The Home Office is currently developing a national communications campaign targeting misogynistic attitudes and violence against women. But if it doesn’t get it right, it could do more harm than good.
For too long, women have had to shoulder the responsibility of keeping themselves safe from male violence. That’s why, throughout 2021, Stylist has been calling on the Home Office to launch a major public campaign that addresses the attitudes behind male violence against women. We want this campaign to be aimed directly at men – putting the onus on them to help change the culture around gender-based abuse, assault and harassment.
We’re not the only ones who believe in the power of mass media campaigns to lay the groundwork for social change. More than 60 academics, campaigners, charity CEOs, public figures and MPs signed Stylist’s open letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel earlier this year, calling for a high-profile campaign to be included in the government’s new Tackling Violence Against Women strategy.
Thanks in part to our efforts, when the strategy was published in July, it contained a pledge to launch a multimillion-pound campaign across England and Wales, designed to “target and challenge perpetrators [of violence against women] and the harmful misogynistic attitudes… within wider society”.
Since then, we’ve seen Police Scotland launch a widely praised anti-sexual violence campaign titled ‘That Guy’, which aims to “put the cause of sexual offending where it belongs – with men”. Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, has also announced plans to lead a public education campaign around male violence against women directed at men and boys in the city.
But the Home Office has yet to confirm any further details about its nationwide campaign, from when it will launch to what its message will be.
“Campaigns can backfire if they’re not done well,” says Dr Stephen Burrell, a sociology professor at the University of Durham who has researched how young men respond to awareness campaigns about violence against women. Research shows that public health campaigns can sometimes have an unintended ‘boomerang effect’, where people switch off or become defensive.
Other evidence suggests that repeating a harmful myth – even with the goal of debunking it – can inadvertently reinforce it in people’s minds. Given the misconceptions that swirl around male violence against women, this must be taken into account.
“The message in the Home Office’s version has to be very carefully considered,” says Burrell. “There needs to be a particular focus on engaging men and boys, rather than putting responsibility on women for stopping men’s violence.”
Several experts currently being consulted on the development of the campaign tell Stylist they’re optimistic that the Home Office is listening to their views and wants to get this right. But other organisations have expressed doubt as to whether the government’s public commitments are currently ambitious enough.
So what exactly is needed for a campaign to make a difference?
An effective campaign must…
Be created with experts from the women’s sector
It’s important that this campaign speaks directly to men. But its message must be shaped by survivors and experts from the women’s sector – particularly those from organisations representing Black and minoritised women, who are often sidelined or excluded from conversations about male violence against women.
“As a society we need to recognise that not all women’s experiences are the same – pretending otherwise masks inequalities among women and how differently they might experience the world around them,” Deniz Uğur, deputy director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, tells Stylist.
“That’s why it’s so crucial that voices from the women’s sector are listened to – particularly those from specialist organisations led by and for Black and minoritised women, who have the expertise needed to provide quality support but are chronically underfunded by government.”
Run for long enough to make an impact
A short-term campaign will never disrupt long-standing social norms. In 2010, a major review published in the medical journal The Lancet concluded that mass media campaigns need continuous, frequent and widespread exposure before their message starts to sink in.
“We need a long-term, multi-platform, multi-message campaign that covers lots of different areas, so it can start to gradually shift the gender norms that create the context for male violence against women,” says Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, a reader in the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University.
Chipping away at these cultural norms will take a long time, says Vera-Gray, because we’re constantly absorbing messages that “re-embed” them – from the TV shows we watch to the music we listen to.
“Any effective campaign must be long-term, so it can start to really challenge the ways we’ve been taught to think about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman,” Vera-Gray continues. “Those norms are the foundation for the violence we experience as women today.”
Be supported by investment in real-life conversations
A public campaign around male violence against women is not a quick fix. Even the most powerful and nuanced version will struggle to start shifting attitudes and behaviours if it’s not supported by ongoing, in-person conversations.
“Communications campaigns can be really valuable – over time, they can shift cultural discourse around a subject,” says Dr Fiona Spotswood, a lecturer at Bristol University whose research has focused on how marketing can help solve societal problems.
“But if the Home Office is honestly trying to change the societal-level misogyny that ultimately leads to violence against women – which is utterly systematic, systemic and ingrained – then please tell me they’ve also got enough funding to invest in working with police, community organisations and schools.”
Professor David Gadd, a criminologist at Manchester University who has researched how male perpetrators of domestic abuse respond to awareness campaigns about violence against women, agrees. “We’ve got to take the sharp, slick campaign message, then amplify it across lots of different networks in people’s lives,” he says.
The government should support teachers to discuss its campaign in classrooms, says Gadd, and prepare probation officers to talk about it in group sessions with domestic abuse perpetrators and their families. Ultimately, there needs to be much more long-term investment in projects designed to prevent male violence against women, across education, workplaces and communities – including initiatives that challenge misogynistic attitudes and harmful patriarchal norms.
“If a man has been abusive for 20 years, a five-minute video won’t change how he thinks,” says Gadd. “But if you’ve got skilled professionals working with him, and his sister is telling him to take the message in the government’s campaign seriously, and that conversation goes on for six months – then you might get somewhere.”
What you can do next
In a statement to Stylist, Safeguarding Minister Rachel Maclean said: “We are working closely with stakeholders, including the women’s sector, academics and victims’ services, and greatly value the expertise, insights and experience they have shared. This will help deliver our targeted communications campaign that provides value for money and delivers the lasting change required.”
But we think more concrete commitments are needed. That’s why Stylist is calling on Home Secretary Priti Patel to ensure that the Home Office’s campaign around violence against women is long-term, informed by the expertise of Black and minoritised women, and supported by meaningful investment in other forms of prevention work.
You can join our call – find a template email to send to the Home Office here.
Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.