Róisín Ingle: It’s not just Davy Tweed. We need to talk about men who abuse

It’s time to change the conversation around male violence against women

Why is domestic violence by men such a huge issue all over the world? Photograph: iStock

Why is domestic violence by men such a huge issue all over the world? Photograph: iStock

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Last week as I listened to Amanda Brown on the radio, telling Claire Byrne how she was abused for years by her late stepfather Davy Tweed, I noticed something new in my response to this distressing story.

(For those unaware of Davy Tweed, I should mention that in addition to the many hours he spent sexually abusing his children and beating his wife he was also proficient at rugby. Johnny Watterson memorably described him in this newspaper recently as “Davy Tweed: Secondrow. Four caps. Paedophile. Wife beater. Bigot.”)

As Brown outlined the depravity and cruelty of Tweed for us listeners, I found myself paying close attention. What exactly did I feel? Well, understandably I felt a sort of simmering rage that Brown and her family had suffered so much at the hands of this man. But what was more novel in my response was that I was not shocked or surprised. I noticed a sort of numbness in me, an intellectual neutrality that comes when met with anything deeply familiar. I realised that when it comes to the issue of male violence against women and the stories behind those abuses, I simply have no more shocks to give.

How can any of us truthfully say we are shocked or surprised by these stories? We have heard them all before. We know about predators and manipulators and controllers. We could write a thesis on grooming. We know how victims are terrified by the perpetrators into keeping their secrets. We know these are men that are looked up to in communities or seen as quiet family men or men that keep themselves to themselves. Every single detail told so courageously by Brown felt known intimately already by me, as they are known to anybody who listens to radio or watches television or reads the news.

Any shock or surprise is surely superficial given how many women have told us their stories which while they may vary in their geographical details, remain blandly samey in almost every other respect. The stories of ordinary men abusing ordinary women are tales as old as time. Being surprised by these stories is like being surprised that it sometimes rains in Ireland.

What I am increasingly shocked and surprised by, though, is that when it comes to the issue of male violence against women, it is still women and victims such as Brown who are at the centre of the discussion. The penny came dropping slowly as I listened to Brown tell her familiar story. Then I watched a 17-minute TED talk by American author and academic Jackson Katz which crystallised everything for me.

Katz is a man who has spent most of his life working around “gender violence issues”, that umbrella term for everything from sexual abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault and the sexual abuse of children. Katz believes that these issues, which are often described as “women’s issues”, are really men’s issues.

He says our usual approach, which makes women central to all talk around gender violence issues, is an unhelpful way to frame this conversation. He talks about how so often the dominant group – in this case men – is “rarely challenged to think about its dominance because that’s one of the key characteristics of dominance and privilege. The ability to go unexamined, lacking introspection, in fact being rendered invisible in large measure in the discourse”.

“It’s amazing how this works,” he says. “How men have been erased from so much of the conversation around a subject that is centrally about men.”

Instead, we ask women such as Brown to please tell us their trauma. As a podcaster and journalist I have done this many times myself: And tell me again what it was like and what he did? And how did you feel when he did it? Tell us so we can be shocked (again) by the image of this towering giant of a man like Tweed abusing a small child.

Let us be shocked. Or let us pretend to be shocked. Let us be appalled by the idea of these monsters when of course they are not monsters they are just men. (Not all men. That’s a somewhat idiotic and superfluous statement. Duh. Of course, not all men.) And while there are equally distressing cases of male victims of female violence, in the overwhelming majority of cases of violence against women we are talking about men. And of course so many men and boys are also victims of male violence. Making men central to this conversation seems an obvious step forward in any attempts to eradicate the problem.

It’s not that we shouldn’t hear from Brown about her trauma, but what might be helpful would be that after every interview of that nature, we’d have another conversation designed to tackle the issue of male violence against women and girls. A conversation with experts and activists and academics and behavioural scientists framed in a way that might actually help.

As Katz suggests in his TED talk, we might start asking different questions: why do so many men rape women? Why is domestic violence by men such a huge issue all over the world? Why do so many adult men sexually abuse girls and boys? What is wrong with the way we educate and socialise men and boys that leads to these outcomes? What are the forces that keep so many men quiet about these issues? As Katz puts it: “What’s going on with men?”

We are in the middle of the UN’s 16 days of activism around gender-based violence. If we really care about women such as Brown and every other victim of male violence – including men and boys – we need to urgently change the kinds of conversations we are having. We need to stop pretending to be so shocked and surprised.

roisin@irishtimes.com

If you have been affected by the issues covered by this article, help and support are available from rapecrisishelp.ie (1800-778888), connectcounselling.ie (RoI 1800-477477; NI and GB 0800-47747777) and samaritans.org (116-123)