Based on a survey of 40 men, and in-depth interviews with 24 more in Spain, Sweden and the UK, colleagues and I set out to develop an understanding of the factors that support men to take a public stance a gainst men’s violence against women, and to explore how more men can be encouraged to do so. The result was a book, Men’s Activism to End Violence Against Women: Voices from Spain, Sweden and the UK, which I cowrote in 2021 with Nicole Westmarland (Durham University, UK), Anna-Lena Almqvist (Mälardalen University, Sweden) Linn Egeberg Holmgren (Uppsala University, Sweden), Stephen Burrell (Durham University, UK) and Custodio Delgado- Valbuena (Seville University, Spain).
For the purpose of our research, we understood activism as potentially involving a wide range of actions including: talking to other men about the issues; educating young people; posting on social media; setting up a local group; organizing a campaign; working on a project or doing professional work; supporting victims; raising awareness; and supporting women’s organizations.
Men are predominantly responsible for perpetrating violence against women. Their violence constrains women’s freedom and plays a major role in maintaining gender inequalities. Many have argued that men must engage further in the movement to end violence against women. Men have the potential, although largely untapped, to play an important role in helping to challenge these injustices; indeed, they have an ethical responsibility to do so (see Engaging Men and Boys in Violence Prevention, by the Australian academic and activist Michael Flood). But what are the structural and individual factors that might enable this engagement?
In line with previous research (for example, Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women, by Michael Messner, Max Greenberg and Tal Peretz), those we interviewed were able to trace their involvement through various influences and pathways. Some were brought up in a feminist household. Others saw how poorly their mothers were treated, either by their father or by other men. A small number had personal experiences of violence and abuse within the family, either as victims or witnesses.
Many of the men talked about a lack of positive male influences during childhood, often because of absent, strict or disengaged fathers or other male family members who offered little support. One UK participant described his father as an “antirole model. He was everything we refused to become.” As boys grew up, alternative, nonconforming or marginalized masculinities were important, too. Some men early on rejected hegemonic norms of masculinity, to be “tough,” “strong,” and “independent.” Others felt they subscribed to such norms while in a group but internally were not comfortable with them. For some, rejecting such norms was closely associated with being gay, and having an inherent sense of being “different” from other men, and/or a heightened awareness of discrimination. Not being athletic, particularly in terms of traditional boys’ team sports such as football, was, for some participants, the way they had started to feel they were unlike other boys.
Childhood bullying at school, most often by other boys, was also a common theme. In many cases this was because the participant was seen as diverging from masculine norms. There were multiple examples given of abuse related to disability, ethnicity, and sexuality in particular.
Positive experiences with men were less common. Our research revealed that women, either as linchpins among family, friends, lovers, or within political movements, emerged as highly influential in terms of challenging and influencing the men to explore profeminism. Several of the men placed great emphasis on the impact of earlier heterosexual relationships with intimate partners in their journeys towards anti-violence activism, even though those relationships had ended some time ago.
Often, it was only when men moved away from their families that their awareness was awakened or encouraged. Higher education was a key factor for some men starting to make sense of and/or become politicized about gender and other inequalities. For some this was as a result of choosing a social sciences course which included gender studies modules or lectures. Often, it was linked to a general political awakening through becoming involved in student groups and leftist politics in friendship groups or living in a shared house.
For several men, professional pathways in social services, healthcare, and education, for example, were increasingly significant in shaping their routes towards antiviolence activism. More than half of survey respondents (58 percent) were involved in some form of paid work as part of their stance against violence against women. Men were perceived to be most likely to speak out when working at NGOs, or voluntary and community organizations, where they were more likely to be exposed to feminist arguments.
Sometimes, men (especially those who were already active on gender equality issues), were influenced by a specific high profile case of men’s violence against women, and consequently took the issue more seriously. One such case was that of Ana Orantes from Granada who, after speaking on a Spanish television program in 1997 about the lifelong domestic abuse she had suffered, was killed two weeks later by her ex-husband. This led to an upsurge of men’s activism, prompting countrywide marches and vigils against violence against women, which continue to this day.
A small number of interviewees had initially been catapulted into this work as a result of family tragedy but then deepened their involvement. In the UK, brothers Luke and Ryan Hart have spoken out publicly about the 2016 killing of their mother and sister by their father. As Luke put it: “We realized this was not an isolated family tragedy. This was the socially-condoned murder of insubordinate women.”
For many men, engaging with feminism and antiviolence work is not straightforward, and there are significant challenges for them in doing so. On a personal level these may include lack of awareness of the issues, tension with family members, and resistance to talking with peers about sensitive issues like violence. A significant barrier voiced by some are the costs of being labeled a “gender traitor” by rebelling against patriarchal norms. Many men felt such pressure makes it less likely for men to speak out.
There also are a number of obstacles that may prevent men from taking action that emerged as more country-specific. For example, having a strong gender equality discourse in policymaking, as is the case in Sweden, is helpful in some ways, providing a bedrock of statements and standards to be built upon. Ironically, it can also be a hindrance, leading some men to think, as one put it, that “We are gender equal, right?,” a perception that suggests it isn’t necessary to look closely at levels of violence towards women.
Stronger political leadership was seen as particularly necessary in the UK and Spain, where it was rare for high profile male politicians to speak out about violence against women. Austerity policies were also identified as a significant barrier, fueling backlash politics and undermining progressive programs. As a Spanish participant put it, “What has happened is we don’t have resources anymore, we have gesture politics…”
There is a risk of men benefiting from the “pedestal” effect, where men’s efforts receive more attention and value than women’s. In addition, there are documented examples of male activists not behaving in nonviolent, gender equitable ways. This highlights the importance for men of self-reflection and accountability: A UK respondent noted, “To be a man who is active in challenging violence against women and girls, and who does it in a way that avoids asserting male privilege, is to engage in a constant dialogue with self.”
More broadly, women’s groups often fear that men may “take over” feminist spaces, undermine women’s voices and leadership, and divert funding from cash-strapped services such as shelters. A Spanish participant stated that feminist and profeminist groups in his region have “good relations, but not close relations.”
Still, many participants acknowledged receiving encouragement and support from feminist women and like-minded men in their lives, and from groups, organizations and communities of activists they were linked to. This often played a vital role in not just countering the potential for isolation, but also sustaining the men’s efforts.
Men have much to gain from becoming antisexist, antiviolence advocates and activists. We must do everything we can to ensure their numbers grow in the years ahead.
Sandy Ruxton is an independent policy advisor and researcher, specializing in masculinities. An honorary research fellow in the department of sociology at Durham University in northern England, he is a member of the steering group of MenEngage Europe, and cohost (with Stephen Burrell) of the podcast, Now and Men. Published by Policy Press at the University of Bristol, Men’s Activism to End Violence Against Women: Voices from Spain, Sweden and the UK, is available in hardback and paperback, and can also be downloaded free as an open access e-book at policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/ mens-activism-to-end-violence-against-women.
Educating Youth, Encouraging Men, Addressing #MeToo
Our work highlighted key issues to focus on in getting more men involved. Educating children and youth from a young age about gender equality and preventing violence against women is vital, and goes beyond relationships and sex education programs to a broader notion of citizenship education across the curriculum. Education and engagement should also be extended throughout life, including in workplaces and religious institutions. And media, particularly social media, has an important role in bolstering education and awareness-raising efforts.
Encouraging antiviolence initiatives among men involved in other social justice-related struggles—such as environmentalists, trade unionists, gay men, and other progressive civil society groups—was felt to be important, as they are more likely to be “pro-equality” already. Young men may also be more willing to question the gendered status quo, and be positively disposed towards gender equality and tackling violence against women. Although working-class men are potentially sympathetic, there are also challenges in engaging those who themselves may feel left behind, forgotten, especially as a result of economic crisis and the decline of the male breadwinner ethos. Then there is #MeToo. During the period of our research in 2017, the #MeToo movement went viral, revealing the massive scale of sexual harassment and violence against women worldwide. In our survey, men in Sweden were far more likely to agree that #MeToo had encouraged more of them to speak out about violence against women than men in the UK and Spain (although #MeToo also had impact in the UK, and Spain subsequently had its own version, #Cuéntalo/Tell It). Despite resistance among some men, the overall response in Sweden was positive, prompting many men to ask themselves how they might have contributed to the problem, and to discuss with each other how to unlearn and shift damaging masculine norms and become allies to the feminist movement. While challenges in all countries remain huge, the Nordic example, described in a report, Men, Masculinity and #MeToo, by the Stockholm- based organization, MÄN, points to how “piece by piece, silence, sexual harassment, and violence can be replaced with a culture of consent and active bystanders.” —Sandy Ruxton