Action Man

Published in Stopgap, the magazine of the Fawcett Society, on 1 March 2006

One man taking violence against women out of the realm of ‘women’s issues’ and giving young boys and men a positive role model is Damian Carnell, from Nottinghamshire Domestic Violence Forum (NDVF). Rachel Bell meets him and gets a male perspective on male violence

How do you reach the young men who are at risk of committing violence against women? How does your message of respect stand a chance in the sea of subliminal and blatantly sexist messages that young men absorb everyday through the media and advertising, through institutions, through leading ordinary lives. Damian Carnell has an answer. Racing cars and beer.

Damian is a Development Worker at TRI (Training, Resources and Information for work with men about domestic violence), based at NDVF since 2001. His training raises awareness of how male superiority and the subordination of women is manifest in social structures, from law, politics and education to family, employment and prostitution. The training also gives workers the skills on how to tackle the blame, minimisation and denial of perpetrators. Damian says, “Domestic violence comprises all forms of violence against women. The training training covers bullying, control and manipulation, men stopping women from going out, men stopping women from getting an education, men making women work for their profit, sexual abuse, and physical violence. ”

When he’s not delivering training or giving talks and workshops in schools across the county, Damian is devising smart and inventive ideas not just to reach but actively involve his target audience. “The racing car idea is a partnership with a voluntary sector project called Wheelbase. They provide facilities for doing up and racing cars at stock car races for the young people who are referred to them, such as young men with crime or truancy problems, ” explains Damian. “I went in to talk to them about why domestic violence happens, how relationships are manifested in the music and porn industries, for example and discuss respectful relationships. Then they worked on transfer designs for the stock car they built, including anti-violence graphics and their own statements such as “Hitting your wife harms her life’ and ‘Hands are not for hurting.’ And there you have it – a domestic violence awareness racing car, built by and a source of pride for young men. The genius is in getting the young men actively absorbed in the project and combining it with something they already care about. Which is where the beer comes in.

Another of TRI’s ideas is launching a beer mat in 11 community languages challenging excuses for domestic violence, including religion, stress and alcohol. Other recent initiatives include a screening and discussion of a Spanish film about domestic violence called ‘Take My Eyes’ to high school boys and a photography exhibition of women leaving abusive partners. Tied in with school and community projects, the exhibition of women and their children in refuges and beyond is travelling to different schools, libraries and community centres. It all sounds very positive doesn’t it. I ask Damian if he feels hopeful or despairing at the crisis of violence against women. It was a bad day to ask. “I feel despairing today absolutely. In domestic violence you feel like you’re moving forward and then it goes backwards, beyond where you were before. For example, five years ago I put a lot of energy into working with the licensing committee of Nottingham City Council to make a policy of rejecting applications for table dancing and lap dancing clubs, which they did, the first Authority to do so in the country. All of a sudden, there’s three in the city within the past year.”

Damian’s training raises awareness of the complex web of factors linking to domestic violence. The normalisation of porn and the sex industry through such ‘respectable’ gentlemen’s clubs on our city’s high streets is one of the huge challenges he faces.  “It’s a very worrying time at the moment. We’re at a very dangerous point with porn in all its guises being more socially accepted, sneaking into all kinds of consumer products and on TV. That’s obviously going to influence attitudes towards women and increase violence against women. As a parent I am very worried.” Damian has three daughters, aged between one and 19.

“The heart of violence against women is gender inequality, ” says Damian. “Men have historically had power over women, rights over women. Men had the legal right to be violent to women until very recently and in some countries this right still exists. Men over women, husbands over wives, sons over daughters, men’s superiority over women is institutionalised. From boyhood, men read into the messages that we see around us. Some reject those messages, some accept them. Those who accept the messages see that it backs up belief systems in place.

Rape within marriage was legal in Britain up until 10 years ago. Pornography promotes rape as a valid sex act, some current popular music artists also directly promote male sexual domination of women and we are living by a male created legal and political structure that continues to protect the underlying supports for men’s sexual violence against women. In 1999 the Zero Tolerance Campaign reported that 1 in 2 young men aged 14 -21 believe that women ask to be raped.

Whether men believe in equality with women or believe in superiority over women we all benefit from the privileges of being male. We are generally very ignorant when it comes to gender issues and have been force fed many negative stereotypes about women and girls. It is no wonder therefore that 35% of boys aged 11-16 believe it justifiable to abuse women and that 1 in 5 men admit to have abused a woman.”

Coming from a man, Damian’s workshops are showing young men that male violence is a male issue, a community issue and indeed a human rights issue. Any issue with a mixed voice behind it stands a better chance of being taken more seriously. ” For those men who don’t partake in violence against women, it doesn’t impact on them unless it’s a partner, sister or mother who is affected, ” says Damian.

I decide to ask some young male acquaintances their views. Andrew Minshall, 28, a web developer says, “I see violence against women as a human rights issue. Half the population are threatened and this needs to be treated as seriously as ridding the world of poverty. People need to realise that social justice isn’t just about class and wealth, its about gender-based equality.”

Paul Allen, 29 and a freelance journalist, says, ” Some of the men from the Amnesty survey who felt women ‘deserve it’ if they dress provocatively or are drunk will themselves never be violent towards women – they are just very ignorant or stupid. I think the best action is better education leading to the complete societal intolerance of domestic violence – and a legal system that issues proper sentencing to perpetrators of violence against women.”

I ask Robert Pemberton, 29, and a, what he knows about the scale of rape in the UK. “I would have no idea about that but I imagine it would be higher than people expected. I did know that very few reported rapes end in a conviction and that most rapes go unreported. ” After reading Amnesty International’s report, Robert expresses shock at the views of the people in the poll.

Paul says, “I think domestic violence is the least reported major issue in the UK today. Part of the problem lies with the media.  This is not a sexy subject. People are scared to talk about it. If you think about how much newspaper space was given to something like happy-slapping, it’s incredible. The idea of teenage hoodies being violent and taking photos (still very rare) is  (for many editors) a much sexier idea than the all too mundane daily cases of domestic violence.”

Tom Lalonde, 26 and a graphic designer, expresses concern about the damaging effects of the normalisation of porn. “Some music videos are very explicit and there is no censorship, they’re seen as ‘harmless’ or ‘a bit of fun.’ Yet they are setting precedents and norms which are then outdone by the next wave of videos. I find hip-hop videos particularly bad in their portrayal of women and the rappers as role models. Everything bad that young boys are seeing has to be untaught but there are few positive role models to do this. I am worried that if this lowering of standards continues, what will it be like when I have kids?”

According to Paul, “The pictures of women in lad mags aren’t harmless titillation. They increasingly resemble porn shots and have a subtext of violence. Even though the women have consented to it, they are objects. They are telling generations of boys and young men what to expect of women.”

All these men agree there is a gap that needs filing with education and voices of protest. That it shouldn’t be left to women’s groups.

So what are TRI’s proposal’s for the education system? “We’d like to see domestic violence awareness and positive relationship promotion (including gender respect and awareness) projects in all school year groups from Year 5 upwards, then each consecutive year seen as a ‘top up’ but with more detail on gender equality and positive relationships. The cost of this would invariably be money invested as prevention rather than money needed for the future to tackling domestic violence. On the positive side, for September 2006, we’re working towards delivering domestic violence and healthy relationships awareness projects to every child in Year 8 (aged 13-14) in every comp in the county. We are awaiting the County Council’s agreement on this.”

And what’s on Damian’s list of legal recommendations?  “Specialist domestic violence courts and residential units/prisons where men are sent to receive a re-education programme. This would assist the change in their beliefs about women and expectations of relationships with women and their role as a parent. We’d like to see more police powers to detain perpetrators whilst evidence is gathered and support offered to women. Currently there is so much inconsistency in police response and custody suite officers are all too keen to release perpetrators within two hours of arrest. Forty-eight hours in custody would be more effective for evidence gathering, charging and providing initial support to women.”

Of course changes in the law and education need to be matched by a change in social attitudes. Andrew says, “I think there’s a lot to be said for changing social attitudes through male role models. Footballers and pop stars speak out against racism and they could do a lot by speaking out against violence against women.”

The government has funded national campaigns to wear seat belts and stop smoking -why not to stop beating and bullying your partner?  What Damian and TRI would really like to see is a national campaign that speaks out to men. “We lobbied the Home Office with our posters, which they liked, but they haven’t wanted to do a national campaign.”

What’s the message on the posters? I ask. “Men who believe in equality with women work at making decisions together with their partner. They do not assume control or want power over women’s lives” and “Men who respect women, listen to and value their partner’s feelings. They never behave in ways that frighten their partner.” Those posters would make a fantastic campaign, what great messages, I say. They are aren’t they, agrees Damian. ” It’s about challenging violence against women but promoting equality and positive relationships at the same time.”

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