Q. Like many other women in the UK, the past few weeks since the disappearance of Sarah Everard have dredged up a lot of sad feelings and old trauma for me. Whenever I talk about this in the context of male violence and the way it has altered women’s lives, my boyfriend immediately jumps to the defence of his gender with the riposte of “not all men”. I know that not all men are bad, but his responses shut down my feelings and make me doubt myself. He’s a good person, but he’s just not listening when I need him to… what should I do?
I am so sorry for what you’ve been through and for what you’re experiencing right now. Sometimes the simple act of existing as a woman can feel exhausting, so please go easy on yourself.
First and foremost, there seems to be a communication issue here. I can sense vulnerability on both sides that is driving both of you away from being compassionate towards each other.
In my experience, the best way to deal with something that makes you feel like you want to run away is to walk straight towards it instead. I have always found that writing things down helps (not a big shock given my profession).
The key to good communication is to be very clear about how you really feel and why, and focus on that while listening with empathy to the other person. Stepping away, reflecting and trying again can always be a valuable approach, although in the moment you may feel pressure to “resolve” things quickly.
To help give you the best and most nuanced advice possible, I contacted Dr. Dan Guinness, managing director of Beyond Equality, a charity that educates boys and men about their important role in gender equality.
The importance of feeling heard
I’m sure most women have come up against the #NotAllMen brigade at one time or another when sharing experiences of gender-based trauma and violence. Unfortunately it has become a painfully predictable part of the social media routine.
It can feel traumatising to always have to prove your feelings and experiences to people whose reaction, while often well-intentioned, misses the critical point that the process of sharing your grief can be a crucial part of healing.
Dan agrees: “#NotAllMen is incredibly painful for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, or those deeply upset by it. They're too often ignored by society, not taken seriously when they make complaints to police or the communities they're part of,” he explains.
“And so when outpourings of pain, grief, rage happen, they need to be met with listening and care. Those who respond with some form of whataboutery or #Notallmen don’t take the time to take this seriously.”
Explaining this to your boyfriend (or even sending him this article to read) might give him the space to pause and really consider your need to be heard.
Boys won’t be boys
One of the central tenets that Beyond Equality focuses on is teaching men and boys to recognise how they have been shaped by toxic masculinity – and how this hurts them too.
“We see that the same culture, pressure and narrow ideas of masculinity that lead to sexism or homophobia are the same that lead to mental health issues, social isolation and a feeling of deep inadequacy among men and boys,” explains Dan.
“It's therefore crucial that men are involved in gender equality, as much of the structures that lead to inequality are ingrained in how we speak, act and have been socialised.”
It can be hard to make someone see beyond the structure within which they’ve always existed for long enough to be able to imagine something different – better, even.
Finding examples that are easy to relate to for your partner, or examples of when they might have felt restricted by their masculinity, could help you to drive this point home. Dan and the folk at Beyond Equality believe that the power for change lies in education.
“We know that violence isn’t inevitable,” he tells me, “boys won’t be boys – they will be what we teach them to be.”
Reframing men’s role in this conversation is also critical in encouraging them to understand the power they have to drive positive change.
“Everyone should be aware of and reflect on how their actions impact on others. This is often not the foundation of our social, legal and education systems, which can focus on rules-based education,” says Dan.
“While important, focusing on educating people about how not to break the law sets such a low standard for their behaviour and is actually really demotivating, as it casts them as potential perpetrators rather than positive members of their communities with the power to help bring change.”
It may also be helpful to try to use positive reinforcement when speaking about this with your partner, positioning them as part of a solution rather than part of the problem. Point them towards resources that strengthen this view – Beyond Equality is a good place to start!
And before you say it, I know, I know... it’s up to him to work this stuff out, and you shouldn’t have to help him to do so. But if your interest is to move forwards together, and you truly believe that your partner’s reactions are well-meaning, creating a safe space between the two of you, where your thinking is flexible enough to change in both directions, is so important. And you might also learn something from him in the process.
Mmm whatcha say?
On a very basic level, knowing what to say to someone who challenges you in this way is also important, because if you’re anything like me, you can find yourself floundering in confrontational situations or when put on the spot. So arm yourself with facts.
“87% of violent crimes are committed by men, 97% of women have been harassed in the street, yet the claim that 100% of the men we know and have around us would never ‘do such a thing’ means that these numbers do not add up,” says Dan.
“The normalisation of aggression, inequality, coercion and control from men means that it is very difficult for men and boys to talk about their role,” he continues, “the dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ men is what prevents so many from being able or willing to reflect on their own behaviour… Therefore, next to holding others to account for what they have done there has to be self-interrogation from all men.” Quite.
The fact that you’re even raising this is an indication to me that you believe in your relationship – and I’d bet on the fact that many (or most) women have been experiencing degrees of the same issue over the past few weeks.
Commitment to learning together is such an important part of a relationship’s success. Knowing that your partner is receptive to listening, will hopefully make you feel more held and supported, too.
And if that doesn’t work, you can always send him to Dan and the folk at Beyond Equality!