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The White Ribbon Campaign: What it means and why you should be involved (1993)

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Speech by Michael Flood, White Ribbon Week launch, 6 Dec. 1993, Canberra, Australia.

The idea of White Ribbon Week is very simple: for men to wear a white ribbon, to show their concern about men’s violence towards women.

The white ribbon is a symbol of nonviolence, of peace, and of mourning for the victims and survivors of this violence.

I’m going to answer three questions: What is White Ribbon Week? Why is it focused on men? What can men do to stop the violence?

White Ribbon Week is a way for men to show our common concern about the violence done to women and girls. It allows men to make a public statement, to take pride in showing our concern about violence.

The White Ribbon Campaign has three goals:

(1) to get as many men as possible to wear a white ribbon during White Ribbon Week

(2) to undermine the social acceptance of violence

(3) to promote nonviolent behaviour in men

So, why should you wear a white ribbon? You should wear a white ribbon because:

  • You’re concerned about the violence done to women, the pain and suffering that you’ve heard about. You know that a fist in the face, a kick in the ribs, being forced into sex, you know that these are horrible things that should never happen.
  • You should wear a white ribbon because you care for your wife, your girlfriend, your sister, your daughter, your female friends. Because you want to support women, you want to help women stop the violence, you want women (and men) to be free of violence.
  • You should wear a white ribbon because, whether you know about it or not, many of the women you know have been subject to men’s violence.
  • You should wear a white ribbon because you know that men can do better, because you know that men don’t have to be violent, because you know that men can be and often are loving, caring and nonviolent.
  • You should wear a white ribbon because it will show that here is another man who feels that hitting, battering, raping and abusing are never okay, another many who believes that violence against women is unacceptable.

Have a look at this white ribbon on my chest. It is not a badge of purity. It does not mean that I have never been violent. It does not mean that I have perfect relationships. It is does not mean I have all the answers. It simply means that I think violence towards women is unacceptable.

The white ribbon is like a little flashing light, saying "I care about women," saying "Punching your wife is not okay," saying "Men can do better."

You may be wondering, why are we trying to get men in particular to wear white ribbons during White Ribbon Week? Why this focus? The answer is simple—men are part of the problem, and men are also part of the solution.

Let’s look at the problem first. The depressing fact is, when you look at domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, sexual harassment and street violence, it is nearly always done by men. Most men are not violent, but when violence happens, it is usually men who are doing it.

Every 100 times a woman or man is raped, 98 times they were raped by a man. Every 100 times that domestic violence occurs, 95 times it was a man who did it.

Some people think this is because of what men have in our pants. It’s testosterone or genes or something. Or that men are just plain nasty bastards, we’re born that way. We in MASA don’t believe this. We are far more optimistic and positive about men.

MASA believes that men’s violence is a product of the ways in which men have been taught to be men. Men’s violence is the product of society and history, not biology. Boys are not born violent, but they are born into a society that says being male is about being aggressive, tough and in control. Think of such role models as Rambo and Terminator. Boys are rewarded for being strong and unemotional, told that "boys don’t cry".

And boys are kept in line by other boys, through name-calling—you "wimp, you girl, you poofter"—and through physical threats.

What’s more, men learn a set of beliefs and attitudes that serve to justify violence, that say violence is acceptable and legitimate. We learn for example that when a woman says no to sex she really means yes. We learn to blame the victim. We learn to say that women "provoke" domestic violence or assault or that they’ve somehow asked for it.

When boys and men have been raised in this way, it is no wonder that some are violent.

Of course, there are many men who are not violent, men who treat women, children and other men with respect and love. But the fact remains, all men in this society have been offered a model of a violent and aggressive masculinity.

That is why White Ribbon Week is being organised by men, as part of the group Men Against Sexual Assault. Women have been asking for twenty years that men do something to stop the violence.

It is time for men to break the silence on men’s violence.

Men have a responsibility to do something about the violence that we and other men commit against women and girls.

I should mention that MASA does work with and consult women and women’s groups, and we believe we have a lot to learn from feminist work in this area.

White Ribbon Week focuses on men’s violence against women, so I’d like to give you a thumbnail sketch of this violence.

When I say "men’s violence against women", I am thinking of rape and sexual assault, wife-battering and wife-murder, the abuse of girls, sexual harassment, and the homophobic violence aimed at lesbians.

First off, this violence is largely invisible to men. We occasionally hear about the extreme cases, like when someone crashes their ute into the Jolimont Centre while hunting for their ex-wife! But men rarely notice the true character of men’s violence against women—the fact that this violence is widespread, frequent, and systematic.

The violence either occurs behind closed doors, or we don’t actually see it as violence.

In preparing for this speech, I did some research on violence, and found out some amazing facts.

  • I found out that 1 in 3 Australian families have at least one incident of domestic violence, while 1 in 10 are marred by chronic violence. Think about that next time you’re driving through the suburbs. Count the houses: 1, 2, 3, they’ve had an incident of domestic violence. And in 1 in 10, they’ve had chronic domestic violence.
  • Of the women murdered in Australia in 1990–91, 44% were killed by their husbands.
  • In Canberra every year, the Domestic Violence Crisis Service is contacted for the first time by about 3,000 women.z
  • According to several studies, 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused by the time they are 18.
  • And nearly all women experience some form of sexual harassment in their lives.

Consequences

We can all guess at the consequences of the violence for the victims and survivors: their pain, terror, shock, humiliation, injury, fear and death. But men’s violence against women has consequences for all women.

Violence is a fundamental violation of women’s human rights. Men’s violence, and the threat of this violence, limits women’s self-esteem, safety, freedom and mobility. Violence acts as a form of social control, limiting women’s access to paid work and political power. In short, men’s violence against women has the consequence of maintaining men’s power over women.

Men as part of the solution

I started off by saying that when it comes to violence, men are part of the problem—or rather, the male role is the problem. But men are also part of the solution. I believe that men have a lot to gain from supporting the struggle to end violence against women, and indeed, in ending all violence.

Violence harms its victim, but it also degrades the perpetrator. A man who chooses to be nonviolent gains self-respect, self-esteem, and the trust and respect of others.

Men have lots to gain from a world that is free of violence towards women. We will gain more caring and honest relations with women. We will gain closer relations with our sons and daughters.

When I first became aware of the issue of men’s violence, I thought it was the problem of other men. Now, I had heard enough and read enough to know that rape and domestic violence are not committed by lunatic strangers and psychopaths, but nearly always by ordinary men, men with average psychological profiles. I also learnt that women are most at risk from men they know—husbands, boyfriends, dates, care-givers, uncles, employers and so on. And violent men come from all classes and ethnic groups.

Most men will never commit an act of physical violence against a woman, but the men who do are known by us all. That’s why I believe every man can be part of the solution, by speaking out against men’s violence.

I have also realised that I need to look at my own involvement in violence. I’ve had to ask myself, how do I treat women?

While I haven’t been physically violent, I realised that I have sometimes treated women in disrespectful ways, used power over my girlfriend, been sexist. By working on my relationships with women, and my ability to listen, to communicate, to express emotions, I have gained enormously.

Sure, I still stuff things up sometimes, things aren’t perfect. But I get heaps of enjoyment and self-esteem from good, non-violent relations with women (and with men).

Okay, these are some of the ways in which men can gain from supporting the struggle to end violence against women. Whey then are some men reluctant to join in, speak up, help even through the simple act of wearing a white ribbon to show their concern?

There are three levels of denial that many men will offer. Firstly, some men will deny that there is even a problem. Secondly, some will deny that things can change. Thirdly, some men will deny that they can or should play a part in the solution.

What we are up against is the fact that every man has been taught the lies, the stereotypes, about violence and about women.

But even if a man accepts that men’s violence to women is a problem and that he can do something about it, even if his heart is in the right place, that man may not wear a white ribbon. Why is wearing a white ribbon so hard?

Making any sort of public statement can be hard. Men are under a lot of pressure to stay within the male role. If I question violence, if I say "You can’t treat women like that," a minority of men will try to keep me in line. But by wearing a white ribbon, we are standing up for what is right. We are standing up for women, saying that violence against women is not on. And we are saying that men can do better, and that men will also gain from a nonviolent role.

In Canada last year, 900,000 men wore white ribbons during White Ribbon Week. Nearly a million men showed their concern about violence against women. So I know that men can do it.

The White Ribbon Campaign is really only just beginning in Australia, and in Canberra, Men Against Sexual Assault are running a fairly modest campaign. Nevertheless, we think that this is a very important step that men can take. We would love your support.

What men can do

I would like to end with what men can do to help stop violence against women.

  • Wear a white ribbon from today until Saturday 11th.
  • Encourage your male friends and colleagues to wear a ribbon.
  • Have a look at how your own attitudes and behaviours may contribute to the problem.
  • You can also help distribute ribbons, by taking a box to your workplace or community.

There is another important way you can help the effort to end men’s violence. Sign up as a member of Men Against Sexual Assault. Your membership fee will go towards future campaigns, and if you like, you can help with MASA’s work.

So, wear a white ribbon to show your concern about violence against women. Take this small step, and you will be helping make the world a more peaceful and fairer place.

You should wear a white ribbon because:

  • You’re concerned about the violence done to women, the pain and suffering that you’ve heard about. You know that a fist in the face, a kick in the ribs, being forced into sex, you know that these are horrible things that should never happen.
  • You care for your wife, your girlfriend, your sister, your daughter, your female friends. Because you want to support women, you want to help women stop the violence, you want women (and men) to be free of violence.
  • Whether you know about it or not, many of the women you know have been subject to men’s violence.
  • You know that men can do better, because you know that men don’t have to be violent, because you know that men can be and often are loving, caring and nonviolent.
  • It will show that here is another man who feels that hitting, battering, raping and abusing are never okay, another many who believes that violence against women is unacceptable.