Changing men and masculinities in the wake of #MeToo

By Stephen Burrell, Durham University

If you flick through the pages of any newspaper, it is unlikely to take long until you come across stories about violence, harassment and abuse being directed at women. From abuse in the most intimate of settings to the most public, in 2018 we live in a world where violence continues to play a major role in maintaining patriarchal social inequalities. In many countries, the #MeToo movement which was sparked last year has had a significant impact in shining a brighter light on this issue and its sheer pervasiveness than may have ever been achieved before. However, in the public discourse, the key sociological pattern of this phenomenon remains largely hidden and undiscussed; that violence towards women, as with other forms of violence, is being perpetrated overwhelmingly by men.

#MeToo has helped to instigate more conversations about why this might be the case, and what it has to do with the social construction of men and masculinities, with terms such as ‘toxic masculinity’ starting to become more popularly used. Yet there is a sense that the people who most need to hear these ideas, and for whom they could be most transformative - i.e. men - are too often still not paying attention.

However, there are a growing number of campaigns and interventions, in the UK and across the world, which are seeking to address this dilemma. For example, in response to #MeToo and the #TimesUp campaign which followed on from it, a group of men in the US film industry including actors such as David Schwimmer and David Arquette, have initiated a campaign together with activists called #AskMoreofHim, calling for men to “support survivors, condemn sexism wherever we see it and hold ourselves and others accountable”. Meanwhile, the White Ribbon campaign, which asks men to take a pledge “never to excuse, commit or remain silent about men’s violence against women”, has been taken up in a number of different countries since it was first initiated in Canada, after the massacre of fourteen female students at École Polytechnique, University of Montreal by fellow student Marc Lépine on 6th December 1989. Organisations such as White Ribbon and the Good Lad Initiative are now carrying out a range of different activities in the UK to engage men and boys in the prevention of violence and abuse, from educational sessions in schools to community mobilising.

Through my doctoral research, I have been studying this kind of work, and considering how it can reach out to young men in particular in impactful ways. I have done this by interviewing key advocates in the UK context, and conducting focus groups with men’s university sports teams to explore how they understand and use prevention campaigns. Existing research suggests that explicitly focusing on and challenging the norms of gender that are instilled in men and boys over the course of their lives is crucial to creating lasting change in the way that they see the world and act within it. My study supported this, and suggested that an important emphasis for prevention campaigns must be on the complicity of men across society in sexism, misogyny and the perpetuation of violence against women - and how that can be resisted in our everyday lives.

However, it has also been pointed out that it will not be enough only to mobilise individual men, and that transformations in the broader structures of society - indeed, at every level of the social order - are equally necessary if we are going to be able to end men’s violence against women. For example, we have started to see some universities take up interventions such as consent workshops to prevent sexual violence on campus in recent years - as a result of pressure from student and staff activists. However, there has been little concomitant change in the structures of universities themselves, to dismantle the institutional gender inequalities that are so closely intertwined with violence against women. Meanwhile, ongoing neoliberal austerity in the UK is constraining the potential for prevention initiatives to grow, with many services for victim-survivors of abuse continuing to struggle to survive for example.

Engaging men and boys in preventing violence and abuse therefore faces a number of challenges. Men can often respond defensively when our privileged position in the gender order is brought into question. For example, we frequently disassociate ourselves from the problem, by suggesting that it is something ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’, amongst us all. There are also tensions and contradictions which accompany involving men in a movement for feminist social change, where there is a real risk that men might colonise or take over, for instance. At the same time, prevention work has the potential to bring about individual and collective transformations among men and boys which can make a vital contribution towards ending men’s violence against women, and creating a more equal and just world.

If this kind of preventative change is to be made possible, then for men, none of us can consider ourselves to be separate from the problem. Those of us who have been able to have training in sociology and in the workings of relations of power and inequality have a particular responsibility to speak out, and to recognise that we are part of the same social systems that we study. We have seen through #TimesUpAcademia and campaigns such as the 1752 Group that the setting of academia is in no way exempt from violence, harassment and abuse towards women - quite the opposite.  It is therefore incumbent on men in this and all spheres to ask ourselves, and one another, honest and difficult questions; about how we might be implicated in the perpetuation of men’s violence against women and the sexism and misogyny that underpins it - and what we can do positively, to help end it. In the words of Tarana Burke, who first founded the #MeToo movement, to men: “Be patient, learn...listen deeply and learn - and don’t try to push back right away, right? Just learn something...and then have some courage.”