Today, November 25th, is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I’ve always liked the unequivocal absolutism of this demand – it’s not just a call for awareness, or even a reduction, but the total, final eradication of violence against women. As the Situationists used to say: Be reasonable – demand the impossible.
What I’m less clear about is what we are meant to do to achieve this aim. The day is also known to many as White Ribbon Day, when men around the world pledge never to use or tolerate violence against women and to actively work to end it. I’ll confess I’ve never been comfortable with this campaign. It may be unfair, but it always looks to me like the gentleman doth protest too much, it seems to say “look at me, I don’t beat or rape women!” Whoop-de-fucking-do, well done you, have a ribbon.
It’s not that such campaigns do any harm. I don’t for a moment buy the argument that campaigns like this are misandrist, implying that all men are potential rapists and wife-beaters, that is paranoid poppycock. I just don’t think they offer any meaningful solution. I also have a deeper, philosophical problem with the politics behind the campaign. As with the slogan “Only men can stop rape” it places the power, the agency and the control of the phenomenon entirely within the gift of men. That is not necessarily entirely helpful – what men can grant, men can take away. I don’t think the use of violence (against anyone) should be an option. The natural right to live free from violence and exploitation is not anyone else’s to grant or rescind. I’m much more comfortable with the campaign slogan of Scottish Women’s Aid: “Together we can stop it” or perhaps the lyrics of Twisted Sister’s feminist classic (no, really) We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore.
There’s another reason why the White Ribbon campaign strikes me as inadequate. For any one person, violence is (usually) a choice made with free will and each of us has personal responsibility for our own actions and decisions. However those decisions are not made in an individualist bubble, but are steered, prompted and motivated by a lifetime of experience and social conditioning. The way I like to think of this is that if you lock a hundred people in a cool, calm, well-ventilated room for 24 hours, the chances of someone punching someone else might be fairly slim. If you switch off the air-con, let the temperature rise, play aggressive, edgy music ever more loudly, the chances of a punch being thrown increase considerably. Whoever threw the punch remains responsible for their own actions, but not in conditions of their own making. The way we mould society, through politics, culture and our own interactions, create the environment in which violence occurs.
I agree with many feminists that, to some extent, male violence against women is informed by patriarchal gender roles – the idea that women should be subordinate to men and kept in line, that they are men’s chattel or playthings. This is true in many parts of the world today, has historically been true in developed societies and, to a certain extent, still remains so. Challenging vestigial or active gender inequality and male cultural dominion are worthwhile ends in themselves, however this does not and cannot explain all violence, nor even all violence against women. To focus purely on violence rooted in patriarchal dominance is to leave the bulk of the problem unaddressed and therefore excluded from any solutions.
Violence takes many forms, has many meanings and many causes. Today, by coincidence I presume, Professor Murray Straus addresses the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Atlanta with a major and important new paper. He used data from 15 different countries to demonstrate that university students who were spanked as children were significantly more likely to engage in criminal activity on each of nine different measures – six of which related to violence against others, including partner violence. The findings remained true even after controlling for background, parenting style in other respects and childhood misbehaviour (in other words, it wasn’t the case that children were beaten because they were already more naughty). The effect was strongest where the child had been beaten by both a father and a mother.
Previous research by Straus has found that a child who grows up in a family where adults are violent to each other is almost three times as likely to display violent behaviour in adulthood. Another study found that a child subjected to physical abuse who also witnesses domestic violence is between five and nine times as likely to become an abusive adult. Over the past 40 years, the developed world has turned against corporal punishment, grown less tolerant of violence and bullying in the playground and physical and sexual abuse in the home. We have also seen precipitous drops in most forms of interpersonal crime and violence. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Ending violence against women will not and cannot be achieved in isolation. Male violence against women is one hub of a psychological and sociological network and is ultimately inseparable from men’s violence against men, women’s violence against women and men and, above all, adult violence against children. For good measure, we could probably add in the economic and social violence of inequality and political injustice.
Eliminating violence against women is a far-reaching ambition. To achieve it, we may need to reach much farther than anyone is prepared to acknowledge.