Where does this violent debate leave the good men we know and love?

“Stay frightened, Petal.” “I can’t think of even one screeching female journalist whom I would want to molest/attack/rape.” “Think carefully of your career choices.” “Bye for now and see you soon, but not soon enough.”

That’s a select and, I hasten to note, unrepresentative sample of my email inbox, featuring feedback from readers who don’t feel any compunction about writing nasty messages when they read something they disagree with. Most of my correspondence is from lovely, thoughtful readers who engage with ideas and often respectfully disagree with me (which I love).

Other journalists get it much worse than I do, and people of colour who are engaged in a public role get it much, much, much worse. But I wonder about these guys (they are always guys). They put their names to the emails. Some of them have LinkedIn profiles and other indicators of stable professionalism. Some of them even correspond from their work email addresses.

The emails are quickly filed away – they are a part of the job. The choicest ones might be forwarded privately to female colleagues, who will respond with their own doozies. These women are never surprised. The only people who are shocked by such emails are men. Decent, good men find it difficult to comprehend how pervasive this sort of misogyny is.

Its invisibility is its power.

I went back over the emails this week in contemplation of a new debate that has opened up now that we are talking, again, about the scourge of gendered violence. That is, the argument over whether a broad-based, long-term strategy to combat male disrespect of women, and to achieve gender equality, will bear fruit by bringing rates of violence down. Or whether eliminating generalised misogyny is a nice, progressive goal, but not a practical solution that will dent the statistics of women killed by men.

My fellow columnist, Waleed Aly, wrote a compelling piece on Friday arguing there is little evidence a focus on creating a more gender-equal culture would reduce violence. He pointed to the work of Jess Hill and Michael Salter, who have argued for a pragmatic focus on high-risk perpetrators and a get-real approach to accelerants of violence – gambling, alcohol and drug use, pornography and a family background of abuse and violence.

All these factors are associated with low socio-economic status, which brings a tricky political element to the debate. They run counter to the awareness that advocates have been trying to bring about for decades – that abuse and violence can happen to anyone, regardless of wealth or social status. Abusers can present as functional, even charismatic men, and will live a publicly blameless life, while privately they are terrorising their partners, and often their children too.

I will never forget covering the inquest of Jack and Jennifer Edwards, who were gunned down by their father, John Edwards, in their home in Sydney’s comfortable north-west in 2018. Their mother, Olga, had lived under the coercive control of her husband for years before escaping him. When she reported to the Hornsby police, she found he had beaten her to it – Edwards had already popped in to tell the cops that his crazy estranged wife might come in and tell some lies about him.

The police, forewarned by this apparently upstanding man, failed to take Olga seriously when she went to them seeking help. Edwards had come to police attention several times in the years before due to his violence in previous relationships.

After her kids were murdered, Olga took her own life.

It’s desolate, isn’t it? The kind of thing you want to file away in an obscure inbox folder and forget about.

Anne Summers, a pre-eminent expert in domestic violence and a co-founder of Elsie, Australia’s first women’s refuge, told political journalist Michelle Grattan this week that we know plenty about victims of abuse.

“We have to learn more about the perpetrators,” she said. “Who they are, what they do, how many there are, what their patterns of behaviour are, where they come from. You know, what the issues are in their lives.”

Summers highlighted the explosion of cyberstalking and abuse women face now that spyware technology is cheap and freely available. It is also invisible – the women being monitored by their partners or former partners have no idea it’s happening. According to Summers, men who use tech to abuse or track their partners are more likely to go on to hurt them.

I don’t know where all this leaves good men, the kind who would never hurt or disrespect a woman; the men we all know and love. These men are receptive to anti-misogyny campaigns, but they are also the ones who least need them. In the process, we risk alienating boys and young men who are tired of being demonised – the #notallmen crowd who believe that feminism has evolved from being pro-women to anti-men. Such boys and men become easy marks for the kind of misogyny spouted by influencers like the odious Andrew Tate.

This week, a bipartisan group of male NSW MPs, including the former NSW Liberal Premier Dominic Perrottet, called for an interrogation of the systemic issues fuelling domestic violence. Perrottet said he was supportive of a royal commission because “whilst we need immediate action now, violence against women is such a complex issue that having a holistic inquiry can only be beneficial”.

Such an inquiry would bring visibility to the men who commit violence and, perhaps, help convince decent men of the pervasiveness of the threat women face. It may mean offloading our assumptions about gender equality as the holy grail. But we shouldn’t ditch the overarching goal. It seems to me that a more gender-equal society would help women escaping violence for reasons that are purely economic.

Women need decent pay, good jobs, childcare and a functional child support system to achieve independence after an abusive relationship. Without these things, they stay trapped.

Jacqueline Maley is a senior writer and regular columnist.

If you or someone you know is in need of support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue. In the event of an emergency dial Triple Zero (000).

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