OPINION: Violence, in all its forms, is abhorrent, however, men alone cannot stop violence against women and men alone cannot stop what they cannot see. If it were that simple, we would not be in this position as a nation.

Published in Stuff

Men who perpetrate violence against women are not the problem. Violence is the outcome of the problem, and the problem is shame. Men are ashamed, confused, and they are stuck.

Violence is a systemic problem, and it is one that requires both men and women to do things differently to create social and cultural change. Asking men to solve the problem of violence is unhelpful, unfair, and it disempowers women. It is not just men who need to change their behaviour, it is also women.

Asking the men of New Zealand to ‘respect all women’ is a pointless appeal. Instead, ask the men of New Zealand to respect themselves because it is only when we respect ourselves that we can respect others.

Traditional patriarchy, or toxic masculinity, hurts everyone – including men. On one hand, New Zealand men are told to be staunch and stoic, not to talk about their feelings, needs, or experiences, and not to cry – especially not in public. They are asked to ‘man up’ and stand up. These men are allowed two experiences; pride and pursuit, and two emotions; anger and lust.

On the other hand, they are expected to be gentle, loving, and protective fathers, partners, and family members. They are expected to talk about their feelings. Be strong! Be sensitive! Talk! Don’t talk! Don’t touch me! Men don’t know whether they’re coming or going, and they’re not sure whether other people want them to come or go either.

The problem isn’t men’s violence against women, the problem is a society that finds the notion of men having feelings, needs, and their own experiences, simply irrelevant, inconvenient, and pathetic. Many men who feel harmful feelings and thoughts towards women harm themselves long before they ever harm a woman. Men are taught and socialised to believe that feminine characteristics (i.e. being vulnerable, talking about feelings) – idealised in principle but denied in fact – are for females and wimps.

Men who are violent towards women tend to hate themselves. They hate that they feel vulnerable, and most of all, they hate feeling ashamed. Men’s feelings of vulnerability and shame, in conjunction with feelings of strength and protection, when not adequately integrated (i.e. the idea that one can be both vulnerable and strong at the same time) are a lethal combination.

Society ignores and shuts down men’s feelings and needs. When a person or a people is shut down, the result is shame. Moreover, it’s women and men who make men feel ashamed. A man who is ashamed is at risk of violence to himself or violence towards others.

The tragic reality is, self-medicating on violence buffers against feelings of shame, inferiority, and depression. If shame is the pain, then grandiosity is the quick fix. With all the vitriol against men and the responsibility that men must either stop hurting women or stop other men hurting women, no-one pauses to consider it is primarily women who raise and socialise men who hurt women.

Remember, we don’t live in a society where men are predominantly the primary caregivers of the family; it is women who have been – and are – raising boys. Therefore, the problem is equally women and men’s responsibility to address the needs and experiences of being a boy or a man in our society.

Societal encouragement of individual empowerment has been an abysmal failure and does not create the social outcomes we so desperately need. Women and men do not need to become individually empowered; we need to become relationally empowered. To be relational by definition requires people to empathise with and listen to one another.

We need to make it safe for men to have needs and experiences, in every single place and space. Men’s needs do not sit in mental health services, prisons, or human services, they sit right at the heart of where men are – in their family, in the community, and the workforce.

It’s important to support men to organise peer groups in schools, in all workplaces, peer groups in the community, in sports groups, in faith communities, everywhere. We should support men to feel safe and to mobilise these networks where they can go and talk about challenging experiences with other men and not feel like a “pussy”, “wimp”, or “less of a man”.

Men need to feel safe talking about challenging experiences such as the difficulties of being a new dad, how hard it is to watch a family member go through cancer treatment, or how devastating it is when you lose a child. As well as the demands of working long hours, how they just want to be a good dad, how much they value friendships, and how they want to fall in love.

Supported men who can be vulnerable and not told they’re less of a man for doing so, are empowered men who can respect themselves.

Men who respect themselves respect women.

Serafin Dillon is a Couples and Family Therapist for Walk the Talk in Nelson.

By Serafin Dillon
Published in Stuff
January 9, 2019