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Three weeks ago the White House released this PSA to encourage men to take action towards ending men’s violence against women.
Interestingly, this PSA was released the same week as was an article released by Slate that focused on male victims of sexual assault, an article which is important but limited and lacking in exploration/nuances that must be included when talking about sexual assault. But more on that another time.
Back to the PSA. It features celebrities including Steve Carrell and Seth Meyers,there is even a cameo by President Barack Obama at the end. Overall I liked the PSA. I liked the involvement of men because violence against women is a men’s issue. I also liked the focus on consent. But I also agreed with much of the criticism of it, which was well said in this article from the Huffington Post. I was irked that early on in the video women were referred to as men’s wives, sisters etc, which a problematic viewpoint that had long left me feeling uneasy but I had trouble articulating why until I read this post by The Belle Jar. To me this viewpoint sends the message that men don’t really care about women unless the woman is someone they personally know and care about. It is as if knowledge that targeted violence against an entire group of human beings isn’t concerning enough in and of itself to most men. I don’t think that’s true and I certainly don’t think it’s a good idea to send men the message that this is how men should view women/think about violence against women. And as Anne points out, many women don’t identify as someone’s sister, mother or even daughter and so what does this message then mean for them? And I will point out that far too many men don’t give a crap about the women in their lives, domestic violence reveals that. And so this message won’t be very effective for men who abuse women, the people who, I’d guess, cause the majority of violence against women.e.
And that brings me to my next point. The ideology spouted in this PSA, perhaps unintentionally, is that men are the ones who must save women. Women are too fragile and weak to hold their own and protect themselves. When I see a PSA such as the White House one, this is what I hear, “Men, you are stronger and thus you are more capable and better than women so you must not take advantage of your superiority by violating women, the weaker and lesser gender. And not just that but you must also stop the men who use their superiority to harm women because women can’t fend for themselves.” It comes off condescending and paternalistic. To me, it speaks to an overemphasis on men’s physical strength and the false notion that this in some way makes them superior to women. I’d say take the element of physical strength out of the equation because ultimately strength doesn’t really matter. Not every man is stronger than every woman ever and where does this gender binary focus leave genderqueer people? Also abuse occurs in same-sex relationships where both partners are on an “equal” playing field, which further contradicts this well-ingrained belief that men abuse women because they can physically dominate them. It’s true that having more physical strength makes it easier for someone to physically abuse someone else but violence is only one form of abuse. There are also many abusive relationships that do not involve physical violence. So how does this happen? Because abusive relationships are about power and control. And because gender differences (as opposed to sex differences) are socially constructed in a way that takes power from women and gives it to men. This idea that people have the right to control their partners is why domestic violence exists. It stems from traditional heterosexual relationships where historically it has been acceptable for men to control and dominate their wives. People who get the message that this okay aren’t always straight and so the idea has spread into same-sex relationships and/or relationships where a physically less strong/able person can carry out abuse against/control someone more able/stronger. The idea that men must protect weak women only feeds into the idea that women are less than, an idea that created and has maintained violence against women (all this was well explained in the Huffington post article I referenced earlier).
So instead of focusing on physical strength and men in as protectors I’d recommend focusing on women and non-male genders as being humans too, just like men. We need to underscore that this is the 21st century and we’re intellectually well aware that all humans are equally worthy of respect and dignity and we need to start damn well acting like it. Shift away from the cultural norm that women are only as important in the ways they relate to men. Shift away from the paradigm of separate but equal DV/SV work where men scold men and call it prevention and where women offer victim services in an attempt to clean up a mess that is constantly being made. This is not to say victim services aren’t paramount, they are. This is also not to say that men don’t belong in the fight against violence against women – they do! But if women shouldn’t be abused then we are your equals and as your equals, we ask that you work with us, not apart from us and listen to our voices as much as your own when engaging in prevention and advocacy work.