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Being uncomfortable to make great change.

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

In my work on tackling gender based violence, I’m often asked a whole bunch of questions about men. What about the men? What about getting men in the room? And aren’t women “just as bad”? Over the course of 14 years of working on this issue, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the right response to these questions. My role in the room is to facilitate, but to challenge as well, providing a space for folk to be open to thinking in a different way. The worst thing I can do is shut down questions and give incomplete answers. The answers I give must be answers that acknowledge that women aren’t innately less violent, that men are also hurt by patriarchy, but that, yes, this is uncomfortable for men, and they have work to do. The reality is, no matter who I’m talking to or what I’m talking about, it’s usual to see more than two men in the room. The uncomfortable truth is that tackling gender based violence is uncomfortable.

Over the years, I’ve tried bystander approaches, I’ve tried to unpack the what about the men question with participants- what men, where? I’ve given the facts and stats and Government policies, but as we know, our own confirmation biases lead us to the questions and answers we want to hear.

There are a couple of challenges then which we need to respond to. The first is that despite over 40 years of qualitative and quantitative research, how gender based violence is understood is still seen as a matter of opinion. I’m curious as to why this is when there is a consensus across the UN, World Bank, NHS, Scottish Government, and many other governments across the world, about the links between inequality and violence.

Despite this, it’s still perceived as a matter of opinion- not as fact. If it’s understood as opinion, what we have then is two sides to the story, and we can bat ideas around all day and all night, we can't agree on causes, let alone solutions. But it’s not an idea, it’s a fact. Gender based violence is a cause and a consequence of gender inequality. White, cisgendered, wealthy, able bodied, heterosexual men have more power in society. Gender based violence is an epidemic, killing many women worldwide. This is not an opinion, is it fact.

We all have a knee-jerk defensiveness when we’re told we have power, it’s a completely human response. Power is a slippery concept, that moves and shifts across contexts, so for many men, the idea that they wield this huge social power feels like it negates their experience of living in society. What I’m interested in is not that very human defensiveness, but how we move beyond it.

Acknowledging privilege doesn’t mean you’ve had it easy, it doesn’t mean you are bad, it doesn’t mean you are always wrong, but it does mean you have to actively learn and reflect on how that privilege has benefited you. This is a soul searching question, where we have to be prepared to be self-critical. So my newest approach to responding to this, is rather than staying in that defensiveness with a barrage of facts, I’m now offering participants space to work through why it feels so uncomfortable.

One of absolute favourite videos for doing this work, is this fantastic TED talk by Ben Hurst from the Good Lad initiative.

As he rightly says, patriarchy is shit for everyone, and that boys (and men) need to do the work. What I especially like about his approach is how he embraces what could be, not what is. Imagine a world where boys aren’t taught about consent to stop them being rapists, but to help them be great partners/boyfriends/one night stands. Imagine a world where men reflect on power, not to stop them being #metoo’ed, but to help them be great colleagues. Imagine a world where men respect women’s bodily autonomy, not because it stops them being abusive, but because it leads to healthier relationships with all women. The world would shift on its axis. My hope is that through supporting men to “do the work”, we can all live in a world that is free from violence and abuse, and one where we are all able to be our very best selves. Isn’t that worth feeling uncomfortable for?


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