Researching Masculinities and Violence Against Women: An Interview with Dr Shane Tas

After completing a PhD in History in 2019, Dr Shane Tas went on to become Senior Policy Advisor, Masculinities at Our Watch. In this capacity he acted as project lead and author of a major report, Men in Focus: Unpacking Masculinities and Engaging Men in the Prevention of Violence Against Women, launched in November 2019. He spoke with current History postgrad Nayree Mardirian about why gender studies are important, and about the connections and contrasts between academic and policy-based research.

How did you develop your interest in gender, and why is gender and masculinity in particular something worth studying?

My interest in gender is deeply personal as it is for most people. Everyone has an investment and engagement in gender – this is unavoidable, and it’s one of the key reasons why gender (masculinity) is an important area of study. It helps us make sense of ourselves and our world.

For me personally, I’ve had an anxious relationship to masculinity and this led to a desire to know more about it, how it works and so forth. During my undergrad degree I undertook subjects in History and Classics and always found myself drawn to questions of gender and sexuality. During the course of the degree it became clear to me that my postgrad study would go down this path.

Which books and historians have inspired you and/or made you look at questions of gender in new ways?

Michel Foucault and Thomas Laqueur are two historians who have prompted me to think about sex, gender and sexuality in new and complex ways, and to trace the social construction of these throughout history in the West. However, my greatest inspiration comes from feminist and queer writers and philosophers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed, Susan Stryker and bell hooks. They have all produced work that has entirely shifted our ways of seeing gender and has helped us to understand how different aspects of identity and social location intersect with gender to produce particular subjectivities, experiences and practices.

Tell us about the organisation you work for, Our Watch. When and why was it created? And how did you end up working there?

Our Watch is a non-government organisation that was set up in 2013 to lead Australia’s work to prevent violence against women and their children. It uses evidence-based research to drive nation-wide change. It sets out to do this by challenging and addressing the underlying social norms, structures and practices that lead to violence against women. This is important work considering that violence against women is a huge problem in Australia with at least one woman per week being killed by their current or former partner. This has received a lot of attention lately and there is an entire sector working to address this – in prevention, early intervention and response.

While in this work there has been an overall focus on addressing gender inequality as it operates across all levels of society, more recently this has included a focus on how masculinities play a key role in helping to drive violence against women. I was engaged by Our Watch to produce an extensive evidence review of the links between masculinities and violence against women and how to effectively engage men and boys in prevention efforts.

Men in Focus Report Cover, 2019

You’ve just published a major government-commissioned report on masculinities and the prevention of violence against women. Could you tell us a bit about this project and its findings?

The Men in Focus report was commissioned by the Victorian Government’s Office for Women. This is an extensive evidence review. The aim was to take the conceptual and empirical literature on masculinities and violence against women, and to synthesise and analyse it, with a view to developing a deeper understanding of the links between dominant forms and patterns of masculinity and violence against women.

The report explores how primary prevention efforts can best address these patterns. In particular, we look at how we might go about engaging men and boys in the prevention of violence against women. The report also describes how masculinity works, explaining its links to power, gender inequality and violence against women; and it outlines a number of principles for how to approach this work on masculinities and engaging men in prevention efforts.

What we found is that many men feel pressure to conform to particular norms and behaviours of masculinity. In turn, a rigid adherence to these dominant ideas can help drive gender inequality and lead to violence against women. These ideas are promoted and maintained across many different areas of society, and within male peer relations. In fact, the report found that in general violence and aggression are strongly associated with masculinity in direct ways but also in more coded ways, for example, through sport or in violent media.

For effective prevention of violence against women, it’s crucial that we challenge these dominant forms of masculinity and find ways to engage men and boys to reflect on their own role in perpetuating gender inequality. In the report, we argue that in doing this work, there are a number of principles we should be guided by.

First, we should aim to be gender transformative. That is, we should seek to challenge the causes of gender inequality and violence and aim to transform the gender norms, relations and structures that underpin this.

We also need to maintain accountability to women and others most affected by men’s violence, for example, people who identify as trans and gender diverse. One way we can do this is by centring women’s voices and working in close collaboration with women’s organisations and with LGBTIQ communities.

And, finally, we should apply an intersectional approach to account for men’s different circumstances. This means that we should build an understanding of how our social structures, norms and practices create complex intersecting forms of discrimination, disadvantage, power and privilege based on gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, age and so forth. Thus, we need to account for men’s differential levels of access to power and privilege and how all of these differences shape the patterns of violence against women across the population.

Was the experience of researching and writing this report – which will inform the work of policymakers and practitioners – different from the experience of researching and writing your PhD? Are there any ways in which your PhD studies helped to prepare you for this role?

There were many similarities between this piece of work and my PhD. Both were drawing on similar research and evidence, and both were focused on masculinities and their workings. Similarly, there was a particular depth of synthesis and analysis needed in both.

The PhD was different in that it makes a clear contention in relation to the research. By contrast, the Men in Focus report is an evidence review and therefore more neutral in its position and tone. Additionally, in the writing of the report it was necessary to keep the intended audience firmly in mind and to make the findings accessible to this audience. This was particularly challenging and required me to be thinking about the application of the research in policy and practice contexts.

The PhD certainly prepared me well for the task of writing Men in Focus. It gave me a deep understanding of the topic and the related conceptual literature. Also, I was able to use the many research, writing and analytical skills I had developed while doing my PhD. These skills were absolutely vital and integral to producing Men in Focus.

We often hear historians calling for policymakers to engage with historical scholarship and expertise, through projects such as History & Policy and Australian History and Policy. Are you sympathetic to calls of this kind? How can historians do a better job at convincing policymakers, and members of the general public, that history matters?

I’m certainly sympathetic to this call. I feel that at times there is a misunderstanding of what the study of history involves and how it can be applied in contemporary contexts. History is not a linear thing or a meta-narrative of progression. The sources we analyse tell us a political and social story about a particular time or context; but there are also many lessons to be learned that can help inform how we see and approach our most pressing social and political issues today. The study of history helps us to make sense of the past and the present, and make decisions for the future. The methodologies and skills used by historians, that is, the recovery and analysis of a large range of sources (and primary source material) are extremely relevant in our current climate where there has been a proliferation of information and knowledge via the internet.

Tayla Harris, who was sexually abused via online trolling in early 2019, playing for Carlton’s AFLW team during a preliminary final against Fremantle at Ikon Park, March 2019 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the topics your work has often focused on is Australian Rules football and its connections to masculinity. Could you tell us a bit about this?

Much of my work considers the key sites in which dominant forms of masculinity in Australia are promoted, maintained and challenged. Australian Rules football is one of these key sites. In particular, my work has focused on how the patterns of masculinity in the AFL have changed and shifted over time.

We still see many traditional elements of Western masculinity at play in the AFL today; for example, the expectation that footballers should be tough, aggressive, competitive and heterosexual. In these ways, the AFL footballer is an exemplar of dominant masculinity in Australia. However, increasingly, we also see an inclusion of other elements that challenge or contradict these traditional forms. Recently, for example, there’s been a greater inclusion of women into the league and we’re also seeing the development of initiatives to help eradicate racism and homophobia in football.

In my research on this topic I focus in particular on the concept of embodiment – that is, the ways in which expectations about gender are played out, enforced, and expressed specifically through the body. This approach has the potential to be especially fruitful when it comes to studying football. It can help to explain why it is, for example, that even though the AFL has put in place a whole series of more progressive policies and rules, which they expect AFL players to adhere to, traditional or dominant ideas of masculinity are still present throughout the AFL and throughout sports in general. In my PhD, I argued that an important part of the reason for this is the fact that simultaneously, these other, more traditional forms of masculinity are being inscribed and practiced at the level of the body of the AFL footballer, particularly through a club’s training regimes and in their bonding rituals.

My thesis argues that the current theoretical models employed within studies of masculinities struggle to account for these contradictions; but once we bring in a more sophisticated conceptual framework that addresses embodiment in particular, we can reach a deeper understanding of these tensions. Approaching the issue in this way can help us to answer some of the really important and urgent questions around gender, violence, and Australian Rules football. It can help us to explain why it is that aggressive and discriminatory attitudes and practices continue to be directed towards women and some groups of men, even though the AFL has taken significant steps to address these. This approach also helps us to assess what more needs to be done by the AFL across all the different levels of the league. Do these AFL initiatives improve relations between the genders, or are they primarily aimed at disciplining and restricting problematic behaviours? What effect do they have on relations between men? Why is there not one elite footballer who has ‘come out’ as gay?

All these questions around gender in football have relevance that extends far beyond football itself. Football provides a really useful lens for looking at how gender works in broader society too. Sports codes in general have the potential to exert great influence in both negative and positive ways – this is why it’s especially crucial that when we address men and masculinities, we make sure that we engage with these settings.

AFL Grand Final, West Coast Eagles and Sydney Swans, 24 September 2005. Photographer Jimmy Harris via Wikimedia Commons