Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
— James Baldwin, The New York Times Book Review
A few years ago, my social entrepreneur friend Jeremy Meltzer delivered a TED talk in Melbourne titled “Where is Men’s Roar?”.
He began by asking his audience to raise their hands if they had a sister. “Now leave your hand up and raise the other hand if you also have a daughter. Great, keep both of them up, and if you have a mum raise your knee.” The audience was a sea of upstretched hands and knees.
Meltzer then went on to cite United Nations statistics on the global pandemic of violence against women, describing it as “the most systematic and pervasive human rights abuse in the world”.
“What the hell is going on?” he asked. “Any one of these women could be our sister, mother or daughter. So where are the men? Where is men’s roar? Not for the football, but for what really matters? [Because] this is the greatest moral challenge of our times.”
Meltzer was calling on men to become accountable, to examine what it was in our conditioning that we were blind to, or had normalised, or both. Nothing short of a ‘revolution in the masculine’, he said, was going to return us to a healthy masculinity.
That talk — in both its title and substance — scorched itself into my brain, and this was five years before the moral alarm bells of Me Too began sounding across the world, first in Hollywood with the forensic takedown of Harvey Weinstein, then with an oh-God-not-you-too cast of stellar names drawn from across American arts and entertainment, politics, business and sports.
When millions of women worldwide began to share stories of mistreatment via the Twitter hashtag Me Too, in what was being described as a “watershed”, a “tipping point”, a “karmic earthquake”, I felt the tremors too. And not just because of the stories tumbling forth — they were bad enough — but because of the realisation of how much I didn’t know that I now felt an urgent need to explore, first of all in the pages of Good Weekend.
I wanted to investigate the historical causes of this rampant aggression, but also the effects that this violence had had on men themselves — the once sweet innocent boys who had become severed from their emotions in order to conform to the unforgiving world of male teenage culture. Men who had become so removed from their natural compassion that they were left isolated and vulnerable, and all too often prone to violent and abusive behaviour.
In the days and weeks following publication, on 10 February 2018, I received a response unlike anything I’d ever experienced in nearly 40 years of journalism: hundreds of emails, texts, tweets, Facebook comments, phone calls, letters, all taking up various aspects of the story.
I had messages from ex-police officers, school principals, teachers, international students, Gestalt therapists, men’s networks, men’s rights activists, women’s refuges, mothers of teenage boys, fathers of teenage boys, musicians, writers, journalists, PhD researchers, academics, feminist academics, feminist philosophers, angry spurned wives, angry spurned husbands, mental health workers and a woman who merely wanted me to know she’d emailed my story to Donald Trump. One correspondent wanted to tell me about the fa’afafine, the thousands of boys raised as girls in Samoa who, rather than being labelled homosexuals, transgender or transvestites, were considered a “third gender” in this tolerant society.
Of all the letters I received, however, the one that truly unseated me — and probably contributed most to the belief that I should try to write this book — was from a woman whose anguished, wild defiance leapt across my screen late one afternoon from somewhere in Australia.
They were the words of a woman’s quiet desperation and will probably be all too familiar to many women. I am grateful for her permission to reprint part of it here, albeit with her husband’s name changed to protect both their identities:
I woke up this morning on the couch ’cause my husband verbally abused me again last night and the idea of sharing a bed with that pig makes me physically sick.
I woke up feeling slightly more powerful cause I got to choose where I slept.
It was my SILENT protest. ‘See, Frank, you can’t control every part of my life. I’m not gonna sleep next to you tonight. I’m on the couch.’
I can’t say out loud that his behaviour is abusive and disgusting. He hurts me more…
I have never sent back food.
I have never called the manager to complain.
I have never rung a radio talkback.
I have never sent a letter to my local politician.
I’ve never said NO.
I’ve never said STOP.
I’ve never said, ‘Leave me alone’.
I’ve never told my husband: ENOUGH.
I HAVE NEVER SAID I DESERVE BETTER.
I always thought it was my fault.
I was too fat.
I was too ugly.
Not strong enough.
Not pretty enough.
Not good enough.
But then. This morning on the couch… I read your article.
It’s not me.
Every day, every hour, there is another incident, remembered episode, confounding new dimension to this epic drama of the sexes. Surrounded as I am by more than 80 books (yes, I’ve counted) on history, religion, politics, psychology and gender relations, buckling under the relentless influx of emails, Facebook alerts and tweets, wading through interviews, filtering, sifting, sorting one shocking experience from another, the noise has become deafening and the sorrow, at times, difficult to bear.
Women have always carried this sorrow, of course. They’ve been living inside their own bodies all their lives. But now it’s my turn — not to experience anything remotely like this, but to imagine what it might be like to live in this world without protective coating.
As instructed by my wise-beyond-years daughter, I’m listening to this collective rage and sadness, and I’m wondering how on earth we got to this place… or have we always been here?
Why it is that so many men inflict this hurt on others and themselves? What causes the threads of empathy to break, if the empathy was ever there in the first place? And what part might I play in all this? Because, surely, it’s not enough to say, as so many men are quick to do, that they share nothing in common with abusive men, that they would never hurt or harass a woman. What is it that we’ve all absorbed through our conditioning, and how do our behaviour patterns reinforce the worst views of women?
If you or someone you know is impacted by assault or abuse, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to help to stop using violent and controlling behaviour through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.
This is an edited extract from Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing by David Leser, published by Allen & Unwin, out now.