‘IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO CONSIDER OURSELVES GOOD MEN BECAUSE WE DON’T BASH WOMEN’ – former Police Commissioner Key Lay, on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
My friend sent me the following keynote address, made by Ken Lay, former Police Commissioner and current Chair of the COAG Advisory Panel on Reducing Violence against Women and their Children, on 25 November.
There is nothing in here I did not already know. And I can already hear the negative responses – oh, a white man is saying it, so people are listening now are they?
But you know what? At this point, I don’t give a shit who is saying it, as long as it’s being said. And what’s been said here is so fucking heartfelt, educated, experienced, and eloquent, that I will happily lend my own voice to boosting it.
The below is a slightly condensed version of the address, the full one is here.
Please let me begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the people of the Kulin Nation.
It is upon their ancestral lands that this place is built, I pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.
And today … on this International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Children … I also acknowledge the many thousands of woman and children who have been murdered, maimed or otherwise harmed by those men who professed to have loved them, it is for them that we do what we do.
I’m not going to begin with statistics. I’m not being dismissive. As a former police officer, I dealt with numbers. Data was important to me. Our policies needed to be guided by evidence:
But – we should remember there are painful personal stories behind these statistics – there are also attitudes and cultural complacency.
In the decades I spent at Victoria Police, I saw and heard things. Abuse, violence and neglect. Things I will never forget. But when I was presented this research from the federal government, which found Australians are taught from childhood to understate the severity of family violence, it touched me.
The study found children and young adults already possess some dispiriting ideas about themselves and about gender.
When presented with some scenarios on aggression by boys, I heard with sadness about 10-year-old girls already diminishing the abuse they received from boys. I heard girls say about boys harassing them: “It’s not that bad, it’s not like he punched her.” I heard boys justifying the violence by simply saying that they just want to be heard – that it was harmless.
And for all the things I’ve seen in my many years at Victoria Police, this important evidence of the origins of gendered violence, and our complacency to it, brought me to tears. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed. It got me thinking, the State with all its power and authority is simply not enough to stop the fundamental drivers of family violence.
For all of the training, the equipment, the power to investigate and arrest – none of this can touch the attitudes we impress on our children. None of this can enter our homes, our minds, our families. None of this can alter the way we think about ourselves, or our children.
Our destructive attitudes about gender are so embedded that we don’t challenge them.
We can’t challenge them because at times we can’t see them. What this research emphasises – and its findings are repeated in countless other studies – is that we develop male privilege early. Knowingly or not, we give boys licence to act abusively and we develop in girls deference to that behaviour. Boys will be boys … and it’s up to girls to adjust accordingly. But this confuses cultural values with biological ones, this isn’t nature, this is nurture.
We make excuses for boys, and subtly encourage girls to do the same. We are sympathetic to boys’ behaviour and more suspicious of girls’. We dismiss boys’ sexual aggression as a function of their masculinity. We minimise the behaviour. We rationalise it. Boys will be boys. But it’s different for girls.
Boys are taught to blame circumstance for their aggression – girls to contemplate how they might have provoked it. Boys learn by acting out – girls by simply enduring their experiences. Boys are told it’s appropriate to defend yourself against a girl – but there isn’t a reciprocal lesson.
This leads to boys externalising their behaviour – when things go bad, it’s because of other people or other things. But we encourage girls to internalise their experiences – to imagine that the fault lay somewhere deep inside them.
This research exposes mothers asking their boys: “What did the girl do?” because they hope that it isn’t their son’s fault.
Can we see what we’re doing here? The deck is stacked against women. We’re encouraging girls to feel complicit in their own abuse.We’re asking them to blame themselves.
This internalisation, once started in childhood can become lifelong. During early development, children are like blotting paper – and dubious lessons can become permanent. But not only do we encourage girls to blame themselves – we’ll blame them too.
Claims of sexual assault inspire a higher level of suspicion than claims of theft, fraud or street assaults. Our doubt is much higher for women. Almost as if we assume women have less credibility whether it is in sexual assault or family violence.
I can tell you that the vast majority of sexual assault claims and family violence claims are legitimate. To those men who fixate on the bogus claims, I say to you that you are being intellectually dishonest. You are emotionally cherry-picking data to make a case that women fundamentally lack credibility. The data doesn’t agree and nor do I.
We possess double standards. Standards that are deeply engrained and are a damaging outcome of our attitudes. These double standards can result in many women feeling an intense, silencing guilt about their own abuse or alienation. We need leadership, but before that leadership can happen we require some self-reflection. Self-reflection helps refine our collective values, but it’s in deficit because humans are naturally resistant to criticism.
Let this be a wake- up call – a wake-up call to our assumptions and complacency. It’s not enough to consider ourselves good men because we don’t bash women. As men, this sets the bar so low, that somehow we congratulate each other for not being monsters.
That’s not useful. It’s not helpful.
In public life, I’ve noticed a sort of blokey pomposity – a desire to be seen as a community elder, but sometimes not matched in the desire to properly function as one.
We need to set the bar much higher than we are. We need to ask ourselves: are we flattering our ego, or engaging in humble self-reflection?
I would argue we need self-reflection before we need insincere mutterings when the next woman or child is murdered by the very men who profess to love them.
Self-reflection is not vague, nor is it indulgent. It’s courageous and necessary. Self- reflection shapes how we connect to our children – how we mentor our young adults.
Our young people are bright and attentive and they are watchful for inconsistency.
They have advanced radars for hypocrisy.
Lectures are not enough. Our public statements must match our private behaviour. If we truly believe that the future of our girls are as bright as our boys, we need to meet that desire with something other than vague commitments on one day a year.
How often do we tell our daughters what to wear – but rarely tell our sons what respectful sexual relations are?
How often do we warn our daughters about provocation – but rarely talk to our boys about consent?
How often do we justify the cruelty of boys? And ask our girls to avoid it.
How often do we thoughtlessly accept that boys will be boys.
The answer is … every day.
We do this as easily as taking a breath. We don’t even know we’re doing it.
My question – our question – should be: What are we doing about it?
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, you can call your local Women’s Refuge. In an emergency, call 111 in New Zealand and 000 in Australia.