The Sydney Morning Herald recently posted an article by self declared feminist Clementine Ford, claiming that the root cause of violence against women is men’s adherence to traditional male social roles. It’s an emotionally engaging article, Clementine is a powerful writer and she certainly has passion for her beliefs, but it’s also terribly inaccurate. Clementine claimed that 

“Masculinity is a broad and colourful entity just like femininity, and it should be liberated from oppressive, restrictive ideas about what constitutes a “real man”, and how that is informed by his dominance in relationships with women and children”.

On the surface, there is much of the first part of this statement that I agree with. Masculinity is broad and colourful and should not be restricted to simplistic ideas of what a “real man’ is. The fault lies in the next line, the allegation that these traditional ideas of masculinity are “informed by his dominance in relationships with women and children”.

As a man who was raised within these traditional role models, much of which I rejected as a younger man, the idea that being a “real man” meant dominating those who were weaker than you was simply not there. It wasn’t there for me, and it wasn’t there for any men that I know.

In fact it was quite the opposite. In traditional male social roles it is a “real man’s” responsibility to defend the weak and to protect the vulnerable. Men who failed to do this were considered cowards. Men who perpetrated on those who were weaker than them were treated with contempt.

Indeed, men who were violent towards women and children were considered to to be the lowest of the low, and faced very serious criminal and social repercussions. Even among male prisoners convicted for violent crimes (who I have worked with extensively), violence towards women and children is regarded with disgust.

Such men, if known, are called “Dogs” by other prisoners and are reviled, usually having to be accommodated in special facilities for their own protection. Of course, there is often a gap between their ethics and what they do (buts that’s true of most people) and a higher level of general violence is often accompanied by a higher level of relationship violence.

Anyway, the idea that a culture which expressly and strongly prohibits violence against women and children is actually responsible for it, is clearly illogical. So, as much as I think there are valid criticisms to be made of some aspects of traditional male roles, particularly in regard to their impact on men’s health and well-being, this one doesn’t makes sense, and the research doesn’t support it either.

It is part of a larger theory of DV causation that began about 45 years ago with something called the Duluth model (after the US town it was invented in). This theory suggested that domestic violence was a behaviour used by men for the purposes of power and control and that this came from men holding patriarchal beliefs and attitudes that they are entitled to dominate women. It aligned with the feminist worldview that all human behaviour is ‘socially constructed’ (a topic for another blog) and that men are responsible for the bad stuff, but it didn’t stand up to closer examination for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the research found that women were perpetrating as much violence against their partners, and more violence against children, than men were, so patriarchal attitudes couldn’t really be to blame for that. Then the research found that there was no significant correlation between patriarchal attitudes and family violence, but very strong correlations with a range of other things like poverty, mental illness, substance abuse and stress. Thirdly the research found that less than 1% of perpetrators of domestic violence had a “power and control” motive. Finally the research found that most men didn’t actually endorse these attitudes, including most  men who had been violent towards their partners.

In fact, an Australian survey conducted by the White Ribbon Foundation a few years ago, apparently to gain evidence to support this theory of social approval for male violence towards women, actually disproved it. The survey found that over 96% of Australian men considered violence against women and children to be an unacceptable crime (and most of the remaining 4% either didn’t answer or “weren’t sure”, probably due to a imprecisely worded question). Ironically, they found instead that approximately 25% of young women thought it was acceptable for women to be physically violent towards men.

Theory?- Busted.

There IS very extensive research into the REAL causes of domestic violence and a well developed understanding of it among scientists who have studied this for over 50 years. They almost universally comes to the conclusion that traditional male social roles are not the problem, indeed they may even be preventative of violence.

The real irony is that, even while traditional male roles are being blamed for the small percentage of men who commit domestic violence, these traditional role models of men as protectors and enforcers of the social contract are exactly what organisations like White Ribbon are tapping into when they ask men to take the pledge to stand up against domestic violence.

Tragically, the continued promotion of this disproved theory is driving the continued investment of billions of dollars in a policy response that has been ineffective for decades. It’s actually costing Australia the opportunity to stop the legacy of domestic violence being passed forward to another generation.