What Is the Problem?

“Bacchi (1999) has been concerned for some years with the ways in which terms like ‘domestic violence’, ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘violence against women’ reflect particular representations of problems that often obscure or distort what the problem actually is. […] I suggest that one of the key problems for addressing sexual and other forms of violence against women is that men are not explicitly named or addressed as perpetrators of violence in government policy documents and anti-violence campaigns even though this is implicit in their framing (Seymour, 2012). For example, in relation to men’s violence against women at home, many government policies and programmes frame it in gender neutral language as ‘domestic violence’ or ‘family violence’. Likewise, in relation to rape, many prevention approaches define it as a crime committed by a few criminally minded individuals rather than as an expression of patriarchy and a problem of gender hierarchy (Bevaqua, 2000). The Personal Safety Survey carried out in Australia by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 2006) found that 126,100 women had experienced sexual violence by men in the previous 12 months. Furthermore, while rape by strangers late at night does happen, studies reveal that the majority of rapes and sexual assaults are committed by men who are known to the victim (Bevaqua, 2000).

Most of the discussion about violence is focused on women as victims of violence rather than on men as perpetrators of violence. Even the phrases ‘violence against women’ and ‘gendered violence’ do not explicitly gender the perpetrators. As such, Bacchi (1999) suggests, we should reframe the issue from ‘violence against women’ to ‘violence by men’ and interrogate how the state legitimises men’s violence. Hearn and McKie (2006) also argue that men’s abuse and violence need to be part of problem formulation. They argue that naming violence against women as predominantly men’s violence is fundamentally important if we are to develop effective interventions.

As Howe (2008) observes, to name violence against women as men’s violence incites a strong backlash. Exclamations are made that ‘not all men are violent’, ‘women are violent too’ and ‘men can also be victims of violence’. While Howe (cited in Duncanson, 2009) has noted that it is not acceptable to explicitly name men’s violence against women in non-feminist forums, based on my experience at many violence prevention conferences, it seems to have also become difficult to name it in some feminist forums as well. As Castelino (2010) has noted, from her observations and experience, women sometimes behave differently when men are involved in anti-violence work. They sometimes feel the need to be more careful about how they speak so as not to offend men, and they alter their arguments and language in meetings when men are present.

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Violence has both interpersonal and structural dimensions (Hearn, 1998); however, the structural dimensions of men’s violence are often neglected in policies and programmes aimed at preventing violence. Howe (2008) argues that in a feminist frame, men’s violence against women is inextricably part of a gendered social order and is not a sign of breakdown of that order. In her view, it is not possible to eliminate violence against women while unequal gender power relations remain intact. When violence is identified as the problem to be addressed, the wider context of unequal gender relations tends to be ignored by policymakers. When we focus on sexist and violent behaviours without locating them within their social context, we ignore the social system that constructs them.

Hearn and McKie (2006) challenge the premise in many policies addressing violence against women that men’s violence against women is atypical. Further, to the extent that men are named, Hearn and McKie (2009) observe that policy representations of violence against women tend to frame the issue as a problem of atypical men. The emphasis in most policy responses is on individual responsibility and choice of the perpetrators of violence (Seymour, 2012). Of course not all men are physically violent towards women; however, it is important to acknowledge the benefits that men receive from a society which tolerates men’s violence.

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Central to my argument here is that the feminist framing of men’s violence against women as a systemic problem of patriarchy and an unequal gender order has been co-opted and reframed as a problem for law reform (Gotell, 2010). Moreover, policies promoting educative programmes are predominantly based on psychological models that are focused on attitudinal and behavioural change in individuals, rather than structural change (Gavey, 2005). Men’s sexual violence against women must be located within the patriarchal model of sexuality which naturalises the domination of women by men (Gavey, 2005). By patriarchy, I refer to various forms of male domination and men’s systemic exploitation of women that acknowledge cultural differences and intersections in a transnational gender order. Men’s sexual violence against women must also be located within the dominant form of masculinity which confers sexual privileges on men that in turn legitimate rape myths (Bevaqua, 2000). The well-documented myths about rape have been shown to be related to men’s heterosexual instrumentalism whereby men engage in ‘behaviors which reflect and sustain the expectation that all heterosexuality must be practiced with explicit requirements of dominance and subordination’ (Schacht & Atchison, 1993, p.39). It is these socio-cultural and systemic structural concerns that prevention must address if it is to be effective in ‘changing the world’.”

Pease, Bob. 2014. “Theorizing Men’s Violence Prevention Policies: Limitations and Possibilities of Interventions in a Patriarchal State.” Pp. 22-40 in Preventing Sexual Violence: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by N. Henry and A. Powell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. [This excerpt from pp. 23-25. Full references by Bob Pease reproduced below. Links and bold not in original.]

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2006) Personal Safety Survey (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service).

Bacchi, C. (1999) Women, Policy and Politics: The Construction of Policy Problems (London: Sage).

Bevaqua, M. (2000) Rape on the Public Agenda: Feminism and the Politics of Sexual Assault (Boston: Northeastern University Press).

Castelino, T. (2010) ‘Feminist Audit of Engaging Men in Family Violence Prevention Work’, unpublished paper.

Duncanson, K. (2009) ‘On Theorising the Un-naming of Men’s Violence Against Women: Interview with Adrian Howe’, ACSSA Newsletter, No. 23, Australian Institute of Family Studies. [Pp. 28-31 here.]

Gavey, N. (2005) Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape (London: Routledge). [Reviewed extensive in Feminism & Psychology here.]

Gotell, L. (2010) ‘Canadian Sexual Assault Law: Neoliberalism and the Erosion of Feminist-Inspired Reforms’ in C. McGlynn and V. Munro (eds.) Rethinking Rape Law (New York: Routledge).

Hearn, J. (1998) The Violences of Men (London: Sage). [Condensed version by Hearn here.]

Hearn, J. and McKie, L. (2006) ‘Gendered Policy and Policy on Gender: The Case of “Domestic Violence”’, Policy and Politics, 36(1), 75-91.

Hearn, J. and McKie, L. (2009) ‘Gendered and Social Hierarchies in Problems Representation and Policy Processes: “Domestic Violence” in Finland and Scotland’, Violence Against Women, 16(2), 136-158.

Howe, A. (2008) Sex, Violence and Crime: Foucault and the ‘Man’ Question (Oxon: Routledge-Cavendish). [Reviewed extensively by Kirsty Duncanson here, pp. 23-25.]

Schacht, S. and Atchison, P. (1993) ‘Heterosexual Instrumentalism: Past and Future Directions’, Feminism and Psychology, 3, 37-53.

Seymour, K. (2012) ‘The Violence of Gender: Australian Policy Responses to Violence’, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Deakin University, Geelong.

2 thoughts on “What Is the Problem?

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  1. We’ve been having many, many discussions on equality in my home lately, so this made good fodder for my husband and I tonight. It is very well done, and timely.

    I would have liked to see the part about men’s backlash about “women are violent, too” expanded a bit. That paragraph diverged significantly from where my thoughts took me. Specifically, I wanted to respond that yes, women are violent too, but they are always called out for it. When we speak of domestic violence, it is a natural assumption that it is a man beating his nagging wife. For those times when it is the man who is the victim, the story always points out that it was the woman who committed the crime. Similarly, with more heinous crimes, those committed by women typically get much more press and their names are repeated ad nauseum. Why do I know the name Casey Anthony? Is she the only parent who killed her child? How many fathers have beaten their kids to death and have never been named? So yes, women can be violent. But when we are, we get called on our crimes with far more regularity and far more disgust than men ever do.

    But that’s just where my brain went. I don’t know if there are references to that effect anywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your reply, Laurie.

    I had originally typed up the paragraph with the full Castelino (2010) reference at the bottom, then deleted it because I didn’t think it matched the rest of the section here. However, I decided it to put it back in, but forgot to put back in the full Castelino reference. I have since added it back in, and I hope that Castelino’s comments are helpful to you in regards to male backlash and feminist “self”-silencing. Here is the link to Castelino’s comment as well: http://ntv.org.au/conference/wp-content/uploads/2012-ntv-conference-workshop-1f-feminist-audit-doc.pdf

    I agree with you that one hears quite often when women act outside of their prescribed gendered role. Certainly this happens for the very few cases of mothers leaving children unattended (as you noted, Casey Anthony, where many pointed out that is was irresponsible for a mother to be partying or doing anything other than around-the-clock childcare) or “female on male” domestic abuse (and certainly such cases are very few in relation to the widespread “male on female” domestic abuse or child abuse at the hands of fathers; even if one can find cases of “female on male” domestic abuse, it is usually self-defense on the part of the female as a result of long-standing abuse by the husband, rather than an expression of gendered power).

    Domestic abuse and sexual violence by male figures is rarely covered nor thought of as anything other than “boys being boys” (as you noted, “natural”), and/or “miscommunication” on the part of the wife or child (“nagging”, as you say), and both approaches are the wrong way of going about things (as noted also in the previous post of mine). Why should reject that there is anything natural about masculine and male violence, gendered violence, or even violence at all. This is also why Pease writes above that, “Men’s sexual violence against women must be located within the patriarchal model of sexuality which naturalises the domination of women by men”. If patriarchy was gone and there was equality among genders there would not be so blatant gendered disparities among who is abusing and who is being abused.

    Of course, the fact that women can sometimes be violent does not invalidate feminism or any of the arguments encountered here, I think, but the quote that “women can be violent, too” is an example of an attempt to silence feminist criticism. Jackson Katz (pictured somewhere above) has a book called “The Macho Paradox” and devotes one chapter to addressing specific male resistance to “feminism” (though, such examples are strewn throughout the book).


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