men, masculinities and gender politics

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Can Men Against Sexual Assault transform men's attitudes to violence, and can it foster an anti-sexist men's movement? Bob Pease, a long-term member of MASA in Melbourne, hopes so. He is interviewed by Michael Flood.*

Note: This is the second part of an interview with Bob Pease. The first part is titled "Make a difference", and was published in XY, 3(3), Spring 1993.

WHAT do you see as MASA's ideal strategies for encouraging men to stop being violent?

I think that we have to bring about a fundamental shift in societal attitudes towards women, so that virtually all men will come to deeply believe that to be violent towards women is shameful and unmanly. That process of cultural change is the key. While we live in a society that condones and legitimates the violence, and in which men are not speaking out against it, men will always find excuses for their violence. So I believe we have to create a cultural shift whereby men, whatever their hurts, whatever their desires or needs to dominate may be, will stop at that point, because they will have internalised so deeply that it is culturally unacceptable for them to be violent.

MASA's emphasis is on an educational strategy, that's targeted at all men. We [Melbourne MASA] don't work specifically with the perpetrators of physical violence, although we have done some workshops with men through the criminal justice system. Our strategy is a more broad-based one where we work in schools with boys, we do workshops with men in community groups, we do workshops in universities, workplaces and with unions, where the aim is to encourage all men to see that they have some responsibility in those cultural attitudes towards women.

Why do men who aren't violent have any sort of responsibility to end men's violence? Why direct campaigns at men who apparently aren't violent?

Well, firstly by directing our campaigns at all men we inevitably pick up men who are physically violent or who have been violent at some stage in their lives. However, while the majority of men have never been physically violent, we would argue that virtually all men have used power and control tactics with women, and we believe that such behaviours reinforce a climate where violence against women is accepted. Also, men's silence on the issue of other men's violence can be seen as condoning the violence.

If you work only with physically violent men and you haven't addressed the wider cultural attitudes towards women, those men after they've finished a 12-week programme are going back out into a society that's giving them a whole lot of messages that legitimate further violence. Because men benefit from positions of power and privilege, we believe that all men have some responsibility to play in being pro-actively opposed to violence.

Some men in the men's movement argue that men are violent to women and other men because men themselves have been hurt. Therefore, to stop men's violence, we have to stop the ways in which men are hurt. What do you think of that?

Clearly, a number of men who are violent towards women have been hurt. However there are lots of other men who have been hurt who are not violent, and there are lots of men who are violent who have not been hurt. So, it seems to me that a therapeutic response to men's violence, that endeavours to heal the hurts, is not as a strategy going to address the real causes of men's violence, which I believe are more fundamentally about power and control. Having said that, this is not an argument that men's hurts ought not to be addressed therapeutically or that men ought not to embark on a healing journey to deal with those hurts. I just do not believe myself that this healing journey is the way to end men's violence. Whatever the nature of hurts men may have experienced, they can stop being violent. And quite often, when they stop being violent, it may very well be that their hurts intensify and this may increase the need for them to go on a process of healing. But that process of healing and therapy, I believe, should be completely separate from any societal process of stopping their violence.

You've argued that men's violence against women is about men's power and privilege. How then does men's violence against other men fit in?

I find it useful to draw upon Michael Kaufman's notion of a triad of violence, which is men's violence against women, men's violence against men and men's violence against themselves.** I think it is important that we examine those other two forms of men's violence as well. To date Melbourne MASA has perhaps given most attention to men's violence against women, because we believe that it's an area that men have neglected to take up, but we're mindful of the other two areas. We have now started to address issues of anti-gay violence and homophobia, by including elements of that in the patriarchy awareness workshops. And some men have also been looking at men as survivors of men's violence.

I think that men's violence against other men is still a form of power and control. For example, we've now recognised and named the high level of sexual harassment in schools by boys of girls. In all-boys schools, you'll see the same levels of harassment, by boys of those boys who are regarded as sissies or potentially gay. So, I think that the processes of domination and control present in men's violence against other men are similar to those present in violence against women and girls.

Writers such as Bob Connell argue that there is a hierarchy of domination and subordination among men themselves. Do you see that?

I think that's true. When we talk about men, we have to endeavour to be very specific about which men we're talking about. And I think there's a tendency to see all men as in some way equally powerful as a group and as a constituency, and not to acknowledge and recognise the structural power divisions between men around sexual preference, class and race.

The key shift that MASA intends is in men's belief that violence is acceptable. Do you think that the campaigns MASA has done so far—the National Day of Action, the White Ribbon Campaign, the numerous public speeches, work with boys in schools and so on—have had any effect on Australian men's acceptance of violence? Are they a drop in the ocean?

Perhaps it's a small bucket! It's hard to measure in any absolute sense. Only through the numbers of men in the annual marches, and the response we've had to the White Ribbon Campaign. All I can say at this stage is that those responses are encouraging. And I think men are receptive to MASA's work in a way that was absent ten years ago—which is not to underestimate by any means the resistances that I talked about earlier, and the power of the forces we're up against. I'm hopeful that the work we're doing is making an impact.

Do you think the media response and even the responses of feminists and women's services are more sympathetic than they may have been in the past?

I'll put it this way. I think that when men first start getting involved in this sort of work, women are sometimes understandably cautious and hostile. And we men think we've got a lot more sorted out than we really have. At the beginning, women are saying "It's just another group of men who've found yet another way to further oppress us," and we as a group of men might say "We have moved so far in relation to sexism." What I think happens over time, and what has happened with MASA, is that as we've got more involved in confronting men's violence, many female observers have noted that we're not quite as sexist as they first thought, and we have discovered that we are more sexist than we first thought.

Over time, I think, we learn more about our own sexism through our involvement in the struggle, and through our involvement we demonstrate the extent to which we have grappled with that sexism. And so, through our practice, we are judged by women perhaps more supportively than other forms of men's work that have taken place at other times.

I think another reason for a sympathy among many feminist groups is shifts in feminist theorists' understandings of violence—from a view of violence as a fairly homogenous phenomenon of men's power, to a view that differentiates between more and less violent masculinities and sees violence as occurring along a continuum with different dynamics particular to different forms.

Also, white, heterosexual and middle-class women have undergone substantial challenges from their coloured, lesbian and working-class sisters, who've confronted their racism, homophobia and class elitism. Many of those women have started to examine their own positions of dominance, and have recognised points of continuity with men's struggle.

Do you think that MASA nationally is now a strong network, given developments at the second national MASA gathering in Brisbane?

I think that through this national gathering, we've strengthened the communication links and have been able to achieve a high level of cooperation around national days of action and campaigns, and have discovered a high level of affinity between many of the men working within the wider MASAs. So, in those senses, yes, I think it's been a very promising step. I think that we're still in embryonic stages of organisational development though, in terms of a national structure.

What are you troubled by in terms of how MASA looks at the moment?

That's a good question. I'm troubled that, in promoting a strong pro-feminist stance, MASA has been perceived as being anti-male. I want us within MASA to note that perception, and endeavour to work in ways that challenge and confront it. Secondly, I'm troubled by the extent to which MASA men are on the whole fairly highly educated, largely middle-class, white and heterosexual. I believe we need to do a lot more outreach work with working-class men, gay men and men of colour, to build bridges into those communities. Having said that, it's not to deny the work of those men who are active in MASA who are gay and working-class and from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

One of the struggles that we have as men working in this movement is also a personal struggle, to learn how to develop nurturing and caring relationships with each other that are not at the expense of women. I think we're still in very early stages of learning how to develop warm, loving friendships with each other.

You've said that it would be good to get more representation from gay men in MASA. Might it not be the case that the sorts of issues we are pushing, in particular men's violence against women, are simply more appealing and relevant to heterosexual men?

Increasingly, it seems to me that homophobia and patriarchy are two sides of the one coin, and that as pro-feminist heterosexual men we have perhaps not given sufficient attention to the role that homophobia plays in the reproduction of patriarchy. By the same token, I believe that many gay men have not given sufficient attention to the role that patriarchy plays in constructing homophobia. So it seems to me that gay men and pro-feminist heterosexual men need to begin to establish a dialogue whereby we start to explore those interconnections between patriarchy and homophobia. And I think we're both in fairly early days in that regard.

I also think that gay men are quite right to be cautious and suspicious of the heterosexual men's movement, because a lot of their experience of that movement to date has been that homophobia is alive and well within the men's movement, just as it is in the wider patriarchy. And I think it's only when we begin to address homophobia and deal with it within ourselves that we will potentially build some sort of bridge with the gay men's movement.

What are the possibilities for a broader pro-feminist men's movement? You proposed at the national gathering an anti-sexist men's conference next year, and I know you're interested in a broader movement. What is your vision?

In the long term I would like to see a much wider network of pro-feminist men that extends beyond MASA's focus on sexual assault, and that extends to networks of men focusing very specifically on pornography, violence against women in the home, men's violence against men, men's sexuality, health and ageing and work with boys in schools. My vision, I suppose, is for a national network within which anti-sexist men's groups will come together under broadly agreed upon principles and guidelines, and will through all that work be able to extend pro-feminist men's values throughout workplaces and organisations.

This sounds like it would be based very much on the American model, the National Organisation Of Men Against Sexism. Is that what you have in mind?

I attended a NOMAS conference in Chicago last year and I was impressed with the nature and diversity of their organisation and their networking. I do see that as a model that might guide developments in Australia, although I also believe that the models we construct are modified by reflections upon our own practice. While I think NOMAS is an interesting model to note and experiment with, I don't have any firm commitment to that as the only way to go.

I'm uncertain about whether or not pro-feminist men's action can come to constitute a social movement. I'm hopeful that it can, and I am strongly committed to working towards that goal and that vision. I am as yet uncertain about whether or not it has the potential at this time in history to be able to do that. But the only way to find out is to push against the boundaries and to see if we can create it.

What might stop it?

The resistances that I talked about earlier to pro-feminist men's work, and the reality that we as men have to confront the contradictions inherent in our position in patriarchy. We have to overcome being centred on the material interests and privileges that go with being men. We are in patriarchy as well as against it. Also we don't have many models of progressive social movements comprised of people who occupy positions of power.

But you also think it's worth going for?

Yeah, it's a vision that I have, and I'm hopeful that it's a vision that we can achieve.

*The first part of this interview was published as "Make a difference", in XY (Spring 1993). Bob Pease addressed men's resistances to a pro-feminist message and men's motivations for change. A report on the 1993 MASA gathering was also published.

**Kaufman discusses this in his book Beyond patriarchy.

First published in XY: Men, Sex, Politics, 3(4), Summer 1993–94. Reprinted with permission. PO Box 26, Ainslie ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA.