The famous example often used to illustrate this is the story of a defendant in court being asked to respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following question: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” The question is loaded because whether the respondent answers ‘yes’ or ‘no’, he will end up admitting that he has beaten her at some time in the past (even if he has never been violent).
Last Friday 25th November, Brighton & Hove Council gave its backing The White Ribbon Campaign to End All Male Violence Against Women asking male residents to sign a pledge declaring that we will “never commit violence against women”.
It was an honour for me to be asked to be a local voice alongside 3 national speakers from Respect, AVA and the End Violence Against Women Campaign. And I can’t remember the last time I was so anxious about a speaking engagement, particularly as I had no intention to accept the loaded request to pledge “never to commit violence against women”.
(And for balance I should also add that equally, I wouldn’t pledge “never to commit violence against men” even though 6 out of 10 victims of violent crime in the city are men).
The event was timed to coincide with International Day For The Elimination Of Violence Against Women and like every other right-minded human being I am 100% in favour of the elimination of violence towards women.
And despite my reservations, I chose to take part in the debate because I’m against violence and abuse, irrespective of the gender of the perpetrator or the gender of victim. And whilst I can see huge value in specializing and focusing on particular kinds of violence – gang violence, domestic violence, men raping men, mothers abusing their children, women abusing their partners, men being violent to women, domestic abuse in same sex relationships and all other forms of violence you can imagine – my question is how do we do this in a way that we make sure we address all abuse fairly and equally irrespective of gender?
As The Men’s Network itself seeks to improve public services for one gender – the question of how we do that without compromising the services that people of all genders and gender identities receive, is a vital question for us to explore if we are to develop our expertise at providing services for men and boys in a way that ultimately serves the whole community.
So for example, we are currently working with a local council/NHS service that reaches twice as many women as men, and our intention is to see if we can increase the number of men accessing this service without reducing the service that women receive (and maybe even helping to improve the service to women in the process).
And when I look at the campaign to end men’s violence against women, I don’t see a parallel commitment to tackle women’s violence against men and boys, men’s violence against men and boys, and women’s violence against women and girls.
“I believe that we should be eliminating violence against everyone and that includes men and children, but I am puzzled as to why this enormous empire of women with the huge self important titles manage to avoid any discussion of the effects of violence upon the family, fathers and children. To concentrate only on women as victims is to deny the fact that children are also abused by their mothers. We can no longer afford to cover up the huge scandal that has existed for the last forty years where only men have been held up as perpetrators of all violence.”
I too have been puzzled by this oversight – particularly when we’ve known for years that the majority of victims of violence are male and that significant numbers of women commit violence and abuse against children, abuse people in their care, perpetrate domestic violence and commit violent crime.
And in a city where the council estimates that 1 in 6 residents are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, it seems illogical to launch a campaign to end violence against women and then only focus on the heterosexual community and men as perpetrators – particularly when the British Crime Survey suggests that women in same sex relationships are nearly 3 times more likely to experience domestic abuse and therefore at greater risk.
And none of this is to deny that some men perpetrate violence and that some women are the victims of that violence.
And nor is this an argument to say we shouldn’t have specific campaigns targeting violence against women – just like we want to see campaigns targeting men’s health, boys’ literacy, male suicide – it’s just we have a responsibility to make sure that when we focus on the needs of specific individuals or communities in our city, we do so in way the serves our collective wellbeing.
So in responding to the debate’s central point, which was to consider how we can engage men in campaigns against violence against women, I hoped to deepen my understanding of how we can balance serving the needs of different communities in a way that serves the whole community.
And in this process three key themes emerged – Diversity, Equality and Leadership.
It’s always useful to understand who and what drives public and social agendas like the campaign to end violence against women. The campaign is a global, pro-feminist campaign that positions itself as a gender equality initiative. It is supported by a broad range of partners in the UK including the Government Equalities Office, The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (ECHR), an impressive mix of national and local charities and public sector bodies at a local level.
What I noticed when I began to consider this alliance was just how lacking in diversity it is in two key ways: firstly it is dominated by women and secondly it is dominated by a singular philosophy – feminism.
And it struck me instantly that the whole gender equality sector from the EHRC to people teaching and enrolled in gender studies courses, to equality officers all over the land, to the many excellent charities working with women is not diverse but dominated by women – and more importantly by a feminist, women’s rights perspective of gender equality. Which is why the Government Equalities Office’s opening remark on its website is “we lead on issues relating to women” and not “we lead on issues relating to gender equality” or “we lead on issues relating to women and men”.
And my first point is that if we are serious about ending violence against women then we need to work with as diverse a range of people as possible irrespective of their gender or philosophical outlook. And if people – and particularly men – want to approach the issue from a non-feminist viewpoint, then why not encourage and support that? (And important to note here that non-feminist isn’t the same as anti-feminist – it just means that it is not feminist – in the same way you can non-Christian – eg Buddhist – without being anti-Christian. And as a survey to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day found 80% of young women aren’t feminist – then it would seem to make sense to engage more non-feminist men AND women in the sector if it is to be representative of the communities it serves).
The second connected issue that struck me was that the evidence shows that in countries where there is more gender equality, there is less violence against women and the countries that are the most gender equal are the countries that have taken some men’s equality issues – such as equal parenting rights – much more seriously than we have in the UK.
I highlighted the Fatherhood Institute’s Family Fairness Index which rated the UK in the bottom four of 21 industrialized nations when it comes to fairness and equality between mums and dads.
As the Government Equalities Office’s focus is on leading on issues relating to women (but not men), we still have a long way to go to make the seemingly obvious case that gender equality can only be achieved by tackling the inequality that men experience as well as the inequality that women experience – and it is vital that we as a sector working with men and boys take on the challenge of pushing men’s equality issues up the agenda if we are ever to make serious strides forward in tackling the gender equality issues that individual groups face (boys struggling at school, men at risk of suicide, women experiencing domestic abuse, female rape victims etc) – in a way that serves us all – every man, every woman, every boy and every girl.
Which brings me to my final point on leadership. I have met many men’s rights and women’s rights campaigners over the years – and many are great advocates and leaders for their specific area of interest. What I haven’t met is many people working in gender equality with a sophisticated understanding of what it takes to address the inequalities that both men and women face.
And the future I am committed to is a future where our city is a world leader in helping people to reach their full potential irrespective of their gender or gender identity by becoming exquisitely sophisticated and effective at tackling the different inequalities that all residents face – irrespective of gender.
And as I stared out into an audience of largely female, pro-feminist faces on Friday evening there were some reassuring signs that this future is possible for our city. From the female survivor of male abuse who spoke powerfully of the need to reconcile men and women, to the charity worker who acknowledged that her women and families service had excluded men and that she was committed to building a father inclusive service in future, to the woman who in one short question touched on the missing communities in the violence against women campaign by highlighting the need to address the LGBT dynamic of violence against women and more broadly the need to address issues that she sees men face, from her own experience of working with fathers in the black community.
I am proud to live in a city where I have the privilege of meeting so many people committed to making a difference and thankful to the Survivors Network for inviting me to speak.
The fact that The Men’s Network was born in Brighton & Hove is testimony to the pioneering nature of our city and the fact that our Community and Voluntary Sector Forum now has an elected representative for men and boys demonstrates that it is possible for both women’s and men’s issues to be equally represented in any drive for gender equality – and boy (or girl if you prefer) have we got a long way to go before we get there!
In the meantime, whilst I won’t be pledging never to commit violence against women or men I do commit to take actions that can help our city become much more effective at tackling all violence in our city irrespective of the gender of the perpetrator or victim.
Glen Poole, Strategic Director, The Men’s Network