Gruenberg: Deterring gender-based violence
December 7, 2013
Here is the fundamental and yet often polarizing truth: Most of the violence against women that occurs throughout the United States is perpetrated by men. Specifically, more than 99 percent of rape is committed by men, and the national average shows that 87 percent of domestic-violence crimes that lead to an arrest are committed by men.
This is not to say that men, and boys, can't be victims of sexual assault and abuse within relationships; it is merely to recognize that when this occurs, it is more often the exception rather than the norm. And particularly when it occurs as sexual assault, even when the victim is male, the perpetrator is also most likely male. During school and community presentations in my role as the Advocacy and Prevention Program coordinator for Response, I often struggle with how to deliver these incontrovertible facts. How do I speak to the problem of gender-based violence without alienating or causing defensiveness in those I hope and need to reach: men and boys? And why is it presumed that to speak honestly about the perpetration of sexual and intimate partner abuse on women by men is construed as "male bashing" in a way that ignores the real emotional-, physical- and sexual-bashing that routinely is occurring?
Historically, the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault have been considered women's issues. If this false taxonomy persists, we will remain unlikely to solve a social issue that we aren't even prepared to speak honestly about, including who or what causes the problem.
There is a very important distinction to be made here that I often feel goes unheard: While it is true that most abusers are male, most men are not abusers. Although men's violence toward women is the root of the issue, the end of gender-based violence will only be achieved through a transformation of some men's attitudes toward women and all men's involvement in the issue.
Think about the common violence-prevention education strategies, such as offering a class in which girls are taught to recognize the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship, to carry a whistle or pepper spray if they are walking alone, not to accept drinks from men they don't know at a bar and to learn self-defense tactics. Rather than calling this violence-prevention, I would suggest that this is simply an exercise in personal risk reduction. It is not that it isn't beneficial to an individual, but quite simply, it does nothing to prevent the violence from occurring. That is because it does nothing to effect a change in attitude or behavior within the individuals perpetrating the abuse; it merely helps keep one woman safe and moves the perpetrator to target a more vulnerable individual.
What is most problematic and ineffective about this approach is that there are only two roles to be played: A person is either a potential victim or a potential perpetrator. Most women don't want to feel the powerlessness of thinking of themselves as potential victims, and most men will shut down at the suggestion that they are a part of a larger group of men that perpetrates violence against women, let alone that they could be or become perpetrators themselves.
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Another flaw in this approach is that it considers the widespread cultural violence against women to be an individual issue (a few men behaving badly, for example), rather than a societal problem. It does not ask the critical question of "Why do so many men and boys hold the belief that it is justifiable to emotionally, verbally, physically, financially or sexually control, demean or degrade women?" Where do these messages come from, and how have they become so deeply ingrained in the stereotypes about what it means to "be a real man" or what "a good girl" looks and acts like? Simply listen to or watch almost any song, television show, movie, magazine or video game aimed at today's youth, and you can witness the powerful cultural messaging that suggests that to be "masculine" means to be strong, aggressive, tough and in control, while to be "feminine" often focuses solely on being attractive, submissive and acquiescent.
These gender stereotypes unfortunately have the power to be damaging and extremely self-limiting for many boys and girls but also create a dangerous social climate in which the potential for violence can flourish, as boys are taught to fight for what they want and girls are taught to "play nice" and not create conflict. The goal of domestic-violence and sexual-assault crimes is for the offender to gain power and control over another person in which specific tactics are employed in very deliberate ways, a pattern that sadly is reinforced by these underlying cultural messages to men and women. The commonly held, and dangerous, perspective that abuse results when an individual loses control not only is untrue but does nothing to address the deeply held beliefs of superiority and inferiority that often exist as the root cause and justification of most gender-based abuse. In order to perpetrate abuse, one must first be able to dehumanize a victim, and the powerful reality is that when it comes to intimate-partner violence, this is not typically genetically predetermined behavior. It is all too often culturally learned.
What is perhaps most damaging in the "risk reduction" approach is that it lacks the recognition that men can play a significant role in stemming the pandemic of violence against women, not just by honestly examining their own beliefs and relationships with women but by working as a bystander to confront the dominantly held cultural stereotypes that fuel violence against women. A bystander is not simply an individual who passively watches as abuse occurs; rather it is an individual who has an obligation to speak out regarding the social norms that foster a lack of respect toward women. It is a parent who strives to teach their young boys that to be a man means to embrace their full humanity and expression, including the characteristics of sensitivity, empathy and cooperation. It is a co-worker who has the courage to tell his peers that he finds a joke offensive because it is disrespectful and demeaning to women. It is a coach who explains to his male athletes why it's not OK to use expressions such as "you throw like a girl" or "you're such a pussy" because they are insulting to all women. It is someone at the bar who suggests to a friend that a woman is too intoxicated to be able to give consent and that if the friend is really interested, he should ask for her number rather than see an opportunity to "get lucky." It is a family member or an entire community that doesn't allow for the common response of victim-blaming that most women experience when they come forward with allegations of having been raped or abused. It is a man who is willing to look within, honestly, and actively ask what he can do for all women who experience injustice and abuse.
If you would like to engage in the effort to address gender violence, whether you are a man or a woman, Response would love to have you get involved. Please call our office at 970-920-5357, or visit http://www.responsehelps.org.
Jill Gruenberg is the Advocacy and Prevention Program coordinator at Response: Help for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. The Response 24-hour hotline is 970-925-7233.
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