Boys, we need to talk: As women die violently, too many can’t see a problem

All too often with the killing of women, the accused perpetrators are described in the media by people who knew them as “good” men.

Lilie James, killed at St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney.

Lilie James, killed at St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney.

One thing I have learnt is that with communications, it’s not what you say that matters, so much as what people hear. What do victims, survivors or anyone who has been adjacent to coercive control hear when a killer is described as a “good guy” or “leader” or “devoted husband”? What they hear is … “until she came along”.

No one says that out loud, and I don’t think the people who say “good guy” think it, but if there are so many good guys murdering women, perhaps our bar for what defines a good guy is too low.

No one says: “Yeah, we knew he was a dodgy” or “We thought he was capable of murder”. That’s because abusers live in plain sight. Covering up their controlling behaviour is a habit. They are charming; they are passionate and affectionate when it suits them; they are outwardly respectable.

For survivors who get out of coercive relationships and tell their friends and family what happened, they might be confronted with: “But he seems like such a good guy!” People are shocked that men they knew and loved were capable of such crimes. Victims get it. They loved them too. Painfully, often they still do, which is why it can take seven attempts to leave them, once and for all.

When you question someone who has escaped coercive control, you contribute to their gaslighting. Somehow, it is the victim’s fault that her ex-partner behaved so out of line with the person he projected. See what you made him do?

What language might work in the media in the days after tragedy involving domestic or similar? We should take the character of the perpetrator out of the conversation because it should never be used as a mitigating factor. We’ve seen the case of Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis writing a character reference for actor Danny Masterson after he had been found guilty of sexual assault. In NSW, Harrison James and Jarad Grice, advocates for child sexual abuse victims, launched a campaign: #yourreferenceaintrelevant.

Our conversation should turn to why, in so many cases, women are killed by those they know. For teenagers, especially, this is an important discussion. While we might be progressing on many social fronts, the Plan International Gender Compass report reveals that 20 per cent of males aged 16 to 24 “believe gender equality is no longer an issue and equality for women has gone too far” and they are “concerned with male gender discrimination”.

This is why we need to keep having this conversation.

Climate change sceptics may eventually “age out” of the conversation, but the same debates about gender relations will come back every generation, unless we as a society and as parents really do something about it. We know that girls and young women are at the highest risk of coercive control, and I have previously written about the dangerous effects of “love bombing” early in relationships for the 16-25 age group.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, a third of teenagers aged 18 to 19 have experienced intimate-partner violence in the past 12 months. If one in five young men think gender equality is no longer an issue, and 30 per cent of teenagers have experienced gendered violence, clearly more needs to be done.

The Albanese government recently announced an education campaign to combat “harmful forms of masculinity” in young boys. This campaign will focus on countering the impacts of people such as the influencer Andrew Tate and coercive-control techniques such as love bombing.

Research keeps showing us that this conversation shouldn’t be corrective or punitive. No boy is going to listen when the conversation starts with: “Now we will stop you being toxic!” Rather, it should be preventative. Programs such as Tomorrow Man and Tomorrow Woman focus on educating young people in understanding their own emotions.

We know respect is foundational to ending violence against women, but even more so is respect and understanding of one’s self. When boys are given the language and the skills to regulate and communicate their own emotions and understand others, they can navigate the complexities of relationships, their partners’ success, jealousy, break-ups, and everything else that life throws at them without needing to dominate and control. We know this is possible because there are many more great men who do not seek to control.

As parents, we can talk to our children about emotions, friendships and relationships the same way. De-gender it. Allow emotions. Let boys cry and allow girls to express their anger. Let them see you work through a bad mood, an argument, a stressful day, rather than suppress it or wait until it explodes. Teach them that all people matter, and as soon as someone tries to control another person, it doesn’t matter how good a guy or girl they were.

Daisy Turnbull is a teacher and the author of 50 Risks To Take With Your Kids and 50 Questions to Ask Your Teens.

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