Earlier this year a TEDxWomen talk I delivered entitled “Violence and Silence” went viral. At this writing, the number of views it’s received is approaching 1.4 million. The subject of the talk is violence against women as a men’s issue. I argued that we need a paradigm shift in our approach to the issues of sexual and domestic violence; instead of seeing them as “women’s issues” that “good men” ought to help out with, we should see them as men’s issues, as most of the violence and abuse is done by men.
In addition, the same cultural system that produces men who abuse women also produces men who abuse other men. This includes all of the boys who are traumatized by what abusive adult men do to their mothers, and frequently them and their siblings as well.
In my talk I also discussed the “bystander” approach to gender violence prevention. I said that non-abusive men from all ethnic and racial backgrounds have a responsibility to challenge the sexist beliefs and interrupt the abusive behaviors of our family members, friends, teammates, classmates, and co-workers – not just intervene in the middle of a violent incident, but rather make it clear to our fellow men that sexist attitudes and behaviors — across a wide continuum from sexist jokes to acts of physical and sexual aggression — are uncool and unwelcome in male peer culture.
The TED talk has travelled across the world, and I’ve received mostly positive feedback and support from both women and men, many of whom have expressed how much they appreciated hearing a man argue passionately that men need to take on these issues, and stand with women in solidarity rather than against them in some ill-conceived “battle between the sexes.”
But some men are not impressed. In addition to all of the supportive email, Facebook and other online commentary I have received, there has been a notable response from so-called “men’s rights” activists (MRAs) and their compatriots. In YouTube comments sections, chat rooms and other online forums, they angrily disagree with the very premise of my talk, arguing instead that violence is not a gender issue, and that women abuse men as often as men abuse women.
“Denying the worldwide problem of men’s violence against women, or suggesting that women are just as culpable, is to me in the same realm of dangerous fantasy as denying the Holocaust or other obvious historical and contemporary realities.”
From the moment I learned about the “men’s rights” movement a couple of decades ago, I‘ve had to decide how much energy I gave to rebutting their claims, some of which are so outrageous that I’m offended at the very thought of having to rebut them.
Denying the worldwide problem of men’s violence against women, or suggesting that women are just as culpable, is to me in the same realm of dangerous fantasy as denying the Holocaust or other obvious historical and contemporary realities.
But there is something about how these men personalized their online attacks against me that I think is worthy of examination. To be fair, some have challenged my facts or the merits of my argument, and offered statistics and analyses to bolster their position. I have no problem with this; robust debate about important issues is an unalloyed good. But much of what I’ve seen is aggressive and nasty. Many of these men don’t just disagree with what I’m trying to do. They want to belittle, delegitimize me, and take me down.
Of course that is what some men have been trying to do to women for decades, and centuries. Whenever women stand up for themselves or other women, they run the risk of being attacked as male-bashing “feminazis” by men who are threatened by gender equality in principle and strong women in particular.
When men stand with women in pursuit of gender justice, we get some of that vitriol as well. And just as women are attacked as “unfeminine” by sexist men if they demand to be treated with respect and dignity, men who do so often face ridicule and criticism that centers on our lack of manhood. So, for example, since my TED talk I have been frequently denounced as a “mangina,” a “wuss,” a “milquetoast” and a “beta.” In other words, I’m not a “real man,” so why listen to what I have to say about men anyway?
I sometimes find myself tempted to respond to these men’s comments by citing my credentials in traditional male culture, especially my youthful accomplishments in football, when I was at the center of my hometown’s jockocracy. But I always catch myself; I don’t want to get into silly and demeaning debates about who’s a “real man.”
At the same time, I realize that the gendered putdowns that I receive from anti-feminist adult men are similar to the ones that boys (and girls) who don’t conform to gender norms receive every day in school, on playgrounds, in peer cultures. You’re a sissy. You throw like a girl. You’re soft. You’re gay. This kind of name-calling plays a powerful role in keeping boys and young men in the “box” of traditional manhood, because any deviation from the script brings with it not only social disapproval but in too many cases makes young guys vulnerable to both emotional and physical bullying.
I am a middle-aged man and I can handle the abuse that comes my way when I speak out against men’s violence against women and children. But it’s important to remember that young men and boys who love and respect women and girls and support their full equality with men are often faced with intense pressure from their peers – and sometimes adult men – to be “one of the guys,” and at the very least remain silent when other men are acting out in sexist ways.
“…Adult men need to lift our voices and provide powerful models of anti-sexist manhood to young men.”
That is why adult men need to lift our voices and provide powerful models of anti-sexist manhood to young men. We need to show them that men who believe in the basic concepts of gender equality and justice are strong enough to persist in the face of name-calling and any other tactic that might be deployed by the sexist agents of a tired and fading patriarchal order.