Over the last six months I’ve had conversation with various people about what to do with all the violent men around us. This is perhaps my current burning question, because we are having to contend with the fact that more than just a handful of men around us have committed acts of violence, if not against us, or people we know, against people we know of. We no longer have to read the news to gauge how pervasive violence is. It is out there for all to see. Unless your eyes are closed.
And when I say that, I am certain that some people think I am a rabid man-hating feminist. Others think I’m being hyperbolic. While others think I am personally motivated to shame men who abuse women. Still others wonder what I mean when I say violence.
And that last bit is what requires a response.
Let’s start with the statistics. Recent reports from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics suggest that 80 percent of all women experience some form of violence. This means almost every other woman we come across on a daily basis have been exposed to some form of violence in their lifetimes. This also means there are just as many men involved in perpetrating that violence; indeed, men are primarily perpetrators of violence, even though women may inflict violence as well.
But when I say “violence” people may not recognise all the forms of violence that exist. And there’s a reason why. And the reason is this: the hegemonic view of violence, particularly violence experienced by women, is framed as “violence against women.” But, violence does not occur passively, there are actors involved in the perpetration of this violence, as Jackson Katz says.
The hegemonic construction of “violence against women” flattens the content of violence as a construct. This kind of flattening makes all kinds of infractions from forcible kiss to verbal abuse to sexual harassment to coercive rape and violent rape seem the same. And that is a problem. Why? Because they’re not the same, and making them seem the same creates confusion and harm. Because when they seem the same, we are unable to understand the depth and the breadth of violence that permeates across our society, unless we talk in specifics—specifics that make violence seem like an individual level problem, masking the pervasiveness of it.
The construction of “violence against women” makes it difficult to examine how different types of violence are differently produced. For example, the reasons for which rape is a weapon of war is very different from how a forcible kiss can take place—both important, but we need to have separate conversations about them. Scholars and practitioners alike conceptualise different types of violence—physical, emotional, verbal, financial, symbolic among others—because it is now widely understood that the effects of each type of violence are different as well. For example, emotional or psychological violence is strongly associated with developing mental health disorders, which, some scholars have shown, does not hold true when individuals experience physical violence.
So why do mainstream media view violence as an all-inclusive construct?
Because, language, as a culturally produced tool, reflects the patriarchal, capitalist world we live in—it serves patriarchy when violence is obscured and when we are confused about what constitutes violence and what doesn’t. As Price (2012) says, the narrative of violence focuses on domestic violence, or as Zizek says, focuses on wars—so when we hear the word violence we don’t think of sexual misconduct by a professor, we don’t think of sexual harassment on the streets, we don’t think of coercive rape. And in doing so, we pretend that these types of violence don’t exist—in other words, we obscure them. This protects abusive men. And maintain patriarchy. Violence remains a tool of power and control. A great example is the sexual harassment that a 16-year-old girl in Dhaka was experiencing at the hands of a teacher; when she revealed this information on social media, some people blamed her for it, without recognising that she was being violated and gaslighted, while they were weaponising shame to silence her.
On the flip side, however, such obfuscation of violence may make it difficult to understand consent and mislabel sex as rape. Let me share an example that Shahana Siddiqui, a PhD student conducting research at the forensic unit of One Stop Crisis Centre at Dhaka Medical College and Hospital, shared with me. She found that a considerable fraction of women who sought help from the crisis centre were women who were in relationships with men who had sex with them and left them. To them, this abandonment was a violation—a violation of trust and their bodies—but they framed this violation as rape. So, the question arises: what is rape? If it wasn’t rape when they had sex, can it be rape because promises were broken? I would say, this is definitely protarona but, no, this isn’t rape because there is a difference between regret and rape, even exploitation and rape, and these distinctions are important to understand. I would further argue, the confusion about what rape is, is structurally produced, given the lack of sex education in Bangladesh, which means, children and young adults have no real sense of what sex, consent, and rape might be unless their parents are talking to them about it, and from what I gather, they are not (for the most part).
The flattening of “violence against women” doesn’t help the innocent or the guilty, and I say this, knowing that this dichotomy of victim/perpetrator (and sinner/saint) is problematic, as indicated above, and especially so in a world where certain groups are more likely to be criminalised than others for the same actions. For example, we have recently seen how a low-income man was sentenced to death for raping a woman, while the group of high-income men who raped a woman at a local hotel were not. Similarly, those who experience violence may not be able to get the help they need because of the kind of work they do (e.g. if they are sex workers), their socio-economic status, immigration status, national origin, religion, or ethnicity. Indeed, intersections of social identity, we already know, compound experiences of oppression and associated trauma, which, arguably, is harmful for everyone.
So, when we think about the violent men around us we must recognise that they are not all the same. But, at the same time, we need to understand that they all need help. Importantly, they need to understand what it is that they do wrong, understand why they do it, and hold themselves accountable, understand the harm they cause, repent and show contrition for past actions, ask for forgiveness from those who were hurt, and never hurt anyone again.
They may not be able to do all that on their own, which is why we need to hold them accountable, too—especially if they are our friends and family.
Nadine Shaanta Murshid is Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.