Men campaigning against violence against women: on whose terms?

There is a surge in the numbers of men wanting to join anti-harassment campaigns in Europe, but their demand for immediate solutions to a long term problem is problematic.

Beulah Maud Devaney
11 February 2016
Men in mini-skirts pose for photographs at the start of the Amsterdam mini-rok protest. Jess Graham.​All rights reserved. Men in mini-skirts pose for photographs at the start of the Amsterdam mini-rok protest. Jess Graham. ​All rights reserved.Don’t get me wrong, I love that these men have decided to care about street harassment” says Marie. It’s a phrase she’ll repeat constantly, throughout our 3 hour conversation, each time with an unspoken “but” lingering at the end. After the Cologne attacks on December 31st 2015 Marie’s Berlin-based anti-street harassment group saw a surge in support: 200 new subscriptions to their mailing list, 700+ new followers on social media, and 25-30 new faces at every meeting.

Who are these new members? “They’re all men. Some of them I’ve known for years, they’ve never given a fuck about street harassment before, others are strangers. They all want to talk about Cologne as soon as they walk through the door. Never mind if we’ve got an agenda or an action to plan. They just want to talk about Cologne”. Marie’s frustration is clear, her usually calm voice, polished by decades manning a sexual violence survivors helpline, is strained: “There is a constant pressure not to let bigots use the fear of rape to attack refugees... we have a responsibility to prioritize the needs of the women we work with but the new members want us to react immediately, even if that reaction won’t do anything”.

As I speak to anti-street campaigners throughout Western Europe it quickly becomes clear that Marie’s experience is not unique. “The week after the Cologne attacks we had 40 new emails asking about our next meeting” says Andrew, a London-based trans activist and web developer. “I would say at least 50% of them were men. Which is really unusual, especially as street harassment doesn’t really happen to men that much so they tend to be kind of... oblivious.” Were they all legitimately interested in the group? “There were a couple of scary ones, men saying we need to protect white women, etc etc. Most of them really wanted to help out though.”

Activists in Barcelona, Paris, Edinburgh, Copenhagen and Amsterdam had similar experiences. My polling is informal at best but all of them reported that male interest in anti-harassment campaigns has increased and it seems to have been directly inspired by Cologne. As one slightly exasperated Scottish campaigner said: “It’s like a magic password for them: “Yes I am here to help because of Cologne!!””. During these conversations three distinct themes began to emerge:

Offering temporary support

“I appreciate [the men’s] commitment” says Marie. “But I can’t help thinking “where were you two months ago? Or two years ago?”. Sexual violence isn’t new and I am uneasy that they’ve developed this sudden interest” Dutch campaigners are familiar with the accusation that men protesting VAWG are, at best, temporary recruits. Two weeks ago a group of young political activists organized a mini-skirt protest in Amsterdam. They asked men to wear mini-skirts in response to Cologne mayor Henriette Reker’s suggestion that women should follow a dress code to avoid future attacks.

“This is exactly the wrong response to those kind of events” says Elene Walgenbach, one of the protest organizers and Chairperson of the Youth arm of the Democrat 66 Party. “In our eyes, we don’t need to search for a solution in the conduct of women, but rather in the behaviour of men.” The behaviour of men quickly became the focus of the day. While half the mini-skirt organizers were women, it was men who were interviewed by TV crews, men whose images were used to promote the protest, men who were mentioned in the event description and men who led the march through Amsterdam city centre.

The male-centric nature of the protest made a lot of women feel uneasy. Freelance journalist Tessa Heerschop posted on the event’s facebook wall, asking why the protest focused on clothes, rather than long-term solutions: “What happened in Köln was an organised crime, it was not so much to do with how women behaved or did” Heerschop says. “So the protest should ask for better police enforcement and making men aware that violence against women is unacceptable. It shouldn't be about how women dress.”

Reluctance to defer to women

A member of the The Feminist Club Amsterdam holds a sign advocating for consent at the Amsterdam mini-rok protest. Jess Graham.

A member of the The Feminist Club Amsterdam holds a sign advocating for consent at the Amsterdam mini-rok protest. Jess Graham. All rights reserved.Many of the people who responded to Heerschop’s comments were unable, or unwilling, to see why focusing on women’s clothing was a bad thing. “We want everyone to be able to wear whatever they want!” one man explained. When it was pointed out to him that clothing was not the issue in Cologne (most of the women were wearing thick winter coats and were still targeted) he reiterated his point, as if constantly voicing positive sentiments was enough.

“This keeps happening” says Andrew “We’ll be having a conversation about harassment and there are these new guys who keep saying things like “Should we just petition the council to give all women rape whistles?” and they mean well but they refuse to listen when people with more experience say “no” and just keep talking over the top of the women”. Asking men to park their privilege is an ongoing issue within feminist circles, especially as more men become comfortable defining themselves as feminists.

“Groups have to take concrete steps to dampen the power imbalances we bring into organising spaces from wider society” says Dylan, an activist with the Radical Assembly. “Emotional labour also falls more frequently on women both in and outside organising spaces... By creating a supportive and caring environment we try to collectivise that emotional labour, rather than it falling on individuals.”

David Braniff-Herbert is a GMB activist, TUC LGBT Committee member and another organizer with a lot of practise making sure men don’t ignore the women in a group: “Every time we organise something in GMB I reflect on my own privilege and have a discussion with activists around under-represented groups participation” David explains. “I ask questions about how relevant the meeting is (is the issue being framed exclusively) and how accessible the details of the meetings are.” Unfortunately tactics like these take time to implement and time is one of many things that the new recruits don’t have patience for.

Pushing for immediate solutions to a long-term problem

“It’s not like sexual violence is going away” Marie explains. “But the media attention will. So there’s all this pressure from our male supporters to wrestle back the conversation regarding sexual assault and refugees. We’ll be planning an action and they’ll decide we’re not moving fast enough and take control. Which means we have a protest tomorrow, rather than next week, but it’s not as good and lacks longevity”.

The pressure to react quickly is familiar to campaigners but the pressing need to saying something, anything, is compounded by the immediate politicization of the Cologne attacks. “It’s a difficult situation” says Lily, a political activist from Barcelona. “It’s nice that [Cologne] helped motivate guys to support our attempts to challenge street harassers. Unfortunately the good will is next to the fact that a lot of them don’t understand how street harassment works and what we need them to do.” This lack of understanding as to how street harassment “works” bleeds into every area of campaigning. Men have the potential to use their privilege to challenge street harassment but many of the new recruits prefer to take about big solutions, rather than small, meaningful, conversations.

“Our group was set up to end street-harassment” explains Marie. “That’s a big goal and it will take a long time to accomplish. And these guys seem to think we’re going to solve it by, say, next Tuesday. And the way to solve it is to have a big, one-off protest and then go home, rather than develop a long-term plan.” Activists like Marie and Lily are, understandably, reluctant to alienate new supporters, both asking to be kept anonymous, rather than risk male supporters reading about their dissatisfaction.

As the battle to prioritize short-term wins over long-term goals continues, however, it’s clear that both women are at breaking point. “We need men to commit to helping us for years, not months” Lily says. “They need to commit, they need to listen, and they need to understand that there are no easy solutions regarding street harassers. So walking in and deciding to “fix” everything won’t work. They don’t get to be heroes.”

Some names have been changed to protect the activists’ privacy

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