Gender and Violence

“When a nation shows a civilized horror of war, it receives directly the punishment of its mistake. God changes its sex, despoils it of its common mark of virility, changes it into a feminine nation, and sends conquerors to ravish it of its honour.”

Spanish political philosopher Juan Donoso-Cortez in the years leading up to World War I

The above quote that glorifies the masculinity of war seems out of place in the 21st century, but the ideas behind it still resonate strongly. Violence remains one of the most gendered of human behaviors. It has long been recognized that the perpetrators of violence are primarily men and women and girls have paid, and continue to pay, a huge price for this. It should, though, be noted that the majority of the victims of male violence are in fact other men. The gendering of violence, however, extends beyond this. Violence is gendered not simply in who controls and uses most of the world’s weapons, but also in how we think about human violence.

Few of us see male and female violence as largely similar.  Male violence has long been seen as normal, rational and inevitable — “boys after all will be boys”. Men’s presumed inherent capacity for violence has legitimized male rule and offered proof of manhood for centuries.  In contrast, women have long been viewed to be peaceful, which has led both to her relegation to the private sphere of home and hearth and to the hope that women, if given power, would build a more peaceful world. Indeed, women have a long history of peace activism (click here for a survey of women’s contributions to the struggle for peace). Women however have also participated in men’s wars and engaged in both sanctioned and unsanctioned violence; the violent woman though typically becomes an aberration — irrational, monstrous and a threat to the social order (Sjoberg and Gentry 2007). These ideas continue to exert their power today, resulting in the all too frequent tendency to dismiss male violence with resigned acceptance and be shocked to hear of women’s.  Consider the revelations of torture by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004: what seemed most disturbing for many was less that torture took place, and more that some of the perpetrators were female soldiers.

To create a more peaceful society, both of these ideas — men’s natural violence and women’s inherent peacefulness — need to be questioned. The idea that violence is a test of manhood remains an idea that shapes the thinking of many young men, socializing them to accept violence and pressuring them to use it (for an interesting 2006 Small Arms Survey report on the influence of a violent masculinity on young men around the world, see  Bevan and Florquin’s Few Options but the Gun: Angry Young Men). For young men, being seen as less than a man remains one of the most shaming of situations and insults that put into question one’s manhood, insults that inevitably promote sexism and homophobia, rarely raise an eyebrow in the corridors of our schools. This version of manhood is destructive as well for the men who buy into it: a national survey of US adolescents between 15 and 19 found that those who embraced more traditional views of gender were more likely to report substance use, violence and delinquency and unsafe sexual practices, while results from a multi-country study found that “traditional men” had higher rates of depression and overall less satisfaction with their lives and relationships (Van der Gaag in the New Internationalist, 2011).

The long-standing relationship between women and peace seems less problematic — while some criminologists argue that physical violence by girls is on the rise, the levels remain much lower (Alder and Worrall 2004), and women are far more the victims of violence than the perpetrators.  However, empathy, nonviolence and peace need to be recognized as human capacities, not simply “feminine”. The deeply-rooted connections of these with femininity have contributed to a devaluing of them throughout our culture and the current prioritization of the military over of the needs of millions of the world’s people is but one example: consider, for example, that an estimated 21,000 children are dying every day from preventable causes (UNICEF), while the world spent more than 1.5 million US dollars on war and weapons every minute in 2011.  Moreover, while masculinity and violence remain strongly linked, the sexy woman warrior is becoming a fixture in popular culture — indeed, it is a seductive image that all too often is linked to power and equality. “Power” and “equality” on these terms, however, will do nothing to promote a more empathic and caring society.

Watch leading anti-sexist educator, Jackson Katz’s passionate talk on why men’s violence against women is a men’s issue.

Click here to watch at full size.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes