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In a week where Victorian police were under fire for victim blaming over Masa Vukotic, John Laws’ dismissive comments toward a male sexual abuse victim have Lachlan Dale calling for a rethink on male role models.
John Laws has done it again. This time he has managed to reduce to tears an elderly male survivor of sexual abuse via a combination of victim blaming and a sociopathic lack of empathy.
The Courier Mail has the story in full, but I’ll recap the key points here.
The caller, Brian, begins to recount sexual abuse he suffered at age eleven. Laws asks:
“Did you scream in fright? Did you yell out ‘stop that you bastard’? Did you lash out with your fists? Did you hit him?”
Brian admits he did not. When Brian goes on to describe a series of assaults by another man, a perplexed John Laws asks:
“I don’t quite understand why you didn’t lash out, you would have been a fairly big boy by that time. Didn’t you kick or yell or scream or hit?”
Which is a classic case of victim blaming. The call doesn’t improve much from there.
When Laws asks why Brian never told his parents, Brian says he felt unable to talk with them about the abuse as “there was no such thing as…family love” in his home.
Laws tries to provide advice before ending the call:
“Have you ever stopped and asked yourself, why don’t people like me?
“You’re not the happiest soul, I don’t know that you’d make people who are around you feel all that good. Have you tried to brighten up a little? Difficult I know.
“You’ve got to be responsible for your own activity. You must make the move, go and talk to somebody about it.
“But don’t be down all the time, don’t be a wet blanket all the time. Try and have a laugh.
“Go to the pub and have a lemonade for god sake.”
Perhaps he meant well, but the advice is problematic to say the least. Let’s get the obvious out of the way: John Laws is an insensitive jerk, and I pity those who look to him as a figure of respect or admiration. But as I read his callous words I detected a repeating pattern – one which ties into the “men’s rights” movement and contemporary feminism.
A close friend of mine spent a few years working for an NGO that works to reduce violence against women. She would regularly recount to me her interactions with “men’s rights” advocates on social media, who would aggressively denounce the “feminist agenda” and bemoan the demonisation of men. She found that when she engaged with these men, many revealed themselves to be victims of abuse. Their anger gave way to vulnerable, emotional confessions.
What could explain this?
Many male survivors of abuse feel socially ostracised. Traditional conceptions of masculinity demand that men derive their self-esteem from strength. The fact that survivors have suffered abuse calls into question their physical strength, while bouts of depressions and emotional trauma reinforces the idea of psychological weakness. The idea that a male could be the victim of domestic or sexual abuse is still questioned by many parts of society. Take Laws’ reaction to Brian: “Why didn’t you fight back? You were a strong male after all. Now stop being so emotional and go to the pub.”
Isolated in their trauma, many look at the surge of popular support for women’s rights organisations with jealousy. They project their inner frustration onto these causes for their failure to highlight the fact that men can suffer abuse too. They want to be heard and cannot find an appropriate space in which to speak.
This is clearly not the fault of women’s rights organisations but rather of the same destructive conceptions of masculinity responsible for so much discrimination against women and girls – the idea that “real men” should provide for and protect the family; that they should repress emotion and stay strong in hard times; that their sex is “dominant.”
Men are trapped in, and suffer because of, these destructive expectations too.
Whenever progressive folk hear the phrase “men’s rights movement” they immediately prepare to hurl ridicule. To many, the idea is ridiculous, and I am more than happy to grant that much of the movement is populated by bigoted, aggressive jerks (it is not my intention to absolve them) – but my point is there are many “male focused” issues that we need to start talking about.
Providing understanding and support for male victims of abuse is one. Addressing the high rates of male youth suicide is another. But most important of all is the need for new, positive images of what it means to be male.
As traditional models of masculinity are eroded through sustained pressure from equality movements, many men feel their very sense of self is under threat; that the values under which they were raised are now being demonised. This is the source of intense social and psychological tension – hence the hostility and defensiveness of “men’s rights” movements. They truly do feel under attack. In this regard we can learn much from the feminist movement, which has worked for the last fifty years on dismantling restrictive and oppressive female gender norms. Through this battle, they have won the freedom and confidence to redefine their social identity on their own terms. The result is a diverse range of strong female role models; a multiplicity of possibilities for what it means to identify as a female.
We’re making progress on tearing down the negative male gender norms that enable suffering and discrimination.
Now we just need a movement to rebuild new, positive identities.