Domestic violence continues year-round. Some research estimates that every nine seconds a woman is abused. More than 85% of domestic violence is directed toward women, and women are much more likely to incur serious injuries or be killed during domestic violence incidents. Men are between 400% and 800% more likely to kill their partners than women.
Ninety-two percent of women rank ending rape and domestic violence as top political priorities. Domestic violence is typically treated as a women’s issue, but for violence prevention and social justice activist Paul Kivel, targeting women is an incomplete solution. Kivel sees violence against women as a men’s issue. Educating and mobilizing men, Kivel argues, plays a critical role in ending the cycle of abuse.
Kivel, who has authored several books about ending violence, co-founded the Oakland Men’s Project in 1979 to help men combat violence. Although the Oakland Men’s Project no longer exists in its official capacity, its founders and participants continue to work to end violence. In the 1970s he became involved with the women’s movement. His experience made it clear to him that men, perpetrators of a disproportionate number of murders, assaults, and rapes, had an important role to play in stopping abuse. He has been conducting anti-violence seminars for men of all ages, including those with histories of abusing women, for 30 years. In an interview with GoodTherapy.org, he discussed the role men can play in ending violence.
Gender-role conditioning plays an important role in the development of children. Adults can rattle off a laundry list of traits associated with boys and girls, and children pick up these associations strikingly early. Kivel emphasizes that male gender-role conditioning plays a pivotal role in violence in adolescence and adulthood. In his seminars, he frequently uses an “Act Like a Man” box to itemize the traits associated with men: dominance, being in control, winning at all costs, athleticism, sex, aggression, and being tough top the list. These traits become a central part of men’s identities and render them likely to commit violent acts, particularly when their masculinity is threatened. From an early age, society teaches men to react to stress and helplessness with aggression and violence.
Compounding this problem is the fact that men often don’t learn skills commonly associated with femininity, such as nurturing, compassion, and gentleness. This gives them fewer options for creative problem solving in relationships and further contributes to the cycle of violence.
In his seminars, Kivel aims to help men understand that aggression doesn’t have to be a central part of masculinity. Men can be strong and assertive while being nurturing and gentle, and men who understand the harm traditional gender roles have done are better able to avoid repeating the harm. Fathers who teach these lessons to their sons are less likely to raise their boys to become violent men.
Why Men Should Be Involved in Antiviolence Activism
Kivel believes that men have a moral obligation to work to end violence. They also have a personal interest in the subject because many men’s lives are ripped apart by violence. While outreach to women is necessary, stopping abuse at its source is the true recipe for sustainable change.
Kivel emphasizes that men’s violence doesn’t just harm women. It’s also exceedingly damaging to men, hinders their intimate relationships, reduces their ability to be close to their partners, and removes men’s ability to be nurturers. Men also are frequently the victims of other men’s violence. A violent culture provides a very limited range of acceptable behaviors for men. By actively working to end violence, men make it safer for all adults and young people in the community.
What Men Can Do
Most men are not abusers. Indeed, many men are dedicated to finding solutions to stop the destructive violence that tears families and communities apart, and others are intimately aware of the problematic role aggression and anger plays in their lives. These men, however, may be unsure of what to do. Kivel offers four steps that men who are serious about ending violence can take:
- Examine your own behavior. Men must work to ignore dangerous messages and examine problematic assumptions of power and control. Kivel pointed out that it’s nearly impossible to work to end violence until you’ve addressed your own socialization and problematic behaviors. For many men, this means accepting that simply being male grants them a certain degree of privilege. You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge, and acknowledging the power imbalance between men and women is a meaningful first step.
- Challenge other men. Most men have encountered sexist, derogatory, and degrading locker-room talk, jokes, and insinuations about women. Kivel emphasized that these behaviors aren’t harmless. They contribute to a culture of violence against women. Challenging other men is not easy, especially because the men who are confronted often respond by questioning the masculinity of the challenger. For this reason, men need to be secure in their masculinity and comprehend that degrading behavior toward women is not a sign of strength. Men who realize that violence does not have to be a part of the male identity will be empowered to confront violent or sexist behavior when they see it—even among friends and family.
- Talk to your sons. All young men need role models and mentors, and men should reach out to family members, friends, and boys in their communities. By educating young men about alternatives to traditional aggressive masculinity and by modeling caring behavior, confidence, and emotional intelligence, you can help redefine “masculinity” and move away from the violence forced upon young men. In modeling ethical behavior, men will shape the minds and inclinations of the next generation.
- Work for better education and public policy. Legislation that treats domestic violence as the serious offense it is should be a top priority, Kivel says. Kivel also emphasizes the value of transformative justice, which encourages systemic change through education and rehabilitation. He explains that most male abusers who enter the criminal justice system are there for charges unrelated to their abuse. For this reason, the justice system needs to provide education that works to undermine systemic violence and teach men meaningful coping skills. It is equally important to provide education to young men to prevent abuse before it begins rather than punishing it after it happens.
Kivel’s recommendations aren’t just utopian fantasies of an idealistic man. His strategies for ending violence have worked to stop violence at its source for decades, and the Oakland Men’s Project has been successful at educating men, helping victims, and stopping the cycle of abuse. Similar organizations have sprung up all over the country. You can find an organization in your area by clicking here.
If Kivel could change one myth about violence, in general, and violence against women in particular, he said he would end the idea that men are innately, unavoidably violent. If that were true, anti-violence strategies wouldn’t work. Kivel’s work demonstrates that education can overcome years of conditioning. Men are not incurably flawed and recognition of this can empower men to stop violence.
- About domestic violence. (n.d.). Foundling. Retrieved from http://www.foundling.org/dvlinks.html
- Kivel, P. (1992). Men’s work: How to stop the violence that tears our lives apart. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
- Renzetti, C. M., Edleson, J. L., & Bergen, R. K. (2010). Sourcebook on violence against women. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Westbrook, L. (2009, December). Gendered violence fact sheet [PDF]. Sociologists for Women in Society.
- Women eight times more likely to be killed in domestic disputes than men. (2012, April 17). Global BC. Retrieved from http://www.globaltvbc.com/women%20eight%20times%20more%20likely%20to%20be%20killed%20in%20domestic%20disputes%20than%20men/6442622787/story.html
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