5 questions with Jackson Katz, gender violence prevention advocate

Posted on 8 April 2012


April 8, 2012

By Nancy Chipman Powers
Detroit Free Press Staff Writer

Q: Tell me what initially sparked your interest in preventing gender violence and focusing on males preventing abuse?

A: It was a number of things. My first and second years in college were the key years. I was enjoying my freedom away from home, walking across campus late at night, not worrying and coming home from parties and such. My female peers were not at all living with the freedom that I enjoyed and I realized that if I were a woman I would be worried about sexual assault or being assaulted by the opposite sex.

I saw women organizing and speaking up for themselves. At the time, one issue on my campus was better lighting as a safety precaution for especially women students. I was this student journalist and I actually covered one event that was a rally for better lighting on campus and I started really thinking about how I would feel if I were a woman and then I realized I would be very unhappy with this situation. As a man, I knew that I was in a position to do something about it, not just that problem, but just more generally the deep and pervasive sexism in the world and in our society.

Q: You’re focusing on males?

A: I got early on that this is a men’s issue. A big part of my work for the past 30-plus years has been trying to shift the paradigm of people’s understanding. The status quo or mainstream thinking is that these are women’s issues that some good men help out with. My work has been devoted, in part, to helping to shift the paradigm and to say I don’t accept that premise. I think it is a men’s issue. I think men commit the vast amount of violence in the world — that’s cutting across class, race and ethnicity, geography, education level — men are committing overwhelmingly the violence against women and against other men in the world and the only hope for prevention is acknowledging that fact and then doing something about it.

We can tell women don’t put your drink down at a party or look in the backseat of a car before you get in or have a man’s voice on your voice mail or stay away from men who are disrespectful to women, whatever. Those are all risk-reduction strategies for women and girls. Those aren’t prevention strategies. Prevention means going to the root cause.

Q: You established Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) in 1993 at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. It is one of the first programs to use the “bystander” model for gender violence, bullying prevention. Please explain.

A: What the bystander approach does in a nutshell is instead of focusing on men as perpetrators or potential perpetrators, or women as victims or potential victims, or men as victims or women as perpetrators, we focus on all of us, men, women, boys, girls as what we call bystanders. The idea is what do we do — those of us not directly involved in the situation — to support our friends, to interrupt our friends to challenge abusive behavior around us.

The goal of this with men (we work with both men and women) but the goal with men is to get men who are not themselves abusive or disrespectful towards women or girls, to challenge men who are, and to make it uncomfortable for men who are and not just because it is illegal and they might get in trouble for it, but because it is unacceptable within the peer culture. The goal is to change the social norms in the male side of it, if you will, to change the social norm in male culture that accept, tolerate and in some cases encourage abusive behavior in some men against women and girls.

Q: How has MVP evolved over the years?

A: From the beginning we did bullying, we did male-on-male bullying scenarios, female on female, gay bashing scenarios, various scenarios — from the beginning and now we realize that the bullying potential world is now increasingly using the bystander approach but we’ve been using it for 19 years.

One of the key things that have changed is the growth of social media and the technology of communications. Now I’ve been talking about this concept of the virtual bystander. With the technology in communications there are all kinds of situations where people are bystanders and they’re not at all with anybody else. You could be in your house and get a text message from a friend with a nude photo of his ex-girlfriend and you’re now a bystander to an act of abuse by your guy friend. That is an act of abuse that you are now a bystander to. If you hit send and send it to somebody else now you’re no longer a bystander, you’re actually now in the chain of perpetuation.

Q: You don’t shy away from addressing some hot topics from music to politics. What are some accomplishments that you are most proud of?

A: I think one is how much more common it is for men to be doing this work. I’ve been part of a movement, if you will, of men working with men working with women, of course, who have been increasingly successful at shifting the focus off of women and girls in terms of the prevention aspects of these issues and putting it onto men and boys. And again this conversation in the military, the sports culture, increasingly in schools, I’ve been part of this work. That’s been very gratifying to see how the conversation has changed and there is more acceptance of men’s participation in all levels of this work. I just wish some of this stuff we’ve been talking about would be more common. It is so obvious. It should be mainstream and widespread.