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SocietyDecember 18, 2018

Talking to our young men may unlock answers to the Grace Millane tragedy

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They may denounce violence, but the attitude of many young New Zealand men towards women remains toxic, says Dr Christina Vogels.

Over the past two weeks a number of narratives have threaded their way through the conversation about the Grace Millane tragedy. The primary one has been disgust and anguish that a young woman on her OE was brutally murdered in this country. But another has focused on how men’s use of violence towards women is all too common in this country. Like the #metoo groundswell, social media in particular has been inundated with people sharing their dismay and exhaustion at how men in the country are able to use violence to control and terrorise women, despite all the legislation, protection orders and policing which are supposed to keep women safe.

I shared many of these reactions. I felt visceral disgust and sadness, and like many women, I felt fear. This fear is acutely gendered: from a young age, girls are taught that the world is not safe for them. I’m 38 and I still feel this fear and modify my behaviour, almost subconsciously, to account for the fact that men are able to commit crimes of violence towards women in this country.

But as a researcher into violence against women, I had other reactions. The Millane tragedy highlighted the fact that in Aotearoa we have the highest rates of intimate partner violence perpetrated by men in the western world and that while what happened to Grace – a stranger encounter leading to murder – is still relatively rare, women in this country experience all forms and degrees of violence from the men they know on a regular basis.

In 2014, I had the opportunity as part of my doctoral research to speak with a number of our young men from a rural high school about their understandings of (hetero) romantic relationships and gender roles. What surfaced was a range of concerning themes surrounding what these young men – all aged 16 – thought boyfriends should be entitled to do within the context of intimate relationships. I strongly suspect that what I learnt from these young men may unlock answers about why Grace Millane was murdered – and why women in this country continue to be violently terrorised, both psychologically and physically, by men.

To start, I learnt that young men will be quick to tell you that violence towards women is “not OK”. The young men I spoke to effortlessly parroted the “It’s not OK” message (the catchphrase from the most recent family violence awareness campaign). But this certainty was short-lived. As we talked more, contradictory ideas about what boyfriends should be entitled to do within the context of intimate relationships surfaced – entitlements that in effect allowed for the objectification, denigration and control of women.

The first theme of entitlement the young men spoke about was linked heavily to male homosociality. It was clear from their talk that their ‘homosocial’ mates – meaning their same sex/male friends – were to be privileged over their girlfriends. In espousing these beliefs, the young men in my study openly denigrated young women who were seen to control or “whip” their boyfriends. These types of young women were talked about derisively as pariahs, or contaminants, to the male code of mateship. This denigration of women is reinforced by phrases in popular use like bros before hos and mates before dates. Men too feel the negative effects of this: the young men in my study talked derisively about boyfriends who let their girlfriends “whip” them, labelling them as “pussies” – a highly pejorative term that feminises men.

The second theme of entitlement arose as some of the young men spoke candidly about the practice of territory marking. Territory marking is when a boyfriend challenges any man who they think is making moves on their girlfriend: often this involves fighting the ‘other guy’. For these young men, to mark one’s territory seemed an important feature of one’s masculine status. Here, the girlfriend not only becomes an object to be fought over, but an object to possess.

The third theme of entitlement was men’s right and obligation to protect their female intimate partners. Although this may seem innocuous, I argue that it is perhaps the most insidious entitlement of all. When women are seen as needing protection from a man, the cornerstone of men’s power over women – and the glorification of dominant forms of masculinity – becomes fixed. This is because society tends to see men’s paternalism towards women as benevolent, which in turn means that it is seldom questioned. Just think of the paternalistic storylines – a man protecting or saving a woman – that are such a mainstay in literature, film or music. The problem is that paternalistic narratives like this entrench beliefs about a stark difference in gender roles. As long as women are seen as needing protection – with the implication that women are vulnerable, weak and passive – then men will continue to feel it is their right to control the women in their lives.

So, what does this all have to do with a tragedy like the Grace Millane killing – and all acts of violence men have committed towards women in this country? We still do not know exactly why Grace Millane was murdered, but I suspect that part of the reason was that her killer felt he had a right to denigrate, control and objectify women. While I am not suggesting that the young men in my study would ever carry out a similar heinous act towards a woman or use violence towards a female partner, they too sadly shared the same attitude to women.

This tragedy should be a reminder that we need to start talking more to our young men about what Australian scholar Moira Carmody terms “ethical relating” – and that these discussions need to challenge even seemingly benign facets of masculinity, like the belief that the man’s role is protector and provider.

What happened to Grace Millane – a stranger encounter leading to murder – is rare. What enabled it to happen is all too common.

Dr Christina Vogels is AUT’s Programme Leader, Bachelor of Communications and teaches media communications theory, cultural studies, gender theory and feminist theory. Her research is underpinned first and foremost by a passion for preventing violence against women.

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