White Ribbon: why I won’t wear one

Earlier this year, on February 6, hundreds of protesters gathered at an “anti-misogyny” demonstration held in Wellington’s Glover Park. It was Waitangi Day, but the park had been that night’s planned meeting spot for local followers of Return of Kings, an online network of “neomasculinists” lead by U.S.-based Daryush Valizadeh. Valizadeh wishes, among other things, to see rape legalised. So we gathered.

I doubt anyone who came to the park that Saturday did so because they were worried about a bunch of weirdos squinting round trying to recognise one another offline.

We went because we recognise that while Return of Kings followers might be extremists, they aren’t radicals. We already live in a patriarchy that says women are subordinate sex objects; under a legal system hostile to survivors of sexual violence. It’s almost redundant, seeking to legalise rape – as if our justice systems aren’t already serving the interests of sexual abuse perpetrators over women and victims of sexual violence. In New Zealand, only thirteen per cent of sexual abuse cases result in a conviction.

Rebecca Solnit

We already live in a world that teaches men that they are entitled to use and abuse women’s bodies. That’s The Rock FM, that’s Courtenay Place on a Friday night, that’s Massey University telling women to take whistles and running shoes to school, that’s Roastbusters, that’s 1 in 3 women suffering from abuse at the hands of men in their lifetimes, while convictions are few and far between.

Kate Millett

Wellington Protest organisers wanted to deny local Return of Kings followers the chance to meet, and also recognised the opportunity to take a stand against rape culture. So, though both the Return of Kings’ meet-ups and the activist response became an opportunity for Valizadeh too, to gain widespread media coverage – we demonstrated.

In New Zealand, the meet-ups also gave White Ribbon, an exclusively male anti-violence organisation, the chance to beat their own chests. This organisation loves to lead the charge wherever male violence rears its head, wielding stern denouncements and sharply-worded press releases. The pen is after all mightier than the sword, although that truism has never implied that the pen is always consistently mighty – and in this case, rather characteristically, White Ribbon’s condemnation only revealed its own hypocrisy.

Campaign manager Rob McCann described the Return of Kings’ ideology as “disgusting”, and said “that they have no place in modern society.”

The thing is, Return of Kings are only an example of what the new norm might look like if male supremacy continues to escalate and succeed in suppressing feminist movement. And if men, collectively, do nothing to support women and women’s organisations, and nothing to stop this escalation. Men like White Ribbon’s ambassadors.

Because the situation is not caused by women’s behaviour, women’s organisations or women’s money. Social services set up to protect women in the face of male violence are overworked and underfunded. Women’s Refuge is just that, a refuge – somewhere to convalesce, in private – and many support staff are burnt out by the time they leave their work there. Patriarchy and male violence mean that women’s organisations like this need economic support. What men need to do is redistribute wealth to women, women’s organisations, and particularly to victims of sexual violence; and act to dismantle organisations that perpetuate male supremacist attitudes. Not take more public money for their own organisations. 99% of the world’s wealth is already in men’s hands, according to the World Bank.


In fact, the team on White Ribbon – with all its National Party MPs, police officers, judges, John Keys, Len Browns and Stan Walkers – includes enough clout and capital to do a very good job of this without seeking additional financial support, and to build a good deal of women’s safehouses, accommodation and support services for victims to boot. Indeed if all the National MPs on the team would just stop shutting down and constraining support services, that would already be progress.

White Ribbon’s most high profile ambassador however, would prefer to build convention centres, support U.S. militarisation, pull ponytails and demonise beneficiaries, many of whom are women. That several White Ribbon ambassadors have perpetrated violence against women themselves – whether at a domestic scale or through policy – only adds to the argument that this organisation already represents a vast economic debt to women.

Men will find it easier to attract funding for the cause too, because their testimony validates it. Also because the world is more taken with men who “honourably” stand up against male violence than it is with women who speak out about it. If men decide that they want to use this privilege to band together and fundraise in the name of ending male violence and keep the funding themselves – it better be for very good reason, followed through with equally solid action.

It’s all well and good for White Ribbon to condemn Return of Kings, and state they do not accept this kind of behaviour. It’s just that, in practical terms, in all but their PR, they do accept it.

Here in New Zealand, we have organisations that are, for all intents and purposes, fully aligned with a Return of Kings ideology but much more dangerous because they aren’t fledgling – they are active, fully funded, and becoming bolder and bolder in their misogyny. New Zealand’s biggest commercial radio station, The Rock FM, is an example. The fact that this sexist propaganda machine is our biggest radio station says something about the state of our culture, and makes Return of Kings look like nothing but a red herring.

Last year, DJs on the Rock’s Morning Rumble (hosted by Roger Farrelly, Bryce Casey and Tom Furniss) had the bright idea in the “spirit of Christmas” to broadcast a rape joke live on air with White Ribbon ambassador John Key. Key was almost salivating with eagerness to participate before he later denied knowing what was going on.

Any rape joke trivialises rape, reinforces male power, and is offensive to women. The Rock furthermore promote male supremacy and the subordination and objectification of women on a routine basis, as part of their general image – so the prime minister had no business accepting an invitation to speak on air from their studio in the first place.

The rape joke caused a public outcry that could have represented an opportunity for White Ribbon, since they only needed to leverage it to call on both John Key and The Rock to clean up their acts, and make a big difference to sexism in New Zealand politics and media.

What White Ribbon did instead, is write e-mails. They e-mailed the prime minister to get his statement, which inevitably dodged accountability. “We have reached out to the Prime Minister,” Rob McCann said, “and we are informed that he did not know what was about to occur, and did not at the time comprehend the rape references or make any. We take the Prime Minister at his word.”

Really? Right. Not only was Key’s denial predictable and typical of him (even The Rock recognises that), it’s also the kind of evasion of responsibility that is typical of perpetrators of violence generally. It needed to be challenged.

Especially since Key had trivialised rape by referencing it as a tool for political manipulation only the previous month. The Rock also frequently calls on John for misogynist good times – they called him up last February to read out Fifty Shades of Grey on the phone to him. But who in the world doesn’t recognise that this kind of thing is Key’s modus operandi?

When White Ribbon swallowed Key’s dodge hook, line and sinker, it made it very clear that that organisation is not prepared to protect victims of violence over perpetrators. They did the opposite in that instance. White Ribbon have also deleted all reference to John Key’s rape joke from their Facebook page just to keep their nose clean, so there goes that pledge not to remain silent.

What are these guys receiving funding for again, exactly?

Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt – say that White Ribbon made a strategic decision to take John Key’s word just because upsetting him would put their funding in jeopardy. (Actually, Kyle Macdonald makes the point that Key should ensure the government guarantees funding, rather than gagging the organisation with the threat of funding cuts – like an abuser might gag his partner).

There were still other important accountability avenues to pursue. White Ribbon could, and should, in any case, have held The Rock accountable.

They could have done this by asking The Rock to dismiss Tom Furniss and the DJs involved; by asking them apologise publicly, and to donate money to Rape Crisis. If that didn’t happen (or even if it did) they could have encouraged advertisers to withdraw funding from the station, or at least contact or petition The Rock and request that they clean up their act. If there was no response to that, White Ribbon could have encouraged a general boycott of advertisers.

These are the kinds of actions that women’s organisations are too stretched for, and require too much privacy to carry out. But they need to happen, and given White Ribbon’s pledge, position and funding, it’s their responsibility.

A couple of days ago, Rob McCann told me personally what he did about The Rock. He said,

“We have written to them with no reply.”

Presumably that was last year, before Christmas. Now that all record of the event has been removed from their Facebook page too, it doesn’t look like anything further will happen there. Rape culture skips along merrily, unscathed.

At this point, it looks to me like White Ribbon is not set up at all to speak out about and stop the promotion of male violence and rape culture. It looks to me like White Ribbon is an organisation that seeks to protect and promote chivalry, a redemptive exercise for the benefit of men, in the face of male violence. One of their recent Facebook posts boasts that,

“When searching for a man, women put kindness above looks, a survey has shown.”

That’s a big part of the function of this organisation then, isn’t it? Making men look and feel good in the face of male violence. Making them look like attractive, responsible family men. Giving them respectability and sex appeal. I’m not one of “those” men – I’m an honourable man, I wear a White Ribbon.

Because that’s the thing. If men condemn male violence, even if they don’t follow through with action, that condemnation still makes them look good. It raises their profile. The team at Women’s Refuge are overworked, underfunded and tired – they aren’t recognised and celebrated like the team at White Ribbon, even though the latter organisation contains known and active misogynists.

I don’t think White Ribbon’s real social function is to protect women’s rights and wellbeing in the face of male violence. I think it’s to protect the image of men in the face of male violence. Male violence makes men look like a pretty brutish bunch – White Ribbon is redemptive. Buying a ribbon is like buying salvation with indulgences in the medieval Catholic Church.

One thing that would improve White Ribbon as an organisation, is if they were genuinely accountable to women. But there’s no women’s organisation in New Zealand strong enough to help inform White Ribbon campaigns, even if they get a couple of spots on the Board. And I think it’s quite clear that White Ribbon doesn’t want there to be, because if they did, the organisation would not be forking out to plaster posters of rugged but honourable looking men’s men all over the city, they would be out shaking buckets for Refuge. They would be helping Women’s Refuge become strong enough to actually ask men to go out and do some of the work they identify as necessary.

White Ribbon might also then get to hear about what it’s like for women to see men who are known perpetrators celebrated in the public domain. They might get some feedback on the narratives they are spinning in their advocacy work. I have read statements from White Ribbon ambassadors claiming that male violence is actually caused by feminism, which was “wreaked upon” a generation of boys “who no longer have a sense of what it is to be a man” (which is to be a “protector, provider, Godly nurturer”).

In fact, feminism is the only movement that exists to end sexual oppression, and to protect women’s rights by ending male supremacy.

Before White Ribbon receives any more funding, I think they should be asked what it is that they plan to do in the near future to prevent rape culture in New Zealand from escalating to the point where a Return of Kings attitude becomes the norm. I think that’s the trajectory we are on, and I think that White Ribbon, as a bunch of men with a lot of resources, have a responsibility to stop that escalation.

I think that if they can’t step up to that challenge, their energy and funding should be used to assist and bolster organisations that actively help victims, and help them extend further into advocacy.

That challenge probably won’t be issued though, by government funders who aren’t interested in ending male supremacy at all, and who are quite well served by White Ribbon just the way it is at the moment – an elaborate performance of chivalry.

In any case, I know where I’ll keep giving my support. Ill keep giving it to organisations set up by women. By women, and for women, and to support women.

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