The harm done by the staunch, invulnerable man-alone “myth of masculinity” was put under the spotlight from two different angles at the recent community kōrero on preventing violence against women.
She Is Not Your Rehab was repped by founders and spouses Taimalelagi Mataio Faafetai (Matt) Brown (of Samoan descent) and Sarah Brown (Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa), while Dr Kris Taylor and doctoral student Minha Kim repped University of Auckland psychology research, in particular “Shifting the Line”. Both projects aim to support men to change men’s social norms to prevent violence against women.
What should be the one central thing and focus for prevention of violence against women?
Minha Kim: Listen to victims, listen to their voice.
Kris Taylor: Engaging with and overthrowing colonial patriarchy. The overbearing norms of masculinity don’t serve anyone very well.
Sarah Brown: It takes us all as a community as a society to create the cultural shift. How can you be the safe person in your whanau, in your neighbourhood, in your workplace?
Matt Brown: I was going to say that too! My encouragement would be: be courageous. To be courageous you have to be vulnerable. Sweaty palms, tummy going around like a washing machine, that’s vulnerability. If you’re vulnerable, you give other people the permission to be vulnerable.
Chair Stacey Morrison (Te Arawa, Ngāi Tahu) skilfully and wonderfully held the space so it was open and safe, producing rich kōrero on important, sensitive and complex issues. She cited the story of Niwareka and Mataora as showing (among other things) that violence against women is unacceptable: “In our most ancient ways of being, that is not us.”
Minha – whose own research is on young women’s experiences of coercive control – first read an excellent introduction to the evening written by her doctoral supervisor Professor Nicola Gavey. Nicola began with her positionality as a Pākehā researcher. She acknowledged “fundamentally different” ways of understanding gender violence in Aotearoa, and that for Māori both drivers (including colonisation) and solutions (drawing on Mātauranga Māori), are different from those of Pākehā, and of other tauiwi.
Nicola called the Auckland Women’s Centre “bold” for centring gender, calling it “a provocative and deceptively radical move” in New Zealand where for too long gender-neutral discourse “helps to obscure where the greatest burden of harm lies and where it comes from.” The data is clear: Women and girls suffer certain forms of violence, because they are women.
Nicola identified the “patriarchal social order” as creating the conditions for violence against women: 1. a strict gender binary; 2. the hierarchical relationship of that binary (men are assumed to be superior to women); and 3. the “restrictive rules of masculinity”: “Men are expected to reject any whiff of femininity – the idea that real men are not weak, they don’t feel vulnerable emotions like sadness or fear or jealousy […] this creates a psychological impossibility for men. It is not humanly possible not to feel vulnerable. And it is not humanly possible to not be dependent on other people.”
For those men who are invested in the man-alone “myth of masculinity”, “any threat to expose their vulnerability becomes potentially dangerous.” He may start to project his feelings of weakness onto women, seeing and treating them “as weak and inferior as a way of bolstering his own feelings of power and dominance. […] And acting abusively, controllingly and violently is one way to do this.”
Kris then explained how Shifting the Line is examining how to prevent young men buying into this “psychological impossibility” in the first place. In the project, groups of ethnically-diverse young men mostly at high school – respected by the researchers as “masculinity experts” – explained how gender roles operate and restrict their own lives. Boys talked of not being able to watch their preferred tv shows, listen to their preferred music, wear the clothes they like, for fear of being mocked. That “really broke my heart”, said Kris, but the deep reflection of the young men gave him optimism. The researchers are working on resources to talk to groups of boys, to equip their commitment to fairness and equality with tools to shift their social group norms. The Shifting the Line report also suggests “it would be better to inspire boys and young men to be ethical people rather than ‘good men’,” but seemingly paradoxically, this includes noticing their own gender privilege and entitlement.
Then Matt – who suffered violence and abuse in his own childhood – talked about “working with those who perpetrate violence to heal”. She Is Not Your Rehab is a violence-prevention mental-health programme for indigenous men which Matt and Sarah created out of kōrero at Matt’s barber shop, where he shared his story with other men. “I was born into violence but I am living proof it is possible to change the narrative,” he said at the forum. The men he works with were once upon a time were a victim themselves. “And once we connect with the victim, then we can start healing the man. When you heal the man, you create the cycle break. And that’s hard. […] Healing is not rainbows and butterflies. It is crying it is punching the air – not your partner, not your children.” Later Sarah noted that lots of men want to do the hard work of healing, but there are “simply not enough safe spaces to do that.”
The programme tries to offer that safe space via whakawhanaungatanga (creating relationships) and opportunities for men to face their past trauma. As Matt put it: “the trauma is not your fault, but your healing is your responsibility. And what you do not transform you will transmit [as violence].”
She Is Not Your Rehab is now a book; after raising money for it to be given to every incarcerated person in New Zealand, the Browns received “freaking beautiful” feedback such as children saying their dad no longer hits mum, and had never been so affectionate to their mum before, and a letter from a wahine saying “my husband has never apologised before”. The Browns have also created an “Inner Boy” app, pointing out that affordable therapy is usually highly unaffordable. “We wanted to [create] tools of healing that would be easy to understand […] true tools that will connect with us on a deep level, indigenous ways”. Matt also recited his powerful moving poem “Letter to my dear brother” (online here).
Sarah joined the other panellists to answer questions – Stacey started by asking about why having compassion for perpetrators as victims themselves made a difference. Sarah replied: “for us, in our mahi, we believe it starts with seeing someone’s intrinsic humanity. No child is born a monster. Things have happened in their lives that have caused the trauma and the chaos and the perpetration of violence. And so for us we truly believe a way forward is not the punitive approach we’ve taken for so long in this country. Incarceration simply does not work. Statistics show it doesn’t. So a way forward for us is empathy [..] and whakawhanaungatanga, and embrace people in their full story.”
Matt continued: “that’s not to condone the bad behaviour, the abusive behaviour [but] shaming mocking, throwing away the keys – it doesn’t work.” Prison is the biggest population of traumatised people and people learn how to hurt people in there.
Later on, Stacey asked what the alternatives to prison are. Sarah said that “separation from community into another community for rehabilitation” is sometimes a good idea, but this is not what we currently have. “[Incarceration] needs to be hugely reworked. There are models in Europe where incarceration looks completely different.” At the same time, Sarah advocated for better victim support and safety – police are overwhelmed with call-outs related to domestic violence and mental distress, as are refuges. “We don’t have enough people to deal with the demand,” she said, and at the same time that demand is only a fraction of the need: many victims don’t feel safe enough to reach out (due to indifferent or even harmful authority responses).
Another question was about perpetrators who come from a place of trauma-free privilege. Kris took this one: if men feel entitled and that entitlement is threatened, then some will turn to violence or coercion to protect their power. “from a young age, boys are taught to use violence to solve problems […] that’s pretty universal. […] A lot of privileged men are particularly good at manipulating people and closing people down.”
The gender hierarchy loomed in the background. Matt mentioned that in Samoa (as in Aotearoa), Christian missionaries introduced gender hierarchies based on a male God, which engendered gender violence. Minha noted “Gender pattern is a thing, it exists. […] How is society allowing men to shift their trauma into aggression and anger whereas women with trauma are not going down the same path?” But she also agreed that we need to come from a place of understanding: we live in a patriarchy but “it’s hard to find individual s who feel powerful in their daily life.”
Lots of work to do – and lots of people willing to do it.
Watch the livestream here.