Engaging men in sexual assault prevention

ACSSA Wrap No. 14 – November 2013

What is meant by engagement?

This Wrap is concerned with engaging men as both as the primary audience/participants of sexual assault prevention messages and as facilitators/educators of prevention programs. So what does it mean for men to be engaged with sexual assault and violence prevention?

Men as recipients of prevention messages and participants in prevention programs

Targeting men as the recipients of prevention messages means that the messages are aimed at men and are relevant to their needs. Yet achieving this aim can be quite difficult and requires thoughtful understanding of the intended audience and creating a balance between drawing men into the discussion on prevention while challenging beliefs about gender and equality.

As a starting point, being engaged in prevention can be considered a process, such as the following:

  • to listen and take note of victim/survivors stories and statistics about sexual violence;
  • to interrogate one’s attitude about gender, masculine norms and stereotypes;
  • to change behaviour;
  • to seek to change other people’s attitudes about gender, masculine norms and stereotypes;
  • to seek to change other people’s behaviour; and
  • to commit to reducing sexual assault against women (adapted from Crooks, Goodall, Hughes, Jaffe, & Baker, 2007).

Petra Begnell and Rose Durey from Women’s Health Victoria spoke to ACSSA about engaging men in their workplace prevention program and some of the challenges they face in delivering the program:

It’s not so much about having messages that don’t challenge men. We work within a strong feminist framework and we were quite conscious of that in designing the program that we used in workplaces. But part of it was about bringing men on the journey. So we had to feel confident that men were going to stay the course and sit through something. It had to be appealing to workplaces and allay some of the concerns that HR would have about what we actually did in the workplace. So that was essentially positioning men as positive bystanders, positive and ethical bystanders with a role to play in preventing violence against women.

Women’s Health Victoria have created a balance between challenging gender while providing a safe space for men to learn and be empowered. The Preventing Violence Against Women Program, run by the YMCA, engages and empowers men using the bystander approach.

The bystander work is saying [that] an important way to start to challenge all that sexism, is to challenge those small little things that get said around the barbeque or around the water cooler. It’s looking at what will up-skill people to feel confident to intervene. It doesn’t matter what you say [as a bystander] … it’s more [about] saying it at that moment so that other people who are around are hearing it and [the sexism] in that social [situation] is called into question. (Scott Holmes - primary prevention)

For Petra and Rose at Women’s Health Victoria, being primary prevention educators in the workplace means they work with men and women. They have a keen awareness of how to engage their audience.

I think we try and engage everyone on an equal basis. Nobody wants to turn up to training just to be told that they’re doing the wrong thing, no matter who they are. As a trainer, you want to engage people in a positive way. You want to draw on what they already know and draw that out to kind of use that. I think for real change, both men and women have to be on board and not feel excluded from the space. There’s a difference between positive reinforcement and pandering. You can challenge these [gender] norms without being antagonistic and turning people off. (Petra Begnell - primary prevention)

According to Crooks et al. (2007), engagement in prevention activities can include “helping men make a profound personal commitment to stopping violence against women” (p. 218). As demonstrated through our consultations, practitioners in the field are mindful of how they approach participants and this approach results in more positive engagement by male (and female) audiences with prevention messages.

Tables 3 to 5 present some current prevention programs that engage men at various sites and at different stages of life - such as new fathers, in the workplace, following their favourite sports team, at university, and in their communities.

Table 3: Primary prevention - stopping sexual assault before it occurs
Program Program logic Men’s engagement

Bystander approach

The bystander approach is about empowering individuals to speak out against sexist language, jokes, or comments. The empowerment and confidence comes from knowing that if you speak up you become part of the cultural change needed to reduce sexual violence through the eradication of the determinants of sexual violence (e.g., sexism, hostility to women, violence supportive attitudes). In the VicHealth bystander report, Powell (2012) stated that although a simple joke may not seem harmful, it promotes the idea that being sexist is okay when it is actually an underlying determinant of violence against women. See the VicHealth website <www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/bystander> for more information.

The bystander approach is a fairly new approach in Australia and there are some programs in workplaces that teach men to:

  • build skills to speak up against sexism and violence supportive attitudes;
  • acknowledge that they may be challenged if they speak up; and
  • model positive behaviour to other bystanders.

Baby Makes 3 (Whitehorse Community Health Service)

This program seeks to prevent sexual and physical violence before it occurs. The logic is to “increase the capacity of first time parents to build equal and respectful relationships in response to the lifestyle and relationship changes that follow the birth of a child” (Flynn, 2011, p. 1). The program runs for three sessions and gives couples an opportunity to learn to “negotiate their parenting roles” (Flynn, 2011, p. 1).

This program engages men by acknowledging their involvement in parenting early on in their child’s life. It gives men a forum to discuss their expectations of fatherhood and share these with other men. They learn how traditional gender roles may impact on the expectations they have of their partners and of themselves. Impact evaluations done with male participants have been positive.

Take a Stand against Domestic Violence: It’s Everyone’s Business (Women’s Health Victoria [WHV])

Take a Stand is a workplace training program that seeks to change attitudes and behaviour that support violence and stop violence before it occurs. The three elements of the program are Lead, Train, and Promote. The program promotes the bystander approach that encourages men and women to openly acknowledge a distaste or disapproval of anyone promoting sexist or harassing attitudes or behaviours towards women. WHV provide workers with “the skills and confidence to speak up when they hear or see attitudes or behaviours that support violence against women” (WHV, 2013, para 4).

Men are engaged by empowering them to see themselves as positive contributors in the anti-violence space. Men are given information on why gender equality is an important facet of violence prevention. They are given information on how to verbally take a stand in the face of sexist language and hostile attitudes toward women (bystander approach). The programs also “encourage a safe and respectful workplace culture” and a chance for men to feel empowered to be part of the cultural change toward gender equality (WHV, 2011, p. 42)

White Ribbon

The White Ribbon organisation is piloting an accreditation system for workplaces. This is for workplaces who have leadership, training and policies related to preventing and raising awareness of domestic violence and the impacts in can have on individuals, organisations and communities (White Ribbon, 2013). White Ribbon Day is an Australia wide campaign in which men pledge not to use violence against women.

Men are engaged in that they can seek accreditation for their workplace, or may be part of a workplace that seeks accreditation and may participate in training and awareness raising sessions on the negative impacts on violence against women. Men engaged in White Ribbon Day are empowered to become ambassadors for the prevention of violence against women. Male sports stars and celebrities are often prominent in advertising White Ribbon Day.

AFL Respectful Relationships Community Education

The AFL website has a page which discusses respectful relationships between men and women. There are facts and statistics regarding women’s physical and sexual victimisation in Australia, as well as straightforward advice on what to do if you find yourself in a situation where someone is using sexist language and/or sexually harassing someone. Additionally there is a discussion on men and violence - how some men may equate violence with masculinity and how this may not be as “natural’ as some assume.

Men’s engagement is multi-faceted here. Firstly AFL players participate in programs about respectful relationships. AFL clubs have a large following and the website, as well as the players’ participation, means that male spectators and fans engage with that space. The bystander advice helps men to understand and support other men to speak out against violence against women in a safe way.

Respectful Community Initiative (Monash University)

“A prevention strategy aimed at preventing sexual and interpersonal violence within the Monash University Community” (Monash University, 2013, para 1). The strategy includes discussion groups, presentations and promotional campaigns toward the “creation of a safe, welcoming and inclusive community” (Monash University, 2013, para 6)

The initiative targets all students, both male and female. The message of a respectful community becomes a whole of community responsibility and is offered in a variety of formats that can reach a wide variety of students. Mathew Kerr, the co-ordinator of the programs, states that “in the most part men are responsive and active participants” (M. Kerr, personal communication, 3 June 2013).

Table 4: Secondary prevention - early intervention with at risk groups


Program logic

Men’s engagement

Bystander approach

The bystander approach can also be considered secondary prevention or early intervention. This means that a bystander might intervene if an argument breaks out, if violence seems imminent, or if a woman is being physically challenged or sexually threatened.

Secondary prevention “is aimed at specific individuals or groups who show evidence of becoming perpetrators or victims of sexual violence” (Quadara & Wall, 2012, p. 3). Having a program aimed at boys and men that seeks to change attitudes and behaviours which may lead to physical and sexual abuse helps break the cycle of abuse before it becomes entrenched.

Love Bites

Love Bites is a respectful relationships education program for 14-17 year olds, supported by youth-led community campaigns. The program is delivered in a number of settings and focuses on the prevention of domestic and family violence and sexual assault by supporting young people to develop healthy and respectful relationships. Young people are given the opportunity to deconstruct gender, power and violence with the aim of fostering equitable and respectful relationships.

Young people are often targeted for prevention work as they may be at risk of perpetration or victimisation. Young men are targeted here for education and participation in discussions that relate to violence, such as issues of gender. The programs aims to engage young men by and empowering them, through capacity building, to be active bystanders.

Table 5: Tertiary prevention - changing attitudes and behaviours so sexual assault and violence do not occur again


Program logic

Men’s engagement

No To Violence (NTV)

NTV is the Victorian peak body for men’s behaviour change programs. Usually men who participate in these programs have already used violent and controlling behaviour towards women. These men “learn new skills, and … practice and integrate these in their lives” (NTV, 2013). The program also supports the partners of men who have been violent. These programs acknowledge that it is not only individual men’s responsibility to change, but a whole of society change toward gender equality that will reduce violence against women.

Participants include self-referred men, those referred by others, and court mandated referrals (NTV, 2013). Men and women facilitate this program, but only men are the participants.

Men’s Referral Service

Men’s Referral Service promotes men’s behaviour change programs. The website states that “men’s behaviour change groups are for men who have been violent and controlling towards a current or previous partner and are now starting to think about change. Participants talk, share information, and challenge and support each other to be better men, partners, and fathers” (Men’s Referral Service, 2013, para 1).

This website offers information for men who are seeking to connect with a service for their violent and controlling behaviour. They may already have sexually assaulted or abused their partner or someone they know and are looking for help to stop the behaviour. The language and information here are straightforward and help can be accessed through a telephone counselling service.

Tables 3-5 outlined a number of ways that services and organisations are engaging men in sexual assault prevention efforts. They can be participants in programs that educate men on the importance of respectful relationships. Such education seeks to change attitudes and behaviours - particularly at the tertiary level where violence has already occurred. Organisations such as sporting clubs offer men engagement through websites. Workplaces and schools are also important sites that can introduce men to the concept of the bystander approach to violence prevention, and the power of articulating resistance to sexist and violence supportive comments.

Men as educators and facilitators of prevention messages and programs

Men can be powerful allies in sexual assault prevention. There are many men working in the field whose agenda is gender equity and respectful relationships. Flood (2003) asserted that it is important for men to see other men speaking out against violence. He stated that although it would be ideal for men to understand the need to prevent sexual and physical violence by hearing about women’s collective experiences, many men tend to seek approval from other men. Flood wrote that typically, men organise their relations based on “collective norms” (p. 28); that is, the social processes that a group abides by. Masculinity has a set of collective norms - behaviours and responses that are considered appropriate - however this does not mean they are enacted by every man and may in fact be highly contested. These collective norms are one of the facets of how masculinity is constructed, through, and for, men’s relationships with each other.

Empowering and encouraging men to work as facilitators or educators in the prevention of sexual assault is an important avenue to speak directly with men. The men (and women) who work in the field of sexual assault prevention are passionate about being involved in the prevention of sexual violence. Working in prevention as a facilitator or educator can look different depending on whether the work is in primary, secondary or tertiary prevention. It also depends on the organisation. Some primary prevention work can take the form of going out to workplaces and educating organisations and workers about primary prevention. For others it is about adopting a primary prevention framework and creating policies and training workshops for their staff. Sometimes there can be a mix of strategies as is evidenced below.

Andrew Day, of Moreland City Council, provided an example of how one-on-one awareness-raising can encourage others in the workplace to give priority to prevention of violence against women.

Organisationally … we have a White Ribbon action team, which is made up of staff across the council whose objective … is to promote [violence against women] as a serious health and wellbeing issue in our community. I had a colleague email me and say they have real concerns that the focus on preventing violence against women detracts from the focus on the need to deal with violence more generally. This was borne out of his lack of understanding around the issue … he was very open and honest [about that]. I actually made a time to sit down and have a chat to him. It wasn’t about proselytising; it wasn’t about trying to get him on board. It was more about going and having a chat with him about my perspective on the issue, coming at it from a number of different angles including the health and wellbeing component. Trying to make him understand [the importance] of trying to address gender equity, trying to remove those power imbalances [between men and women]. It was a really productive conversation … [and] he was courageous enough to say what he was feeling about it. (Andrew Day - primary prevention)

For men who work in prevention, there can be the opportunity to reflect on their work in a way that is quite personal, but that also feeds back into the process of educating others. No To Violence use male and female co-facilitators, and have found this to be a powerful tool in modelling gender equity.

For male facilitators, we’re all - should be - looking at our own journey of undoing privilege and entitlement as much as we can. I’m not saying all of us are on that journey. Being able to debrief afterwards about reflecting on our own processes and what we’ve decided to do and not do in relation to our [female] co-facilitator is important for us as men to look at how we may have, subtly, placed the burden of responsibility on her as the co-facilitator. So for us, if we don’t [reflect on any of] that, then it’s not good for us as [male] facilitators too. So there are multiple reasons for [female co-facilitation]. (Rodney Vlais - tertiary prevention)

Knowing what is meant by engagement and why it is important to engage men does not always tell us how to engage men. Any strategy concerning engagement of a group requires a consideration of what avenues may be best to engage them.

The following section explores the literature on challenges in engaging men in sexual assault prevention programs. Quotes from practitioners are used to expand on the literature with real world examples of the tensions that can surface when trying to engage men in sexual assault prevention.