Welsh Women’s Aid Conference speech 10/12/12

Welsh Women’s Aid conference 10/12/12. Cardiff City Hall

Making The Connections

This morning I’m going to talk about the importance of a feminist analysis of violence, I’m going to talk about why violence against women happens and the systems which maintain, promote and excuse it. I’m mainly going to talk about men and masculinity. That may or may not come as a surprise. But if we are ultimately attempting to find cures, it is important that we identify the problems.

Most of us here are familiar with the idea that male violence against women is a gendered phenomenon; and this very definition features of course in your current Consultation. Feminist theory tells us, in fact, that all violence is gendered, that violence is hardly ‘equal opportunities’ so to speak; despite appearances or individual experiences, it is, on a structural level, rarely random. The prevalence, form and extent of violence in our society follows the fault lines of oppression, marginalisation and discrimination that we have created. It is no surprise then, that women are disproportionately affected by certain types of violence, and that men are overwhelmingly the majority of those convicted for violent offences, including crimes against women. Men fill up our prisons, just as they make up our armies and our governments.

A feminist analysis tells us that male violence against women is not natural, biological or inevitable. Violence against women is theorised as a symptom of patriarchy. And, here it is worth going back to basics and reminding ourselves just what the term ‘patriarchy’ actually means. In shorthand it is simply the term used to refer to male supremacy; to societies where, in general, men as a group dominate positions of power; societies like ours. To offset such glaring inequalities, this status-quo is usually defended, on the rare occasions it is even questioned, on the grounds of biology or accident; there are still fast flowing, whispering undercurrents in our culture reassuring us that things are the way they are because it just works, because it just happened that way, because it has ever been thus – as if the length of time an oppression has been in existence justifies and excuses its continuation.

Turning to biology like this has always been popular, and still is. We can see it now in the genre of pop-psychology, or what Feminists, such as scientist and writer Cordelia Fine, call “neuro-sexism”, the ‘why men don’t iron’ paperbacks, ironically stacked in the self-help sections of bookshops or, most likely today, in the drop-down menus on ‘Amazon’. These are the books that attempt to explain to us why, although men can’t be held responsible for feeding themselves or washing their own underwear, they are perfectly able to be CEOs of major companies, or Chancellor of the Exchequer. It would be funny if it wasn’t so endemic, so widely well received and yet so unarguably patronising to both women and men.

Feminism of course has a different message, a challenging message: the promise that the way things are is not the way they have to be, the invitation to change, to become the human beings we can be, rather than the tired and limiting stereotypes of men and women. Because feminism is for everyone, it is not just a movement for women, but a political movement for the liberation of the whole of society. And, just as feminism is not only about women; patriarchy is not just about women either, though it impacts on women, most brutally and finally of course, in the epidemic levels of male violence against women that all of you know all too well.

Patriarchy in fact, can be envisioned as a huge hierarchy of men; one in which women, children and marginalised men are certainly disadvantaged, but also one in which men jostle for position, in which, sexual access to women, the possession of women and control and dominance of women can function to maintain, sustain or improve the position of men vis a vis other men. Being constructed as second class within patriarchy, women also serve another function, because wherever a man resides within the hierarchy, he always has someone beneath him, and ultimately, that someone is a woman.

This is not to say that men are not also oppressed and exploited, quite the opposite, but it is fact that no man is oppressed because of his sex; as women are. He can be oppressed because of other features of his identity, such as his race, his class or sexuality, but his being male is not a source of oppression. This is a fundamental difference between the experiences of women and men in our society.

Writers such as RW Connell have highlighted an understanding of masculinity as plural and have attempted to study the different forms that masculinity takes, for example by looking at what is distinct about working class masculinity, the masculinity of men of colour or the masculinity of gay men for example. These are studied alongside what is called “hegemonic” masculinity, the present, dominant image of masculinity which demonstrates and holds the current social ideals of what masculinity should be.

Hegemonic masculinity is closely linked with power, as another theorist of masculinity, Michael Kimmel (1994) has pointed out, when he defines hegemonic manhood as “a man in power, a man with power and a man of power, a man who is strong, successful, capable, reliable and in control” (Kimmel, 1994). It is not rocket science of course to look at our culture and deduce that masculinity is about physical strength, sporting prowess, a dominant and predatory sexuality, about control and competition. But there are many ways to be strong, and of course money, wealth and success can trump basic physique and physical strength, physical attributes of the body which have always been, and which especially in our increasingly technological society, are more important to those who don’t have power in those other ways. Therefore, that sort of uber-masculine physicality is often associated more with a working class masculinity, with those who sell their physical labour to survive. I expect for example that David Cameron does not worry too much about the state of his abs or his pecs, because he is more than able to compete with other men on so many other levels and demonstrate his powerful version of masculinity in other ways.

Another way that masculinity can define itself and can be defined, is through simply not being feminine. Masculinity therefore depends on its opposite; so it can define itself against femininity, and linked to that, also homosexuality. Ridicule, disavowal and dismissal of femininity, in females or other males, is therefore one way to shape masculinity, so that basically not being feminine becomes being masculine. Femininity is often associated in our culture with passivity, with sexual availability and allure to the male gaze, with a lack of physical strength, with dependency and currently with a very heteronormative and sexualised presentation required by the narrow Western beauty standards we see increasingly influenced by pornography and the sex industry.

So this is the context in which male violence against women occurs. From a feminist perspective male violence can be seen as a form of social control, a way to control all women, through the threat and reality of particularly rape and sexual violence, whether or not every individual woman has been affected. Violence against women must not be seen in isolation, it should be understood as part of a continuum, a continuum that contains the fashion and beauty industry, exposure to pornography and degrading advertising, childhood sexual abuse, workplace harassment, unequal representation in positions of power, gendered inequalities of income, the feminisation of poverty and the masculinisation of wealth; and, of course, the horrific levels of male violence against women and children. And there is also a continuum of complicity and silence around such violence.

While most people would surely speak out against rape and against the sexual abuse of children for example (although they don’t always at first, as we have seen in our news recently), but how many speak out against tabloid photographs of young women dressed as school girls, how many speak out about lap dancing clubs recruiting in the Student Unions of Universities throughout our country, how many speak up about pole dancing classes at our local gym or lad’s mags in the corner shop? Because while such examples may seem at the far end of any such continuum of violence, they are arguably the figures that prop up and maintain the statistics at the sharper end of that continuum; statistics we will surely hear a lot about today.

Male violence against women is made by such things. It is not a natural phenomenon, like bad weather, it is both a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality, and of a society that is in fact founded on inequality at every level. Gender inequality manifests in day to day, individual, commonplace examples and reminders of that inequality, such as the mainstreaming of pornography and prostitution, such as the drastic underrepresentation of women in positions of power and such as the cultural representation of women as sex objects. A society with high levels of violence against women, like ours, is made, and this means it can be un-made.

Although feminists are often critiqued for essentialism, feminists have always pointed out that men are not naturally violent or aggressive, that the power relationship between women and men is not natural; and we refute any biological excuse for men’s violence. This can be seen in the writings of Radical Feminists often accused of saying exactly the opposite, by those who have not read their work, feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millet and Susan Brownmiller. There would be no point in a feminist movement if we really believed that men are naturally and irredeemably raping war-mongerers. If we did not believe and trust that present gender relations can change we could not sustain our activism towards this goal. But feminism is not a fatalistic movement, feminist theory gives us answers and also expands our questions, it moves beyond the treating of symptoms to the identification of causes, and possibilities for progress.

A Feminist perspective of gender then, including the construction of masculinity, has a lot to offer to debates on building a society with less violence of all forms and it is within Feminist theory and especially that from eco-feminists such as Vandana Shiva, and from peace activists and academics such as Cynthia Cockburn that we find a real and honest engagement with the issue of violence from a gendered perspective. This is a perspective that is often sidelined, but what we need as a matter of urgency is an acknowledgment of the social construction of gender, a deconstruction of what it means to be a man in our society and a commitment to taking tentative steps towards building a new kind of community.

Masculinity is clearly a brutalising process for most men, and masculinity does not benefit a large proportion of men in some fundamental ways; we can just look at the prison population, at the suicide rates for young men and at the numbers of young men being killed and assaulted by other young men. And this is also a Feminist issue, because Feminism has not been struggling all these years for a world where women are equal to unequal men; we are calling for a complete overhaul, a new system altogether. And, significantly today on Global Human Rights Day, although patriarchy may be de-humanising for many men, men nevertheless remain human, in contrast to women, who have been and still are enshrined in many laws, religions and customs as ‘other’ to the norm, as inferior, as object to subject, as second class.

This will only change when men give up, or are made to give up, the varying degrees of power and privilege that result from this unjust situation. As I said, we know men feel the costs of masculinity too, of course, on their minds and their bodies, but we also know that all too often it is women and children who pay the price for men’s pursuit of power. And we can’t afford it any more. We can’t afford brave activists like you picking up the pieces, we can’t pay in blood and bruises for men’s insecurities, instabilities and shame; we can’t afford patriarchy.

So, although it may seem idealistic or naïve, we have to imagine together, something different. A world where power is not something one holds over an ‘other’, but something that is shared amongst, for the benefit of all, and especially the most vulnerable. A world where heterosexual relationships are no longer one of the few sanctioned places where men can express their vulnerability and their need for love and care. A world where being strong, dependable and reliable is not called being ‘manly’, but being human. Because, all human beings are vulnerable, all human beings need love and care, all human beings aspire to integrity, aspire to congruence and seek to form caring bonds with others and share skills to make families and communities. Such values should not be gendered. Gendering such values, I believe, can only put pressures on men, and covertly demean women by framing them as in need of protection from the very group women most fear violence from – men. Unfortunately, this is the reality.

Reality it may be, but normal it is not. It is our current situation that is ridiculous and outrageous and our shared endeavour to build something better is never naïve, it is never a failure, because holding onto hope is always a success. That hope built the legacy of services that exist today for women, children and men affected by violence and abuse. Our movement changed laws, wrote new ones, inspired hearts and minds and saved lives. Now our job today is to protect those gains, because thanks to our sisters who went before us, we have something to lose; and we also have, one of the oldest revolutions on earth, still to win.

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