The violence at the heart of masculinity
Within days of becoming prime minister in September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull was on television declaring ‘Real men don’t hit women’. This sentiment drives what the Prime Minister has called a ‘zero tolerance’ approach that will ‘eradicate’ violence against women in Australia. Following his announcement, media commentators described his stand against violence as ‘strong’, ‘hard’1 and a ‘scathing attack’.2 Not coincidentally, these are the very qualities of masculinity that the phrase ‘real men don’t hit women’ evokes: unyielding, aggressive and primed to use violence in the defence of women. The prospect that the problem of gendered violence can be resolved by a return to ‘real masculinity’ has wide appeal. But who is a real man and who isn’t? And if real men don’t hit women, then who does?
Over the last 15 years Australia has been at the forefront of violence prevention efforts, developing policies and programs that aim to stop gendered violence before it occurs. Violence against women is on the public agenda as never before. The work of the 2015 Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, appointed in recognition of her advocacy work following the murder of her son Luke by her ex-partner, has been an important turning point. The subordination of women by violence and other means has become the target of mass media coverage, social media interest and preventive effort at all levels of government. This brings with it the challenge of translating traditionally feminist concerns about gender inequality and violence to a much broader constituency.
Engaging men and boys in community-wide desistance from physical and sexual violence is a prominent but unresolved question in this work. Criminological research suggests that violence is a key practice through which masculinity is constructed and embodied.3 On one hand, breaking the link between masculinity and violence is key to the prevention of violence against women. On the other hand, characterising masculinity in the negative terms of violence and aggression is likely to alienate men and boys from prevention efforts. We need ways of speaking to men and boys about gender and violence that encourage change but avoid stigma.
This is why ‘real men don’t hit women’ has become one of the most common slogans in violence prevention efforts around the world, alongside a host of similar messages: ‘man up’, ‘be the hero’, ‘my strength is not for hurting’ and so on. These approaches contain positive messages about masculinity as strong, benevolent and fundamentally oriented away from violence against women. They aim to validate the masculinity of non-violent men while shaming perpetrators of violence. These approaches also provide an incentive for boys and men to ‘stand up’ and ‘speak out’ against violence against women by positioning male prevention advocates on the side of the ‘real men’.
The question is whether this approach will ultimately change male behaviour and keep women safe. The depth of commitment to the prevention of violence evinced by the repetition of messages like ‘real men don’t hit women’ is quite unclear. ‘Real men don’t hit’ was a favourite phrase of Malcolm Turnbull’s predecessor, former prime minister and minister for women Tony Abbott, even as his government was making savage cuts to domestic violence services and social and legal supports. After all, if the solution to violence against women is more ‘real men’, then there is no need for public investment in women’s safety. However, as the lessons from 30 years of domestic violence perpetrator programs have shown, just telling men to abstain from violence doesn’t help them to, even when they want to.4 Violent men often don’t understand where their violence comes from and don’t know how to stop.5 Men who have engaged in violence and abuse towards women are often deeply ashamed of their conduct.6 It’s unclear how further shaming will produce a change in their behaviour and it may inhibit them from seeking treatment and support.
Far from forging new pathways towards a violence-free future, there is something fundamentally circular about the ‘real men’ approach. History shows us that violence against women has coexisted with its public denunciation for a long time. Historian A. James Hammerton described the nineteenth-century English tradition in which groups of young men constructed effigies of known wife-beaters to be paraded and beaten around the village before being set on fire.7 The public degradation of domestic violence perpetrators was not an outbreak of proto-feminism or an early form of male consciousness-raising. Hammerton argued it was a ritualised projection of masculine authority through the humiliation of men, and women, deemed to have breached social codes of respectability. Other similar rituals were performed targeting women complaining of rape or suspected homosexuals, since they were also considered to be challenging the gendered social hierarchies of the day.
This is a history that is worth bearing in mind as men take prominent positions in public discussions about violence against women. It is undoubtedly true that speaking out against this violence reflects the genuine convictions of many boys and men. Nonetheless, conviction alone is not enough to stop that violence, particularly if it is reworked into declarations of manliness rather than directed to more constructive ends. There is significant slippage in the language of violence prevention that, at least for some, is being read as a powerful reaffirmation of gender inequality. Shortly after Malcolm Turnbull announced a $100 million domestic violence funding package in 2015, the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Barnaby Joyce appeared on the ABC program Q&A. In the ensuing discussion, Joyce foregrounded cultural change and respect as the solutions to violence against women. He said, ‘Like, don’t swear in front of them. It’s not politically incorrect to open a door. All these things so we can change the attitude so we can show that we respect people.’8
Joyce appeared genuinely bewildered when other panellists felt that better manners would not prevent domestic violence. After all, Malcom Turnbull has repeatedly linked gendered violence to a ‘culture of disrespect’ towards women. To some, this means that we need more mutuality and equality in heterosexual relationships. To others, it means the exact opposite: an affirmation of male dominance over and deference towards the ‘fairer sex’.
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If a message such as ‘real men don’t hit women’ had the power to prevent violence against women, then we wouldn’t have a problem. Every boy in Australia grows up being told not to hit women. The reasoning is simple: women are, allegedly, too weak to make it a fair fight. As a child I was on occasion taken aside by an adult male who explained this to me. I found the argument quite perplexing. I could agree that violence was wrong, but not because girls or women couldn’t defend themselves. It was apparent that my two sisters were more than capable of using physical force to protect and advance their interests. Not only did it seem unfair that I was the one expected to show restraint, but I wasn’t raised to see women as passive or vulnerable. My mother’s account of wielding a shish kebab skewer against an aggressive stranger while overseas is the stuff of family legend. My experience of girls and women as the active agents of their own lives didn’t accord with the message that they were docile, weak and dependent on male beneficence.
It soon became clear to me that ‘real men don’t hit women’ contained another manifest untruth; namely, that ‘real men’ don’t abuse those they care about. When I was ten, I overheard the muffled screams as my best friend’s father struck his mother next to the room in which we played. In high school, a friend’s hands shook as he raised his shirt to show me the bruises on his torso left by his father after a bad report card. His parents separated soon after as his mother sought to protect her son and herself from his father’s violence. Around the same time, another schoolmate began boasting about ‘thumping’ his mum whenever she annoyed him. We were all aghast: You don’t hit your mum! He stopped talking about it. A few years later, his girlfriend told me that they’d been fooling around, and he’d ignored her when she said ‘stop’. She never used the word ‘rape’ but it was clear what she was talking about.
It turned out that ‘real men don’t hit women’ is not about reality at all, quite the opposite. It’s often the men most concerned about their reputation as ‘real men’ who turn to violence. Violence against women is ‘inextricably ground in and intertwined with attitudes towards women, gender and sexuality’.9 Those boys and men who hold traditional and conservative attitudes towards masculinity and gender relations are at far greater risk of engaging in violence than others. The schoolmate who beat his mum and abused his girlfriend played sport, liked motorbikes and wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around to get what he wanted. When his mother challenged his sense of self-entitlement, or when his girlfriend didn’t provide him with the sexual access he felt owed to him, he responded with force and aggression. His behaviour was grounded in a world view in which some men are ‘real’, others are not and women are somehow less than men.
So real men do hit women after all, but we’d prefer not to admit it. This denial is accomplished by dividing men into simplistic categories, and labelling abusive men as a deviant minority. If they aren’t ‘real’ men, then the rest of us don’t have to reflect on what their behaviour says about masculinity more broadly. If we did, we might have to confront the substantial links between violence against women and the normalisation of male aggression. In a now-classic 1987 paper, sociologist Michael Kaufman argued that men’s violence against women is ‘probably the clearest, most straightforward expression of relative male and female power’, but these gendered power differentials are also evident in men’s violence against other men and the ways that men harm ourselves.10
In a male-dominated society, boys and men are expected to show an aptitude for violence, if not through outright physical conflict then in coded forms such as on the sports field or through the consumption of violent media. We idolise violence, war and sport as the quintessential tests of masculinity.11 A considerable degree of self-censorship and denial is involved as boys and men work ourselves into the narrow confines of aggressive masculinities, sometimes cutting ourselves off from those parts that won’t fit. There is a continuity between violence against women and the other kinds of aggression that men internalise and externalise.
These are precisely the linkages that need to be untangled in the prevention of violence against women; however, this is a challenge that prevention advocates and agencies have often shied away from. In an attempt to appeal to boys and men like my former schoolmate, prevention campaigns are littered with pictures of gruff sportsmen staring out at the viewer as the embodiment of the ‘real man’. In Australia, the prevention agency White Ribbon regularly employs language evocative of masculine conflict, encouraging men to ‘stand up’ and ‘challenge’ VAW because ‘thousands of good men have got their back’. A study of male feminist ‘allies’ working in violence prevention in the United States found that they routinely referred to themselves as ‘soldiers’ in a ‘battle’ or a ‘war’.12 The role of militarism in underscoring the masculinity of violence prevention has been on display in Australia over the last few years, where the Royal Australian Air Force has affixed large ‘White Ribbons’ to the tails of fighter jets and conducted flyovers of capital cities on White Ribbon Day.13
Celebrating cultural associations between masculinity and violence is a paradoxical approach to the reduction of violence against women, to say the least. It suggests that the protection of women can be accomplished by the mass mobilisation of male force. This is little more than a male revenge fantasy, and one that is entirely disconnected from the realities of violence and the needs of women.
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The invocation of strong, authoritative ‘real men’ is often paired with problematic images of women as delicate and passive. In a recent video entitled Real men don’t hit women, shot for the United Nations ‘He for She’ campaign, movie star Antonio Bandaras describes women as ‘a source of life—and poetry’ so fragile that they shouldn’t be struck ‘even with a rose petal’. It might come as a shock, then, that ‘real women’ don’t necessarily need a ‘real man’ to protect them. When they are hit, a lot of ‘real women’ hit back. As one domestic violence worker recently said in an interview, ‘Not all of our DV victims are the meek, quiet woman who doesn’t speak up for herself, you know.’ Women’s capacity to defend themselves and their children is contrary to dominant female stereotypes and this can trigger negative police or judicial responses. Where police attend a domestic violence incident and find that the man and woman have sustained injuries, they may arrest both parties, which then impacts on the response the woman receives the next time she reports victimisation.14 The ways in which women defend themselves in abusive relationships is poorly acknowledged in court and can result in women being prosecuted and jailed for self-defensive violence.15
The notion that ‘real men don’t hit women’ propagates harmful stereotypes about women and misidentifies the origins of gendered violence in physiological differences between the sexes. It is commensurate with naive arguments along the lines of ‘Men and women are equally violent but men’s violence is more dangerous because men are stronger.’ From there it is only a short step to familiar warnings that women shouldn’t ‘provoke’ men to anger or else they will get what they deserve. Yet violence against women is not a boxing match or a contest based on brute strength. Gendered violence is part of the entrapment of girls and women in intimate life through contradictory expectations, and the constrained choices available to women in a society in which they have less access to power, resources and opportunity. ‘Real men don’t hit women’ obscures this complexity and positions male force and authority as the solution rather than the problem.
Violence against women is reprehensible not only because violence is harmful, although this is true, but also because it is the terroristic enforcement of a much larger system of gendered injustice and oppression. Feminists have dubbed this system ‘patriarchy’ as a description of social arrangements in which power accrues disproportionately to men at the expense of women. In patriarchal societies, the prevailing cultural and economic context enables men to control and dominate women in their lives in a variety of ways, including violence.16 The premise of ‘real men don’t hit women’ is that this violence is unseemly but otherwise gender inequality is unproblematic. In truth, leaving oppression in place while prohibiting its violent expression is not only unlikely to work, since the fundamental causes of violence remain in place, but it is wholly unjust. Even if patriarchy without physical and sexual violence were possible, it would still be unacceptable and unjust. ‘Real men don’t hit women’ acts as a homily for gender inequality by encouraging men and women to accept gendered differentials in power as part of the ‘natural’ order of things.
Entirely absent from this vision is the possibility of female empowerment or the need for social transformation to ensure the equitable distribution of power between men and women. This is a pervasive issue in violence prevention more broadly. In Australia, anti-violence scholar Bob Pease has observed that prevention efforts have generally focused on changing ‘the attitudes, values and beliefs of men that underpin violence, rather than on interventions into structurally unequal gender relations’.17 His concern about the emergence of the violence prevention agenda is that it has depoliticised the issue of gender inequality and promotes a relatively superficial agenda for change. This concern appears to be borne out by the most recent Australian review of gendered violence prevention programs, which indicates that the majority of interventions are focused on changing attitudes about gender and violence.18
There is no question that attitudes are major drivers of gendered violence and need to change, but the economic and political basis of gender inequality is at risk of being overlooked. Women’s labour is still more likely to be underpaid, unpaid and interrupted by child and family commitments in comparison to men’s,19 and this creates contexts in which women are more vulnerable to violence and less able to protect themselves and their children. It also inhibits women’s capacity to move into decision-making positions, which has further implications for violence prevention. Women in power consistently prioritise the safety of women and children at a higher level than their male counterparts but these issues are deprioritised in male-dominated parliaments and decision-making bodies.20
These are entrenched systemic issues that are unlikely to shift solely through behavioural and attitudinal change. Elsewhere, I’ve argued that gender stereotypes and pro-violence attitudes arise in part as a post-hoc justification of these arrangements.21 Breaking this cycle requires an approach to violence prevention that understands how the material as well as cultural aspects of gender inequality can promote violence. There is no substitute for women’s empowerment in violence prevention.
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The question remains about how to bring boys and men along in this ambitious work. Male violence is not simply a behaviour that can be turned on or off, but rather an entire complex of norms, values and practices with deep connections to the social, political and economic order. For men and boys, abandoning violence implies a significant break with the broader patriarchal context, to the point of imperilling masculine identity altogether. As noted earlier, the compromise offered by the ‘real man’ approach to violence prevention is to call for only a partial cessation of violence. Male aggression is re-envisioned as a potentially emancipatory force that can be directed against perpetrators of violence against women. This risks transforming violence prevention efforts into a platform for performances of aggressive masculinity.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1964, civil rights activist Martin Luther King offered a powerful critique of violence as a political strategy:
[V]iolence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself.
Here King explains the futility of responding to violence with more violence. He decries violence on practical as well as moral grounds, noting that it fails to achieve its goals and only produces more harm. Drawing on the pacifist philosophies evident in Christian, Hindu and Buddhist thought, King instead promoted non-violence as the only efficacious response to violence. In his account, non-violence is not the absence of violence but rather the presence of characteristics that oppose violence: namely love, compassion and patience. Non-violence expresses our shared orientation towards mutuality as the very basis of human flourishing. When put into practice, non-violence creates social contexts in which violence cannot take root, and where the damage that violence causes can be repaired. As King said, ‘We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself.’22
In the sense that ‘a community at peace with itself’ is also the goal of gendered violence prevention, it would seem that we have a lot to learn from the civil rights movement. The urge to shame and reject perpetrators of violence is understandable but it risks the ‘spiral’ of mutual aggression King describes. It may be necessary to restrain or incapacitate perpetrators of violence but, ultimately, peace must be built and cannot be imposed. Notably, King’s promotion of non-violence still opposed racism in all its forms. He did not capitulate to ideologies of white supremacy in an attempt to appeal to those who disagreed with him. This is another important lesson for the prevention of violence against women. We wouldn’t dream of an anti-racism message such as ‘Real whites don’t hit blacks’. Attempting to reduce racist violence by endorsing racist notions of ‘real whites’ would be unconscionable. Yet gender inequality and ideologies of male power are so pervasive that many of us don’t blink at a slogan like ‘real men don’t hit women’, to the point where it is championed by successive prime ministers.
Non-violence offers new options for violence prevention. After all, every boy is born non-violent. No boy grows up aspiring to abuse his partner or his children. Men and women share a deep wish for lasting relationships. Under the conditions of male dominance, this wish can be fundamentally distorted. The experiences of men attending family violence perpetrator programs attest to the fact that violence destroys relationships and can produce deeply unsatisfying lives of alienation and frustration.23 Violent men are often left grieving for the loss of connection with their partners and children.24 In this sense, violence harms the men who commit it as well as those they hurt.
In contrast, there are numerous examples of non-violent men in Australia. Their lives are testament to the satisfaction that arises from the work of building strong families and communities. How they arrived at non-violence, and the path they took to get there, is rarely the subject of public discussion. Care, patience and compassion are not the characteristics that, as a society, we generally value in men, compared to the strength and aggression of the ‘real men’ that dominate our television, movies and newspapers. Non-violence inverts this common logic by emphasising the weakness and destructiveness of violence in comparison to the enduring power of peace-making. Violence prevention efforts could have a critical role to play in affirming the choice of non-violence for boys and men, illustrating not only the pitfalls of violence but also the potential of non-violence as the basis for meaningful relationships and happy lives.
Mark Kenny, ‘Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to go hard against domestic violence’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 2015.
Judith Ireland,‘Malcolm Turnbull’s scathing attack on men who commit domestic violence’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 2015
S. Tomsen, ‘Masculinity, Crime and Criminalisation’, in C. Cunneen and T. Anthony (eds), The Critical Criminology Companion, Federation Press, Sydney, 2008, pp. 297–312.
A. Day, D. Chung, P. O’Leary and D. Justo, Domestic Violence: Working with Men: Research, Practice Experiences and Integrated Responses, Federation Press, Sydney, 2009.
D. Gadd, ‘Masculinities, Violence and Defended Psychosocial Subjects’, Theoretical Criminology, vol. 4, no. 4 (2000), pp. 429–49.
T. Jefferson, ‘Subordinating Hegemonic Masculinity’, Theoretical Criminology, vol. 6, no. 1 (2002), pp. 63–88.
A.J. Hammerton, Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in Nineteenth Century Married Life, Routledge, London and New York, 1992, cited in D. Gadd, ‘Masculinities and Violence against Female Partners’, Social & Legal Studies, vol. 11, no. 1 (2002), pp. 61–80.
N. McMahon, ‘Q&A recap: Barnaby Joyce calls for improving manners to address domestic violence’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 September 2015.
M. Flood and B. Pease, ‘Factors Influencing Attitudes to Violence against Women’, Trauma, Violence & Abuse, vol. 10, no. 2 (2009), p. 128.
M. Kaufman, ‘The Construction of Masculinity and the Triad of Men’s Violence’, in Beyond Patriarchy: Essays by Men on Pleasure, Power, and Change, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1987, pp. 1–29.
T. Digby, Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance, Columbia University Press, 2014.
K.C. Macomber, Men as Allies: Mobilizing Men to End Violence against Women, North Carolina State University, 2012.
White Ribbon is a male-led organisation that aims to prevent violence against women, and it has nominated 25 November 25 as the annual day on which it promotes this cause.
B. Mottram and M. Salter, ‘“It’s an Ethical, Moral and Professional Dilemma I Think”: Domestic Violence Workers’ Understandings of Women’s Use of Violence in Relationships’, Affilia, forthcoming.
D. Tyson, Sex, Culpability and the Defence of Provocation, Routledge, Abingdon and New York, 2013.
E. Stark, Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life, Oxford University Press, New York, 2007.
B. Pease, Engaging Men in Men’s Violence Prevention: Exploring the Tensions, Dilemmas and Possibilities, Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse Issues Paper 17 (2008), p. 4.
M. Carmody, M. Salter and G. Presterudstuen, ‘Less to lose and more to gain? Men and boys violence prevention research project final report’, University of Western Sydney, 2014.
Australian Human Rights Commission, Accumulating Poverty? Women’s Experiences of Inequality over the Lifecycle, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney, 2009,
M.M. Taylor-Robinson and R.M. Heath, ‘Do women legislators have different policy priorities than their male colleagues?’ Women & Politics, vol. 24, no. 4 (2003), pp. 77–101.
M. Salter, ‘ “Real men don’t hit women”: Constructing masculinity in the prevention of violence against women’, Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 2015.
Martin Luther King, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, 1964.
R. Gray, T. Broady et al., ‘“I’m Working towards Getting back Together”: Client Accounts of Motivation Related to Relationship Status in Men’s Behaviour Change Programmes in New South Wales, Australia’, Child Abuse Review, 2014.
T.R. Broady, R. Gray, I. Gaffney and P. Lewis, ‘“I miss my little one a lot”: How father love motivates change in men who have used violence’, Child Abuse Review, 2015.