Dr Michael Flood looks at boys’ and men’s violence against women and how it can be prevented.
Last month in Sydney, Simon Gittany was sentenced to a minimum of 18 year’s jail for killing his girlfriend by throwing her from a high-rise balcony. In January, Sydney teenager Daniel Christie died as the result of a ‘king-hit’ assault on New Year’s Eve. In 2012, Adrian Bayley raped and murdered ABC Melbourne employee Jill Meagher while she was on her way home from a night out.
Media headlines are dominated by violence – young men’s violence against other men outside pubs and in the street, and men’s physical and sexual assaults of women. Most boys and men do not use violence. But a minority do.
What shapes this violence, and how can we prevent it? Let’s focus on boys’ and men’s violence against girls and women, especially sexual assault, although the problem of boys’ and men’s violence against other boys and men is just as serious.
Sexual violence is a serious social problem in Australia. According to a recent national survey, about one in six women in Australia – just under 1.5 million – has experienced sexual assault. In the past year alone, 87,800 women experienced sexual assault. Younger women are at greater risk. These are the victims, but what about perpetrators? Various studies show anywhere from 15 to 25 per cent of males have forced or pressured a girl or woman into sex or tried to do so.
How can we stop our sons from becoming one of these men? Put a thousand 16-year-old guys in a room and we can predict which ones are more likely to commit acts of sexual violence. The causes of men’s sexual violence against women are complex, but research shows consistent factors linked to this. Again, most boys and men do not use violence – most treat the women and girls in their lives with respect and care. But among the boys and men who do assault women, there are some consistent risk factors.
Boys and young men are more likely to force or pressure a girl into sex if they have sexist and sexually hostile attitudes – they see girls as sexual objects, as less important or less valuable than males, and they feel entitled to see how far they can push things. The 2001 Australian National Crime Prevention Survey of young people aged 12 to 20 found about one in seven guys agreed that, “it’s okay for a boy to make a girl have sex with him if she has flirted with him or led him on.”
Power inequalities in relationships matter too. Young men are more likely to sexually assault a young woman if they’re in a relationship where they dominate her and are exerting power over her in other ways: putting her down, being controlling and jealous, and putting their own needs first.
To know something about each of those thousand guys in a room, it’s also useful to know something about their mates. Research in sport, male residential colleges on campus, and the military tells us men are more likely to commit rape if they have male friends who see rape and violence as okay. Some men have peers who also accept and perpetrate violence against women.
The contexts in which boys and men live make a difference. Males are more likely to commit rape and other sexual violence if they live or work in contexts that are male-dominated and gender-segregated and with strong male bonding, high alcohol consumption, use of pornography, and sexist norms. That’s why rates of violence against women are higher on some campuses and in some institutions than others.
Some of the media consumed by boys and men is implicated in violence. TV, movies, music and computer games often portray women as sexual objects only, put men’s voices and lives at centre stage, and condone or even celebrate violence as entertaining and legitimate. Pornography use is increasingly common among young men, and here callous and hostile images of women are routine. In a wide range of media, boys learn that real men are tough, dominant, and aggressive.
Finally, the character of our communities is influential. Rates of men’s violence against women are higher in communities emphasising traditional gender codes, male dominance in families, and male honour. They are higher too in societies with high levels of other forms of violence, high rates of poverty and disadvantage, or weak laws and policies on violence against women.
However, sexual violence can be reduced and prevented. Education programs among children and young people, especially if they are substantial and well designed, can have a positive impact on attitudes and behaviours. They can reduce males’ and females’ support for rape myths and lower actual rates of perpetration and victimisation. For example, a six-lesson program for 13 to 16-year-olds developed by the Victorian Centre Against Sexual Assault has been shown to have a positive impact on young people’s knowledge, awareness of and ability to discuss issues related to sexual assault.
Communication and social-marketing campaigns can also change attitudes and behaviours, again if done well. For example, a media campaign by Men Can Stop Rape built around the slogan ‘My strength is not for hurting’ has shown success in encouraging norms of sexual consent among young men.
Institutions and workplaces can help build a respectful, gender-equal culture. Law and policy change is necessary too, including a robust commitment to address gender inequalities, which underpin violence against women. The White Ribbon Foundation, a national violence-prevention organisation, is making a leading contribution to the work in Australia. One of its most important features is a focus on men and boys. The international White Ribbon campaign rests on the fundamental belief that men and boys can and do play positive roles in ending violence against women. As I outline in the White Ribbon report Men Speak Up (2011), there are many steps men can take in their everyday lives to help rid our communities of sexual assault and domestic violence. Some involve how we parent boys.
Part 2, Raising Non-Violent Boys.
Dr Michael Flood is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Wollongong. For more information visit White Ribbon - Australia's campaign to stop violence against women.