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Men and Family Relationships National Forum – A response

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The ‘Men and Family Relationships National Forum: Valuing Men, Valuing Relationships’ conference, held in Sydney in October this year was described as an opportunity that “will capture the important new learning and developments that have occurred over the past ten years by organisations working with men. The conference received support from, Family Services Australia, Relationships Australia and Catholic Welfare Australia, and was sponsored by the Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services.

No To Violence considered this conference an opportunity to not only promote our particular philosophical and practical approaches to working with men, but also to gauge the current political climate regarding working with men in a social service context. Notification for this conference was received late, and hence unfortunately NTV was unable to submit a presentation proposal in time.

While the program sometimes hinted at addressing men’s violence, the issue was not mentioned explicitly, and often not even implicitly. In its promotion, organisers noted that the forum will “Share what has been learnt nationally about the practice and experiences of working with men and family relationships”, “Highlight research and practice” and “Highlight examples of best practice.” It also aimed to “Discuss inclusive approaches to working with men and family relationships and the similar needs for women” and “Highlight the benefit for children when separated fathers remain involved”, amongst others.

Even before the conference officially began delegates seemed keen to network with others and investigate others’ philosophical and practice perspectives. However, as I was to discover early, the overwhelming sentiment from participants at the conference was that men were often victims of a biased system that unfairly maligned and victimised them. Furthermore, many of the formal presentations and informal discussions during breaks centred around the notion that processes and procedures needed to be developed and refined to better access, engage and work with men. There is, it was noted, an urgent need for policy shifts, training, networks and peak bodies to represent the interests of men.

What was difficult to determine was, however, what was to be achieved by these proposed developments? Words such as ‘empowerment’, ‘holistic’ and ‘non-deficit model’ were used so often that they lost meaning at the same time as they gained catch-cry support. While there was fervent agreement in acknowledging the need for ‘networks’, ‘political advocacy’ and ‘policy development’ – notions NTV would support in principle – the basic aim of the whole exercise remained somewhat secretive.

NTV did have the opportunity to provide a lunchtime stall to promote NTV policy, standards and training information, as well as information regarding the Men's Referral Service. While usually received favourably, NTV received significant opposition to our basic philosophies regarding family violence from various individuals.

The conference began with a keynote address by respected writer and scholar Professor Robert Connell. His address ‘Men’s lives and relationships in the new century’ focused on the context in which feminism, gender and power play a role in the way relationships function. It was, however, one of only two or three occasions when violence was named and placed within the context of men and relationships. Women were hardly ever mentioned during the conference - as were same sex relationships – a surprise given the stated theme of the conference was relationships.

NTV member Stuart Anderson, from the Men’s Resource Centre in Lismore, NSW was a notable exception in the tide of conspicuous omissions, as was NTV member and MRS telephone counsellor Pete French. Both presenters should be congratulated for remaining focused and forthright regarding holding men accountable for their use of violence, ensuring practitioners do not collude with clients or allow for the impact of their use of violence to be minimised or blamed on someone else.

A final experience placed the general perspectives about relationships and violence in its particular context at this conference. Near the end of day two, conference delegates were offered some excerpts from the play ‘Certified Male’. Played by two well-known Australian actor comedians, the play was presented as a break from the hard going of the conference. This was a chance to have a laugh while at the same time considering issues relating to men and relationships.

Playing the parts of over-worked and over-stressed male executives having trouble in their relationships, from the outset it was granted that women seemed to be to blame for almost everything. Not only did women not have a voice in the play, but also all references to women were somewhat insulting, sexist, misogynist and blaming. There were homophobic references, and, disturbingly, a scene in which one of the characters ‘rehearses’ what he intends to say to his partner in the guise of a boxing match. The character literally swung punches as he delivered his lines. The linking between the character trying to put his point across to his partner while throwing violent punches had the effect of treating violence against women as almost necessary in getting a point across, and ultimately as a joke.

While this play has in the past received accolades and plaudits, it seemed ludicrous and offensive to present it in the context of a men and family relationships conference. It was particularly disturbing that, while the issue of male family violence was hardly mentioned, conference delegates laughed and cheered at what was essentially the maligning of women, and often children.

Overall it seemed the conference had little to do with family relationships, but much to do about restoring a seemingly lost power base that men once had. The underlying theme of many of the presentations and personal opinions of conference delegates was that men were doing it tough, and everyone and everything else had to change to make them feel better.

What was also apparent was the significant chasm between the theoretical approaches to relationships and male family violence in Victoria compared with much of the rest of Australia, and specifically New South Wales. Political and some social forces in NSW ensure that the issue of engaging men to end their use of violence is kept off the radar and enshrined in some regulations – a situation that adds fuel to the fire of supposed men’s rights. I note that NTV is proud and privileged to work closely with government and women’s organisations to ensure that fundamental issues of family violence are addressed ethically and through evidence-based research and practice.

It was significantly disturbing that such a conference did not seek to address the issue of male family violence – an issue we know plays such a significant and crucial role in relationship and family breakdown, safety of women and children, and even in men’s own health and wellbeing. While issues of physical and mental health are important, the failure to recognise the rates and impact of men’s violence towards women and family members only serves to discredit the ‘men’s movement’.

Danny Blay, Manager, No To Violence and the Men’s Referral Service.

 

[Reprinted with permission from NTV Notes, the newsletter of No To Violence, November 2004, pp. 3-4.]