Issue 60 (Fall/Winter 2014): Themed Issue on Violence Against Women: Strategizing a Radical Response for the 21st Century
UNRELENTING BACKLASH - How Male Violence Against Women Continues To Be Depoliticised
By Jennifer Drew
The Women’s Movement of the 1970’s succeeded in making male violence against women a visible political issue, showing how men employ violence to maintain and justify male domination over all women. It is not necessary for all men to commit violence against women because the incessant threat of male violence supported by men’s institutions and structures is sufficient in itself to maintain male domination over all women. Feminists during the 1970’s revealed how individual violent men are accorded impunity to inflict violence upon women and how male controlled institutions such as the law and male controlled political systems operate to justify, excuse and deny systemic male violence against women and girls.
Radical feminists during the 1970's created rape crisis centers and women’s refuges to support women who had been subjected to male violence. But these rape crisis centers and refuges were not merely “service centers”, rather they were grass roots organisations which enabled women collectively to campaign against male violence against women and demand real political and social changes which would curb men’s socio-economic power over women. As a result new laws and social practices were introduced by governments which were designed to prevent male violence against women and provide justice for the female victims of male violence. However, these laws and social practices have all to commonly been ineffective and instead are used to blame the female victims and mitigate male violence against women. The male backlash against feminist demands for an end to male violence against women was swiftly enacted. Forty years after the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970’s, we are currently in a situation where men’s rights activists are using myriad ways to maintain men’s fiction that male violence against women is not a political method of maintaining and justifying male supremacy over women on a global scale.
Whilst it is now acceptable for society to openly recognise that (male) violence against women exists, there is the corollary that each report is portrayed as just another isolated incident and/or the male perpetrators were in thrall to uncontrollable emotions! Lethal intimate male partner violence against women is always reported by mainstream media as “a family tragedy” because the male perpetrator was “a family man driven to despair by outside influences such as debt, unemployment and/or marital disputes.” The term “marital dispute” implies the female victim was partially responsible for causing her own death because she had a dispute with her male/ex male partner! These claims mitigate/erase men’s choice and agency to take lethal revenge against their female/ex female partner and/or her children.
Mainstream media ensures there is no “connecting the dots” such as asking why do not these men leave and move on with their lives? Or why do they make the choice to murder their female/ex female partners and/or her children prior to committing suicide? Given these men are supposedly “devoted family men” why do they make the choice to murder children they have fathered and supposedly love? These questions must not be asked because it would mean focusing on male ownership of women and their children. All these men believe and enact male supremacist ideology that once a male has entered into a sexual relationship with a woman she and any resulting children are the man's private property. Only the man has the right of ending the sexual relationship, not the woman; so when a woman dares to end her relationship with the man she must be punished and all too commonly her children, too. The issue is about male ownership of women and children.
Mainstream media is male owned and male dominated and hence is a very effective male propaganda tool. The mainstream media maintains the fiction that men are now the oppressed group because of supposedly feminist, man-hating initiated laws and social policies which deny men their lawful right of male control/male ownership over women and children. But it is not just mainstream media which depoliticises pandemic male violence against women because innumerable documents and policies produced by international bodies such as the United Nations and national governments all enact the same hiding strategies. These policies, documents, and reports all reference “violence against women” and/or the latest euphemistic term which is “gender based violence against women”!
The term “gender based violence against women” does not inform the reader who is responsible for committing violence against women. “Gender” is a descriptive term not a human entity. “Gender” cannot commit violence against women so who is being protected by not being named? Perhaps it is women because “gender” is commonly perceived as attributable to women since men have always claimed male as the default generic human and hence no need to name men/males as men/males. Obviously the entities being protected are men because naming men/males as the perpetrators will immediately instigate a male backlash of claims “you are demonising men” or “not all men are violent!” Because men are the dominant class they accord themselves the right to define when and if men will be named and interestingly men only appear when the issue concerns male/female equality such as “treating men and women equally”. When men are held accountable they always disappear and are the absent male presence.
Likewise academic reports, papers, and research findings all invisibilize the male agent and perpetrator. Philips and Henderson (1999) analysed a sample of articles on the subject of male violence published in popular and scientific journals between 1994 and 1996. Out of a total of 165 summaries and 11 articles the phrase “male violence” was mentioned only eight times whereas words such as rape, abuse, violence and domestic violence appeared 1,044 times. These researchers also noted that the sex of the victim was commonly stated by words such as “female or woman” and “abuser/perpetrator” was stated 327 times rather than the words “man/male”. Phillips and Henderson's conclusion was that “when the sex of the perpetrator is not specified and the violence described only includes the identity of the female victim; male violence against women is constituted as a problem of women.” Moreover in the articles considered in this study, code words such as domestic violence, marital violence, and family violence used to describe the exclusively male violence against women actually convey the message that women are as violent as men.” (Philips and Henderson, 1999: 20). Therefore it is acceptable to talk about violence but never about “male violence”.
One of the central tenets arising from the Women’s Movement in the 1970's was naming men as the ones responsible for committing violence against women because feminists recognised that not naming the perpetrators ensures society's focus is on scrutinising women and blaming them for supposedly provoking or causing male violence against them. Naming men as the agents responsible directly challenges male power over women. Because many feminist organisations are reliant on male controlled political funding for their existence, this has resulted in widespread capitulation to male demands not to name men as the perpetrators. Instead these feminist organisations have enacted pseudo “gender equality policies” wherein the politics of male domination over women must never be stated and issues such as the men’s pimping industry (prostitution) and women trafficking are re-framed as “sex work” and “human trafficking.” The former promotes men’s lie that prostitution is just work not systemic male sexual violence against women and the latter collapses slave labor and women trafficking into one term “human trafficking” whereby, as usual, the politics of male oppression over women is rendered invisible. Many feminist organisations continue to enact the passive term “violence against women” or the increasingly dominant phrase “gender based violence against women.” Both terms maintain male invisibility and erase male accountability.
Other methods of depoliticising pandemic male violence against women is the claim that men are victims of violence, too. This claim is used to deflect attention away from what men are systematically subjecting women to and once again ensure men’s interests and rights are the only real and important issues. The widespread myth that male on female violence and female on male violence is symmetrical is based on Strauss and Gelles Conflicts Tactics Scale which was developed during the 1970’s.
This was a quantitative measure of what Strauss termed “intra-family conflict” and “family problems.” Male and female respondents were asked what conflict tactics they used, such as verbal aggression, reasoning and violence in order to resolve issues within their family. Strauss' findings appeared to support men’s claim that women are as violent as men within the family. Strauss' report was entitled “Physical Assaults by Wives: A Major Social Problem” (Strauss 1993). Strauss stated “women initiate and carry out physical assaults on their partners as often as men do.” This statement has been taken up by men’s rights groups and other anti-feminists as evidence that women and men commit violence against each other equally. However, Strauss in the same report also stated “Family problem research has found that the ‘assaults’ documented in this CTS-derived data rarely cause injury and are a major social problem not because they harm men but because they help legitimate male violence and men’s serious assaults against women.” (Strauss: 1993: 67). Interestingly, when men and their female apologists utter the statement “men are victims of violence, too” they do not propose any action concerning how to eliminate “violence against men” or mention it is overwhelmingly male on male violence which is the problem, not female on male violence.
The Women’s Movement sought to eradicate misogynistic male created myths which blamed women for male sexual violence committed against them. However, pandemic women blaming has once more become dominant and widely accepted as “common sense.” Men’s rights activists and non-feminists have successfully promoted the lie that male sexual predators are the “real victims” and women are the sexual predators/perpetrators! The infamous Steubenville Rape Case is not unique, rather it is a snapshot of what commonly happens wherein patriarchal reversal is enacted to hide male accountability. Males charged with sexual crimes against females are portrayed as “the innocent victims whose lives have been destroyed by nasty vindictive, lying women/girls who falsely accuse innocent males of rape/male sexual violence perpetrated against them.” Rapes and male sexual violence against women and girls are, according to male rape apologists, as rare as the unicorn, whereas females falsely charging males with rape/male sexual violence is a pandemic!
In addition public service messages emanating from various government institutions and mainstream media articles are all fixated on curtailing women’s right of freedom of movement and holding them personally accountable for their own safety. These propaganda messages to women and girls tell them they must not go out alone after dark and they must not wear revealing clothing because this provokes males into subjecting them to male sexual violence. Women must not consume alcohol in public because female consumption of alcohol tells men “the woman is sexually available to them”! Any woman who is attacked by a male anywhere irrespective of whether or not it was in the public sphere or private domain – she, not the male perpetrator, is accountable because she failed to enact sufficient safety measures!
The Women’s Movement in the 1970’s challenged pandemic female victim blaming and analysed how and why innumerable males commit sexual violence against women and girls and deny their accountability. Male sexuality as a social construction was subjected to feminist analysis and feminists recognised men accord themselves male (pseudo) sex right of access to females by claiming their sex is not accountable, because women alone are responsible for gate keeping supposedly insatiable and uncontrollable male sexual desire. The Women’s Movement challenged male myths that “rape is about power not sex” because feminists recognised rape and male sexual violence against women is overwhelmingly about male eroticisation of sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls.
Many feminist organisations specialising on challenging (male) violence against women and girls focus solely on calling for educational reforms in order to teach girls and boys about “sexual consent”. The politics of male sexuality has been successfully obliterated and the term “sexual consent” is supposedly key to ensuring male sexual violence is not inadvertently (sic) perpetrated against women and girls! Conveniently erased is the fact girls and boys do not grow up in a vacuum; they are inundated with incessant misogynistic messages of male sexual entitlement to females via mainstream media, men’s pornography industry and popular culture. Men’s male supremacist legal institutions continue to justify/excuse/deny male accountability by claiming existing laws on rape are “gender neutral” rather than created from the male lived experience. And it is thought that focusing on teaching girls and boys individually about “sexual consent” will somehow magically erase embedded institutional structures and systems which normalize male eroticisation of sexual power over women and girls and uphold dominant beliefs that males are never accountable for their sexual actions, behavior or choices!
Implementation of gender neutrality is an insidious form of male denial of institutional and individual male domination and control over women. Currently in the United Kingdom specialist feminist refuge services are being denied central government funding and instead non-specialist generic service providers are being awarded contracts by central government to operate these refuges. Some areas of the UK have already experienced existing refuge centers being shut down, leaving women with nowhere to go. Instead non-specialist services are taking over and they are generic – meaning there is no recognition whatsoever that intimate partner violence is not symmetrical whereby equal numbers of women and men are subjected to the same violence. The politics of how and why innumerable men inflict violence in all its forms on their female partners is being erased by claims of “gender neutrality”.
Why is this happening? Sadly various feminist organisations have fragmented and there is currently no collective activism opposing male controlled government policies which refuse to accept women and men are not symmetrically situated or have equal access to socio-economic means. Without a strong feminist collective this enables male supremacist policies to be enacted without any opposition. Also, as a result of dependence on central government funding, these once grassroots feminist organisations which not only provided specialist support to female survivors of male violence, but also operated to campaign for real social change concerning male violence against women had to cease this function and instead become “State funded liberal agencies.....promoting self-help and healing.” (Mardorssian, 2002: 771).
Men’s demands for gender neutrality/formal gender equality are formulated on the male presumption that women and men should be equally treated according to standards developed from the life experiences of men, when in reality women and men are differently situated. (Kaye and Tolmie: 1998: 166) Men’s rights/interests are equated with defining their own interests as those of society as a whole. This is why men believe they are not a “group or gender” because their sex is the generic standard for humanity whereas women are “other”. Therefore, men’s interests and perspectives are perceived as “neutral” whereas women’s interests/rights are biased. (Johnson: 2005: 157)
The situation concerning pandemic male violence against women and girls is dire because men’s backlash against women has been ongoing for more than two decades. Not only has male violence against women been successfully depoliticised – individualism is now dominant wherein men claim that women and men are symmetrically situated and women magically have limitless choices and agency. Each act of male violence against women supposedly happens because the woman made a wrong choice or failed to enact her agency! This ensures the focus is on individual women rather than how society operates whereby male created institutions and structures remain in place and maintain male domination over women.
How do we challenge this cacophony of different voices all claiming that women have achieved equality with men, men are the real victims, violence is a human problem not a gendered political one, etc.? One of the central issues is the fact many feminist organisations have capitulated to men’s demands and men’s interests because they know men will punish them for challenging male power. But these feminist organizations have forgotten our herstory which tells us that an individual woman cannot successfully challenge male power but women en mass will change the world! Radical feminists have to keep on speaking the truth about male violence against women as men won’t willingly relinquish their institutional and individual power over women.
- Phillips D. and Henderson, D. 1999: A Discourse Analysis of male violence against women. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 69, 1:116-21.
- Strauss, M.A. 1990: Physical Violence In American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence in 8,154 families, ed. M.A. Strauss and R.J. Gelles 75-91, New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Publishers.
- Kaye, M. and Tolmie, J. 1998: The Rhetorical Devices of Fathers' Rights Groups, Melbourne University Law Review 22: 162-94.
- Johnson, A.G. The Gender Knot: Unravelling Our Patriarchal Legacy, Rev. ed. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.