By Kris Macomber, PhD, See the Triumph Guest Blogger
The movement to end domestic violence has undergone significant transformations over the years. In the 1970s, we saw how powerful and effective survivor-led grassroots activism can be, as these efforts opened the doors to our country’s first battered women’s shelters. In the 1980s, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report identifying domestic violence as a major health problem for women; doing so meant that social institutions would now be responsible for addressing the problem. In 1994, the original Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed. This landmark legislation changed the course of domestic and sexual violence work in the United States. VAWA remains the largest piece of federal money aimed at addressing domestic violence, sexual violence, and stalking.
We are currently in the midst of new transformations. One of them is the increasing efforts to involve men in anti-violence work. Although there have always been small pockets of men working alongside women, their involvement was limited. Today, even though women remain the primary leaders of the domestic violence movement, “engaging men work” has emerged as an essential and necessary part of anti-violence work.
Today, men and boys are recruited as participants in violence prevention education programs, as targets of social marketing campaigns, as educators, and as activists and advocates. At the state and local levels, there are dozens of men’s organizations devoted to ending violence against women, as well as hundreds of local community and campus groups. On the national level, the Office of Violence Against Women created the “Engaging Men and Youth in Prevention Program” to fund projects that develop or enhance efforts to engage men and youth in preventing violence against women and girls. This funding creates jobs and resources at women-led domestic and sexual violence organizations, such as “Engaging Men and Boys Coordinator” positions. In 2009, there was the first ever National Conference for Campus-Based Men’s Gender Equity and Anti-Violence Groups. In 2014, MenEngage hosted a global symposium aimed at mobilizing men across the globe to work for gender equality in their home countries.
This expansion of “engaging men work” plays a critical role in the movement to end violence against women. It is in these spaces that men and boys struggle through difficult conversations about masculinity, power, and privilege, and about how these dynamics connect to men’s use of violence against women. It is here that violence against women is redefined as “men’s issues,” not just women’s. It is here that men are asked to take responsibility for helping build more gender equitable societies, communities, and relationships. It is here that men are called upon to be agents of personal and cultural change. As male leaders of this work often say, “Men are part of the problem. We must be part of the solution.”
I am a strong supporter of men’s growing involvement because I see “engaging men work” as a necessary part of transforming culture. That being said, there are also some challenges that have accompanied the push to expand men’s involvement.
Challenges & Unintended Consequences
One major challenge can be summed by a question I hear often from domestic violence advocates: “What about all the ways that men end up bringing sexism and male privilege into the movement--doesn’t that end up being counterproductive by undermining the movement’s very goals?”
You might be asking yourself, “What are these advocates referring to?”
For my research on men’s anti-violence activism, I interviewed dozens of anti-violence educators, advocates, and activists (women and men), all of whom shared intimate and compelling stories with me about how men—despite their best intentions—inadvertently created tensions and problems within the movement. From dominating meetings, to asking women to get coffee and take meeting notes (even when women occupied more senior-level positions), to claiming to be experts despite limited experience, to sexually objectifying women, to the elevated status and accolades men sometimes enjoy within the movement (among other things), there are some troubling dynamics that men bring into anti-violence work that parallel the kind of behaviors that reinforce sexism and domestic violence in the first place. This point is often obvious to women, so their frustrations are understandable.
As part of the dominant group, men will bring aspects of the dominant culture into movement spaces. Creating a non-sexist culture, then, will require the work of men (and women) raised in a sexist culture.
Without a doubt, this is an uncomfortable reality that makes for some tense conversation. But it is a conversation that must take place.
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater
The good news is there are a few lines of recourse. One, male allies can be open to examining the unconscious and internalized sexism that they bring to activist spaces (and many of them are). Two, activists can meet well-intentioned men where they are, instead of turning them away because they talked too much at a conference session. Three, there is an ever-growing collection of resources designed to address men’s accountability, from task forces to toolkits, to webinars and conferences. Four, all activists can work towards building gender equality outside the movement by first working to build it inside the movement.
Social change isn’t a zero sum game. We can advocate for men’s growing involvement but that doesn’t mean that we can’t also comment on how they are involved and to what end. Supporting men’s involvement doesn’t mean we stop being critical of how unequal social arrangements outside the movement rear their head inside of it. Male allies will do their best work for the movement when they understand this.
As we reflect on the past, we can see how far we have come in transforming communities and relationships. As we look towards the future, it’s important that we take stock of where we are going and how we are getting there.
Author Bio: Kris Macomber, PhD, is a sociologist who specializes in gender-based violence, childhood victimization, gender in the media, applied and public sociology, and community-based research. Kris earned her PhD from North Carolina State University, where her dissertation research examined men’s growing involvement in the anti-violence against women movement. Kris’s publications span a variety of academic and applied outlets, such as: The Sociology of Katrina: Perspectives on a Modern Catastrophe, Feminist Teacher, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Teaching Sociology. She is a passionate anti-violence activist and educator who loves teaching students about sociology and social justice issues. She is currently an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Sociology at Meredith College, in Raleigh, NC.
Kris gives talks and presentations on the following topics: “Men As Allies: Mobilizing Men to End Violence Against Women,” “Male Privilege in Violence Prevention Work,” “Practitioner-Researcher Collaborations,” “Gender in the Media,” “Gender Inequality,” and “What is ‘Rape Culture?’
Kris's web-site can be found here: http://krismacomber.com/. You can also visit Kris's Everyday Sociology Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Everyday-Sociology/245523538906269?ref=hl#, as well as find her on Twitter at @KrisMacomberSoc.