men, masculinities and gender politics

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Men “can all be leaders” in the struggle to end violence against women. But maybe not all of us should be.

 

Recently there has been an increasing number of men who are speaking out against violence against women.  These guys include the mayor of Dallas, Texas, and, in a particularly moving way, the English actor Patrick Stewart.  To his credit, Stewart has been doing this work for years.  He is a brave campaigner on behalf of ending violence against women.  The story he tells of watching his mother being carted away in an ambulance after brutal beatings at the hands of his father is haunting – as is his recounting that if his mother had ever decided to try to kill his father, he would have helped her to do it.  Because, he says, “that’s how bad it was to be growing up inside a violent household."

You can see one of his powerful speeches here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xi_27bpIb30

 
And just the other day Sir Richard Branson, the world-famous businessman and creator of the “Virgin” commercial empire (record stores, an airline, etc.) released a PSA urging other men to join him in the struggle against violence against women.  (You can find it here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVTDyGtuuAg)
 
Branson’s brief PSA begins with him relating a story of his visiting a clinic (“that we run”) in Africa.  During that visit, a room full of 40 African women were all asked if any of them had ever been raped.  (This strikes me as a hugely invasive question that would probably not have been asked of a group of European or North American women.)  In response, the women laughed.  When asked why they were laughing, one said, “You should ask instead which one of us has not been raped.”
When that second question was indeed asked – which of you has not been raped? – not one woman raised her hand.  They were all survivors of sexual assault.
 
In Branson’s videoed piece, he continues:
 
“As a man [sic] we all have something to give.  We all have the power to do our own part to stop the global pandemic of violence against women and girls that is holding us all back.  We can all be leaders here, in ways small and in ways grand.  In Africa, in Europe, around the world, in our own homes and circles. So join me and become one of the million men making one million promises to help end the violence against women.”
 
Only a million?  Okay, a million men making a promise to help end violence against women – well, that sounds pretty good.  Until one realizes that there are approximately 150 million males in the United States alone.  So we would be talking about less than 1% of the American male population who would be making that pledge.  And that figure, small as it is, would apply only if the initiative were aimed at solely at the USA.  But it’s not.  That’s a global goal of a million men.  So, out of a planetary male population of 3.5 billion souls, one million of us are being sought to pledge to work against violence against women.  That amounts to two one hundredths of one percent (.0002 or .02%) of the male population of the planet is being asked to take this pledge.  That’s only two men in every 10,000!
 
So on the one hand, a million men sounds like a lot of people.  But on the other hand, it’s hardly anyone at all.  Not when it is estimated that approximately 1 in 4 women – nearly 900 million women and girls worldwide – will experience rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.  So for every 900 women who are raped, we are asking only one man to step up and help to end the violence.  And that’s just when it comes to sexual assault.  One United Nations report estimates that up to 70 percent of all women will experience violence during their lifetime. (http://www.un.org/en/events/endviolenceday/pdf/UNiTE_TheSituation_EN.pdf) 
 
So, actually, one million men are being asked to pledge to work against something that impacts as many as 2.4 billion women.   
 
With those odds, a woman is 2,400 times more likely to be a victim of violence than a man is to be asked to make the pledge!
 
One million men may be a start, but we sure have a lot further to go.
 
Not waiting for perfection – but still having standards?  Okay, okay, it is tempting when attempting any kind of change process to “let the perfect be the enemy of the good” – to simply not try to do anything at all because it is not as good as it could ideally be.  Because it is just too far from being the “perfect” solution.  But “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good” means that you do nothing.  And when it comes to violence against women, we definitely have to do something!
 
So while I think that asking a million men globally to join the struggle against violence against women is way too modest of a goal -- how about getting a billion men to sign up??? -- I do think we need to start somewhere.  And so I think that the idea of asking a million men to pledge to work to end the violence is a good start.  I can get on board with that.  Let’s work to get this issue on men’s radar!  Let’s get more men talking about working to end the violence against women and girls!
 
Let us not “let the perfect be the enemy of the good”! 
 
And yet….
 
And yet is Richard Branson really such a good spokesperson for this endeavor?  His history of sexist behavior gives me serious pause. 
 
Branson has been an incredibly successful businessman.  He also has embarked on many generous, philanthropic endeavors.   (Lest we sing his praises too loudly, let’s also keep in mind that he has embarked upon extremely expensive, utterly self-absorbed attempts to break world speed records with ocean-going yachts, amphibious vehicles, and high altitude hot air balloons.  And that he owns a private island in the Caribbean.  These things don’t necessarily make him a bad guy – but they probably should serve to put this high flyer on “stand by” status when it comes to proclaiming him a saint.)  
 
 “Eyes in the back of my head.”  Perhaps one of Branson’s most notorious acts involved a photo op staged just off the coast of his private island in the Caribbean, in which he was photographed kite boarding through the waves with a thin, naked woman – the model Denni Parkinson – literally hanging off of his back. 
 
When interviewed about the stunt, Branson – who is pictured clothed in the shots – said: "What can you say if you are asked to pose with a naked lady? I only wish I had eyes in the back of my head." 
 
(You know, the better to stare at her naked body with.  I guess it was just too hard to fully appreciate her while she was dangling behind him.)
 
Okay, okay, one could argue that it was just a goofy stunt created without malicious intent.  (I don’t agree with that gender-neutral analysis, but I could see someone making that argument.)  But, regardless, the image that was conveyed in these widely-published photos is one of a rich, powerful businessman/boy enjoying the spoils of his riches, which include having a much younger, thin, nude model literally hanging off of you.   And the message is:“Sir Richard” is rich.  “Sir Richard” is strong.  So, as a reward, “Sir Richard” gets to surround himself with gorgeous naked women on his own private tropical island.  What more could a man want?  That he gets to wear clothes while the beautiful woman is naked?  Well, he gets to do that, too. 
      
And as to the nature of relations between men and women depicted in the photos, the message is that men should pursue success, women should pursue successful men.  Men get ahead by being bold and aggressive, women get ahead by giving head.          
 
All pretty women should ride me naked!  As if the whole Me-Rich-Tarzan-You-Hot-Jane imagery wasn’t  bad enough, Branson’s subsequent behavior and attitude around the whole thing suggests that it was not necessarily all just good clean salty fun.  That it might actually reflect the way that Branson sees men, women, and relationships between men and women. 
 
In May of last year, Branson was in the Canadian province of British Columbia to inaugurate a nonstop flight of his Virgin Airlines from Vancouver to London.  The meetings and events included the participation of the elected Premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark.    
 
A few days later, Branson, writing in his own section of the Virgin.com website, “Richard’s blog,” posted an entry titled: “Want a ride? Check the dress code!”  It featured the Richard-Branson-kite-boarding-with-naked-woman image, accompanied by the following text:

“When in British Columbia a few days ago, the delightful Premier Christy Clark accepted my invite to come for a kitesurf ride on my back. 

One thing though - I forgot to tell her about the dress code! Well, here it is.

The offer still stands Christy!” 

Offense taken and non-apologies tweeted. 

Premier Clark was not amused.

  "I didn't think it was very respectful," Clark said.  “I think when you meet with the CEO of a billion dollar company who wants to do business with your province, you can get a little bit more respectful treatment than that."

But just to show that she is not without a sense of humor herself, Clark quipped back: "Somebody said to me as a joke that if that's his best pick-up line then maybe there's a reason he called his company Virgin."


(http://www.vancouversun.com/Christy+Clark+takes+Richard+Branson+over+naked+blog+post/6697219/story.html#ixzz2NXAmcXZZ)

Branson quickly apologized. 

Kind of. 

On Twitter.
 

He wrote:

"Kitesurfing 'check the dress code' comment was a joke. Apologies if anyone took it seriously or thought it in bad taste, no offence meant."

 
But here’s the thing about apologies: any apology that contains the phrase “I apologize if...” is not a genuine apology.  No, the phrase I apologize if casts all responsibility for any upset entirely back upon the listener – upon the (mis/miss/ms.)interpreter of the remarks.  It says: “Look, I am sorry if you are so screwed up as to have misconstrued my true meaning and my intent.”  That is not an apology.  That is a defense.
 
A true apology, on the other hand, contains not the phrase I apologize if but rather I apologize that.  So it’s not “I apologize if my words caused offense.”  A real apology reads: “I apologize that my words caused offense.”  And it doesn’t waste its time, like Branson did, dithering around with the intent versus the impact of the words.  A real apology expresses concerns about the harm that was caused, regardless of the speaker’s original intent.
 
But I get the feeling Branson was far more concerned about managing his public image rather than seriously addressing the issue.  Otherwise he probably wouldn’t have resorted to using twitter to express his deep remorse!
 
And, you know, if Branson truly were all that sorry about his actions, you might think he might have taken down the offending blog post.  But he hasn’t.  It’s still there – nearly a year later!  Probably because he still thinks it’s totally fucking hilarious. 
 
And because he isn’t the least bit sorry.
 
We are the 999,999.  According to the United Nations document cited above, “Violence against women takes many forms – physical, sexual, psychological and economic. These forms of violence are interrelated and affect women from before birth to old age.” 
 
And this is where the issue of an increasing number of men gleefully jumping on the “let’s stop violence against women!” train gives me some pause.  Because too many men – until they are educated on the depth, impacts, and consequences of patriarchy – think that violence against women consists only of millions of discrete episodes of one man hitting one woman.  Of one man raping one woman.  And of course that is violence against women, but that is only one part of the plague – the most visible part.  But undergirding, supporting, and facilitating those acts of violence is a global culture of male supremacy that says that women are less important, less capable, and less valuable than men.
 
And until men like Richard Branson begin to understand how their sexist actions – like making sexually harassing jokes toward a democratically-elected female politician, like distributing pictures of yourself as  a masterful man with a naked waif hanging off your back – might be helping  to contribute to a global culture of violence against women,  then one wonders what their pledges are worth.  Indeed, if they are worth anything at all. And you can be pretty sure that these men are not “leaders” worth following.  Not on this issue.
 
So the next time Richard Branson reacts with shock and horror at walking into a clinic in Africa and hearing that all of the women there have been raped, I hope that someone suggests to him that he look in the mirror.  And that he ask himself how his actions – actions that demean, disrespect, and marginalize women – just might in fact be contributing to the brutal phenomenon he witnessed in that small hospital.
 
Sir Richard seems like a bright guy.  I’m sure he can put the pieces together.  But only if he cares to.  Violence against women isn’t fun.  It isn’t a game.  And if Branson just wants to play his fun and games, then maybe he should devote his energies elsewhere.
 
I think it’s great that there is a goal to get a million men to commit to working against violence women.  But if one of those guys making the pledge is going to be Richard Branson, I’d be willing to settle for 999,999.