So much needs to be said about the assault on Jay-Z by his sister-in-law, Solange Knowles, and the subsequent media reaction. A lot of it is should be so self-evident it barely needs spelling out. Yes, if the roles were reversed the reaction would be very different. No, headline writers of the world, this was not a “fight” – that word would imply mutual participation, this was a unilateral assault. No, social media users of the world, an incident of family violence is not the most hilarious topic for your jokes and memes. Yes, corporate PR executives who hijack jokey hashtags about violent crimes to share advertising slogans, you do have an extra warm and spiky corner of Hell awaiting you. And no, concerned observers and commentators of the world, you may not speculate on what Jay-Z might have said or done to provoke or deserve it. Physical assault is never justified by the victim’s behaviour. Do I really need to point out to where that kind of thinking leads?
Buried within all this, the affair shows up a peculiar problem our society seems to have in conceptualising women’s violence. Had the wobbly security camera footage shown a man assaulting a woman, we would have had a full range of explanations and an accompanying vocabulary immediately to hand. He’s a batterer, a bully, an abuser. Had it been one man attacking another man, he would be a thug, a lout, a hooligan. A violent woman, by comparison, does not compute, we do not even have the words to describe her. This may well explain the initial instinct either to laugh or to blame the victim, the latter leading to an equally contemptible urge to applaud or even celebrate the assault, despite a complete lack of any background information.
We may not have the language to describe them, but violent women are far from rare. In England and Wales alone, around 75,000 women were arrested for violence against the person last year, accounting for more than a fifth of all such arrests. Far more women were arrested for violence than for shoplifting. It is often assumed that any violence women instigate is relatively harmless, but the evidence suggests otherwise. According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, women are around 50% more likely to be victims of any kind of partner abuse, but when restricted to ‘severe force’ that difference almost vanishes, with 1.1% of men and 1.3% of women being victims in the past year.
Where does this reluctance to acknowledge women’s capacity for violence originate? It would appear to be the offspring of a bizarre marriage of convenience between traditional, patriarchal social conservatism and a rather blinkered and idealistic textbook feminism. Compare and contrast the patriarchal view of women as nurturing, maternal, gentle and submissive with those of influential feminist pioneer Kate Millett, which I have quoted before but are worth recalling: “Force itself is restricted to the male who alone is psychologically and technically equipped to perpetrate physical violence. Where differences in physical strength have become immaterial through the use of arms, the female is rendered innocuous by her socialization.” I think it is safe to say she never went to any pubs round my neck of the woods.
Many of us have lived a reality that belies the wishful thinking of patriarchs and feminists alike Violence can explode as a reaction to anger, frustration, disrespect or – above all – a threat or history of violence. Scientists are now beginning to piece together the neurological mechanisms by which a person who is exposed to violence will develop an increased capacity to inflict it upon others in turn, and that is not restricted by gender.
If we wish to live in a society with less violence of any kind, we do not get to pick and choose which violent episodes we find tolerable. The society which is laughing and cheering when a woman kicks and punches her brother-in-law in an elevator is a society where children are growing to learn that violence is an acceptable response to insult or frustration. That is a society where violence against our partners, families or strangers can be justified and excused, and thereafter a society where we are bidding farewell to our sisters, daughters, brothers and sons in an ambulance or a hearse.