How To Engage Young Men With Ending Violence Against Women

By Chris Flux, Campaign Director, Men Against Violence

Several years ago, whilst a student at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, I founded an organisation called Men Against Violence (MAV). Basically MAV is a men’s campaign to end violence against women; whether that’s domestic abuse, sexual assault, stalking or sexual exploitation. We also address other issues such as male victims of abuse, same-sex domestic violence and homophobic bullying, but our main focus is on engaging men and boys in positive ways to end gender based abuse towards women and girls.

In nearly 5 years of campaigning we've organised over 12 of our own events as well as worked with likeminded organisations on other projects. We've run seminars about issues like human trafficking and sexual assault, help to organise awareness raising charity walks (involving men wearing High Heels), a World Cup BBQ and several music events. We’re also very active on social media with currently over 7,000 Followers on Twitter.

One of the most exciting developments has been the diversity of men and boys who have supported our campaign. Men from very different social, ethnic and religious backgrounds have given their backing including a group of bikers, amateur rugby players, young professionals, Muslim scholars, Church leaders, LGBT activists, school boys, pensioners, trade unionists and a member of Conservative Future. It’s important to get men from different backgrounds involved as they all have their own unique contribution to make to the cause and given that abusers also come from all walks of life it could be more effective to use someone from a similar background in order to reach them.

Why Reach Young Men?

Through doing this work I’ve come to realise that whilst it’s important to reach all age groups, it’s absolutely crucial to engage with young men in their teens and twenties. Firstly, without wanting to sound too clichéd, young people really are the future. They have more time in which to the influence the world and (as patriarchy is unlikely to disappear soon) young men and their ideas will probably remain the dominant influence on how society develops for some time.

The under-30s are also the generation who grew up with internet porn which has helped to normalise damaging attitudes about the value of women and the supposed supremacy of men. These attitudes feed into what the National Union of Students has dubbed as ‘lad culture’ where bullying is encouraged, obnoxious behaviour is celebrated and women are little more than sexual conquests. Of course older people hold such attitudes too, but perhaps younger men are more open to change if we start to engage with them whilst they are still forming their ideas about the world.

So how do we engage with young men on the issue of violence against women?

Connecting Online

An obvious answer due to its popularity with young people is social media.  Through simple thought provoking tweets (perhaps including visual images and links to more informative YouTube videos) you can potentially reach thousands upon thousands of people with your message and direct them to where they can find out more.

Social media does have some drawbacks however. Firstly you may have to sacrifice the quality of engagement for the number of interactions. Mentoring an unseen stranger over the net on issues like gender based violence is a difficult task and there’s no guarantee that the teenager who ‘Liked’ your post on healthy relationships will even remember it a month later.

Not only can the internet be a shallow place, it can also be a dangerous one. Social media is swarming with online trolls who attack (with insults and even death/rape threats) anyone daring to even suggest that ‘women are people too.’ Campaigners have a responsibility to consider the safety of the people they interact online with as well as their own.

The Power of Music

Something that has worked really well for Men Against Violence on a local level are the music gigs we've organised under the name ‘White Ribbon Fest’ and ‘Songs For Survivors’. Both were fundraising events for charities supporting survivors of abuse, although the primary aim was to engage people with the issue. I've found that if you book a good venue on the right night and are able to convince a good mix of popular local bands and artists to play for you, then you can attract a decent sized crowd to an event. People tend to come for either the music, to hang out with their mates or because they support the cause. The fact that it’s a fun night out rather than a ‘lecture’ lowers peoples defensive barriers so that they are prepared to listen to a serious message as long as it’s short (no longer than 15 minutes maximum) and not too heavy.  People interested in finding out more can then be directed to an information table at the gig or encouraged to go online to learn in their own time.

Having a couple of songs relevant to the issue can also work well, as long as the majority of the night remains upbeat. Rime Suspex, a hip hop trio from Blackburn, got a very positive response at our White Ribbon Fest event when they performed a song they had written about domestic abuse. Music can be a compelling medium for any message and just the fact that male musicians have joined female artists in supporting the cause (by playing at the gig) makes a powerful statement about male solidarity with women and sets a great example.

Consent in the Classroom

Something I think is absolutely crucial to bring about change are compulsory lessons about domestic abuse and sexual violence in schools.

‘Consent Classes’ have strangely become a controversial topic in recent years, but despite misguided assumptions from people like George Lawlor, sexual consent lessons done in a thoughtful way can play an important role in not only curbing violence but changing attitudes too.  I believe consent education should be for people of all genders and shouldn't be simply about telling men not to rape but should also help people to understand if abuse is happening to them or someone they know.

In such lessons it’s essential that we avoid both blaming victims and demonising or patronising men. All of those approaches are unfair and would seriously undermine any attempt to properly address the problem. This doesn't mean we ignore uncomfortable truths or fail to address sexism, but that our approach is thoughtfully considered and focused on positive change rather than blame or condemnation. Central to the strategy adopted by Men Against Violence is the ‘strengths based approach’ which acknowledges and celebrates the many good things about men as well as challenging negative ideas about masculinity. It is harmful behaviour, attitudes and beliefs that need to change and men deserve to be presented with a healthier vision of manhood (from men they respect and will listen to) than the dominant misogynies of today.

I admit that one off workshops by themselves will not be enough for everyone. Some young men need consistent mentoring, support and positive role models over a long period of time. But such workshops and schools work can help to form a strong foundation for change.

Education on rape can also help to change how people (including those who are neither perpetrators nor victims of abuse) respond to survivors of sexual assault. Myths about sexual assault feed into a rape culture which holds back victims from getting the help they need and the justice they deserve. If young people learn about rape myths at school and how to challenge them, then perhaps more victims will feel confident to come forwards and fewer rapists will continue to get away with it. Hopefully a less rape supportive environment will make potential rapists think before they act and make the right choice not to offend.

Promoting Active Bystanders

There are also ways in which people can take more direct action to stop abuse.

Over the last few years Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) have been running Bystander Intervention courses in Scottish schools based on the Mentors Violence Prevention (MVP) model first developed by American anti-violence educator Jackson Katz.

Bystander education is about empowering people to prevent violence by helping them to understand what is going on and how they can (in a safe way) intervene to stop it. This is not always about confronting the aggressor, but sometimes about getting others involved (ie phoning the police or getting a teacher) or providing support for the victim including helping them to get away from the situation. An evaluation of the programme in Scotland has shown positive results with evidence of a change in attitudes towards women, increased knowledge on the subject matter and young people feeling more confident about doing something should a bullying or abusive situation arise.

My Appeal to the Government

It’s pretty disgraceful that in 2016 domestic abuse and sexual violence are still not compulsory subjects in British schools. Yes there may be worries about crammed curriculums, but what can be more important than the safety and wellbeing of millions of people? Yes, it’s a sensitive issue for schools, but it can be age appropriate with strengths based focus as I explained earlier.

As for the cost; well consider that the effects of violence against women cost the UK economy around £40 billion a year, then surely a few million in funding for violence prevention work will more than pay for itself even if it’s success is only marginal. More importantly it could even save lives and prevent all sorts of other problems which result from abuse! Work to develop healthier forms of masculinity potentially has great benefits for men as well as women.

So I call on the Government to adopt a well-funded violence prevention strategy and make consent & domestic abuse education compulsory in schools.