Good questions, good answers.

Gloria Steinem answered to some questions on violence against women.

Q: What do you think are the origins of male violence against women? Is it rooted in a patriarchal society? Is it biological? Sociological? A desire for power and control?

A: The origins of violence against women by men are not biological. If that were the case, it would exist in every culture. And it doesn’t exist in every culture. There are tribal and less patriarchal cultures in which there is very little violence, or in which the violence is almost equal, you know, especially among boys and girls. But in any case, there is no organized violence. There is no frequency of rape and so on. So it can’t be biological. It has to be social.

It comes in a very deep sense from teaching men to dominate. If you’re going to have a male dominant system, to maintain the system, you have to teach men to dominate. So they come to believe that at a minimum, control is part of masculinity. And some men really, not through their own fault, got born into this culture too, but they get hooked on violence and control as a kind of drug, you know, so that if you talk to men who have been violent against women in their lives, they will speak about it almost like an addiction. I needed a fix, you know, I didn’t feel like a real man. She was daring to not have the dinner ready on time, whatever it was that made him feel even marginally out of control, then causes him to respond with violence.

Q: How do gender roles tie into violence against women?

A: Well, if you consider that the gender roles are just political, then what you come to see is that the full circle of human qualities is divided up so that two-thirds are masculine and one-third is feminine. Women are missing more of their human qualities, so you’ll find us on the fore-front of trying to change this. But men are missing some too. And because they are taught that some inevitable qualities of vulnerability and compassion and empathy and uncertainty, sadly, are feminine. Then they suppress them and hate them and feel shame about them in themselves.

That is a loss of self. Those things are part of yourself, so that’s the deepest origin of a loss of core self esteem. When you see those qualities in other people, you may be threatened by them. You’re afraid to be close to women. Because it’s not masculine to be close to women. The last time you were close to a woman, you were a child. Men may feel just disempowered by intimacy, by being close to a woman, and also by feeling the tender feelings that they’re ashamed of.

Q: Some say society is structured to allow men to be violent? Do we not only allow but encourage men to be violent?

A: Society definitely encourages and condones men’s violence toward women. Not as much as it used to be when it was less visible, and there were still laws on the books that made it alright for men to beat their wives, as long as it was within certain limits, and women were chattel. During the first suffragist wave in this nation, women were possessions, like a table or a chair. So violence toward them was quite condoned. The attitude has diminished, but it’s still there.

It starts with the slippery slope of the supposition that gender that sexual relations between men and women are dominant passive. That’s the beginning of it. Because that’s not true. So, you know, it condones domination by saying that. And then it goes all the way up the scale to beatings, torture, murder, you can hardly open a newspaper today without seeing that a woman has been killed by a man for clearly gender-related reasons.

Q: Does society also encourage women to be victims?

A: Yes, society certainly encourages women to be victims in every way. I mean if we want approval, we have to sing the blues, even as singers we sing the blues. It’s not okay for a woman to be in control of her own body, her own reproductive system, much less of her life. There’s opposition even to that. So passivity is rewarded as feminine. And when you stand up for yourself and try to be autonomous and self-determining, you’re called a lot of names that we all know and that are very common. You may lose your job. You may lose custody of your child. You may be blamed for the failure of your marriage even though it was the man who couldn’t tolerate an equal relationship. If you are beaten, you’re said to have incited it. If you’re raped, you’re said to have invited it. I mean we all know these things that are very deep in the culture. They’re diminishing. I don’t want us to be discouraged because we have made progress. But they’re still very deeply rooted.

Q: What can we do as a society to discourage violence? There are those who say it’s inevitable. Is it? Can we change? How do we change?

A: Violence is not inevitable. I mean, the only inevitable form of violence is the kind that we understand, the only legitimate (if there can ever be legitimate violence) and that’s self-defense. No other form of violence is legitimate. It is never acceptable to use violence to solve a problem. Whether personal or political. So that, added to that statement I just made would be fiercely contested by a lot of people. They would say well there’s always been wars, men have always beaten women. But it isn’t true in all cultures. It doesn’t have to be true. And the first step is imaging.

You know, we have to imagine change before we can begin to move toward it. Then we also need to not only stand at the side of the river bend and rescue the people who are drowning, which is crucial, which is why we so badly need much more money spent on programs that aid victims of domestic violence and rape and so on. But some of us also need to go to the head of the river and see why people are falling in. You know, that has to do with boys being taught that it’s masculine to be dominant and girls being taught that it’s feminine to be dominated or to be passive. We’ve had a lot of people in this country have had the courage to raise their daughters more like their sone. Which is great because it means they’re more equal, and whole women who are now standing up for themselves, is why we’re having this program. But there are many fewer people who have had the courage to raise their sons more like their daughters. And that’s what needs to be done.

Q: Is part of the answer gender equity?

A: Yes, but not just equality, because equality can sound like making a feminine equal to masculine and that’s not the point. The point is because we will, if we keep on talking about masculine and feminine and following those stereotypes, then we will make women suppress and despise their so called masculine qualities and men suppress and despise their so called feminine ones, and that’s where all the trouble starts. So, what we’re talking about is a completing the circle of ourselves. To seeing that all people have all human qualities. Not carving up the self. You know, which is the cause of this cavernous inner, unfillable vacuum. You know that then we try to fill with violence, drugs, work, I mean all kind of addiction.

Q: In Revolution Within, you talk about self-esteem, saying that self-hatred leads to the need to dominate and be dominated. Is part of the answer to improve self-esteem in addition to challenging traditional gender roles? Is it a matter of teaching mutual respect? What specific advice would you give women? Men?

A: Well, I think that the advice is not different because it’s challenging gender roles. But it may sound different because even though we’re trying to complete the circle, we’re traveling in the direction we haven’t been in order to do that. So, for instance, if you think about the golden rule, which was written by men for men, and is very smart, you know, to treat other people as you would like to be treated. That’s very important and very helpful. But women need to treat ourselves as well as we treat others. We need to reverse it. We also need to recognize that there are some people who will be unable to change. So we need to enforce the law. You know, there’s much of a concern about crime in this country but not when it’s crime against women and children.

Q: How do we, as you say, diminish violence, not just punish it?

A: Well, we need to stop raising boys to think that they need to prove their masculinity by being controlling or by not showing emotion or by not being little girls. You can ask kids and if you ask a little girl what do you want to be when you grown up, she’ll tell you three things. And boys are the reverse. What do you want to be — well they name lots of things, but if you say do you want to be, what if you were a little girl, they get very upset at the very idea they might be this inferior thing. They’ve already got this idea that in order to be boys they have to be superior to girls and that’s the problem.

Rape in War

“War provides men with the perfect psychological backdrop to give vent to their contempt for women. The maleness of the military—the brute power of weaponry exclusive to their hands, the spiritual bonding of men at arms, the manly discipline of orders given and orders obeyed, the simple logic of the hierarchical command—confirms for men what they long suspect—that women are peripheral to the world that counts.” –Susan Brownmiller

“There can be no security, without women’s security. Rape is not a lesser evil in the hierarchy of wartime horrors, it is not a crime that the world can dismiss as collateral damage, or as cultural, or inevitable.” -Margot Wallstrom

Throughout history, rape has been the least condemned and most silenced war crime. Sexual violence increases during times of war, it is often dismissed as being an inevitable part of conflict.

Gloria Steinem answered to some questions about rape in war. I just could not resist to republish the interview.

Q: What are some of the reasons rape is so prevalent in war?

A: First, it’s important to note that rape and war didn’t always go together. For instance, European colonists wrote astonished letters home about how “even these savages”—by which they meant the residents of this continent they were invading—didn’t rape, not even their women prisoners. But those were wars of self-defense. If you’re going to get groups of men to risk their humanity, health, and lives in wars of offense, the traditional way is not to pay them a lot, but to addict them to the “cult of masculinity.” You have to convince them they’re not “real men” unless they kill and conquer. And, at its most basic, “masculine” means not being “feminine.” On a continuum, it means controlling women, conquering women, raping women, even with objects: bottles and broom handles in “peacetime” here, and gun barrels and knives in Bosnia or Congo. There’s a reason why it’s a truism that rape is not sex, it’s violence.

Nanking 1937

It’s also true that men may rape in groups out of social pressure to prove their “masculinity”—in peacetime, too—but gang mentality is a way of life in war. Military officers sometimes order men to rape as proof of loyalty and shared culpability. Some men express regret and say they wouldn’t have raped without group pressure. Also the group hatred war requires means humiliating enemies by raping “their” women, implanting sperm, taking over their means of reproduction, wiping out the enemy race or ethnicity. Cultures that put all “honor” in the purity of “their” women—and keep women weak—are actually setting them up as targets.

Even in peacetime, the “cult of masculinity” is so powerful that men commit crimes in which they have absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose: “senseless” killings like those in schools and post offices, serial murders, domestic violence, stalking, killing their wives and children and then killing themselves. They’re not hate crimes because they don’t hate the people they kill—but those people symbolize their lack of control, and so are killing the “masculinity” on which their whole sense of self depends. In interviews, such men often describe themselves as victims because they believe they should have been allowed to have control. I think we should call such crimes “supremacy crimes.”

Vietnam 1968

Q: What do you say to people who assert that sexualized violence is a “natural” part of conflict?

A: I try to think of something from the past that was also thought to be “natural,” and wasn’t. For instance, violence was once a “natural” part of childrearing, as in, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” It was also “natural” in marriage, as in, “Wives and bells must be struck regularly.” It was “natural” in religion, as in flagellating and starving the flesh to free the spirit.

Bangladesh 1971
Or I quote Olof Palme, the great former prime minister of Sweden, who said that gender roles are the deepest cause of violence on earth, and it’s up to governments to humanize them. Gender roles may give us our first idea that it’s okay for one group to eat and the other to cook, one to talk and the other to listen, one to order and the other to obey, one to be subject and one as object. The most shared characteristic of original societies in which violence was only for self-defense, not armies—and of the most egalitarian societies now—is that gender roles are fluid and not polarized.

So you might say it’s the reverse. Conflict is not the only or even the primary normalizer of the extremes of “masculine” and “feminine.” Those roles at home are the normalizers of conflict.

Bosnia 1993

Q: Why use the term “sexualized” violence?

A: Because there’s nothing sexual about violence. Sex is about pleasure. Violence is about pain. Nature tells us what’s good for us by making it pleasurable, and what’s bad for us by making it painful. To get those things mixed up usually requires a childhood in which people we loved and depended on inflicted pain, and we came to believe we couldn’t get one without the other.

It also works the other way around. People, especially men addicted to “masculinity,” may think that inflicting pain is the only way they can get sexual pleasure. For instance, I didn’t learn there was a mammoth concentration camp only for women—it was called Ravensbrück—until the end of the 1970s when my friend Konnilyn Feig included it in her book called, Hitler’s Death Camps. Nazi doctors there performed a higher proportion of so-called medical experiments there — they simulated battle wounds and amputations, practiced surgeries and forms of sterilization; endless horrors — and their subjects were mainly young, beautiful women. The other women in the camp called them “rabbits” because they were used as lab animals. They tried to protect them. This was the slow sexualized violence known as sadism.

Rwanda 1994

Q: Sexualized violence is frequently underreported. Why do you think this is?

A: Yes, I do. To say otherwise would be to excuse them as human nature. We know there have been societies in which such crimes were rare or absent; they are not human nature. And even if they were, the most significant characteristic of humans—the one that allows our species to survive—is that we’re adaptable. Violence in the home normalizes violence in the street and in foreign policy. Because we genderize the study of childrearing as “feminine” and the study of conflict and foreign policy as “masculine,” we rarely see that the first causes the second. Of course, the goal is to stop war altogether. If we raised even one generation of children without violence and shaming, we have no idea what might be possible. But at least we can limit war to those who want to fight it.

Afghanistan 1995

Q: Do we need both men and women involved to stop these atrocities?

A: Yes, we do. There is more responsibility where there’s more power. Though women have a responsibility to speak up for ourselves — to reverse the Golden Rule and treat ourselves as well as we treat others — men have more power and so are responsible not only for their own behavior, but for creating an atmosphere in which men are penalized for violence toward women and rewarded for treating women as equals. It’s parallel to the fact that I, as a white person, have more responsibility for white racism than do the people of color who suffer from it.

Men also can show each other the rewards of full humanity. It’s been said that the woman a man most fears is the woman within himself. Men are punished by being cut off from human qualities denied to them as “feminine.” I think one element in men’s punishing and killing of women is an effort to do away with what they fear within themselves.

Congo 1998

Q: Do you think it’s ever possible to bring these atrocities to an end or at least significantly curb them?

A:Yes, I do. To say otherwise would be to excuse them as human nature. We know there have been societies in which such crimes were rare or absent; they are not human nature. And even if they were, the most significant characteristic of humans — the one that allows our species to survive — is that we’re adaptable. Violence in the home normalizes violence in the street and in foreign policy. Because we genderize the study of childrearing as “feminine” and the study of conflict and foreign policy as “masculine,” we rarely see that the first causes the second. Of course, the goal is to stop war altogether. If we raised even one generation of children without violence and shaming, we have no idea what might be possible. But at least we can limit war to those who want to fight it.

Q: What do you say to people who believe that this happens far from home, in societies beyond repair? In other words, that there’s nothing we can do.

A: I say, Open your eyes, watch the news, talk to the women in your families and neighborhoods, listen to our women soldiers who were raped by their own comrades. The difference is only one of degree. No society is beyond reproach or beyond repair.

This project is not trying to create a competition of tears. It’s wrong whether men or women are suffering. It’s just that the suffering has to be visible and not called inevitable or blamed on the victim before we can stop it.