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Want men to stop hitting women? Stop talking about “real men”

by Michael Salter
28 September 2015
A co-ordinated response to domestic violence in Australia has bipartisan support and will begin with $100 million in additional funding. Michael Salter wants to make sure the message is consistent with the policy.

“Real men don’t hit women,” declared Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull this week. He went on to announce a significant domestic violence funding package. This slogan was also routinely utilised by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and is a long-standing feature of prevention and education campaigns around the world.

The message is one many people support. On the face of it, it serves the dual purpose of shaming domestic violence perpetrators and reinforcing the masculinity of non-violent men.

turnbull.jpgMalcolm Turnbull at the domestic violence policy launch last week. Image: Eddie Jim. 

It’s interesting this message is most often delivered by stereotypically successful men such as politicians, sports stars and celebrities. In this way, men and boys are encouraged to see refraining from bashing women as another masculine accomplishment that deserves recognition and acclaim.

We are assured we can be “real men” and enjoy all the perks of masculinity without needing to resort to violence against women. Apparently, not hitting women makes our masculinity even more ‘real’.

On closer inspection, it seems peculiar to celebrate men and boys for not engaging in obviously illegal and harmful behaviour. What is it about violence against women that prompts us to proclaim the masculinity of men who eschew it?

Sexism is so pervasive in our society it becomes invisible, like the air we breathe. It produces the conditions in which domestic violence takes place and then seeps into the solutions we propose for domestic violence. It would be inappropriate to tell white supremacists they can still be ‘racially pure’ without racial violence. “Real whites don’t hit blacks” might ostensibly be an anti-violence message but it hinges on the very notion of racial purity causing the violence.

In the same way, “real men don’t hit women” only makes sense within the culture of sexism that drives violence against women. Male anxiety about being a “real man” is at the very core of physical and sexual violence.

Men who identify strongly with traditional, stereotypical notions of masculinity are most at risk of perpetrating domestic violence. Boys raised in a culture of masculine entitlement can grow into men who feel disrespected and turn to violence when they don’t receive the status and deference they expect from their partner.

Messages about “real men” are not part of the solution to domestic violence. They are part of the problem. Every Australian man grows up being told “real men don’t hit women”. We are taught “real men” are naturally strong and aggressive, but women are too weak and defenceless to make legitimate targets.

The man least likely to hit or abuse a woman is someone who doesn’t care if he’s a “real man” or not.

Instead, we are encouraged to direct our violence against each other, usually through sport (or physical combat after a few beers). Manfully protecting women is another way of proving our masculinity to others.

“Real men don’t hit women” suggests violence against women is wrong because it is cowardly. It supports the stereotypical view of women as too weak to defend themselves. In fact, women regularly strike back against domestic violence. As a domestic violence worker said during a research interview recently, “Not all of our DV victims are the meek, quiet woman who doesn’t speak up for herself, you know”.

Women who exercise their right to defend themselves against male violence are often stigmatised. They defy sexist expectations that “real women” are too weak to protect themselves and need a “real man” to rescue them.

We won’t stop violence against women by promoting gender stereotypes. The man least likely to hit or abuse a woman is someone who doesn’t care if he’s a “real man” or not. He’s found fulfilling relationships that don’t depend on other people’s assessments of his masculinity.

The good news is these are exactly the relationships men are looking for. No boy grows up hoping to turn into a violent partner or abusive father. Boys and men want to be part of strong relationships, healthy families and happy communities.

Violence corrodes relationships and leaves men alienated, confused and dependent on empty macho displays for a momentary sense of self-esteem. That’s the cost of worrying constantly about being a “real man”. Leaving that anxiety behind opens up a raft of opportunities for boys and men to engage with the people we care about on the basis of mutual respect.

Male violence is an obstacle to the kinds of lives men want to lead. This is the message we should be taking to men and boys.

Michael Salter is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Western Sydney. Follow him on Twitter @mike_salter.

If you or someone you know is affected by sexual assault or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. In an emergency, call 000.


Patricia Poulos
Domestic violence has escalated as financial pressure and idleness is thrust upon those whose faith and hope has been destroyed by governments. The 100 million dollars should go to creating jobs. Jobs cure and prevent crime. Men in meaningful employment are less likely to abuse women. Murder and suicide in families especially those on the land, is the result of financial distress.
Those commenting here should step back and look at the big picture. Financial viability of business in the city of Sydney is being destroyed to pave way for foreigners to enjoy our beautiful Harbour built and created by Australians, whilst Aussies are being pushed out West never to be sufficiently financial to enter the roads which lead to [Rome] the city only available for view from their screens. That is, should they have sufficient funds to pay their electricity.
24/10/2016 9:48:56 PM

"if they hold traditional gender role attitudes that legitimise violence as a method of resolving conflict or as a private matter" is NOT the same as "if they hold traditional gender role attitudes".

You may think they are the same, but many if not most people would disagree that "traditional" means sanctioning violence. The PM has a right not to have his words misconstrued. It is an obvious point that wife-beaters will have an attitude that says wife-beating is okay. But that attitude is only "traditional" is you define it as such. Clearly, the PM wasn't suggesting such as definition by "real men."

"men and boys are encouraged to see refraining from bashing women as another masculine accomplishment that deserves recognition and acclaim." This is a very large strawman. I agree that the PM was looking to shame men with the statement, but reading accomplishment into it is your own wild elaboration.

The rest of your argument hangs on the strawman and misinterpretation of the PM's words.
15/10/2016 12:56:00 PM

Alan Fournier
Here in Canada prison, racism, violence, murder, homelessness, homophobia, mental illness, suicide, reproductive rights, workplace injuries and death, military deaths, parental bias, failing our veterans failing education, lack of empathy and compassion, lack of choices, degradation, dehumanization, etc., are all overwhelmingly male experiences of gender injustice. Even sexual assault and domestic violence equally affect men. These are all examples of historical disadvantages that men have endured due to male gender role expectations There's a huge male underclass in this society, as compared to those in power, influence and authority. Chivalrous men who more often than not attain their influence, power and authority at the expense of other mens value, rights, justice, dignity, humanity and compassion. Female victimization and oppression pales by comparison. If you don't believe me google the "chivalry hypothesis? Patriarchy is actually a construct of the male/female dynamic. It is a collective male gender role response to female demands for deference, protection and resource provision. It's mirrored throughout nature. It's really all quite primal. That patriarchy that we all love to hate actually provides women with what can only be called privilege. So called male privilege was based on expectations of male accountability and responsibility. Men are held to much higher standards of accountability and responsibility. That must end. Since the dawn of humanity men have slaughter each other by the billions to fulfill gender role expectations and seek approval from potential mates. Yet feminism still reinforces male gender roles with the help of white knights in power, influence and authority. Women through feminism have thrown off gender roles that they deem oppresses or victimizes them. Men must demand freedom from theirs. But don't expect male leadership to provide that freedom. Many a leading feminist has said that when men realize the oppression of the patriarchy, it will make feminism look like a picnic. What those feminists don't realize is that with the end of that patriarchy will come the end of female privilege. The only way that gender convergence will ever work is to end the male/female dynamic as it is. Either that, or the male/female dynamic will end gender convergence. The more pressure that the men and women at the top put on the men below them the more likely a more turbulent reaction. We've seen it throughout history. We are seeing it now in the US GOP primaries, in the Trump and Sanders camps. That demographic is growing rapidly.
30/04/2016 11:11:15 AM

Everyone has this backwards. I was hurt really badly when i was a boy, i was to made to feel worthless, at ten years old i had to to protect myself from being hurt again, i had to become a man and fast,. But i didnt know what a man was because i didnt what it was to be a boy first, i was told weakness is wrong, vulnerability was bad, real men do this, real men do that. I taught myself that i had to protect myself at all costs, when i percieved a threat i would become caustic, like poison, to destroy what was attacking me, i could not afford to be made to feel worthless again because i wasnt going to make it through this life like that. I never have hit my partners, but i felt i needed control and it manifested itself in my behaviour towards my partners and everyone in my life. Boys dont need to be told they need to be men, they need to be told it is ok to be a boy, it is ok to be weak, it is ok to vulnerable, and it damn well ok to cry, that weakness is what allows you to see it in other people and nuture it. We need men to guide children through boyhood, we need men to guide boys to manhood, being born with a penis does not make you man, how you react to the forces applied to your life is what makes you man, and how you treat other people is what makes you a man.

A lot of these are men that are being abusive are being hurt as boys, they are teaching themselves how to react because they dont know any other way. it is a cycle and we need to stop it, we need to allow these boys to be children before they can become a man.

To be made to feel worthless as a boy and to be told you are worthless as a man is a very dangerous cycle and it wont change anything.

Celebrate boys as boys, as children, not as men, it is a long path to becoming a man, and we need to be there for age appropriate guidance.
31/12/2015 9:21:14 AM

How can the author take an issue as deeply serious and pervasive as domestic abuse and turn it into a complaint about how he doesn't want to be expected to play sport? Can we get back to the real issue?
22/10/2015 11:56:28 PM

Gunter Swoboda
With all due respect I think the author of this article misses the real issue. However, he is certainly not alone in this. Most of the perspectives about men, masculinity and how we behave has missed the 'real' issue, which is Patriarchy. Yes, feminists have understood the issue. The problem has been that there has not been a clear appreciation of what constitutes Patriarchy other than on a socio-political front.
Firstly, it is important that masculinity (patriarchy) is not a biological issue. It is the nurture side of the argument. That is men are socialised to be patriarchal. Being patriarchal means being territorial, hierarchical, acquisitional and competitive. And when we fail at these, we become combative, aggressive and violent.
These values without higher order values, predispose men towards an individual and collective narcissism that results in being exploitive and potentially violent. This is clearly evident in many men's personal relationships, and within the structure of our institutions and organisations.
Secondly Patriarchy inhibits appropriate emotional expression, empathy and altruism. All characteristics (values) that allow for authentic relationships.
The third issue in this debate is that we cannot ask men to fundamentally abandon patriarchy when all our institutions, organsations and educational systems are built upon patriarchal values. Yes, men need to change; more to the point, we need to evolve. But so does our society.
Therefore law enforcement and social education on violence that is isolated from the real issue, that is the need to deconstruct patriarchy, will not succeed, especially when the social demands continue to insist that we are territorial, hierarchical, acquisitional, competitive and finally combative.
We need to address how boys are socialised from the cradle on. We need fathers to be good role models, and we need institutions and systems that allow for this to occur.
20/10/2015 8:34:35 AM

Crap. Real men do NOT hit women.
Men who haven't grown up do. Have a look at NPD. It is a mental illness. The temper tantrums ate boiling away under the surface. I have written to the Minister for Health and everyone else. Read the behavioural symptoms. Put them in girls mags.
Then educate boys to manage their emotions!!
18/10/2015 3:01:39 AM

Real men do hit real women and real children and even other real men, with real fists and real feet and sometimes real weapons. A focus on violence as the problem, no matter who directed to or by, is the only sensible way to frame the problem. Then we can stop assuming a heirarchy of victims of violence - weak, gendered, in need of protection - and a cohort of appropriate targets - sportsmen, soldiers, people who evoke xenophobic fear in 'real men'. Let's aim at making all violence unacceptable instead of reinforcing 'real man' sterotypes.
16/10/2015 7:52:49 AM

I can't see how having the perfect wording on this issue is going to solve the problem either. I'm rather tired of the semantic debate.
12/10/2015 12:56:56 AM

It is time. It is the 21st Century. We can do it. The inherent ancestral emotional lineage within the alpha male and alpha female" caveman" mentality needs to refine its commanding and leadership abilities. Our divided roles of Protector and Nurturer served a purpose. In saying that, though, don't get me wrong, we still need those qualities to be present in our relationships but in a less insecure, detrimental, possessive, controlling and jealous way. This is hard for our Reptilian part of the brain to get a grip on-but we must!

Men, be our Men. We like you. We want to be in relationship with you however we just cannot be your "property" anymore. You have got to stop being fragile about your ego, your sense of masculine identity. A 'strong man" is no longer about brawn. We are in the 21st Century not 1 A.D.

I like your physical strength when you use it to protect or nurture. Not to control, contain or denigrate. Being cruel physically, psychologically and/or financially is just not okay. For me masculinized energy that uses force and intimidation (i.e brawn) is a reflection of inherent weakness of character. This masculinized energy is also contained with females. There are enough females committing cruel and bullying behaviour towards other females-both in work relationships and in personal relationships.

Personally, I feel our little ones and those coming into the world now are not built emotionally or mentally to follow this kind of abusive masculinized energy. We need another kind of leading masculinized energy. But what does that look like for the 21st Century? Is it one that is not afraid to initiate, lead, be enthusiastic, be in touch with his heart, talk things out, not hit below the belt. This masculinized energy manages but really does not yearn to manage. This masculinized no longer gets a buzz out of dominating and controlling for the sake of it. Instead this masculinized energy negotiates more and more. Maybe this masculinized energy is already present?
10/10/2015 10:08:06 AM

Harry Osh
If you tell a man "not" to abuse a woman, in his mind is still the idea of abusing women. It is exactly the same as when the government says "don't panic" which causes panic. All Turnbull has done is negate the problem which does not solve the problem. To solve the problem, we take the focus off the male-female binary and focus instead on the minority gender role - the role of nurturing, caring and stewardship. This will put out the fire of violence like water puts out a flame. Unfortunately our entrepreneurial culture that Turnbull is obsessed with stifles the minority gender role debate and fans the fire.
8/10/2015 9:32:19 AM

"Real me protect women"
I think this would serve as a better idea for future generations as it removes the negative and focus on an alternate solution, protection as opposed to aggression.
Also (and respectfully) I think something like "real women empower men" could solve a lot of problems too... Men aren't always the abusers as many may believe
6/10/2015 8:34:26 AM

I'm going to have to play devil's advocate a little here. This article is all well and good, but it completely ignores the fact that an estimated two thirds of all domestic violence is directed at the male by the female. Just because it mostly goes unreported, does not make it untrue or acceptable. How many times have you seen men being slapped by women for all sorts of reasons, or plates being flung across the room when a woman is having a tantrum? It's glamourised in films and television shows, which normalises the behaviour in every-day scenarios. You never see men perpetrating acts like this without swift punishment. There are two sides to this coin, and while I'm all for protecting women - I'm also for protecting men. Men have no voice in this, and they really should. If a woman is beating a man, and the man protects himself in any way - instantly he's at fault for "restraining" or "striking" a woman. Fair's fair, and this whole topic is not fair. Stop vilifying men at every turn and treat them equally, since they treat women equally.
5/10/2015 8:57:30 PM

Jan Armstrong
Every single day on daytime/night time television we see brutal violence against women. Midday movies, SVU, NCIS et al. It's usually some poor woman who gets it. "Once Were Warriors" was screened the other night in prime time. Sickening violence against women and children. It's possible some men may emulate this stuff, thinking it's normal, even though the film does not intend that to happen. There should be specific warnings at the beginning of these programs such as VAW (Violence Against Women.) or VAC (violence Against Children.) The sad part if that it probably won't deter men who want to see women bashed up on the telly.
5/10/2015 1:33:01 PM

Lisa Marie
This article is boo hooing labeling abusive men as "not real" men so they can't function and learn to play well with others because of it? Oh those poor poor abusive bastards we should feel sorry for them... This article is stupid, you may as well have a pity party for rapist as well. Sounds just like the religious extremists claiming they are being persecuted for being outed for their hatred.
4/10/2015 4:33:30 PM

"Want men to stop hitting women?"

Yes. I also want them to stop hitting girls, boys, and men.

"Stop talking about 'real men'"

No. I refuse to cease talking about and writing about who and what "real men" are.

It is a fact that "real men" do not batter anyone: not women, not children, not men, not dogs, not anyone nor any thing. The Real men paradigm mandates that men take responsibility for their emotions, their anger, their frustrations, their failures, their angst, and their disappointments.

The article's writer is complaining about the observed fact that human males, as is true with most male mammals, are by nature violent and abusive: the Real Man paradigm *IS* a badge of accomplishment, as it damn well should be. The article's writer wants people to falsely believe that the "real man" meme is "sexist," as it implies girls and women cannot or will not defend themselves and therefore need a man to do that for them--- which is utter crap. Expecting men to behave like they should does not in any way imply any behavior at all by or from girls, women, boys, or "fake men."

Human males, and most mammal males, only see abusive behavior among the submissive, low-hierarchy members. It is the weak, timid, cowardly males that abuse females and children and their peers. The Real Man paradigm exists to shame these weak males for their abusive behavior.

Real men don't hit anyone, let alone women.
4/10/2015 6:35:36 AM

Janet Georgouras
Such a good argument.

If there is such a thing as a 'real man' then what is a 'real woman'?
3/10/2015 11:41:33 AM

This is a wonderful article, thank you so much. The "real men" messages - just like the "real women..." ones - must go.

These monster-myths, of men who hurt others as aberrations, as mentally unstable, as the outliers and the freaks, are so damaging. Because they are not, they are people just like the rest of us. People can learn, and unlearn. Education is key, and if we keep reinforcing these awful masculinity ideas, and restricted gender roles overall, nothing will change.
2/10/2015 1:52:20 AM

This is a wonderful article, thank you so much. The "real men" messages - just like the "real women..." ones - must go.

These monster-myths, of men who hurt others as aberrations, as mentally unstable, as the outliers and the freaks, are so damaging. Because they are not, they are people just like the rest of us. People can learn, and unlearn. Education is key, and if we keep reinforcing these awful masculinity ideas, and restricted gender roles overall, nothing will change.
2/10/2015 1:52:07 AM

People talk of old/traditional attitudes to women's inferiority being confined in the past and yet new generations of boys/men, brought up on a diet of sexist and violent porn, are every bit as violently sexist as previous generations of men.
30/09/2015 7:46:58 PM

"sorry, but if you're being attacked, you defend yourself - the sex of your attacker doesn't come into it"
Unfortunately this is utterly untrue. If your Martial Arts instructor was half decent, at some point he will have covered the legal aspects of using what he was teaching you. What is likely to be considered appropriate use of force, and what will ultimately get you charged with a crime. I know someone that while working as a bouncer kneed a man and broke his ribs after they swung a punch at him, and he went to jail because the police and the court deemed the knee excessive. I can almost guarantee you that if I used a given level of force against a man attacking me and a woman the same size as the man attacking me; if the force against the man was considered justified, I would be facing criminal charges for using it against the woman. Unless she is armed with a weapon, as a man it simply isn't worth defending yourself against a woman. She won't inflict enough harm to offset the likelihood that you'll end up in jail for 6 months and ruin your employment prospects for the rest of your life.
30/09/2015 1:40:37 PM

@Rebecca, at the risk of specist- & specious-ly slurring the extinct, "be a human not a cave-person" {"if you feel like hitting someone, observe it's just a feeling. Use words to process it and let go the feeling."} Frustration can be magnified by the love or esteem ~dependency between people, and we shouldn't perversely & counterproductively succumb to hurting each other out of fear of losing them.
Or "be adults not children" .. else go stand in the corners and try understanding the others' positions.
29/09/2015 7:12:54 PM

Rebecca Glasencnik
I had my doubts about this article - my initial impression was one of 'but it is a good thing, isn't it?'. I don't have a hang up with 'real x' - because I always ask for a definition of 'real'.
I now find myself agreeing with you - but this is where we run into another problem. How do we get that message across? How would the campaigns look? What SHOULD we say instead?
The problem is TIME. We need something to be done right now - and the kind of thing you want is a long term solution. We need to teach the generations coming about this - but what can we do for those already here, already having taken in some of this persona? There are already men out there with some of these old mentalities - and I have still young men in high school already demonstrating aggressive and problematic attitudes towards women and other men (show they're tough, or because other guys aren't 'man' enough). This is a big reason why I think this 'real men...' campaign is important - despite me being the first to hate on the inequality of it (I struggled with being the only girl in a martial arts class - and the guys all scared of me, because 'we can't hit girls' - sorry, but if you're being attacked, you defend yourself - the sex of your attacker doesn't come into it).
We must do something about this now - as well as changing the mentality long term. What message might be better to target those people committing these crimes (real women don't hit men either!) right now, and still tie into the longer term project of shifting culture?
28/09/2015 1:40:07 PM

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