I could say #MeToo, just like virtually every woman I know, but today I don't want to write about my individual experiences of harassment or abuse. Instead, I want to shift the focus of the conversation: from women's experiences of violence to men's perpetration. This is an issue I have been researching for over a decade.
The #MeToo campaign has been extremely powerful in exposing the enormity of the problem, opening a conversation, breaking the silence, and creating a space where women have felt empowered and supported to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault.
But the campaign also continues to put the onus of spreading awareness on survivors. We talk about how many women have been harassed but not how many men have harassed women.As Jackson Katz has argued, even the term violence against women is problematic. It is a passive construction in which violence happens to women but nobody is doing it to them. The vast majority of violence against women, trans and gender non-binary people, is perpetrated by men. This violence is driven by gender inequality, harmful models of masculinity, and a culture of misogyny that rejects consent and promotes disrespect towards women.
From 2010-2014, I led the United Nations Multi-country Study on Men and Violence, which interviewed over 10,000 men across six countries in the Asia-Pacific region to understand why some men use violence against women and how it can be prevented. We found that one in four men who participated in the study had perpetrated rape against at least one woman or girl in their lifetime. This statistic became headline news, reported on the BBC, Lateline, Al Jazeera, CNN and various other news outlets.
Some people suggested that this was just a problem in the Asia-Pacific region, and not as serious in high-income countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States or Australia. It is true that rates of violence against women vary significantly across and even within countries. However, as the #MeToo campaign has highlighted, sexual harassment and sexual assault are something that women in every corner of the globe experience on a regular basis.
Other people questioned the study findings, suggesting that men must have exaggerated their behaviour. Further analysis of the data illustrates that reports by women about their experiences of violence show much similarity to men's reports of perpetration. However, women's reported experiences of sexual violence were notably lower than men's reports of perpetration. It was less shameful for men to admit that they had perpetrated sexual violence than it was for women to admit that they had experienced it.
Rather than this being a case of men exaggerating, this evidence suggests that women under-report their experiences of sexual violence. This is due to a multitude of reasons including shame, stigma, fear of retaliation, or the expectation that they won't be believed.
The pervasiveness of rape culture means that we continue to live in societies characterised by victim-blaming. Where women who have experienced sexual harassment or assault are often asked what they were wearing, if they were drinking or why they were out so late, and where men who perpetrate harassment or violence are excused as 'boys being boys'. And where it takes a global social media campaign for women to share their stories of harassment and assault in a safe, stigma-free space.
This victim-blaming sits alongside harmful attitudes towards consent. Many men we interviewed who admitted to perpetrating sexual violence did not even consider their actions to be wrong. In fact, across all sites, the most commonly reported motivation by men themselves for perpetrating sexual violence was related to a sense of sexual entitlement; a belief that they had a right to sex with women regardless of consent. That makes me wonder how many men would be able to recognise or admit that they might be responsible for the stories of sexual harassment or assault filling their social media feeds through the #MeToo campaign.
Our study also found that the majority of men who had raped did not experience any legal consequences. Men are pardoned by both a legal system that fails to effectively criminalise sexual violence and harassment and by cultural impunity that places responsibility on victims. In this context, we need solutions that target the root causes of violence such as gender inequality and rape culture, as well as better legal responses to violence that hold men accountable for their actions.
While it is brilliant that the silence is being broken, change requires more than a hashtag. It requires uncomfortable conversations that shift responsibility from victims to perpetrators. It requires all of us to call out sexism and to challenge inequality in our daily lives. We need to listen to women, girls, trans and non-binary people, women of colour, indigenous women, women with disabilities, and others who are at even greater risk of violence. We need to listen with an open and compassionate heart rather than a defensive #notallmen response.
The purpose of the UN Study was not to demonise men and I don't want to do that today. Of course, not all men perpetrate violence. But the sad reality is that many do, and they do so without legal ramifications or personal accountability, due to widespread norms and systems that continue to blame women and excuse men.
The #MeToo campaign has provided women with a vital, shared safe space. But if we want to end violence against women, men can't stay silent either. Some men have already started such discussions with #HowIWillChange or #IDidIt, calling for men to share how they will help tackle the culture of sexual harassment. We need to see this go further so that we can challenge the dominant and harmful models of masculinity that underpin men's use of violence against others. We don't need men to protect us, or value us only as mothers, daughters, wives and sisters, we need to see deep-rooted social change. I encourage you to ask yourself how you can support this change not just in your online presence on social media, but in all dimensions of your lives.