Courtney Herron toxic masculinity
A mourner leaves flowers at the site where Courtney Herron's body was found (Image: AAP/James Ross)

Violence against women in Australia is an epidemic and its worst manifestation lies in the spate of murders seen over the past year.

Now police are openly connecting the idea of toxic masculinity to violence against women, with Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius linking the recent murder of Courtney Herron to “men’s behaviour”. 

“Every time I hear about a woman being attacked — for me as a man — it gives me some pause for reflection about what it is in our community that makes men think it’s OK to attack women, or take what they want from women,” he said.

Other women killed at the hands of men in the last 12 months include Eurydice Dixon, Aya Maasarwe, Natalina Angok and Preethi Reddy. Herron is the 20th woman to be killed this year. And with each death the idea that violence against women is fostered by toxic masculinity is gaining prominence — though the term does tend to polarise people. So, what exactly is toxic masculinity? And are there any proactive policy solutions that can actually stem its effects? 

What is toxic masculinity?

Put simply, toxic masculinity refers to the harmful aspects and/or effects of traditional masculinity. It refers to ideas of what a man is supposed to be, how men are expected to act, and how those ideas can result in harmful and sometimes violent attitudes towards women. 

The American Psychology Association has broadly defined “traditional masculinity ideology” as “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence”. In practice guidelines released last year, the APA pointed out that men and boys are affected by these “descriptive, prescriptive, and proscriptive cognitions” physically and mentally.

The term toxic masculinity can put some people offside, however, and detractors often interpret it as a demonisation of men and masculinity. Studio 10‘s Joe Hildebrand labelled the recent comments from Victoria Police “nonsensical”.

I don’t see [how] me reflecting on myself is going to stop women being bashed or murdered, because I’ve never bashed or murdered anyone,” he said. “Maybe it’s a Victorian police problem. May we should say what is it about Victorians that makes them want to kill people? … I don’t understand what difference they expect this to make.”

Is there a direct link to violence?

Several surveys have crunched the numbers to provide insight into the attitudes and beliefs of young men. One Australian survey of men between 18 and 30 from the Jesuit Social Services’ Men’s Project found that young men who “conform to traditional definitions of manhood are more likely to suffer harm to themselves, and do harm to others”.

According to the recently published findings of a 2017 survey, from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), one quarter of men believed violence was excusable if it was a result of a temporary loss of control. One quarter of surveyed men agreed that if a violent person felt regretful afterwards, violence was excusable.

When young men between 16-24 years old were surveyed, a third believed women who said they had been raped had “led the man on and then had regrets”. Almost a quarter of young men thought women find it flattering to be “persistently pursued”, even if women are not interested. And the same young men were also more likely to share ideas of gender equality in public life rather than in their own intimate relationships.

More than 40% of young Australians surveyed also agreed with the statement that it was “natural for a man to want to appear in control of his partner in front of his male friends”.

A ‘hugely preventative’ plan

Concurrent Australian state governments support actions to reduce violence against women and, despite the much-needed ongoing work, Australia is ahead of many other countries.

Renee Imbesi from VicHealth and ANROWS told Crikey that government partnerships with the community can have, and in fact were having, a “hugely preventative” impact. “Australia is leading the way, and it is the only country to have a national plan to reduce violence against women.”

The 12-year National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children — which was instituted in 2010 — is now in its fourth stage. In March, the federal government dedicated $328 million to undertake the 2019-22 fourth phase of the national action plan.

“I’m not trying to oversell it, but we are actually quite advanced — we have a national framework for preventative violence before it occurs,” Imbesi said. “What underpins that is solid evidence based on what works and also what doesn’t work.”

One of the most effective preventive measures to counter violence against women includes the role of bystanders in shaping social norms. What that looked like in Victoria, for example, was teaching young men at universities how to be active bystanders in situations where they could speak up if they saw disrespect towards women and sexism.

“It’s not about changing their worldview or dropping their personality, it’s just asking them to react in the moment … [in a way that] fits with their beliefs.”

Action and reaction

Imbesi said it was common and somewhat understandable for men, and some women, to have an initially defensive reaction to critiques of toxic masculinity. But the reactionaries, she said, were out of step with the evidence, which has highlighted ongoing problems with men’s attitudes towards women.

She said previous initiatives geared towards young men that focused on preventing smoking or preventing road trauma (young male P-platers were most likely to get into car accidents) did not draw ire because the focus was on “empowering” them to make healthier choices that benefited them.

“No one wants to see more women killed, it’s easy to get on board with that,” Imbesi said. However, she said, it was more difficult getting men on board to look at their own day-to-day actions and how they influenced and enabled other men. She promised more initiatives to challenge these norms — moving towards ideals of healthier masculinity — were on the horizon.

What should the government be doing to stop violence against women? Send your comments to [email protected] Please include your full name.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

Peter Fray

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