My partner, A, was driving with the kids to the video store. Our neighbourhood is a bit mixed - there are gangs and violence in parts of it - so A was quite concerned when he saw a young teenage girl walking by herself in the dark.
A's concern was heightened by the recent rape of a 13 year old girl in Auckland - and that fact that, when this girl asked a member of the public for help, she was turned away. We have a strong ethical principle in our family: if someone needs help, or looks like they might, we intervene (so long as we won't cause more harm, to others or ourselves, by doing so). Nine times out of ten, you just look like an over-anxious dick - but that other one time, you might just be the difference between something bad happening or not. And it's better to look like a dick, we reckon, than have to reproach yourself because you didn't give help to someone who needed it. This may look like a strange creed - it's led to us breaking up fights, having a squabble with skinheads, and, in one bizarre case, me doing point duty until the Police arrived! - but hey, that's the kind of people we are.
So A considered offering the lone teenage girl a ride home. In the provincial areas he and I grew up with, this wasn't a strange thing to do at all (it's a reflection of community that may, sadly, be a thing of the past). He knew that the girl probably wouldn't accept, but he initially thought it was right to make the offer anyway. But then he pondered a bit further: maybe by offering a lift, he would actually just scare the girl, leaving her worse off than if he'd done nothing and let her take her chances walking in the dark.
When I intervene in situations that concern me, I feel I can do it more safely than my partner - because I'm a woman, I don't scare people, and my intervention won't be taken as a sign of aggression, so I feel less likely to be harmed. Because men are the perpetrators of sexual violence, a man's attempt to show concern or intervene may cause fear, or some other negative reaction. There's plenty men can and should do in their everyday lives to resist violence against women. But, in a situation of immediate danger - whether that danger is great, small, or only a possibility - it's hard for a man to show compassion or concern without being perceived as a great, small or possible psycho.
There's a vicious circle going on here. Because men are responsible for most domestic and sexual violence, we think of the tendency to violence as a male characteristic. (The most horrific aspect of the Tony Veitch case is the way it has fed this belief, implying that some situations are so irritating that it's understandable when men 'lash out'. I can't think of any situation in which the public would sympathise with a woman who broke someone's spine.) How can we develop a cultural idea of masculinity which both recognises that men are primarily responsible for violence (and why this is), while also recognising that men aren't destined to be violent. As long as we believe that violence is somehow inherent in (at least some) men, we give a level of cultural permission to male violence.
I would probably have offered the girl a lift. Figuring he might do more harm than good, A kept on driving. It's not that he cares less about sexual violence against women than I do (the incident's been bugging him ever since). It's just that, in a society which justifies and normalises a degree of violence from men, the bloke who challenges this with a 'womanish' gesture of concern may look weird at best, and threatening at worst. The same gesture which suggests concern when it comes from a woman seems suspicious when made by a man.
If we make cultural excuses for men's violence we'll get men's violence, we'll imply that men committed to non-violence and caring are slightly odd, and we'll have good reason to be afraid of men, well-intentioned or otherwise. Who could blame a lone teenage girl for being scared of a strange man, speaking to her from his car in the dark?