To keep quiet about sexism and verbal put-downs is to condone violence.
© Matt Davidson
TRUE story. People hovered in the chemist shop waiting area. She felt one of the guys looking her up and down. Taking his turn to speak with the chemist, he said loudly: ''You can always tell a depressed lesbian, can't you?'' Mildly discomforted, the chemist remained silent.
By choosing silence, the chemist becomes what filmmaker Abigail Disney describes as a ''tolerator'' - someone who knows that another's behaviour is unacceptable but offers no resistance or contestation. The tolerator becomes complicit in the other's action. Without challenge, the guilty party receives tacit permission to continue behaving boorishly.
Why the silence? The chemist could have said with a soft smile, ''Mate, there's no need to talk like that'', sending the man a signal that his abuse was unacceptable. Lacking social sanction, his customer might think again and even change his ways.
This complicit silence is acted out thousands of times a day - the turning of a blind eye to abuse that we know deep down is unacceptable. Soft-pedalling on abuse erodes our collective capacity to exercise compassion and respect, as well as guaranteeing the safety and wellbeing of everyone, especially women and girls.
On sexual assault and violence within families, we are a nation of tolerators. The latest statistics tell us these crimes are increasing. In Victoria, rape offences recorded in 2010-11 increased by 9 per cent on the previous year.
Crime against the person offences arising from family incidents accounted for more than a quarter of all such crime, representing an increase of more than 26 per cent. Even allowing for improved reporting mechanisms, these are disturbing figures.
The impacts are immense. Sexual assault commonly means life-long trauma for victims. Family violence exacts a terrible toll, for both boys and girls as well. Australian Bureau of Statistics survey data reveal that more than a third of family violence reports indicate that the violence was witnessed by children in the care of women experiencing the violence.
Other research shows that exposure to violence in the family increases children's risk of health, behavioural and learning difficulties in the short term; of developing mental health problems later in life; and in the case of some boys particularly, of being at risk of perpetrating violence as adults.
The economic costs are huge, with leading accounting firms suggesting over the past decade that violence costs the nation billions, yes billions, of dollars every year.
The stark reality is that sexual assault and family violence is highly gendered. Some rape is male against male, and some family violence is caused by women, but the overwhelming majority of sexual assault and family violence perpetrators are male.
Women know intimately how they order their lives to reduce the risk of male violence that stems from an unhealthy and anti-social masculinity which depends on entitlement, intimidation, domination and control.
Most men clearly reject this particular masculinity, rejecting violence in their relationships with women. The next step is for these men to realise the leadership power they have to change the cultural context that produces abusive behaviour.
Men need to learn and practise ways that confront and ultimately supplant the culture of masculinity that sustains violent behaviour. Increasingly, with community education and positive support, men need to be prepared and equipped to confront their male peers in everyday situations - family gatherings, staff rooms, office corridors, parliamentary life, building sites, clubrooms, online, and at the chemist shop - sending clear signals that sexist, abusive and violent attitudes and behaviour are just not on.
To believe violence is somehow a ''women's issue'' is a poor excuse. Victoria's top policeman knows this. Ken Lay acknowledges that family violence is one of the most complex, least visible and fastest-growing areas of crime. Quite rightly, he said we are not going to solve it by locking people up. It requires urgent attention and a fresh approach.
Men making the difference is the critical and hopeful message of Jackson Katz, a leading violence prevention advocate who visited Australia recently as a guest of the Victorian Women's Trust.
Author of The Macho Paradox
and the film Tough Guise
, Katz's bystander approach is exemplified in programs such as the White Ribbon Campaign and the trust's own program, Be The Hero! These initiatives point the way to the fresh thinking needed to better deal with one of our most pressing social problems.
High levels of sexual assault and family violence will prevail as long as a tolerator culture persists.
Men who care deeply about the women and girls in their lives - mothers, daughters, partners and friends - need to recognise that other men are violent (physically, emotionally and psychologically) towards other women and girls.
Silence, defensiveness and passivity (''I don't behave that way so I'm OK'') acts as potent cultural affirmation.
When men in every sphere of leadership - political, corporate, workplace and community - acknowledge the violence of other men as their issue and show they are prepared to challenge the attitudes and behaviours of their male peers, the tolerator fabric will wear thin. Rest assured, all of society can only benefit.