Can we afford deny the connection between the dysfunction of the norms of masculinity and violence against men and boys any longer?
I was telling a friend recently about my emotional reaction the first time I heard the Joyful Heart Foundation’s PSA that talks about engaging men to “end violence against all people, men women and children.”
I explained that the words “ … men, women and children,” brought tears to my eyes, because in my nearly 25 years working in the field of child protection, sexual and domestic violence intervention, I’d never heard anyone else talk so directly about ending violence against men.
As one of the 19 million adult men in the United States who experienced childhood sexual abuse myself, I’m well acquainted with the impact that that trauma had on my growth and development. I find the choice to include men, as being worthy of protection from violence, profoundly validating.
My friend, a man I deeply respect for his years working tirelessly as an activist in the movement to engage men in ending violence against women and children, seemed shocked by the phrase. “Did they actually say it like that…’men, women and children,” he asked. “I could never say that.”
Because in fact, there’s nothing in the acknowledgment of the impact of childhood trauma on men that in any way diminishes the dire need to end violence against women and children. There’s nothing in that acknowledgment that disputes the dysfunction of norms of masculinity, which endorse anger as the only legitimate emotion for men, or that in any way excuses violence against women. If anything, a trauma-informed approach to understanding men’s often hurtful behaviors may be the best chance we have of breaking cycles of violence.
In my 15 years as a child-protection social worker, I was responsible for removing scores of children—both girls and boys—from abusive homes; some of the situations were so egregious that their placement lasted for the remaining years of their childhoods. I watched the boys grow up in family and community cultures where males are almost universally discouraged from ever acknowledging the feelings of pain, fear, sadness, or powerlessness that surely bubbled beneath the stoic exteriors of their budding manhood.
Can anyone really believe there’s no connection between that childhood trauma; the prohibition against emotional release for males; and the litany of ineffective, numbing mechanisms that we so often see men substitute for healing—things like addictions to work, food, drugs, alcohol, exercise, high-risk occupations and activities; things like violence toward others and toward themselves?
Now, I have no interest in the irrelevant argument, which I sometimes hear, that we somehow have to determine whether or not women are equally as violent as men before we can validate and address the negative impact of childhood trauma on boys. As I emphasize to the men in the Certified Batterers Intervention groups I lead each week, indicting women as a gender as a defense for hurting others is a pointless distraction from accepting responsibility for self-healing.
A boy or a man certainly has a right to be angry for abusive treatment against them, whether from a man or woman or an older child. Each of us must also hold ourselves responsible for how we express that anger and whether it seeps out in ways that are ultimately hurtful or abusive toward others.
But the real healing comes, when we men have social permission to start acknowledging the pain and vulnerability that lurks beneath the anger; to start voicing the powerlessness that comes from not being protected, and from having been, as males, culturally constricted from asking for help. And that’s why insisting on the inclusion of boys and men in the goal of “…ending violence against all people, men, women and children,” is such a critical part of really changing the norms of masculinity.
If we’re not ending violence against men, we’ll never end violence. Period!
Peter Pollard is the Training and Outreach Director for 1in6, Inc. Peter previously worked for 15 years as a state, child-protection social worker and was the Public Education director at Stop It Now! Since 2003, he has served as the Western Massachusetts coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and also does work for a Certified Batterers Intervention Program.
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Photo credit: Flickr / bixentro