Universities engaging men to end violence against women

(Reposted from: University World News.  March 6, 2021)

By William McInerney

Violence against women (VAW) is a severe and systemic problem. Research from the World Health Organization indicates that one in three women around the world experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime and that the majority of this violence is committed by men. Data from the United States Department of Justice shows that women aged 18-24 are disproportionately the targets of sexual violence.

The 2019 Association of American Universities’ Campus Climate Survey, the largest study of its kind with a sample size of over 180,000 students, revealed that more than one in four undergraduate women in the US experienced non-consensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent while at university. The research is clear: VAW is a problem around the world and specifically in higher education.

There are many ways to address this violence, most notably by supporting survivors and holding perpetrators accountable. Over the past two decades an additional and increasingly popular approach to stopping VAW has been to directly engage men through men’s violence prevention (MVP) programmes. Historically, men have been disproportionately absent from prevention efforts.

MVP seeks to transform this pattern of men’s silence and inaction into allyship and change. However, it should be clear: MVP is a complementary approach to other VAW work. The point is not to centre men, but to support women’s and non-binary people’s feminist activism, research and leadership towards the goal of ending VAW wherever possible. Addressing VAW in higher education requires a range of simultaneous strategies that work with people of all genders.

What is men’s violence prevention?

MVP includes a broad collection of efforts, often guided by feminist and public health frameworks, that seek to directly engage, educate, organise and mobilise men to prevent VAW. These programmes do so by examining what sexual assault prevention expert Alan Berkowitz calls the “root causes of men and boys’ violence, including social and structural ones, as well as men and boys’ gender role socialisation and men’s sexism”.

MVP is growing in popularity in part because the rationale for engaging men is strong. First, most VAW is committed by men.

Second, certain dominant norms associated with masculinity, particularly those espousing control over women, rigid gender roles and sexist and violence-supportive attitudes and behaviours, play a pivotal role in driving VAW.

And third, engaging men means women will not have to shoulder as much of the burden of this work by themselves. MVP is based on the idea that all men can and should play a positive, proactive and strategic role in the vital efforts to end VAW.

MVP can take many forms including face-to-face and online education programmes, social marketing campaigns, one-time events and trainings and larger social change activism and campaigns. These programmes seek to raise men’s awareness about VAW, address and transform problematic norms, teach bystander intervention skills and promote healthy and equitable relationships and intimate partnerships.

Addressing VAW with MVP requires a range of different interventions and approaches. Such work must be responsive to the intersectional diversity among men and be able to address the spectrum of VAW, including direct acts of violence, patterns of coercive control and indirect forms of cultural and structural violence.

What can universities do?

Universities have a responsibility to address the alarming and unacceptably high rates of VAW that occur within their institutions and broader communities. Just as it is in society at-large, VAW in higher education is disproportionately committed by men and fuelled in part by dominant social norms associated with masculinity. Thus, men within higher education can and should do something to change this.

growing body of research shows that well-designed MVP programmes can shift men’s sexist and violence-supportive attitudes and behaviours – an important factor in violence prevention.

However, this research also reveals a complex picture indicating inconsistent application of best practices, mixed levels of effectiveness across programmes and a need for more research, monitoring and evaluation.

In general, the research shows that more effective programmes tend to be gender transformative, intersectional, a part of whole-of-institution approaches and use pedagogy and praxis that are informed, comprehensive, engaging and relevant. The depth and breadth of this research is beyond the scope of this article, but XY Online provides an exhaustive collection of research on this topic.

Associate Professor Michael Flood’s authoritative text on the subject, Engaging Men and Boys in Violence Prevention, also provides a helpful synthesis of the research on MVP. Both resources are free and accessible online.

New and creative directions

My experience teaching MVP at universities in the United States and United Kingdom resonates with the mixture of successes and challenges revealed by the aforementioned research and indicates there is a need for development and innovation in the field. How do we expand upon what works and innovate to find new critical and creative ways to more effectively engage men?

My current research examines the potential role of the arts as one way to answer this question. Practitioners I work with, many focusing on higher education in the US, integrate a range of arts including drama, poetry, storytelling, drawing and mask-making into their programmes.

The arts are used to help recruit men, as catalysts for discussion and learning about social norms, as a creative process to encourage personal reflection and connection and as experiential and embodied activities to help men deepen their learning and practice violence prevention skills through role-playing scenarios.

Programmes like the Men’s Story Project provide a clear and research-informed approach to how storytelling and the expressive arts can be integrated into traditional public health and feminist MVP programmes in higher education contexts (as well as community-based settings).

In the Men’s Story Project, men write, craft and share true stories from their lives about masculinity and learn about ways to practise and promote healthier masculinities, violence prevention and gender justice. The men’s stories are ultimately shared in public forums and followed with a community dialogue.

In this programme, the process of storytelling is used to deepen the men’s individual and collective learning, to communicate messages about gender social norms to the community and to amplify positive male role models to inspire change.

Approaches like the arts and storytelling are one way to potentially enhance and expand MVP work. The Men’s Story Project is a prime example of how such creative efforts are finding particular resonance within some higher education contexts.

Moving forward

Many in higher education have good intentions when it comes to working to end VAW. However, good intentions are not good enough. Universities need to make preventing VAW a matter of urgency and action. This requires transformative, creative and sustained leadership and a multiplicity of approaches.

Universities can start by prioritising survivors, holding perpetrators accountable and amplifying women’s and non-binary people’s feminist work, activism and research on this topic.

As a complementary strategy, universities can also consider increasing efforts to directly engage men. Arts and storytelling-based approaches may be an effective component to integrate alongside traditional MVP programmes and general best practices.

However, more research is still needed. Here again, higher education institutions can play an essential leadership role by continuing to support new scholarship on VAW more broadly, and MVP specifically.


William McInerney is a doctoral candidate and Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge, Queens’ College, United Kingdom. He researches and teaches conflict transformation, peace education and men’s violence prevention with a particular focus on arts-integrated gender transformative approaches. Prior to Cambridge, William taught men’s violence prevention at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a Rotary Peace Fellow at the University of Bradford.

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