For my PhD, I am going to be researching primary prevention campaigns around domestic violence. Primary prevention campaigns work to stop domestic violence before it ever takes place, through challenging and changing the kinds of ideas and assumptions which tolerate, legitimise, and normalise men’s violence against women. I want to examine how male university students here at Durham understand and use some of the messages from primary prevention campaigns.
Why am I doing this? One of the major reasons is that I believe that we as a society need to radically shift our focus when looking at different forms of male violence against women, such as domestic violence. When thinking about how domestic violence can be prevented, we need to move our attention away from the women who are abused by their male partners and ex-partners. Instead, we need to start looking at these men, the men in their thousands who use violence in all its horrific forms against women in relationships. We need to ask why these men are choosing to abuse their partners, and how we can stop this from being a choice which some men consider to be legitimate. Engaging in primary prevention work means engaging with the idea that there is nothing inevitable about men’s violence towards women; that we cannot simply resign ourselves to the idea that some men will always use violence against their partners. Primary prevention means recognising that domestic violence is a social problem; that it is a product of the patriarchal society in which we live, where men dominate women on a structural basis, and male violence in turn reproduces these structures of oppression. It therefore means recognising that if we change society, we can stop domestic violence, before it ever happens in the first place. (Perhaps this is also why primary prevention has never been taken up in a significant way by the state – because it fundamentally means challenging the very basis of our current social order.)
We cannot just look at the practices of those men who use violence against their partners, however. We also need to look at men more broadly, and consider how our behaviour as men may help to reinforce rather than challenge the violence of men towards women. By staying silent, not just about the violence of other men, but about the sexism and misogyny that is wrapped up in so much of who we are and what we do, we are complicit in perpetuating male violence against women, and the structures that privilege us and subordinate women so pervasively.
These are some of the reasons why I want to look at primary prevention work, and how it can be developed further. For so long, we as a society have placed responsibility on women, on the victims, for stopping domestic violence, and we thus implicitly – and frequently explicitly – blame them for the violence of men. This is not dissimilar to the ways in which men who abuse their female partners blame their victims and make them feel like they are responsible for the violence. Feminists have been incredibly successful in their struggle to bring domestic violence into the consciousness of policymakers and public alike. Yet we as a society continue to ask “why does she stay?”, rather than “why is he violent?”. If we seriously want to tackle domestic violence, this has to change. We can only stop this phenomenon by stopping men using violence against their partners; it’s that simple. Of course, this does not mean that domestic violence services should be anything other than victim-centred, or that resources can be taken away from support for women in order to fund prevention work. That this is actually happening, and that domestic violence services are suffering so greatly as a consequence of the current government’s austerity programme, is indicative of precisely how serious the coalition really is about domestic violence.
Feminists have been exposing how we blame the victims for men’s violence for decades; it’s time that wider society started listening. It’s time that we shift the onus for male violence where it belongs; onto men. Men – myself included – need to look closely at ourselves, and ask ourselves how we can challenge the violence, the abuse, the misogyny and the sexism that men do to women on such a colossal scale in everyday life, rather than contribute to its maintenance. And it’s time that those in power started showing in deed, and not just in words, that they take domestic violence, and its prevention, seriously. Because men’s violence against women can be prevented, and it must be prevented.