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Clementine Ford: What Joe Hildebrand Is Getting Wrong About Violence Against Women

Joe Hildebrand is trending again.

On Studio 10 this week, he argued that it is “nonsensical” to point out that ending men’s violence against women involves changing male attitudes and actions. His comments came after the body of Courtney Herron was found in Melbourne’s Royal Park. She is the 20th woman to be murdered in Australia this year. Her alleged killer has been charged and is in police custody.

“I don’t see how me reflecting on myself is going to stop women being bashed or murdered,” Hildebrand opined, discounting the view of the Victoria Assistant Police Commissioner that “violence against women is absolutely about men’s behaviour". He later expanded on this view in a column published  by news.com.au. I’ve chosen to highlight three things that Hildebrand gets wrong.

1. The idea that men are largely disconnected from perpetuating sexism

Hildebrand writes, “No reasonable man disagrees that women deserve respect -- on the contrary, it is obvious to any decent man that they do, which is why the vast majority of men do it... Good men don’t need to be told and bad men won’t listen.”

The separation of men into a neat binary of good/bad is one of the more frustrating obstacles to changing public attitudes about gender inequality and violence. As feminists are constantly reminded, '99.9999999 percent of men are good and decent and would never do anything to hurt a woman'. That there is never an actual study cited to support this statistic is seemingly irrelevant. We feel it must be true, ergo, it is. If you are not bad, you are good.

READ MORE:  Police Hail Man A Hero For Saving Pregnant Woman From 'Unprovoked' Attack

READ MORE: Courtney. Natalina. Aiia. Eurydice. What Is Happening In Melbourne?

In fact, the vast majority of men are neither good nor bad, but neutral. They don’t intervene when their friends say or do something sexist. They don’t challenge gender inequality in their workplaces. They participate in victim-blaming narratives about women’s behaviour (which is always more comfortably policed than that of men) and how it’s this that’s really to blame for sexual assault.

These things might not be the same as a violent murder. But they are part of the continuum of disrespect, sexism and physical violence that women are subjected to by good men all the time. Is there anyone less qualified to determine a person’s goodness than the person themselves?

2. The notion that government campaigns don’t work to reduce gender based violence

Hildebrand argues that “those who abuse women to the point that they kill them are hardly likely to be swayed by a police press conference or a government ad campaign”. Again, this signals a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of gender-based awareness campaigns.

Shifting the narrative away from women’s behaviour and on to that of men isn’t about blaming all men for the actions of a few. It’s about recognising that the actions of a few stem from the culture of a gender-unequal world in which men are overwhelmingly the beneficiaries.

Men don’t choose to kill their wives and girlfriends because they were born with the ‘bad man’ gene -- they choose this course of action because patriarchy has convinced them they are entitled to, in the same way it’s convinced some other men who don’t kill their wives and girlfriends that they’re still entitled to make jokes about the ones who do, or to force ‘compliments’ onto women on the street, or harass them at the pub, or to push for sex until that 'no' becomes a 'yes' and then refuse to call it rape because they decided she consented.

This is about a spectrum of violence and that’s what education campaigns seek to disrupt. And we know they work! When the 'Don’t Be That Guy' campaign launched across several Canadian cities, the rates of reported sexual assaults in Vancouver went down by 10 percent in less than a year.

Detail from one of the posters in Vancouver Police Department's 'Don't Be That Guy' campaign. (Image: www.crimepreventionottawa.ca)

Awareness campaigns will not eradicate all signs of the behaviour being targeted. The purpose is to change attitudes and reduce the activity. And if they didn’t work, we would still all be pissing on at the pub on the weekend and driving home drunk.

3. The concept that this is really about class, not gender

One of the most harmful furphies propagated about gender-based violence is that it’s only something that poor, disenfranchised men do. Hildebrand argued this too, writing that “the rates are comparatively low in wealthy areas and skyrocket in areas where people are doing it tough. This is no surprise to any serious student of crime.”

It’s true that reported rates of domestic violence are higher in lower socio-economic areas, but this isn’t because of the simplistic take that structural disadvantage makes poor men more likely to beat up women. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Illinois in 2016 found that it was precisely a culture of affluence that prevented wealthy women victimised by family violence from seeking help.

According to the study, women who "bought in to the culture of affluence" reported "enormous pressure" to maintain the appearance of a happy family, which prevented all but one of the wives from disclosing they were being abused.

The shape of family violence is also likely to be different, with financial and emotional abuse far more likely. The wealthy areas Hildebrand dismisses as not really dealing with these issues might be filled with women who realistically understand that their rich husbands have the means and the connections to take custody of their children and/or to leave them destitute.

Something as seemingly simple as the fact that properties are larger and feature thicker walls also means neighbours are less likely to hear domestic disturbances than they would be in a block of flats.

READ MORE: The Domestic Violence Signs That Are Still Overlooked

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Gender-based violence is a community-wide problem to solve. Unfortunately, women have been doing that hard, tireless work for a long time and men -- even those ‘good’ ones we keep hearing about -- have done basically bugger all of it.

Patriarchy gives men a good deal of benefits over women but it also disadvantages them too, primarily by encouraging the idea of masculinity as emotionless stoicism. Being asked to reflect on their behaviour towards women is a perfect opportunity to also reflect on some of the conditioning they’ve absorbed as men, and to consider the ways it might be harmful to them too.

Working so hard to resist that? Well gosh, it just seems kind of nonsensical to me.