. Every boy in Australia grows up being told not to hit women, with the reasoning that women are allegedly too weak to engage in a fair fight. As a child, I was taken aside and given this explanation, which left me bewildered. It was clear to me that my sisters were more than capable of defending themselves physically. I found it unfair that I was expected to show restraint while not viewing women as passive or vulnerable. My mother’s story of defending herself with a shish kebab skewer against an aggressive stranger became a family legend. My experiences shattered the notion that women are docile, weak, and dependent on male protection.
It soon became evident to me that “real men don’t hit women” was not only factually incorrect but also misleading. I witnessed firsthand instances of violence within families, where men who claimed to be “real men” abused their loved ones. I overheard the screams as my friend’s father struck his mother, saw the bruises on another friend’s body inflicted by his father, and learned about a classmate who admitted to hitting his own mother. These experiences shattered the myth perpetuated by the slogan. Furthermore, I later learned about cases where women defended themselves against abuse and violence. Not all victims are meek or passive; many are strong and resilient. Unfortunately, these stories are often overlooked or misunderstood by the police and the judicial system. In cases where both parties sustain injuries during a domestic violence incident, police may arrest both individuals, leading to negative consequences for the victim in subsequent reports.
The notion that “real men don’t hit women” promotes harmful stereotypes about women as delicate and passive beings. It also misattributes the origins of gendered violence to physiological differences between the sexes. This line of thinking suggests that men and women are equally violent, but men’s violence is more dangerous due to their physical strength. This perspective places the responsibility on women not to “provoke” men and implies that they deserve any violence that occurs. However, violence against women is not a fair contest based on physical strength; it is part of a broader system of gendered injustice and oppression. Patriarchy, the system that upholds unequal power dynamics between men and women, enables violence against women. The slogan “real men don’t hit women” ignores this complexity, positioning male force and authority as the solution rather than examining the underlying problem.
Moving Beyond “Real Men Don’t Hit Women”
Violence against women is not only reprehensible because of the harm it causes but also because it is rooted in a system of gender inequality and oppression called patriarchy. This system grants disproportionate power to men at the expense of women. The slogan “real men don’t hit women” perpetuates the notion that violence is the only problem while asserting that gender inequality is unproblematic. However, even without physical and sexual violence, patriarchy remains unacceptable and unjust. Simply prohibiting violent expression without addressing the underlying causes will not lead to lasting change.
To prevent violence against women effectively, we must address the material and cultural aspects of gender inequality. Women’s labor is undervalued and often unpaid, and their career advancement is hindered by family commitments. This vulnerability makes them more susceptible to violence and limits their ability to protect themselves and their children. Additionally, women’s diminished presence in decision-making positions affects the prioritization of women’s safety. Women in positions of power consistently prioritize the safety and well-being of women and children more than their male counterparts. However, these issues are often deprioritized in male-dominated institutions.
Prevention efforts should not focus solely on changing attitudes but should also challenge the economic and political foundations of gender inequality. Gender stereotypes and pro-violence attitudes arise as justifications for existing power imbalances. Breaking this cycle requires a comprehensive approach that recognizes the relationship between material and cultural aspects of gender inequality and violence. Women’s empowerment is a fundamental aspect of violence prevention.
The Path to Non-Violence
The question then arises: How can we engage boys and men in the work of preventing violence against women? Male aggression is not a behavior that can be simply turned off or on; it is deeply embedded in societal norms, values, and practices. Abandoning violence requires a significant departure from the broader patriarchal context and may even challenge traditional notions of masculinity. The compromise offered by the “real man” approach is only a partial cessation of violence. It reframes male aggression as a potentially emancipatory force that can be directed against perpetrators of violence against women. This risks turning violence prevention efforts into platforms for displays of aggressive masculinity.
Civil rights activist Martin Luther King offered a powerful critique of violence as a political strategy in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1964. He highlighted the futility and immorality of responding to violence with more violence, emphasizing the need for non-violence as the only truly effective response. Non-violence encompasses characteristics such as love, compassion, and patience. When put into practice, non-violence creates social contexts where violence cannot thrive, allowing for the repair of the damage caused by violence.
Non-violence offers new possibilities for violence prevention. Every boy is born non-violent, and no boy aspires to abuse his partner or children. Men and women share a desire for lasting relationships. Under the conditions of male dominance, this wish can become distorted. Men who attend family violence perpetrator programs often experience the loss of connection with their partners and children, leading to feelings of alienation and frustration. Violence harms both the victims and the perpetrators, leaving the latter grieving for what they have destroyed.
In contrast, there are numerous examples of non-violent men in Australia, living testimonies to the satisfaction that comes from building strong families and communities. Unfortunately, their stories are seldom discussed publicly. Characteristics such as care, patience, and compassion are undervalued in men compared to the traditional image of strength and aggression. Non-violence challenges this conventional logic by highlighting the weakness and destructiveness of violence and emphasizing the enduring power of peace-making.
Efforts to prevent violence must affirm the choice of non-violence for boys and men. These initiatives should demonstrate not only the pitfalls of violence but also the potential of non-violence as a foundation for meaningful relationships and fulfilling lives.
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