What makes a man— why sexism is a men’s issue
A wise man called Johan Galtung once said that violence exists in three main manifestations. Often, what we understand as violence is only ‘direct violence’ (everything from a genocide to a catcall). Other subtler, understated, but no less detrimental shapes that violence assume are ‘structural violence’ and ‘cultural violence’. The former, Galtung said, is ‘violence that exists when some groups are assumed to have, and in fact do have, more access to goods, resources, and opportunities than others’. The latter refers to ‘prevailing attitudes and beliefs we have been taught since our childhood that surround us in daily life.’
When our women and girls are killed, gang raped, beaten or otherwise abused, we have learnt to recognize these, albeit reluctantly, as expressions of violence that exist in our society. However, when women are denied equal opportunities, when they are underrepresented in our national legislatures, oversexualized in the media and when their potential is limited by restrictive gender roles; we fail to recognize these as equally brutal expressions of violence and, in extension, as social problems.
We limit Gender Based Violence to a ‘women’s issue’. Almost never do we talk about how sexism hurts us men. Of course when we see the grotesque, perverse ways in which women are held back by patriarchy and gender roles, the focus on women is understandable. But this doesn’t mean men aren’t affected as well. Our society’s expectations of men, our very definitions of what it means to be a man, have made us internalize an idealized standard of manhood. The gender roles that dictate to our women and girls that they should be subordinate, subservient and timid, demand that men should be aggressive, dominant, authoritative and able to provide for their families. Boys and men are often socialized into accepting violence as appropriate male conduct.
Often, men and boys who cannot or choose not to fulfill these expectations face immense pressure. Analysts suggest that this is part of the reason why Sri Lanka’s male suicide rate is much higher than that of females (particularly in rural agrarian communities), because men have the added pressure of providing for their women and children. Failing in this (largely as a result of macroeconomic disparities plaguing our society) makes one ‘less of a man’. These expectations also restrict men’s ability to see themselves as caring, non-violent and responsible partners. Too often in addressing violence against women, men have been left out of the equation. While men are often perpetrators of violence, men, particularly young men, are also victims.
If our children can be socialized into being violent, they can also be socialized into being respectful, kind and compassionate. We need to socialize our children, especially our boys, to stand up to misogyny, to intimate partner violence, to street harassment, to victim blaming and to all the other perverse projections of structural and cultural violence that Galtung spoke about.