by Jessica Wild, PhD candidate, School of Sociology & Social Policy
The recent social media campaign #metoo transpired following numerous public disclosures of sexual violence, initially by women in show business. This prompted a renewed focus on the widespread perpetration of (sexual) violence against women across all facets of society. Arguably, the campaign gained such significant traction because of the high profiles of the women who spoke out, however its reach has now facilitated a broader public articulation of narratives of the sexism and misogyny women experience daily. For many victim-survivors, it is often only when their experiences are reflected in public discourse that they identify and name their own experience. This has functioned in some ways to galvanise victim-survivors and collectivise their experiences, while sending out a message that they are not alone, pointing to a broader social problem, rather than an individual phenomenon.
The #metoo campaign has also simultaneously sparked a counter discourse from some men, prompting them to speak out and publicly take a stand against violence against women through an acknowledgement of their complicity in this issue. In this, they have highlighted that (men’s) silence indeed equates to collusion when it comes to violence against women. Campaigns such as these therefore plausibly challenge all men’s silence and their collective complicity in a problem which is rooted in social norms and a patriarchal system from which the majority of men routinely benefit. However, at a time when one of the most powerful men in the world has had his own sexually abusive behaviour exposed, and yet remains in office, the extent to which this deeply rooted problem can be challenged through campaigns such as this, is less discernible. It also becomes glaringly obvious that the lived experiences of some women and girls often cannot compete with the privilege and power of some men. Indeed, are we to applaud the men that come out and acknowledge their collusion in this issue, not only via their silence but also often through subtle engagement with violence supportive norms and behaviours that are considered common place and an aspect of mere ‘banter’?
The most recent UK domestic abuse statistics indicate that 8.2% of women and 4.0 % of men reported any form of domestic abuse in the year ending March 2015. This is equivalent to 1.3 million female victim-survivors, and 600 000 male victim-survivors (ONS, 2016), with overall statistics indicating that on average one in four women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime, and two women killed every week by a current or former partner (Women’s Aid, 2016). Sexual violence is just one form of a range of abuses women and girls experience daily, indicative of the widespread normalisation of violence against women. Despite this, the public narrative and the stories that we tell about women’s experiences of abuse typically remain stubbornly fixed on victims rather than perpetrators, and there has been limited recognition until more recently, that this is an issue which is not the sole prerogative of women to address. The UK government’s violence against women and girls strategy (2016-2020) outlines an approach which coheres with this assertion, operating on the basic notion that violence against women is “everybody’s business”, with a strategic focus on the engagement of “men, boys and bystanders” to challenge violence against women and “further social change”(Home Office, 2016, p. 52). Policies implemented under welfare reform are however severely at odds with the Government’s strategy, because while it seemingly recognises the scale of the problem, it has not allocated funds or resources sufficient for the intervention and prevention work required to address this issue in the longer term (Towers and Walby, 2012). This makes for treacherous terrain when seeking to explore new prevention approaches not least because service providers as well as victim-survivors themselves, are often faced with severe funding and provision uncertainty (Robson, 2016).
Given the persistent “everydayness” (Kelly and Westmarland, 2016) and pervasive nature of this issue, we need to begin reworking the normative discourses that inform approaches to prevention, which should strive to go beyond social media campaigns. This entails resituating the attribution of responsibility and accountability within the public story of sexual and domestic abuse. In practice, this equates to a shifting of responsibility from women and those that experience violence and abuse, to all actors in society, including (non-perpetrating) men. Dismantling the dominant social order which precipitates this violence entails in part, engaging men as social justice ‘allies’, tasked with making it more socially acceptable to resist sexism and misogyny, and call out those who engage with harmful social norms. My research explores these ideas of coalition or alliance building between women and men to prevent domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women. In this, I examine the participation of men in prevention efforts as part of the wider (feminist) social justice movement to address this issue. This is predicated on the notion that until those that are powerful take an active role in seeking to end discrimination, discrimination and oppression will persist (Casey, 2010). Failure to recognise the role of men in this context can also be construed as the product of a persistent prejudice within a patriarchal system that systematically benefits those in power, and which is indicative of a reluctance to dismantle the dominant social order.
The task of including men as social justice allies in this type of work is not however without significant challenges and risks, which include concerns regarding the co-optation of the women’s anti-violence movement and the obfuscation of women’s voices, particularly when set against the backdrop of the current socio-political climate of austerity. The political ideology that first underpinned early feminist anti-violence work is also increasingly challenged by the ever more popular discourse of post-feminism. While the definitional boundaries of the term are often quite blurry or overly generalised, in its most common form, post-feminism draws upon the tenets of individual choice, entitlement and (female) empowerment (Gill and Scharff, 2011). Crucially, it espouses the notion that early feminist battles have now been fought and won. In this, post-feminism is positioned as a rejection of the second-wave’s so-called victim-centred feminism and instead offers up women’s (perceived) individual choices and self-determination as an alternative to more radical feminist or political activism (Butler, 2013; Walby, 2011). Informed by neoliberal ideals regarding women’s social positioning and sexuality, postfeminist thought according to this reading, is potentially very damaging for work aimed at addressing men’s violence towards women because it risks positioning women as responsible for their own victimisation, and shifts focus away from the structural conditions and systems of power that precipitate this social problem. It also enables domestic abuse and violence against women to be reconstituted as the problem of individual women and aberrant men (Stanko, 1990).
When situated within this framework, and current socio-political climate, a shift in focus from structural conditions and systems of power, to the individual agency of citizens, functions as Walby (2011) argues, to resituate the gaze onto those that are relatively powerless. This in turn, can lead to victim blaming, while those in power escape public scrutiny. It also risks a potential regression to the early stages of the anti-violence against women movement of the 1980s, which fervently fought to move the issue of domestic abuse out of the private domain of the home, and into the public realm (Dobash and Dobash, 1992). Meaningful and sustainable responses to domestic and sexual abuse require that gender inequality is addressed in a way that acknowledges the role that men play in this, as well as a critical examination of the structural conditions that enable it. This requires the unified strength of collective feminist activism and political action. The notion that feminism has now achieved everything it set out to achieve, or that the most important battles have been won, is incredibly damaging for work to address deep rooted gendered social problems such as domestic abuse. And, in the shadow of campaigns such as #metoo, and current domestic abuse statistics, it is hard to believe that indeed the most important battles have been won.
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Casey, E. 2010. Strategies for Engaging Men as Anti-Violence Allies: Implications for Ally Movements. Advances in Social Work 11(2), pp.267-282.
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Kelly, L. and Westmarland, N. 2016. Naming and defining ‘domestic violence’: Lessons from research with violent men. Feminist Review. 112(1), pp.113-127.
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