You are out with a group of friends at a bar and you see a male friend groping a woman.
How should you respond? Turn a blind eye, say something, physically intervene, call the police for help?
It’s one of several scenarios that activist Jackson Katz has put before thousands of high school and university students, professional athletes and soldiers in the United States as part of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) he co-founded in 1993 to tackle violence against women.
Katz’s so-called bystander approach emphasises the crucial role men and peer pressure can play in preventing gender-based violence by encouraging men to confront other men and hold them accountable.
“The bystander approach focuses not on potential perpetrators and victims, but on everyone else around them. In male culture, it’s about getting men who are not abusive to make it clear to their friends, classmates, teammates and co-workers that harassment, abuse or violence against women is not only wrong legally and might get you into trouble, it is also not socially acceptable within the peer culture itself,” Katz told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he lives.
“Gender violence is not usually committed by strangers. It’s more likely to be done by otherwise normal guys: it could be a friend, peer, colleague in your military unit, on your sports team, a guy you go out drinking with. That’s why the bystander approach works.”
While there’s growing recognition among international bodies and policy makers that involving men is crucial to fight gender violence successfully, the issue is still largely seen as a problem that only concerns women and one that’s too often only dealt with by women.
In addition, violence-prevention programmes have traditionally focused on women, such as discouraging women from walking alone at night, improving lighting on campus, and giving out rape alarms, and not on what men can do.
TOO FEW MEN
More men need to get on board because gender violence is first and foremost a men's issue, Katz says.
“Domestic and sexual violence are huge, worldwide problems but a relatively tiny number of men are involved in trying to prevent them,” he said. “We have such a long way to go. There are still way too few men in positions of significant cultural and political leadership who are seriously tackling this problem.”
A former all-star football player, Katz’s clients include the Boston Red Sox, as well as NASCAR and National Football League teams. He’s also taken his gender violence prevention programme to the U.S. military, training thousands of marines on a dozen bases in the United States and Japan, and more recently to the Australian army.
“The U.S. military has a big problem with sexual assault,” said Katz, who has served on the U.S. Secretary of Defense task force on domestic violence in the military.
Katz’s programme teaches men how to spot warning signs and certain types of behaviour that can escalate if left unchecked, while emphasising the influential role high-ranking military officers have in stemming violence against women in the ranks.
“It’s the generals and colonels whose leadership sets the tone, who are responsible for creating a command climate that discourages sexist abuse. They’re the ones who can make it clear that you will get into trouble or your career will not advance if you’re involved in violence against women,” he said.
For example, if a general or colonel has been well trained and is well informed on the issues, he or she is more likely to make better decisions about individual cases, such as whether or not to push for a court martial or order a non-judicial punishment.”
Still, sexual assault in the U.S. military is a growing problem, latest U.S. government figures show.
Between October 2012 and June 2013 there were 3,553 reports of sexual assault in the military, a nearly 50 percent increase from the year before, according to Pentagon figures.
CHANGING MALE PEER CULTURE
For Katz, focusing on changing peer cultures, whether it’s in the military or sports teams, is key because peer cultures shape social norms about masculinity.
“The military and sports cultures in the U.S. play a very important role in defining what it means to be a man and in shaping social norms of manhood well beyond the military unit and locker room. One way to change social norms is through changing influential institutions like these, which have built-in structures of accountability,” he said.
Over the decades, Katz has encountered both enthusiasm and resistance from men.
“When introducing programmes to prevent violence against women, I always find there are men who are right there with me, and others who push back. You know that some are thinking “This is just another thing they’re throwing on my plate that I have to do,” he said.
“Sometimes people in institutions justify inaction by claiming they don’t want to draw attention to themselves about this issue, lest people think they might actually have a problem.”
More research is needed to measure the impact of the bystander approach and its effectiveness in changing peer culture.