Violence against women. Why do men do it?

Last week VicHealth published a report – ‘Australians’ attitudes to violence against women’.[1] It was shocking, though not surprising. I was however surprised by the hostility with which my male friends and colleagues responded to my outrage, fear and disappointment over these attitudes.

It is horrifying that 1 in 3 women in Australia are subjected to physical or sexual violence. It is despicable that as a society we create space for this violence to be played out on female bodies behind closed doors by excusing and justifying male violence and blaming women for the crimes perpetrated against them. And it is so disappointing when women talk about these issues, their experiences or the fear they live with that they are so often belittled, disbelieved or met with anger.

The VicHealth report is packed with information – this blog post is not a comprehensive summary. I’ve just pulled out some of the prevalent attitudes that enable men to commit, and continue to commit, violent crimes against women.

So, what did the report tell us?

  1. Fewer people understand the prevalence of violence against women… and those who do are those most likely to be victim to it.

This is devastatingly important. It matters that awareness about violence against women has declined, because levels of violence haven’t. According to the ABS over the last decade there has been no decline in violence against women.[2] Over a third of women over the age of 15 have been subjected to physical or sexual violence. Instead, attitudes which excuse male violence and trivialise the brutalisation of women are rampant, and serve not only to perpetuate this violence but to simultaneously deny or dismiss its existence. One in four men don’t think that domestic violence is prevalent in our communities which means that they are failing to recognise or respond to violence that they, their peers, or men in the broader social circles are perpetrating against women.[3]

Additionally, as the VicHealth report points out, governments don’t take action unless the community demands it. Unless and until our community decides that violence against women is intolerable; we will continue to see domestic violence driving women and children into homelessness[4] and women suffering from mental health issues, substance abuse issues and a raft of diseases for which domestic violence has been found to be one of the greatest contributors[5]…. not to mention women being murdered trying to escape domestic violence when the legal system fails to ensure their safety.

  1. Sexual violence against women continues to be trivialised, justified in certain circumstances and male responsibility is diminished

Remember when people (and our law) believed it was impossible to rape in a marriage?[6] How about when a woman’s past sexual activity, sexual ‘reputation’, or attitudes towards sex were free game on the court room floor to discredit, diminish and often defeat sexual assault claims? Or, when almost one in five men believed that if a woman was drunk and was raped than it was at least a little bit her fault.

Oh no, wait, that’s now.

In 2013, one in five people believed that if a woman is drunk and a man rapes her, than she is partially to blame. It reeks of the misogynist mental gymnastics that breed short-skirt-so-asking-for-it, kissed-me-so-wanted-it types of thinking and violent behaviour.

Attitudes that trivialise, justify and excuse violence against women can be characterised into three broad categories. These attitudes are often shared by men and women as our culture continues to blame women for crimes perpetrated against them, and excuse men for their actions.

The first category includes attitudes that shift the responsibility away from the perpetrator of the crime and onto the victim – let’s call that ‘victim blaming’. The second includes attitudes that justify violence because of certain traits within the man that mitigates his responsibility – let’s call this ‘diminished responsibility’. And the third are attitudes which deny the violence occurred at all due to women lying, being drunk and confused or using false allegations to manipulate a man. Let’s call this category ‘men as victims’.

Victim Blaming

Both men and women engage in victim blaming. When women are assaulted by men society consistently condemns the woman as well as the man, if he is condemned at all. Female victims of sexual assault report feelings of guilt, shame[7] and, consequentially, isolation due to the societal standards that imbue all aspects of our education and relationships that teach us from very beginning that women have responsibility to protect themselves and their bodies and that they bear moral responsibility when they fail to do this.

Victim blaming means that despite violence against women being prevalent throughout our community, these crimes are underreported. Additionally, because of the consistent message that this violence is, at least in part, the fault of the victim, women are also less likely to identify the violence for what is – abusive, criminal behaviour.[8] This has serious implications for women who survive these crimes as low levels of disclosure means that women may not seek professional help to cope with the trauma, and are at risk of suffering from repeated cycles of abuse.

VicHealth, found that almost 1 in 5 people believe that if a woman was drinking when she was raped then she is at least partially to blame. What this actually means, is that 1 in 5 people think that a woman does not have the right to participate as fully and equally in our society as her male counterparts. Society does not demand that men relinquish their human right to personal safety and security when they consume alcohol, when they dress a certain way, when they dance, flirt, walk down the street, or any number of other normal, everyday activities commonly referred to as living.

VicHealth also found that 1 in 6 believe that women often say “no” when they mean “yes”. I don’t even know how to string together the letters to convey how deeply disturbing this is. 1 in 6 people think that women are unable (undeserving?) to make decisions about their own bodies – who gets to touch it and in what circumstances. Many of us will be familiar with the chant “wherever we go, however we dress, no means no, yes means yes”. Many of us will also be familiar with the circumstances that make that chat so catchy (beyond it’s mono-syllabic rhyming pattern), the cat-calls, the relentless pressuring, the way ‘no’ seems to invite, at best, negotiation[9] and at its worst coercion and violence.

Is it at all surprising that violence against women is so rife in our community when 1 in 6 of us dehumanise women in this way?

Diminished male responsibility

Almost 1 in 4 men believe that domestic violence can be excused if a man temporarily loses control due to extreme anger.[10] Another quarter believe that domestic violence can be excused afterwards if the person genuinely regrets it.[11] These attitudes embolden ideas that women’s right to their own personal safety and security, and autonomy over their own bodies, are secondary to the rights of men to feel and express their emotions through violence.

It also sends a misleading message.

The idea that men lose their tempers and bash their wives and daughters and girlfriends in fits of rage that are otherwise disconnected from their day-to-day existence; suggests that these acts of violence are anomalies rather than manifestations of a sexist society. This, in part, fuels a false dichotomy of ‘good’ men (I know what you’re thinking, “like me!”) and ‘bad’ men (men who get drunk, lose their tempers, or are easily provoked and beat the women in their lives). This dichotomy is what allows for the perpetuation of violence against women and the concealment of that harm by allowing men to believe that so long as their behaviour is infrequent enough, doesn’t break bones or leave visible bruising or is ‘justified’ due to extraneous circumstances, then they can continue to exist as ‘good’ men who occasionally behave badly. This dichotomy also delegitimizes and silences women’s experiences of any violence or any sexual assault that doesn’t conform this narrative of rare, hyper-violent attacks (as opposed to ongoing microaggressions, controlling behaviours, stalking or coercion – for example).

Creating these false dichotomies, and making excuses for male violence, allows this violence to continue.

Men as victims

Buckle up, folks.

‘Men as victims’ refers to attitudes that deny violence against women is occurring, or that it is occurring at the extent that women, health bodies or advocates claim it is. Those who harbour this attitudes argue that women lie, deceive or exaggerate claims of violence of sexual assault in their own self interest.

More than one in four men believe that women who claim they were raped, had in fact “led the man on and then had regrets”[12] and so lie about sexual assault ‘to save face’, if you will. There is very little evidence of women lying about sexual assault to support this claim. To the contrary, all the evidence indicates that domestic violence and sexual assault are consistently underreported because society shames and silences women by disbelieving their stories and challenging their credibility. This attitude enables men to rape, maintain the lie (even to themselves!) that she really wanted it, and continue to rape without having to face repercussions for their actions. This attitude tells women that they don’t know what they want, do not have the right to make decisions about their bodies, and are not worth having their stories and experiences believed.

VicHealth also found that over 50% of people believed that women often make up or exaggerate claims of domestic violence in order to improve their case – which is pretty frightening when you think about prevalence of violence against women, and the possibility of women trying to escape from relationships with their children due to this violence, only to be disbelieved.

Women’s credibility when reporting domestic violence or sexual assault is always up for grabs which only makes it harder, and more dangerous, for women to report the crimes that occur.

  1. The dark alleyway rapist and misplaced fear, misplaced resources and disbelief of women’s experiences

Understanding violence against women is critical to preventing it. Only 64% of people believe that a woman is more likely to be raped by a man she knows than a stranger – representing a decline in understanding from 2009.

The myth of the dark alleyway rapist is a powerful one. It silences women, it enables men to rape and it creates a culture where women are forced to regulate and modify their behaviour in order to ‘keep safe’.

‘Real rape’ v … not real rape? 

The dark alleyway rapist is responsible for just 1% of sexual assaults[13] perpetrated against women. These assaults are more likely to be violent and involve a weapon. Their rareness does not diminish the trauma that they inflict upon women, but focusing on the dark alleyway rapist as the archetype for violence against women diminishes, silences and discredits the experience of the majority of women who are raped.

The ‘real rape script’ is a cultural story which is used as standard against which women’s experiences are compared. The ‘real rape script’ often features as conservative young woman, walking home at night who is randomly attacked by a violent, vicious stanger wielding a weapon who violently and forcibly rapes her.[14] The majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a man known to the woman, in an environment known to the woman, without the use of a weapon or violence. The ‘real rape script’ says that these rapes, aren’t real rapes. That the woman is not the victim of a real crime, and the man is not a criminal. Women who report sexual assaults that don’t conform to the ‘real rape script’ have their credibility challenged, their reliability put under scrutiny and their motives examined. They are less likely to report the crimes, and they are less likely to secure convictions in court.

‘Good’ men get let off the hook

The dark alleyway rapist lets ‘good’ men off the hook.

Not wearing a balaclava, wielding a machete or hovering in alleyways at 2am? Got friends, good relationship with your parents and a tidy apartment? Got a girlfriend or a wife or daughter? Been on a date or invited a girl back to your apartment? Had sex with her before? She’d been flirting? Congratulations – you’re not a dark alleyway rapist!

The dark alleyway rapist props up the patriarchy and the institutionalised sexualised violence that accompanies it. The dark alleyway rapist makes it hard for us to conceive of a ‘good man’ being a rapist. It makes it hard for us to picture a man in suit and a tie who buys his girlfriend flowers whilst also refusing to accept ‘no’ for answer, seeing her body as his property and her resistance as a challenge to be surmounted.

The dark alleyway rapist means that rapists who don’t violently rape in alleyways become ‘good men who did a bad thing’ if the woman’s experience is believed at all. Their behaviour is compartmentalised as an aberration from their normal conduct. It is excused, or justified or trivialised.

Women live with fear. 

I remember knowing about the dark alleyway rapist as a child. I remember knowing that I couldn’t walk to the shops at night because the strange men might get me. I remember knowing that something happened in the twilight hours that made the world more dangerous for me than for my brother, and that it was my job to protect myself.

As an adult my mother still texts me to see when I’m walking home and to check when I arrive. As an adult, it is common amongst my female circles that when you arrive home at the end of night out you will send a text to someone in the group to let them know you survived. Doing things in pairs like walking to the bathrooms, to the carpark, to make a phone call outside or have a cigarette are all normal, accepted behaviours to feel safe.

It disturbs and distresses me enormously that women are filled with fear from childhood. We are taught that is our responsibility to alter our lives to accommodate a boogeyman – and then, we are disbelieved, belittled and blamed when it turns out that the real threat is the man we’re married to, or dating, or living and he does all the things that we’re warned could happen to us when we’re girls.

  1. Women continue to be blamed for staying in violent relationships

Most people continue to find it hard to understand why women stay in violent relationships.[15] Almost 60% of men believe that women in abusive relationships could leave if they wanted to, and 1 in 5 men believe that domestic violence is a private matter to be handled by the family. One reason for these attitudes is our refusal to face the reality of who is committing violent crimes against women. We find it hard to imagine women staying in violent relationships because we imagine it in a way somewhat akin to the dark alleyway rapist – consistent beating, broken bones, yelling and screaming and complete dysfunction.

This happens. But, more common and more complex, are patterns of seemingly loving behaviour and kindness which are interspersed with control, with unpredictable and sporadic violence and with irregular intimidation and punishment which are justified by the abuser and often followed with remorse, repentance and promises to not repeat the violence. These cycles make it difficult for a woman to predict whether the violence will continue, for how long, can it improve and who will believe that her otherwise ‘good man’ husband or partner would do this to her?

There are plethora of other reasons why women do not leave abusive environments – not least because it is incredibly dangerous. A woman is most at risk of murdered by her partner immediately after she tried to leave the relationship. If there are children there may be fears about keeping them safe and the risk of not gaining custody, there could be economic barriers if the abuser controls the house’s finances, there may be a lack of support from friends and family who are also friends with the abuser.

The longer we as a community pretend that violence against women isn’t occurring, or that it isn’t being perpetrated by ‘good men’, the harder it will be to end.

WHY IS THIS SO TERRIBLE?

There have been a wide variety of community campaigns to raise awareness about violence against women, recruit ‘male allies’ and ask men to take responsibility for their actions and the actions of their peers. These campaigns often appeal to men to think of their sisters, mothers, daughters or wives as reason why they should care about gender equality.[16] Sometimes they appeal to men to consider the economic cost of domestic violence.[17] Many appeal to traditional gender roles and characterise ‘real men’ as those who support and protect the women in their lives.

You’d be forgiven for not even contemplating the radical idea that women are humans whose rights are systematically disregarded by half the population. That there is something inherently despicable about a society that finds the subjugation and abuse of half its population palatable.

It’s not just the violence, though. It’s the fear of violence.

This is the thing that really sets my heart on fire. This is not the week to make comparisons with terrorism, but let me simply say that one reason we abhor terrorism is because it instills fear into hearts of our communities. We understand on a fundamental level that constant fear and self surveillance is damaging to the very fabric of our communities, our relationships and ourselves. Yet this is precisely what we demand women live with every day.

VicHealth found that 1 in 4 women felt unsafe using public transport compared to just over 1 in 10 men. Over 1 in 3 women felt unsafe walking home alone compared to 1 in 10 men. 10 percent of women feel unsafe at home, compared to less than 3 percent of men.

Imagine, imagine how limiting that fear must be. (If you have trouble imagining, there is reams of evidence.)[18] Imagine how much harder that fear makes every day. How much less women are able to contribute then we could if we, as a society, decided that violence against women was unacceptable.
————-

[Sorry the footnotes are so shoddily formatted. I will try to muster up the internal strength to fix them soon]

[1] VicHealth, ‘Australians’ attitudes to violence against women’ – Findings from the 2013 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey (NCAS). Accessed: http://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/Publications/Freedom-from-violence/2013-National-Community-Attitudes-towards-Violence-Against-Women-Survey.aspx (referred to as VicHealth)

[2] http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4906.0Chapter2002012

[3] VicHealth, Appendixes, p24

[4] http://www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/women/publications-articles/reducing-violence/women-domestic-and-family-violence-and-homelessness-a-synthesis-report?HTML#sum

[5] VicHealth, p28

[6] known as the ‘marital rape immunity’, up until the 1908s under Australian common law men were not charged or prosecuted for the rape of their wives.

[7] http://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/pubs/researchsummary/ressum1/rs1a.html#a3

[8] Ibid.

[9] I can’t remember where I first heard of this concept of no inviting negotiation but it certainly rings true to me. If you know the source, I will credit.

[10] VicHealth, Appendixes, p56

[11] VicHealth, p58

[12] VicHealth, p112

[13] http://www.aifs.gov.au/acssa/statistics.html

[14] Vichealth, p47

[15] VicHealth, p72

[16] http://www.whiteribbon.org.au/uploads/media/updated_factsheets_Nov_13/Factsheet_10_Ten_Common_Myths_and_Misconceptions.pdf

[17] http://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/05_2012/vawc_economic_report.pdf

[18] http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features40Jun+2010

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