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Reflection: Gender-Based Violence, Masculinity, and the Church

Published: 2 December 2021

Thursday 25 November saw the launch of 2021’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence:

First-year ordinand Will Moore reflects on why this campaign is important for the church – and especially men in the church.

This blog post is based on Will’s talk given at the Corymeela launch event of ‘Seed of Sequioa: A practical faith guide to communities responding to domestic and sexual violence’ (find more information here: Will’s forthcoming book Boys Will Be Boys, and Other Myths: Unravelling Biblical Masculinities will be published with SCM Press in 2022.

As we journey through the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, we are faced once again with the question of what we can do to tackle the epidemic that is violence against women. More than that, how much is it an issue that requires the involvement of men in order for things to change?

As an ordinand in the Church of England, and as someone who is writing a book on toxic masculinity, the Bible, and the Christian faith, it is significant to recognise that this is a real issue facing wider society as well as our own church communities. It isn’t easy to acknowledge that the Church as an institution has a history of complicity and involvement in the enacting and perpetuation of (particularly sexual) violence. However, we are finally beginning to put our hands up and admit, ‘we’ve gone wrong, we haven’t done enough, and we’ve got to do something’.

After the death of Sarah Everard earlier this year, ‘the 16 days campaign’ is needed now more than ever. Yet with the emergence of the #NotAllMen hashtag, it seemed that many men in the UK did not want to take responsibility for their part in the culture of violence against women. It is not only the perpetration of crimes themselves that needs to be addressed, but also the pervading culture of misogynistic, hateful, and simply unhelpful behaviour of men. Men’s comments on women’s bodies, their desirability, and what men would do to them – all considered ‘banter’ on a night out – create a space in which violence against women is normalised, can easily escalate, and thus thrive.

The cultivation of such a culture can be much more subtle. Too often have I seen little boys still being told not to cry, to get their dream girl (whatever that takes), to let out their anger in a sanctioned space, to be tough, and to always unfailingly be the best. Such gender coding has set standards of masculinity which persist into adulthood; men are still associated with sex, money, power, control, violence, emotional suppression, and blamelessness. The way we continue to socialise boys and men has resulted in masculinity and toxicity becoming so intertwined that they cannot be severed, which means all men have a part to play in this conversation and action to take.

The manifestation of this action has two streams. Firstly, we must be practically ready to take action in terms of safeguarding, pastoral support, and whistleblowing, amongst other responses. But secondly, and more overlooked, we have to take action theologically. We cannot be practical about thinking and acting on the intersection of gender, violence, and scripture without letting it interrogate and shape our faith and beliefs.

The Bible describes many examples of what we might consider to be domestic or sexual abuse/violence against women (and, please note, that men are victims of sexual violence in the Bible too). Whether it’s the normalisation of abuse within marriage seen in Ezekiel 16, the rape of Tamar by her half-brother in 2 Samuel, or (in the same canonical book) the invasive nature of David and his abuse of power as he rapes Bathsheba, we see that toxic masculinity and sexual violence against women is present in the Bible, and still endures today in an entirely different time and context.

If we recognise that these kinds of actions haven’t simply disappeared from biblical times to the modern day, then we have to acknowledge that there is a much wider problem and that men are at the centre of it. Toxic masculinity underlies some of the biggest problems facing the globe today, infecting every aspect of our human lives. It has not spared anyone.

In the Bible, men are almost invariably the active agents who hold the power (whether that be as ancient social individuals, literary characters, authors, interpreters, or so much more). But what would it mean as men of faith if we turned this active agency on its head and used our privilege for the better, to interrupt the incessant cycle of toxic masculine socialisation in our society? Let’s teach boys to be emotionally literate, to understand women’s bodies and the boundaries of consent around them, and to acknowledge that they don’t need to be tough and strong in order to succeed. If you haven’t heard a sermon addressed to men about how they can respond to violence against women, then preach it. Acting not only practically, but also theologically, matters.

It is the onus of men to talk to other men, to speak out about gender equality and violence against women, and to make this world a safe one where everyone can thrive. By saying this, men aren’t given more power or importance by being put back in the centre, but we are recognising the influence and potential that men (particularly amongst other men) have to enact cultural change. When we discuss these topics, masculinity does not need to be pushed to the side, but it does need to be addressed with due criticism and self-awareness.

Just as Jesus broke himself out from death into new life, and invites us to do the same, we are called to break ourselves free from the shackles of toxic masculinity and the violence it entails and reach into a new future of possibilities for what men can be.

Further Resources:

Mother’s Union:

Photo Credit: Tim Dennell (CC BY-NC 2.0)