The Role of Men in Ending Violence Against Women
Domestic violence is a topic that generally provokes strong feelings from people. It knows no class, ethnic, racial or gender differences. Although there is a general assumption that most victims of acts of domestic violence are female and most perpetrators are male, it is important to acknowledge that women can also be the aggressors and the men the aggrieved parties. However, the issue tends to disproportionately affect women. According to Statistics Canada (2018), in 2016 26% of all reported violent crimes were the result of family violence. Almost 67% of family violence victims are women and girls with this group constituting 79% of police reported IPV.
Women are four times more likely to be the victim of intimate partner homicide than their male counterparts. Women are also three times more likely to experience more extreme and serious spousal violence than men are despite the fact that men also reported spousal abuse in close to the same numbers. In Jamaica, it is noted that one in four women have reported physical violence by a male partner. In Trinidad, it is slightly higher at one in three.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the escalation in violence, both in terms of the numbers of cases reported and the severity of the battering, became more pronounced. It became such an issue that the CBC reported on it as a "domestic violence crisis". As a former Family Counsellor in a non-profit agency whose job was to work with couples who wanted to reconcile after an incident of violence, this phenomenon caused me very deep distress. Not only was there an increase in the numbers of cases but, there was an escalation in the types of violence to far more serious assaults like strangulation. I wanted to understand what I was seeing and so, I had to go back to prior learning to be able to make sense of the cases I was assigned.
When I was studying to become a therapist, I was introduced to an article This is a Man's Problem: Strategies for Working With South Asian Male Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence which helped to unpack the role that men have in stopping their peers' battering of their female partners. In the article, the intersection among ethnicity, race, immigration status, culture and gender become an important social location through which to examine the issue of domestic violence. Although intimate partner violence is not restricted to any one racial or ethnic group, the article focused specifically on one group within the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada.
The first thing that stood out for me when I encountered this article is the fact that within the South Asian community in British Columbia, there is a problem with domestic violence against wives based on the disorienting situation in which South Asian men find themselves upon leaving their societies of origin. This is captured in the quote, “most of the men, having learned cultural male privilege, struggle with gender role expectations that may be far beyond their ability to meet now that they are in Canada.” The fact that challenges to privilege are inherently met with resistance is not strange as it is a common response for those in positions of power, (especially power that was not earned), to defend their positions in a status quo which exalts them. It is also not strange that males act out their frustrations in acts of aggression towards women as there is in Western societies, or societies which suffered colonization, the tendency to turn the female body into a site of struggle when men feel oppressed. The fact that there is a more egalitarian means of functioning between the sexes in Canada would understandably be a massive shock to a man from a staunchly patriarchal culture and therefore, perpetrators of domestic violence in the South Asian community are responding in a way that is not seen in the repugnant terms of the Canadian lens.
It is also important to note that these men report not intending to batter their wives but simply lack control over their strong emotions. In many ways, this comes back to the idea that patriarchy is limiting not just to women but to men as well. It is reasonable to assume that these men have never been taught how to handle challenges to their perceptions of masculinity and how to handle frustration in a way that is not destructive. This is the result of discouraging boys from experiencing and processing their emotions. The role of parents is to help children understand, process and regulate their emotions but this actually happens only if they are female children.
The issues over which the men surveyed were distressed can be considered universally stressful. The acculturation process, immigration status, underemployment etc. are all very difficult situations for anyone to face as single issues let alone in combination. However, the problem these men face is the lack of skill in managing frustration as they come from a culture in which their status as male had currency. This point ties to the second key learning I gleaned from the article captured by the quote “They [the frontline workers] talked about their work over the years including what they had learned about the influences of immigration experiences, family structure, community expectations and alcohol.” It is interesting to note that given this intersectionality, these men fall into a marginalized group within a marginalized group given their ethnic status and the fact that they fall into a group of males who are spurned by society.
This unfortunate reality has a ripple effect throughout the entire community since there is no societal support or macro interventions into this problem given its marginalized status. This group has not been researched in an empowering manner and is even further pushed to the fringes by the pathologising lens of mainstream research which tends to be white, hegemonic and dismissive. The article stated “The gap in this area has meant that, in terms of culturally appropriate services, South Asian men have been denied the opportunities presented to their white counterparts, and South Asian women and families have not benefitted from any of the advantages that may subsequently ensue from attempts to change male attitudes and behaviours.” Ultimately, this means that the entire community has been failed by the wider society of their adopted country which bills itself as a land of tolerance, equality and opportunity. Although these beliefs are central to the Canadian way of life, they only really seem to apply if one is a white, heterosexual male. This is borne out by the discussion in the study which looked at the fact that white perpetrators of domestic violence are far more likely to have resources available to them to stop the violence and become more capable of coping with their strong emotions.
As an immigrant myself, there are many aspects of the difficult acculturation process to which I can personally relate. However, the decision to aggress against one’s partner is something that is difficult for me to appreciate based on my own experiences in life as someone who fled an abusive marriage after a ten-year relationship with my partner.
My social location regarding this issue is from an empowered position which helped me to make and sustain the decision to leave the relationship. I was in the position where my existence did not depend on my relationship and I was in my own country where I did not have to experience the further disorientation of forging a new life in an unfamiliar place. In many respects, I was very fortunate as many women in that position are dependent financially on their abusers and, in the case of immigrant women, dependent on their abusers to maintain their legal right to stay in the country.
What challenged me at the time I encountered it was the idea that the perpetrators of abuse in the context of the study did not set out to batter their spouses. That to me was mind blowing as I had always held the view that the perpetrators of such acts are seeking to dominate their spouses by any means necessary. I had never thought about the possibility that he lacked the skills required to handle relationship conflict productively and that his peer group had no good advice to give him about how to be in a relationship. The idea that men who batter are remorseful and under-equipped to do any differently never crossed my mind. However, when I worked with this population, I heard this time and time again from men from all walks of life and a variety of backgrounds, (Canadian and immigrant) and racial group.
The fact that other men play a role in supporting each other to develop coping skills appropriate to solving rather than exacerbating relationship issues has been a long-standing view of mine. It has always been my belief that men can hold other men accountable in ways that women simply cannot. Women can support and hold women accountable in ways that men cannot and therefore, the fact that women support each other to prevent or ameliorate the pain and suffering of an incident of abuse is not surprising. It appears that I am not alone in the view that men need to speak up when they are aware of the unacceptable behaviour of other men. Terry Crews made this point in 2018 when he spoke about being groped by a powerful man. Many others in different spaces have echoed this sentiment. Perhaps it is time to listen to them.
Holding each other accountable is not as hard as one would think either. In simple terms, it means not encouraging your friends to make sexist jokes or to brag about "conquests" as both of these behaviours are demeaning to women and reinforce the idea that it is acceptable to reduce an entire woman to body parts. It means telling entertainers that their misogynistic lyrics will not be supported. Assume that when you do not do this, you are condoning this abhorrent behaviour and you are sending the message to your female relatives and friends that they are not safe with you and that you are a willing participant in the rape culture that continues to prevail even in 2021. In meetings, call out your male co-workers for "mansplaining" and interrupting their non-male co-workers. It means intervening when you think your friend is abusing his intimate partner rather than sitting idly by doing nothing. I think of the numerous people who witnessed my ex-husband's aggression towards me and chose to turn a blind eye in favour of their friendship with him rather than call him out to protect another person and, I often wonder why they made this choice.
It also means teaching your sons that there is no "woman's work" and making sure that he sees you treating your partner as an equal rather than expecting her to slave behind you. When your sons grow up, they will expect an egalitarian relationship where power is shared rather than anticipating subservience and the need to "discipline" a grown woman. Most of the men I worked with who have resorted to violence in their relationships are self-aware enough to recognise that their behaviour is by no means "normal" and they often do not want to pass on that way of relating to their children. What most of them lack is an appropriate model of "positive masculinity".
If you as a self-aware man have done your own mental and emotional work, part of your duty to society is to help your brothers to also evolve past the toxic masculinity in which they were raised. You occupy a very special and important place as a man who sees beyond patriarchy while maintaining credibility among your peers. Instead of asking women what you can do to support us and leaving it at that, turn your attention to where it can do the most good. This means committing to educating your friends and relatives about how wrong and damaging it is to batter your partner. Remember that male privilege and entitlement are major driving forces behind this kind of abhorrent but common behaviour. Male privilege can only be dismantled by men so please do your part to promote equality for all. The life you save may be that of someone dear to you.