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Man enough?

Male anti-sexism activist Jackson Katz

Since he was 19-years old, American author and film-maker Jackson Katz has been on a mission to explain why violence against women is a man’s problem. Our K reporter catches up with him in Hong Kong where he’s spreading the word.

A stocky ex-football star, Jackson Katz may be the last person you’d expect to see fighting for women’s rights. Yet the American author, educator and film-maker has been a passionate advocate for the cause since he was a student.

“I was enjoying my freedom coming home late from parties, not at all worried about my personal safety,” he said, until one day when he discovered that the women in his residence hall had the opposite experience. “They were concerned constantly and I remember thinking how ticked off I would be if I always had to worry because of the fear of sexual assault.”

Being a college reporter he penned a column entitled A Man can only imagine after he attended a women’s rally. “I wasn’t defensive in thinking these women [campaigners] hate men. I was inspired by them,’ he said. “At the time I was involved in guy culture: drinking beer and playing football, but I was also an activist.”

Alongside his degree in philosophy, Katz became the first male to graduate from the women’s studies department of his university in 1982. “I realised as a white man and a heterosexual I had a lot of advantages and a platform of influence,” he said. “I started speaking out and it became clear to me that it was my life’s work.”

Men’s issues

Today Katz is at the forefront of a growing group of male anti-sexism activists. His mission is to make men acknowledge that violence against women is a man’s problem. He has given talks worldwide and has consulted for the likes of the World Health Organization and UN Women. He is known for his training on the bystander approach and his popular documentaries Tough Guise and Tough Guise 2.

Katz’s TED talk Violence against Women is a Men’s Issue has been viewed more than 2.5 million times. His books include The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help and most recently Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity.

Last week, in celebration of International Women’s Day, Hong Kong-based organisation The Women’s Foundation invited him to speak. Katz addressed audiences ranging from their gala lunch guests to the local police force. Among the highlights was a roundtable with NGOs and experts involved in ending violence against women, held at Thomson Reuters which is known for its annual Trust Women conference which focuses on legal backing for women’s rights.

Katz’s message for the roundtable was the need for leadership from men in Asia. He cited the findings on the prevalence of men’s violence against their partners in the UN Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific. In China, 86 per cent of respondents cited sexual entitlement as their motivation for rape, the highest figure among all countries surveyed. “Leaders can’t pretend it’s not a problem,” said Katz. “There’s strong empowered women across the region working on these issues but not enough men.”

Reigning men

He shared his tactics for getting men to sit up and listen. Early in his career, he hit upon the idea of holding training sessions to educate male university athletes on anti-sexism and women’s rights. “I started in sports culture to build credibility [among men] because of the stature already existing in the male culture of athletics,” he said. And it wasn’t long before he was working with the US military, which has laid the groundwork to reach larger male audiences.

Katz urged the roundtable to reframe women’s rights concerns as a larger leadership imperative to gain support of male-dominated institutions in Asia. “Calling these ‘women’s issues’ is part of the problem. It gives men an excuse not to pay attention. A lot of men tune it out and say ‘Hey that’s important for the women but I’m a man.” By changing the jargon, more men will come on board.

Katz explained that these issues are related to wider social problems. He quoted a recent US study linking domestic violence with mass shootings: In 57 per cent of mass shootings, the killer also killed their spouse, intimate partner or other family member. “Leaders need to know about this so it doesn’t happen in their sphere of influence,” he said. “Not because they are ‘nice guys helping out the women’ but because
we expect that of our leaders in Hong Kong
in the 21st century.”

Manning up

Among Katz’s strategies which stuck a chord was his bystander approach. This aims to educate men who aren’t necessarily harassing women but those who may witness sexist behaviour among others. “What does he do? How does he challenge and interrupt?” said Katz. “Our goal is to get everybody involved, not just reduce it to the perpetrator-victim binary.”

He clarified misconceptions about the approach: “This isn’t about super-hero rescue,” he stressed, and “it’s not just at the point of attack.” If students are taught at an early age to be responsible members of a community they wouldn’t condone sexist comments or aggression against women and it would be less of a taboo for bystanders to intervene. He added that this applied to increasing problems of abuse on the Internet.

Finally, he drove home the importance of leadership. “A leader sees something and takes action even if there might be negative consequences – because it’s the right thing to do.”

One of the questions posed to Katz was how to negotiate cultural beliefs that one shouldn’t interfere in other people’s personal problems. His solution is to think big and start implementing the bystander approach throughout society: “The goal isn’t about individual micro-conversations between two people, it’s about building this approach into educational practice and institutionally.”

Manpower

The discussion also delved into the way in which changes in language use in daily life can shift mindsets. Katz gave the example of a phrase he refuses to use:
‘violence against women.’ “What’s missing?” he asked the roundtable. After a pause they answered in unison “men.” He continued: “In other words, the active agent. Violence is a bad thing that happens to women but nobody is doing it to them, they are just experiencing it kind of like the weather.”

The room burst into laughter. Becoming sombre again, he insisted, “If you insert the active agent men, you have a new phrase ‘men’s violence against women’. It doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily but it’s more accurate and honest.”

The use of the passive voice has a powerful political effect in diverting attention away from the main problem, he felt. “It shifts the focus away from the group with more power onto the group with less. It’s not a coincidence—it’s how power functions, through the shifting of accountability.”

Contrary to popular opinion, however, he believes men are ready for honest conversations: “The idea that you can’t talk to men about masculinity and cultural ideology because they’ll get defensive and hostile – it’s not true. We work with hard-core military and sports all the time and they can handle it,” he exclaimed bravely to the women-filled room. “Men can handle it.”