‘Not All Men’: An unproductive response while addressing gender-based violence

Gender-sensitisation is the need of the hour.

Given the research-proven reality correlating aspects of gender conditioning to physical and psychological harm, it would be negligent for schools, to not address these issues head-on. As designers-facilitators of the Social-Emotional Learning Program for the Heritage Xperiential Learning School’s senior grades, we draw upon the science of gender-based violence (GBV) and the effects of gender socialisation in order to ensure that all children grow up with the freedom to nurture healthy relationships with themselves and others outside the confines of harmful stereotypes, norms, and discrimination.

We observe that amidst discussions on violence, equity, and freedom, it’s common for male students to feel guilty and become defensive. So, when girls or women discuss feeling unsafe, experiences of sexism, or statistics around discrimination or violence, men/boys sometimes respond by parroting the common viral hashtag, “not all men.” Like, “not all men harass women” or “not all men are violent.”And, oftentimes educators feel hesitant to wade into such sensitive topics, but the truth is that students are already wading into these topics and often don’t have the tools to decipher the credibility of their sources. So, we advocate for providing a safe, accurate, and judgement-free environment for them to air opinions and correct misconceptions around feminism and GBV.

Based on our expertise on these topics and the gender-sensitisation training we have done for over 500 adults and students across India, here are helpful pointers for teachers and even parents to use in their interactions with adolescents to assist in explaining why the “not all men” response is unproductive to stopping gender-based violence:

1. This response misinterprets what the woman is sharing to be blaming all men, when in fact she isn’t. Nobody is claiming to be talking about “All Men” in the first place. While research from around the world shows that the vast majority of physical violence is committed by men, it is also certainly accurate that (1) not all men are violent and (2) violence and aggression are not innate within men, as in violence and aggression are socialised and preventable.

Anger with how boys are raised to be forced to conform to violent forms of masculinity is not the same as being angry with boys and men. It is the belief in the capacity of boys and men to take up the challenge of ending their own violence towards women that drives our hope. In fact, to be feminist (male or female), is to advocate against stereotyping based on gender and part of that is to believe that men shouldn’t be stereotyped as inherently violent. One needs to make a distinction between men and masculinity - with the latter being looked upon as conditioning, some of which is culturally taught like aggression and can consciously be taught differently. To be feminist is to believe in the full humanity of men and dismantle the structures which encourage violence on the basis of gender.

2. In trying to understand GBV and hopefully find solutions that reside in us, it is imperative we understand the root causes that allow for GBV to occur. Part of this inquiry pushes us to ask who is committing this violence. Who are the victims? What are systems/practices at play that are both visible and invisible that fosters violence? And how to prevent those who learn to commit violence from being violent in the first place?

It is a fact that millions of women around the world are unsafe - it's even worse if you’re a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and as a result of this, conversations around GBV are often about how men are the majority of people committing violence. When women share individual stories whether it’s in private one-on-one conversations or public hashtags, it’s in order to share how widespread the issues of violence are and to invite others into the conversation to help try to solve the problem. Telling women ‘, not all men are violent’ does not help make things safer and misdirects the problem in itself. Research shows that women are more likely to encounter GBV from someone who they know personally (friend, acquaintance, intimate partner or family member) and our focus right now resides solely on the stranger on the road – the discussion needs to be expanded and one needs to take full cognizance of the magnitude of harm that is caused.

3. “Not all men” is also a way of labelling women’s safety concerns as irrational, when in fact the vast majority of women have experienced abuse or harassment, and it is logical and reasonable to feel fearful. When women are sharing personal stories, instances of GBV from friends or family, or have read on the news, and their pain around these issues, it is not an attempt at male bashing. It is highlighting an experience, even if it hasn’t been one that many men can relate to or are aware of. It’s an invitation to be part of a dialogue considering most women on earth are negatively affected and a request to open your heart and empathise with these experiences and women’s understandable feelings of rage, sadness, fear, and overwhelm.

4. Identifying that GBV is a social justice issue and recognising the privilege that comes with being male in this world is paramount to looking at ways of finding solutions. Our privilege is also an opportunity to become allies and that begins with framing the problem in its correct context.

We acknowledge that patterns of violence are upheld by people of all genders and that we all need to take ownership of the ways we perpetuate patriarchy and violence. Part of taking ownership is recognising that we live in a global patriarchal system which divides people into the man and woman box based on whether we’re born in male or female bodies. As men, we need to begin being part of conversations around the systemic oppression of one group that follows from the patriarchal division of the society. The dialogue is not about blame but taking responsibility towards creating a world that is more equitable and free. It is about questioning norms that allow people around the world to think it’s okay to rape, harass, domestically abused, throw acid, commit genital mutilation, restrict women and girl’s access to education, jobs, and fair salary, etc. it is about questioning structures that need us to have power over another and not recognise the strength of power with another.

5. Saying “Not All Men” is basically a defensive attempt to say “I’m not the problem,” It’s natural to feel defensive and uncomfortable given often we’re not even aware of these larger patterns of violence and oppression, and the problems with how we’ve been raised to see women. We might also feel guilty and horrified to find out that many of the women we love have experienced harassment or violence in some form and we had no idea. We have blind spots. And you understandably may not want to get lumped into a category of “violent men.” But instead of saying “not all men,” which is unhelpful and distracting, it’s okay to sit with your discomfort with being unaware. There’s no need to defend you and make the discussion about yourself. Instead, try expressing empathy toward the person speaking to you. You can acknowledge that this is new to you, you can share that you’d like to be an ally to women, and you can acknowledge that there are certain patterns and root causes for men’s violence against women that must be addressed.

To be honest, when you say ‘not all men’ you are saying I am not that. Being a man who isn’t a perpetrator of violence is not something that deserves a medal, our ally ship cannot be conditional, our ego does not need to be pampered and flattered into feeling good about ourselves before we choose to listen and awaken to the reality of violence around us. We don't need to be showered with gratitude for not being a horrible human being. If we want the world to become a more equitable space, then we don’t have the option of staying silent on GBV as our silence is akin to endorsement.

In addition to the above-stated tips, we also encourage all educators to explore curriculums developed by other experts to help guide lesson planning on these topics. Some curriculums we draw inspiration from in our school is ‘Live Respect’ by A Call to Men, ‘Very Young Adolescence 2.0’ by Promundo, ‘The Mask You Live In’ by the Representation Project, and Advocacy for Youth’s sexuality education curriculum. These resources provide teachers and parent’s age-appropriate information on relationships, gender, and sexuality that can be altered to meet our cultural context.

Disclaimer: The article has been contributed by Sankalp Khanna & Ariana Abadian-Heifetz, Designers and facilitators of the Social-Emotional Learning Program at the Heritage Xperiential Learning School. The opinions expressed in the article are the personal opinions of the authors. The facts and views appearing in this article do not reflect the views of Deccan Chronicle and Deccan Chronicle does not assume any responsibility and liability for the same.

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