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Does Shaming Men Who Commit Domestic Violence Work?

Trump recently broke his silence on domestic violence — a week after White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned in light of allegations that he had abused both his ex-wives. Trump’s comment: He’s “totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind.” Putting aside the fact that the allegations were first made last year and were ignored, and the fact that politicians can renounce anything regardless of actual personal beliefs and at no real personal cost, does a powerful man (or any man) speaking out against domestic violence make any difference?

Writing at The Conversation, social worker Richard Tolman says it lacks evidence. Trump’s comments sound like a good thing, he writes, because we’re “motivated by the belief that when powerful men convincingly call out abusers, society’s acceptance of domestic violence can be diminished,” but he points out that the research on its effectiveness is scant, in spite of people believing it’s a good common-sense idea.

Though I’m always down for a good Trump dis, it’s a weird angle, because getting men to speak out on domestic violence (or sexual assault) is the sort of thing that those working in domestic violence intervention and treatment routinely pitch as a critical part of shifting the culture. A recent national conference called A Call to Men, which focuses on sensitivity training and anti-domestic violence measures for men, stressed how important it is for men to speak out against attitudes toward women that devalue them. One of their campaigns was called “Your Voice Counts,” and argues that men speaking out will change attitudes “that perpetuate the cycle of abuse.”

In 2012, when video of NFL player Ray Rice surfaced of him punching his fiancé, domestic violence worker Tanya Young Williams wrote about the importance of men coming out against domestic violence. “In response to Ray Rice’s conduct and the NFL’s handling of the matter, many men including; James Brown, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Michael Strahan, Chris carter and Ray Lewis, have courageously spoken out against domestic violence,” she writes. “All have condemned Ray Rice’s conduct. Some have shared stories of domestic violence in their childhood and others have made impassioned pleas for men to become actively involved in the cause.”

Young cites a number of men who’ve gone on the record against violence to important effect. Barack Obama said it was incumbent upon men to help stop assault, saying it’s “on the parents of young men to teach them respect for women, and on grown men to set an example and be clear on what it means to be a man.” Cuban-American actor Victor Rivers said “A true macho, a real manly man is a man who joins the movement to end violence against women.”

While it’s easy to see that research may not be able to provide direct links between awareness campaigns and impact, it’s not that none do. Recently, the World Health Organization looked at the effectiveness of social campaigns that call attention to domestic violence by making it a public conversation, including public posters, radio and television ads that have targeted men and tracked their impact a few years later. Australia’s “Freedom From Fear” campaign, for instance, pitched messages such as “real men don’t hit women.” They found that such messages were most impactful when they showed the damage intimate partner violence does to children, and five years later, reported instances of domestic abuse had dropped, as well as fewer incidents of women being threatened with being hit.

Of course, just the talking doesn’t make that much of a difference if there aren’t programs in place, and Tolman notes that there are some prevention programs that are effective. Those programs work because they focus on the root of the problem and talk to men where they already are — like sporting organizations, including high school sports, that focus on teaching male athletes to promote healthy relationships with women. Impending fatherhood is a critical time to introduce men to the importance of shielding children from seeing abuse in families so it isn’t normalized, and in fostering positive relationships with sons so they don’t become abusers. Reaching teenage boys when they just hit dating age, like in middle school, also lays the groundwork for nurturing healthy relationships with women based on the radical notion that men and women are equals. Similarly with sexual assault, teaching men to be good bystanders and call out domestic violence when they see it also reduces incidents.

But this isn’t a reason to suggest that raising awareness is a frivolous goal, when it’s a cornerstone of every movement to shed stigma or get funding for treatment and research. The very mockable ALS ice bucket challenge? It raised $115 million dollars and led to scientists discovering a new gene tied to the disease. More recently, men talking talking openly about being raped and continuing stories of their abuse under the #MeToo movement that has shown the world that men suffer through sexual assault, too.

Men who’ve witnessed domestic violence between their parents are also a critical group to encourage conversations about the ensuing damage it does, and the often lifelong therapy it can take to repair. And encouraging men who’ve committed domestic violence to talk about is a way through understanding the motives and the rehabilitation process. What’s more, given the increasing awareness of domestic assault against men, which some experts argue happens at the same rate as it does against women, it’s important that men learn to tell their stories of abuse too, as well as take a stand against it. All this is as critical as getting women to speak up about their experiences being abused.

Of course, this is in no way a reason to praise Trump, whose easy thumbs down on domestic violence means very little from a man who openly brags about assaulting women. But acting as if men speaking up is irrelevant is only more justification for men to keep saying “It’s not my problem,” which, if you ask anyone working in domestic violence circles, is still one of the biggest problems there is.