Boy Interrupted

Many folks are familiar with the definition and dynamics of domestic violence. They are communicated through various channels, including public service announcements, months named in recognition, laws proposed and enacted and organizations and resources available to assist survivors. Some are also familiar with the movement born in the late seventies that carried education, awareness and assistance to the mainstream and forefront of the epidemic. This is not the first piece written about domestic violence and it certainly won't be the last. Yet statistics are still staggering as approximately 1/5 young women report physical and/or sexual assault by a dating partner.

Outcomes for Youth Experiencing Violent Relationships
Domestic violence and dating violence (DV) are both defined as a pattern of assaulting/controlling attitudes and behaviors that one person uses to maintain power and control over another in an intimate-partner relationship. The difference is that dating violence specifically relates to teens/young adults.

What we experience while we are developing emotionally as teens and young adults influences our attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, general feelings about oneself and the world. Survivors of DV are more likely to: develop risky/unhealthy behaviors; suffer long-term physical and psychological effects; do poorly academically; engage in underage/binge drinking; attempt suicide and carry unhealthy behavior into future relationships.

There are numerous influences and risk factors that attribute to perpetration of abuse. When we ask groups of boys, "Why do abusers abuse?" inevitably they respond with the following:
  • Bad temper, anger management, out of control, just snapped
  • Alcohol/drugs, intoxication
  • Stress, economic problems
  • Grew up in it, that's all they know, trauma response
  • Bullied, depression, mental problems, PTSD

Certainly these influence and correlate with violence, though, these don't equate to causation. The cause of DV is often an individual's underlying belief that he/she has the right to exert power and control over their partner. Batterers use emotional, physical and sexual violence (and the threat of violence) as means to get what they want, when they want it, period.

Why Work with Men and Boys?
At HAVEN, we engage men/boys in leadership development that strives to end violence against women while enhancing the lives of boys as they emerge into men. This focus is centered on men/boys because in 95% of DV occurrences the perpetrator is male, whether the victim is male or female. This speaks volumes to the importance of involving men in the effort. It's also worth noting that girls/women between ages 16 to 24 experience the highest rate of intimate-partner abuse - triple the national average!

The impact of the methodical "training" of men/boys to adhere to the culturally accepted norm of what it means to "be a man" is great. It socializes them to focus on being aggressive and dominant and the implications of this behavior run deep - for women, men, and society as a whole. The perpetration of violence over historical contexts isn't improving; it's simply altering its façade and playing out differently.

But it can be changed. If the people committing the crimes of DV, sexual assault or rape are overwhelmingly men and boys then they should play a role in ending it. Including men and boys in the solution means that they have a seat at the table and a say in redefining masculinity - which brings us closer to true gender equity.

Call to Action
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. In honor of that, we'd like to spotlight 5 concrete actions in engaging young men in ending DV. It's critical in assuring the safety of survivors/victims and promises a brighter future for the boys, who are also being harmed by the idea of toxic masculinity.

When speaking with boys about dating violence and masculinity, you have to first be prepared to encounter denial, blame, defensiveness and outright hostility. It's important to meet him where he is to set a framework for a lasting transformation. This includes challenging the socialization of men/boys through other sources including his peers or the media.

  1. Talk to him and reframe manliness and masculinity. We often use a simple exercise called the Gender Box. Ask him what it means to be a man and be prepared to confront/challenge assumptions. Frame manhood as what happens after boyhood rather than in opposition to femininity and/or womanhood.

  • Talk with him in the moment! Play video games or watch shows and be prepared to casually talk about the exchanges that are happening that are overtly or subtly sexist and/or violent.
  • Use contemporary examples to talk about sexual assault and encourage consent. Think about the Robin Thicke's song "Blurred Lines". Consent is never blurred. It's extremely defined. Understand it and talk about it candidly. Consent isn't an option. It's mandatory.
  • Become aware of sexist language. Don't let him (or yourself) use girl as insult (i.e. Man, stop acting like a little girl, pussy, bitch, fag). This is less an insult to the person being insulted and more a valuation/ranking of women, femininity and it's homophobic. When we devalue women/girls in this way we effectively make it easier to subconsciously dehumanize and abuse women and girls.
  • Watch any number of documentaries (see links below) aimed at addressing masculinity from a framework that involves men/boys as empowered bystanders rather than potential perpetrators. Let him know that you understand he's not someone who'd hurt anyone but that he has a great stake in transforming the culture that allows it.
  • Interrupting the socialization systems rooted in the belief of what it means to "be a man" isn't easy. It begins with developing a healthier model of adult masculinity and manhood that's rooted in forming equitable relationships between all sexes, gender identities and expressions.

    Co-authored by:
    Kristopher Kole Wyckhuys is a respectful and optimistic voice within an intersectional social justice movement. As a Prevention Education Specialist at HAVEN, he focuses on redefining healthy masculinity and works to engage men in ending gender-based violence.