By Liam Clarkson
In Year 12, I sat with around 200 other boys in a Brisbane GPS school chapel. A privileged environment, no doubt, but one filled with many decent young men.
The special guest for the day was a woman around 30 years old. She was a long-suffering victim of domestic violence, to the extent that when she finally left her partner, she changed her young daughter’s name so that he may never find her.
This man told her what to wear and wanted to know where she had been. He beat her, strangled her and attacked his pregnant partner’s belly with a coat hanger.
Why didn’t she just leave? Well, she answered that before anyone asked the question.
If she ran away, he would find her and kill her, and their daughter too. Violence would follow.
A choice between staying in a dangerous household or fleeing to a life of fear is not something any woman should have to make.
Our guest spoke eloquently and emotionally. Nothing was left on the table as she poured her heart out to this group of impressionable young men, soon to assume the great responsibility that male adulthood entails.
She urged us to take the high road. To not rape. To not use violence as a tool to release anger. To talk to the women in our lives and actually listen to what they had to say about what it’s like being a woman today.
However, I still heard several guys chatting afterwards who seemed to have taken none of her words on board:
“Why didn’t she just leave?”
“Why does she think we’re all going to be rapists?”
“Of course I wouldn’t hit women, why was she telling us this?”
These words cut very deep at the heart of the matter of casual sexism, the domestic violence crisis and that Gillette ad everyone has a take on.
Yes, it’s an ad designed to generate profit.
Yes, none of what it says is stuff we haven’t heard before.
And yes, its depictions of men are not flattering. Cry me a river.
It’s also a piece of film that manages to condense several key messages into less than two minutes. Not every part of it will be directly relevant to every man watching, but its overall message absolutely is.
Whilst it has been amusing to see several men online throwing their razors in the bin because Gillette merely encouraged men to be better, it indicates a greater overall problem: an inability to listen.
Women have forever joked that men are bad listeners – and with good reason. But refusing to take on an urge to act better towards women is rather more serious than forgetting a shopping list.
If 17-year-old boys won’t listen to an actual victim of misogyny about how to be better, no two-minute ad from a large corporation will be more effective.
So why don’t we listen? I can’t answer with absolute certainty, but the idea of being ‘accused’ of something we haven’t done, like hitting a woman or sharing nudes without consent, is part of it for sure.
Any message that ‘men’ (yes, #NotAllMen, I know) have to improve their behaviour is interpreted as a direct instruction rather than a simple request for self-assessment.
I guarantee that none of the 200 boys in that chapel ever thought they would hit a woman. Sadly, I can also guarantee that at least one probably will.
Boys don’t grow up thinking they want to hit, rape or kill women. Those things are done by evil, villainous men they see in movies and TV.
But a portion of boys become those very men.
Adolescents have an opportunity to listen to what women are saying now to avoid doing damage when they grow up.
To men of all ages: suck it up and actually engage in some self-assessment.
You can start by talking to your female friends, partners and relatives. Learn about the fear of walking to a car at night. Learn why ‘stealthing’ (removing a condom during sex without a partner’s consent) isn’t cool. Learn why cat-calling, victim-blaming and mansplaining aren’t OK.
If you knew all of that, congratulations. That doesn’t mean you’re a hero or even a good person.
It means you’re actually getting an understanding of why women around Australia are afraid they might be next. Murder is the brutal reality of fully-realised misogyny staring them in the face.
Usher in a new dawn for women’s safety by encouraging your mates to be better. It doesn’t take much.
Deflecting direct responsibility for a woman’s death is missing the point. If we all show a shred of empathy for the very different circumstances in which women live their lives, there will be no need for Gillette to encourage better behaviour because we’ll be doing it ourselves.