White Ribbon — too white and too polite

by Pala Molisa
Sun 6 Dec 2015
12 min read
31
  • Pala Molisa
    Pala Molisa
  • Grace Mera Molisa
    Grace Mera Molisa

Anti-violence campaigns like White Ribbon are all about men being “part of the solution”. Around White Ribbon Day each November, for example, men are encouraged to “Take the Pledge”, go on anti-violence marches, and do more to speak out against the crisis of male violence against women.

And fair enough, too, because this crisis is one of the most important we face as a society. In New Zealand, a third of all women experience physical violence from a partner. Globally, a third of all women will be beaten or raped in their lifetime.

Some people see this increased activity by men in anti-violence campaigns as progressive — as feminist successes. But I don’t think they are. And I can’t bring myself to support them because, by and large, they’re just too white and too polite.

 

Anti-violence campaigns like White Ribbon are too polite because they’re silent on the true causes of male violence. They don’t challenge the systems of power that create the violence in our society. They don’t push men to ask uncomfortable questions about our own role in supporting these systems of power.

And that’s a serious problem, because it means they won’t spark the big change we need.

Male violence doesn’t come out of nowhere. Men aren’t born to hit and rape. Very few men are sociopaths, with no sense of right and wrong. Men hit and rape because we live in a system of power that puts men on top and women at the bottom. It’s this system that not only trains men to hit and rape, but also lets them get away with it at the rate that they do.

Feminists call this “patriarchy”. A blunter term is “male supremacy”. I like this term because it’s honest and direct. It doesn’t beat around the bush. It makes it clear who’s on top and who’s on the bottom.

A lot of men and women dislike these terms, because they don’t square with how we like to think of ourselves as a society. Isn’t this a country that takes equality seriously? Where everyone has a “fair go”? Where women are freer than in most other countries? Don’t we have a proud and ongoing history of strong women leaders?

Well, yes. But a system of power isn’t defined by the few individuals who make it to leadership positions or excel. They’re the exceptions, not the rule.

If we look at the realities, we can see clear signs of the inequality between men and women.

In New Zealand, women are over-represented among the poor. We still have a gender pay gap where women get paid less than men. And, globally, women make up more than half the world’s population and do two-thirds of the work. But they get only 10 percent of the world’s income and own only one percent of the world’s wealth.

Women may no longer be treated as men’s property in countries like ours — though it wasn’t so long ago that they were — but they’re still subjected to sexist stereotypes and institutionalised practices that treat them as objects.

Look at the global multi-billion-dollar pornography and prostitution industries. Look at the music, entertainment and beauty industries. All these industries treat women as objects and their sexuality as a commodity — as something that can be bought and sold. And, if you’re treated as an object, then it follows that you’re less than human.

 

Male violence against women is so routine under the male supremacy culture  because we’ve been brought up in a world where masculinity is based on domination and control.

From the time we’re born, men are taught to avoid things too closely connected to femininity and women. To struggle for supremacy in social relationships. And to repress all those emotions that we think of as feminine.

Being a “real man” is defined by how well you can dominate others — whether on the sports field, at school, at work, or in your romantic relationships. If you can’t do this well, you won’t measure up. You’ll be called a “sissy”, a “fag”, a “homo”.

This model of masculinity doesn’t just do untold damage to the emotional lives of boys. It also makes men dangerous to each other — and to women and children. This is because the first group of people that boys are taught to exercise dominance over is females: women and girls.

This comes through clearly if we look at sex. We’re not taught to see sex as an intimate way of relating to another person and deepening our connection to them. Instead, we’re taught that sex is an arena for exercising power over women.

That’s why when we talk with each other about our sexual activities — in all-male spaces like the locker room and the gym (where there are no women around to hear what we say) — the language we use is often about dominating and controlling women. It’s a language of possession, ownership and violation.

When you combine this with a world where women are turned into sex objects, where they’re bought and sold (as they are through prostitution, stripping, and pornography), the predictable result is a world where violence, sexualised violence, sexual violence, and violence-by-sex is so common it’s seen as normal.

This doesn’t mean the dominant culture says rape is okay. It doesn’t. But the culture does endorse a model of masculinity that makes rape inviting.

This culture is why the All Blacks can choose to party at a strip club after winning the World Cup and not attract much public criticism for giving money to an industry that’s based on sexual exploitation and slavery.

It’s the reason people were critical of the journalists who broke the story — for “bad form” in “telling” on the boys, trying to ruin their “fun”, and not letting “boys just be boys”.

And why we can legalise the prostitution industry, which is based on commercialised rape — and not see anything wrong with it. Not see how it reinforces male supremacy’s rape culture.

 

But anti-violence campaigns like White Ribbon don’t say anything about patriarchy as a system of power. They’ll talk about physical violence. They’ll talk about emotional and psychological violence.

But they don’t link this violence to the economic, political, and cultural violence that male supremacy is based on. Nor do they link it to the violence of poverty and economic inequality that women suffer from. Or to the violence of militarism that women suffer from. Or the violence of pornography and prostitution that women suffer from.

We’re yet to see anti-violence campaigns like White Ribbon make these connections, and seriously discuss them. These campaigns will talk about the violence that an individual man will do to an individual woman. But they won’t talk about the forms of violence such as pornography and prostitution that are institutionalised forms of male dominance.

They don’t see these global sexual-exploitation industries as commercialised forms of rape: as rape that is paid for. But that’s what they are. The vast majority of prostitutes don’t sell their bodies because they want to have sex but because they come from backgrounds of homelessness, poverty, debt slavery, alcohol and drug addictions — and childhood sexual abuse. They experience incredibly high rates of violence and sexual abuse. And the transaction itself — men buying women to sexually access their bodies — is itself a special form of violence. These circumstances mean that the idea of “consent” is a cruel joke for most women in prostitution.

And yet these anti-violence campaigns still haven’t taken our government to task for legally sanctioning this form of sexual exploitation by decriminalising prostitution through the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003.

This law gave women and other prostitutes much-needed legal protections and support services that the previous legal regime denied them. But it also created a legal climate which says that for a man to go out on a Saturday night and buy a woman for sex — treating her like a thing, and exploiting her desperate circumstances — is basically okay.

As the pornography and prostitution industries are growing, they’re becoming more mainstream and they’re shaping and influencing popular culture — the music, fashion and entertainment industries.

This is creating the perfect social conditions, the perfect storm, for intensifying the rape crisis nationally and globally.

But anti-violence campaigns like White Ribbon are yet to challenge these sexual-exploitation industries, and their legalisation, in any serious or sustained way.

And, instead of seeing male violence against women as rooted in male supremacy, they simply focus on trying to build “respectful relationships” between partners and minimising the physical and emotional violence that goes on within these intimate relationships.

That’s like trying to turn off the stove when your whole house is burning.

 

If they were less polite, we’d be having serious discussions about how rugby and military culture is based on sacrificing our boys to a masculinity that will not only prepare them psychologically and emotionally to kill each other, but also to habitually destroy the lives of women.

We’d be picketing outside brothels and strip clubs to challenge the men going into them — and make it clear that what they’re doing is wrong.

We’d be staging sit-ins at the headquarters of the pimps who own these brothels and strip clubs — men like John and Michael Chow — and apply pressure to shut them down because they’re making money off the sexual abuse and exploitation of women.

We’d be shouting down political leaders at party conferences and voting them out of Parliament for closing down rape centres, for not closing the pay gap, and for minimising the voices of the victims of sexual violence.

We’d be tearing down Maxim, FHM and other “lads’ mags” for promoting the idea that women are little more than men’s sexual props.

These organised collective actions are how you change institutionalised power. Just trying to change how we talk to each other, and touch and feel each other is not a solution, as the feminist Andrea Dworkin puts it — it’s a recreational break.

 

Anti-violence campaigns aren’t just too polite. They can often be too white. They seem to treat violence against women as if it’s a problem men can address without facing up to three realities.

One is the effect of colonisation. Another is the institutionalised racism of white supremacy. And a third is the impact of corporate capitalism which concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, deepens poverty, and frequently damages or destroys the environment in the pursuit of economic growth.

These anti-violence campaigns treat the problem of male violence against women like it’s not connected to these wider systems of power.

But we don’t just live in a male supremacy system. Masculinity is also shaped by race and class, by capitalism and white supremacy.

Boys who are white, rich, or middle-class, for instance, can draw on their race and class privilege to go after the white collar qualifications and managerial jobs that will allow them entry into the leadership roles of society’s economic and political institutions.

Most Māori and other Pasifika boys don’t have access to this “first class” masculinity: a white masculinity. What they get forced to conform to, instead, is a “second class” masculinity. It’s a black and brown masculinity. It’s a model of masculinity that devalues intellectual achievement and prioritises athletic prowess. Being “hard”. Being physical.

This model of masculinity offers Māori boys, other Pasifika boys, and working-class boys the chance to realise a certain measure of social status and acclaim by over-achieving in sport. But it also plays a role in the psychological and intellectual stunting of our boys. And it locks them into narrow educational paths with few options other than sport, the military and the construction site (not as managers, but as the manual labour). Or prison.

 

The realities of white supremacy and colonisation also mean that Māori and Pasifika women don’t have the same experiences of male violence as most other women.

Every woman, regardless of class, race, or culture, is always at risk of sexual harassment, aggression and assault from men of all classes, ethnicities and culture. But Māori and Pasifika women experience the highest levels of economic hardship, the highest rates of sexual violence, and the greatest burden of keeping tamariki safe and keeping whānau/fanau together.

They bear the brunt of race-based inequality and poverty. And Māori, in particular, as tangata whenua, continue to experience the effects of colonisation.

That’s why Māori women are over-represented in prostitution: an industry that represents the social bottom for women.

All this means you can’t separate the rape crisis from the colonisation crisis. And you shouldn’t treat anti-violence campaigns like they’re separate from decolonisation struggles. At the centre of those struggles are the experiences, voices and interests of Māori women, the Māori community, and other indigenous peoples of the Pacific.

Anti-violence campaigns that don’t acknowledge this state of affairs won’t be able to fully engage Māori and Pasifika men, and even less, Māori and Pasifika women. That’s because the realities that we’re deeply concerned about, and that our people are dying from every day, are the realities of the New Zealand settler culture propped up by a political and economic system that keeps Māori and Pasifika at the bottom of New Zealand’s socio-economic ladder.

Have a look, for instance, at how anti-violence campaigns say they’re concerned about the family violence that Māori women experience, but won’t link these high rates of abuse with a history of not only institutionalised racism, but more importantly, of ongoing Crown criminality and violence against Māori.

Think about how anti-violence programmes are happy to put Māori or Pasifika All Blacks and other sportspeople on their posters and media campaigns but won’t discuss the politics of race that Western-dominated sports industries are based on — and which treats our Māori and other Pasifika boys as global commodities to be used for profit as long as they’re productive.

 

Most of what I’ve said here will make some people uncomfortable because it’s not part of the polite type of talk that’s so characteristic of mainstream media and most of what you’ll hear in Parliament.

But it’s exactly this politeness with all its silences about male power, about racial and class oppression, that we need to abandon.

If we’re going to develop men’s anti-violence campaigns that can help our Māori and Pasifika boys escape “the masculinity trap” that a white-supremacy, patriarchal culture has lined up for them, we need to teach them the need for moral courage. They don’t need politeness. They need the courage to look honestly at all of the systems of power that we live within.

This process of decolonisation means we need to learn and reclaim our own histories that we are not taught at school (as Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu says) because it’s these histories that can provide us with the knowledge and confidence to move beyond the limited and damaging models imposed by the dominant culture.

Decolonisation also means seeing the need to link anti-violence campaigns with anti-colonial and anti-racism struggles.

And it involves doing something that we men have so far not been very good at. Listening to women.

Most of what I’ve learned about male supremacy and decolonisation struggles, I’ve learned from women.

Women like my mother, Grace Mera Molisa, who was the first indigenous radical feminist that I knew. She was one of Vanuatu’s leaders in our struggle for independence against the British and the French. All her life, she fought for women’s rights in Vanuatu, throughout the Pacific, and on the global stage.

She fought against the way male leaders went about the business of systematically cutting women out of the leadership roles of the new Republic after independence had been gained.

Despite the cost to her health and life, she fought against anyone and everyone who dared to say indigenous people, indigenous women, and all women, were anything less than fully human. She’s the one who first taught me the meaning of moral courage. And she’s the one I continue to use as a guide on how to live a meaningful and morally principled life.

She was all this, and more. And yet, like most boys I know, whenever she tried to teach me these truths about the world, about life, I never truly listened. Whenever she sat me down to talk — about growing up, about the future, about what it should mean to be a man — I always saw this as lecturing and nagging.

It was only when she died, in 2002, that I finally listened.

Her death came as a huge shock to me, and in my grief, I vowed to do a PhD that took me a long 10 years to complete, and to dedicate the rest of my life to keeping the political and cultural values that she stood for. That was to honour her memory and keep her spirit and legacy alive.

My mother didn’t just understand how masculinity and male supremacy make the world and men dangerous for women. She could also see how those influences in Vanuatu and New Zealand society were making me lose the humanity that I had. And placing important barriers between me and the women in my family.

That’s an insight that I think all men can, at some level, appreciate. It’s that our identification with patriarchy always comes at the price of losing our humanity.

If we’re ever going to have any chance of escaping “the masculinity trap” and help women bring an end to rape, it’s going to have to be through the process of political struggle that feminists lay out. We men must struggle alongside women to take apart and transform all the domination and subordination that come from patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism.

By criticising mainstream anti-violence campaigns, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m somehow more enlightened than other men. I’m not. Reading a few feminist texts and taking part in anti-violence campaigns, doesn’t change the fact that, like all other men, I still walk around with forms of male privilege — with all the sexist blind spots that entails.

I still battle with a lot of the sexist forms of male behaviour I’m talking about. I don’t go to strip clubs or use pornography any more, but it took me many years to give that up.

Learning how to open up, trust, and love is a constant struggle, and my actions still don’t match my rhetoric.

So what I’m trying to do here is to begin the first step of trying to honestly discuss these issues. But if an anti-violence campaign like White Ribbon were to tackle these issues head-on, I’ll be the first person to sign up. 

 

 

PALA MOLISA

Pala Molisa is Ni-Vanuatu, went to Nelson College, and studied Law and Accounting at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW). He teaches as a Lecturer at VUW’s School of Accounting and Commercial Law, Victoria Business School. His PhD, “Accounting for Apocalypse”, looks at how accounting helps reinforce the social inequalities and financial and ecological crises that global capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and other related systems of power produce. His current research is looking at how accounting helps to structure and facilitate the development of Pacific aid, the sexual-exploitation industries, State-indigenous relations, and the climate crisis.

 

All Blacks party at strip club 

The Industrial Vagina: The Political Economy Of The Global Sex Trade

White Ribbon key messages

Tackling Maori Masculinity, Brendan Hokowhitu

Colonising Myths — Māori realities

Grace Mera Molisa 

 

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