His shocking comments made the men stare at their shoes. Good men must do better

My very “good” male friend told me the other day about a conversation he had at work.

He was catching me up on a contract job he had taken that was all sorts of fascinating. He’s working at a venue in a role where there’s a lot of time to stand around and shoot the breeze. All the people, on this particular day, were men.

He told me some hilarious stories from this wildly disparate group, who had been sharing the kind of tales that we pull out when we begin working somewhere new – the stories that have hit a mark before that we know will get a good laugh. This is how we become mates at work – sharing the other parts of us.

Are men willing to call out misogynistic comments that are made when women aren’t around?

Are men willing to call out misogynistic comments that are made when women aren’t around?

It was during that week recently when we yet again took to Melbourne streets to say we were sick of the continuing crisis of violence against women that one of his workmates shared a particular story. “My ex and I split up, and so I told her that if she came for the money or the house, I’d bury her in the backyard.” He laughed and added, “So yeah, she didn’t f---ing try, did she?”

My friend stood there, not sure what to say. He was horrified in retelling the story to me because he hadn’t known what to say; he had been taken by surprise. I sympathised – what would I have said to him? He wasn’t the only one; other men stood there looking down at their shoes, hoping the conversation would move on quickly. In all honesty, I imagined myself in those shoes, and probably would have done the same thing. What do you say?

The point is, the story had been told to this group of men because the storyteller assumed that they agreed with his premise: “Bitches will get hurt if they try to mess with us, right boys?” Or: “How easy is it to scare women off when you threaten to kill them?” Ha. Funny story, right? She fell for it. It’s a story that’s probably gone down well before.

‘Honey, you’re overreacting’: The reason why too many men get away with it

Jennie Hollamby
Jennie Hollamby

Would that story have been told if there was a female present? Would that man find a way to resist telling his story of intimidation and violence in front of a woman? And in the answer to that question is another question we’ve been trying to answer: what role do “good” men have in actively changing the landscape of gendered violence?

Of course, chats around the coffee machine at work or at the club, or while you’re having beers at the weekend, are not the magic solution to gendered violence. But to suggest they have a limited place in prevention is to misunderstand how men like the storyteller believe that their perspectives on women are shared.

Whether there is a masculine inadequacy behind the storyteller’s words, what is crucial is his belief that his way of thinking is not unusual. He trusts that speaking in this way won’t create a stir with other men because most real men think this way, too. We’ve got a culture that feels impotent to the power that these storytellers wield to create this secret narrative of women.

So, what do the “good” men do? Who wants to create tension in a group of people who only know each other for the work they are temporarily doing together? And would anything change the storyteller’s perception anyway? What would the point be?

I found myself in a similar situation as a teenager when I had just started a job in a city cafe. A co-worker sidled up to me and told me a racist joke that related to some of our customers. She assumed because I was white that I likely shared her view. It was awkward, but I knew I had to say something. I told her I didn’t want to hear her say anything like it again. Not a perfect conversation by any stretch, but we had progressed far enough at that point to feel confident to call racism what it was. I wasn’t going to participate by being a place she could deposit these ideas.

Who knows what happened to her, but what I do know is that in the 30 years since that moment, we have become much better at speaking about racism in our communities because we are now more alert to what it looks like and what it sounds like. We’re at least clear now that it’s not tolerated.

When we can speak about the issues we begin to see them differently. We start to understand how a joke can relate to the bigger issues of racism.

This is what prevention groups such as Respect Victoria are asking us to do. In addition to the other measures that need to be taken to eradicate gendered violence, we need to know how to have the conversation if, and when, it comes up.

The “good” men don’t have to carry the big rock of responsibility for gendered violence on their shoulders alone, but could take this moment as an opportunity to reflect on the unique position men have with each other, and to be ready to know what they might do or say, so that the assumption from some men that all men condone gendered violence, is challenged at its heart.

Safe Steps 1800 015 188. National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

Jacinta Parsons is a Melbourne writer and co-host of The Friday Revue on ABC Radio Melbourne.

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