Internationally recognised researcher Dr Michael Flood on men, masculinity and violence prevention.

Domestic and sexual violence against women are in the news. Rosie Batty, the woman whose 11-year-old son was murdered last year by his father at cricket practice, was named as 2015 Australian of the Year. Adrian Bayley’s rape and murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne in 2012 prompted an outpouring of public outrage, with 30,000 people marching in an event in her memory. And there are new headlines each week. I saw in the last few days that women in NSW are being turned away because the refuges are full, another woman was killed by her partner, and a poll found that three-quarters of Australians believe domestic violence is as much or more of a threat than terrorism.

We need to provide support and services for the victims of this violence, and to hold the perpetrators accountable. But we must also work to prevent this violence from occurring in the first place, and this is where my research comes in.

In Australia and around the world, there is an increasing emphasis on the need to engage men in violence prevention. Many advocates see this as one key part of the solution to violence against women. There are education programs for boys in schools, interventions among men in elite male sports and workplaces, social marketing campaigns trying to change male attitudes, and a whole host of other strategies. But we don’t know much about what works or not and about the best ways forward. So, in this four-year project, based on an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship, I will evaluate existing efforts to involve men and boys in prevention and identify the approaches and strategies which will be most effective in this field.

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This study represents the first major academic examination of a range of strategies for involving men and boys in primary prevention of violence. It will provide practical guidance for educators, advocates, and policy-makers, and will make distinctive contributions to scholarship on men and gender.

This project addresses ‘violence against women’, and that’s a useful ‘catch-all’ term for domestic violence, sexual assault, and other forms of violence and abuse directed at women. Say the words ‘domestic violence’ and lots of people think of a man hitting his wife in the face and a woman with a black eye. Sure, this is sometimes part of domestic violence. But what defines domestic violence is that it’s a pattern of controlling and coercive behaviours. He is putting his wife or girlfriend down, controlling her movements and isolating her, pressuring her into sex, and threatening her or the people she cares about. He may not be hitting her, and he may not be obviously breaking any laws. Domestic violence is about one person using a whole range of controlling and abusive strategies against their partner.

Likewise, say the term ‘rape’ and many people think of an attack by a stranger, in a dark alley or park, using a weapon, and involving injuries. But the reality of rape is that most women are raped by a man they know: a partner or ex-partner, a family member, a friend or acquaintance.

Most sexual assaults take place in a familiar location, like the victim’s home or her assailant’s. Weapons are rarely used, and the coercion or force used by the perpetrator often is as much psychological as physical.

The national data tells us that about one in six women has experienced sexual assault in their lifetime.

Domestic and sexual violence against women is a widespread social problem in Australia. The national data tells us that about one in six women — just under 1.5 million women — has experienced sexual assault in their lifetime, and 87,800 women did so in the last year. Looking at partner violence, over 130,000 women experienced violence by a current or former partner in the past year. Males too are the victims of violence: significant numbers of boys and young men suffer sexual abuse, overwhelmingly by adult men, and small numbers of men are the victims of domestic violence by female or male partners (and these numbers are dwarfed by the very large numbers of males physically assaulted each week by other males in and around pubs and clubs and elsewhere). While there is no Australian data focused on perpetration, various studies from comparable countries find that anywhere from two to 20 per cent of males have forced or pressured a girl or woman into sex.

The causes of men’s violence against women are well known. Above all, this violence is shaped by gender inequalities — by patterns of inequality between men and women. Whether we look at relationships and marriages, or communities, or entire countries, there are strong links between violence against women and unequal gender roles and sexist gender norms.

So what to do? I’m heartened to report that in Australia, there has been real progress in reducing and preventing men’s violence against women. This has been pioneered by the women’s movements, and taken up by communities, governments, and others. Laws have changed, there are services for victims and survivors (although not enough), and people’s attitudes in Australia have slowly begun to improve, although there is still a long way to go.

The evidence is that domestic violence and sexual violence can be prevented

The evidence is that domestic violence and sexual violence can be prevented. Education programs among children and youth can have a positive impact on their attitudes and behaviours, especially if they are substantial and well-designed. They can reduce males’ and females’ support for rape myths and lower actual rates of perpetration and victimisation. Communication and social marketing campaigns can change attitudes and behaviours, again if done well. Institutions and workplaces can help to build a respectful, gender-equal culture.

Prevention efforts have a greater impact when communities themselves get involved, addressing the local contexts in which violence takes place. Activist networks and movements can empower women and men and shift social inequalities. Law and policy change is necessary too, including a robust commitment to addressing the gender inequalities which underpin violence against women.

My research focuses on one dimension of violence prevention, engaging men. The project includes a series of impact evaluations of interventions engaging men and boys.

I will use these in three ways:

(1) to produce robust assessments of strategies which are central to engaging men and boys in prevention;
(2) to contribute to a wider examination of the factors which shape the effectiveness of prevention campaigns; and
(3) to guide future efforts.

The first case study is of a program which recruits and trains men to be public advocates in their communities for the prevention of violence against women, the White Ribbon Ambassador Program. Men sign up as advocates or ‘ambassadors’ for violence prevention, and this is one particularly visible aspect of men’s roles in prevention in Australia. The second case study focuses on sexual ethics education in the military, in which new recruits learn about consent and respectful relationships. A third focuses on bystander intervention, a strategy in which individuals who are neither the perpetrators nor victims of violence are taught to intervene safely and effectively in violence or the precursors to violence. The final case study examines community mobilisation, focusing on efforts to foster grassroots men’s and mixed-sex advocacy groups for social change.

Domestic and sexual violence are unlikely to disappear any time soon. The social conditions which foster them — gender inequalities, violence-supportive social norms, and other factors — are still alive and well. And the political will to address these problems is uneven at best. Still, efforts to address violence against women show growing momentum, and public attention to the problem is helping. But we will need energetic political advocacy, community leadership, and robust scholarship to make a difference.

Dr Michael Flood gave a fastBREAK talk to the topic ‘I Am Woman’ in March 2014. fastBREAK is an innovative series of rapid-fire interactive talks that sets the stage for five change-makers and entrepreneurs who are pushing the boundaries in their respective fields. fastBREAK speakers are given five minutes each to offer their own perspectives, insights and big ideas that are tied to a monthly theme.

    Dr Michael Flood is an internationally recognised researcher on men, masculinities, and violence prevention.

    He has made a significant contribution to scholarly and community understanding of men’s and boys’ involvements in preventing and reducing violence against women and building gender equality. Dr Flood also is a trainer and community educator with a long involvement in pro-feminist advocacy and education. He has worked with sporting and military organisations, community services, and governments, participated in international expert meetings, and contributed to social change campaigns.

    Dr Flood’s academic publications and further materials are available online.