Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Men needed to win fight against domestic violence

There are countless stereotypes associated with domestic violence, but one of the most common has to be that it is a crime solely perpetrated against women. While there is some merit to this thought, it is not completely true. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 73 percent of domestic violence victims are female. Of course, this means that 27 percent are male, and yet when people think about domestic violence, the image of a strong man beating up a weak woman is typically what comes to mind.

This notion yields a negative consequence: By suggesting that women are the only victims of domestic abuse, society believes it is women’s problem to solve. Hopefully people realize this isn’t true, but the stereotype has sunk in enough that there is a noticeable gap in the number of women and number of men actively volunteering in victim advocacy and violence prevention.

At Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE), men are some of our most vital volunteers. In our commitment to educate the campus about the realities of domestic/dating violence, our male volunteers often take a leading role, writing editorials or leading a class that delves into the specifics of such crimes. I’ve witnessed firsthand that the difference men can make is profound, yet there is a gap in the gender of our volunteers.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. Social connotations are definitely one of them. Contrary to what some people may feel, it is not sissy or feminine to work for an organization like PAVE. After all, isn’t the idea of men protecting women a theme we constantly see in the media? This is not to say men should be the shields protecting women, but they can most certainly stand by women’s sides and help to end the suffering.

Another stereotype preventing male participation is the belief that their help isn’t welcome, that a man’s involvement is a perpetrator’s involvement. This is simply not true. It is no more fair to men that they are constantly labeled abusers than it is to women that they are constantly labeled victims.

People like to think in black and white, but for most situations, including this one, narrow definitions don’t fit. We know the vast majority of men are anti-violence and don’t practice it in their relationships. This routine awareness could be channeled into violence prevention, but because of these labels, it rarely is.

Perhaps the ultimate reason men (and women, for that matter) are hesitant to be active in this endeavor is because the task of eliminating violence is daunting. Tapping someone on the shoulder and saying, “Psst, don’t hit your partner!” rarely yields the effects we would like, and when your gender has been stereotyped as abusive, it can be easiest to just ignore the situation. When this holds true, it is best to start with an approachable and doable first step.

This is what Ben Atherton-Zeman does. For a crime that can feel so massive, Ben narrows domestic violence down to what someone at UW-Madison might see or experience. Taking situations that are far too familiar, Ben dissects the ways victims and those around them may react when confronted with the reality of dating violence.

He also touches on the imperfect system of support most victims encounter when seeking both personal and legal help. All of this is meant to shed light on an often-silenced issue and encourage people to do something about it.

None of this is meant to imply that if you don’t get involved with violence prevention you’re ignorant or don’t care about these issues. That’s obviously not true. And while we at PAVE would love nothing more than to see some smiling male faces in our office making buttons or at our events, we’d also be satisfied with knowing men are out there recognizing what the problem is and doing what they can in their everyday lives to make sure it doesn’t happen.

This general awareness and casual advocacy is what Ben’s message gets at. He’s not looking to create the next male head of PAVE, but rather day-to-day activists who speak up when they hear a wife-beating joke, intervene when they see an argument turn physical and support a victim when one comes to him for help. This widespread consciousness is what will ultimately eradicate domestic violence.

-Jacqueline O'Reilly

(as published in the Badger Herald on February 9, 2011)