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  • Our Words Matter

How can men talk about sexual violence?

Opinion article written by Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw*

Republished from Radio New Zealand

We need men's voices in public conversations about sexual assault and consent.

No matter who we are or where we come from, we all desire respectful and respecting relationships.

We want our children, our coworkers, our friends, who are women, to find enjoyment and kindness in their relationships - whether its a short term hook up or a long term partnership. In the wake of the trial of the man who killed Grace Millane, it is apparent that this is far from the norm in New Zealand.

As people who want women like Grace to be able to live normal lives, it has caused great disquiet.

The trial revealed that too many people do not understand what being in a respectful respecting relationship looks likes.

That this lack of understanding goes unchecked in our communities to the extent that men are harming and killing women. And that people in the justice system can either ignore the harm or comfortably frame women as being at fault.

The clearest voices of disquiet are women's.

While the trial of the man who killed Grace was happening there were at least two other cases (that I saw) in the media where women were subjected to cruel and harmful treatment by men in the context of a relationship.

The harm is ongoing and women are angry.

Many men see and hear that anger, and care.

I asked some of these men, what were they saying about the issues on social media, and in their everyday conversations.

There were many thoughtful responses. What the responses revealed is many men feel deeply that it is not right when women are blamed for contributing to their own murder. It is not right that sexual assault still gets minimised and ignored. Something needs to change.

Many said they felt it was not their story to tell. They wanted to make space for women to be heard. Some were scared of saying the wrong thing. And social media is a place where the impact of saying the 'wrong thing' or even just the hard thing can be brutal.

However, there is something important that should give men who care, confidence to speak: men listen to other men

We listen to those who we share values with. We listen to those who are unexpected messengers on a topic. We listen to those who we perceive to be experts (not actual experts). In other words, men listen to other men they know about relationships.

Amplifying the stories and experiences of women matters. As important is for many men to have a voice about what good relationships look like.

Because both the story and the messenger has an impact on how people think about sex, relationships and consent, and how they act.

How can men talk about sexual violence in ways that sets up more productive thinking and prevents harm?

Research from the US shows it is important to avoid framing sexual assault and violence as something perpetrated by individual men who are monsters. It surfaces unproductive thinking about interventions that don't work. It encourages people to think that harsh punishments will dissuade men from such actions. It won't. It individualises a very social problem.

We live in a society in which it is possible for men to harm women in many different ways, and for that harm to go ignored and unchecked for far too long. It is in our collective approach where support for preventative policies and practices that work lies.

Men from across communities who care can take the conversation about sexual violence into the realms of interpersonal relationships.

What it looks and feels like to uphold the mana of women and other people they are in a relationship with. For some, this will be difficult.

The dominant culture directs men to think that external achievement, earning money, having power over others, is what matters most in life.

Finding themselves in relationships in which what matters most is caring for and upholding another person's needs, goals and desires over their own at times, feels challenging. This is where men who themselves have negotiated this difficult space can speak up (but not over).

There is great strength and potential in such stories told by many. They are the stories that will help.

*Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is co-director of the policy and messaging collaborative The Workshop.


This article has been republished from Radio New Zealand. Click here to read the original article:



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