This week Australia held a national summit on women’s safety. Like all other countries in the world, Australia has a considerable problem with domestic and sexual violence, and even more alarming, a problem with how the justice system responds to this behavior. Launched by the prime minister, the two-day summit held presentations and discussions that were designed to harness ideas to be directed toward a new national plan to end violence against women and children.
The Australian government is to be commended for holding such a summit. It demonstrates a recognition of the scale of the problem and the appalling – and life-altering – effects violence has on women and children, as well as how this affects the overall social health of the country.
Yet the framing of the summit as one of “women’s safety” could be considered as avoiding a more direct approach to the core problem. As Jess Hill, author of “See What You Made Me Do” and host of the podcast series “The Trap,” queried on Twitter: Would there be a more substantial change of perspectives if instead of a women’s safety summit, we held a summit on men’s violence?
There is a basic assumption that both drives the perpetuation of male violence and our collective response to it. This is a belief – subconscious or otherwise – that male violence is a natural phenomenon that cannot be altered. Once we submit ourselves to this assumption it becomes impossible to actually address the problem properly, as we will always find ways to ignore, downplay, or excuse male violence. This is what philosopher Kate Manne has described as “himpathy,” a structural sympathy toward violent men due to an acceptance that men are inherently violent.
This structural sympathy can manifest itself in two ways that prevent the state from being able to address the problem of male violence in any meaningful capacity.
The first is that the actions of the state are not perfectly objective; they remain bound to the instincts and bias of the actors within it, be they politicians, bureaucrats, the police, or the judiciary. These actors can – actively or subconsciously – prioritize their own perceived interests above those of the society they govern.
It is an unfortunate reality that many men – men who are kind, loving, and caring partners and parents themselves – are still very cautious about setting behavioral standards for men in general. There’s an instinct to set the bar low for male behavior as an insurance policy. This leads to a cultural resistance to state-led reform around violence against women and children, and to justice systems failing to take violence against them seriously.
The second manifestation of himpathy is that the state senses that this natural and unavoidable male violence needs to be directed somewhere. The state fears that if it were to take male violence seriously then the subsequent resentment this would create would become organized and directed at the state. This is something we see with the rise of “Men’s Rights” extremist groups. So instead the preference is that this violence is dispersed and directed at women and children. The state asks women and children to carry male violence for their societies, so it doesn’t have to.
This makes the language that is used to describe attempts to rectify these problems incredibly important. “Women’s safety” implies that we are always responding to a perpetual problem. Yet ideally we don’t want to live in societies that have to implement programs to respond to male violence; we want this violence to not exist. Women’s safety should not be an extraordinary environment that we have to actively work to construct; it should be our default setting.
This was recognized by the summit, which highlighted that one of the central priorities for a new national plan to combat violence against women and children should be “to disrupt and prevent the attitudes and behaviors that can lead to violence.” But for prevention to be the primary focus, the language used to describe that agenda has to be more direct.
Not actively labeling the problem as one of male violence coddles men, and absolves them from having to analyze their own behavior. It tiptoes around the issue for fear of an inevitable backlash. Yet there are no solutions to this persistent problem without men having to confront their own lust for dominance and control, their use of violence as a tool of this power, rigid gender identities that promote this behavior, the violence of male sexuality, and the suspicion, resentment, and hatred of women that fuels it all.
There is no “not all men” disclaimer here, as this is the responsibility of all men to address within ourselves and our peer groups. The fragility of masculinity that requires oneself to be excluded from a collective male problem is what prevents this problem from being purposefully addressed.