Category Archives: gender-based violence

One Billion Rising is probably better than nothing

Please only read this if you are a woman committed to women’s liberation.  If you link or share it, please include that request.

Natalie Gyte, at the fabulous Women’s Resource Centre, has beautifully explained some of the problems with the content and tone of Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising ‘campaign’: it covers up the real causes of male violence, it hurts women by implying that we can (and should) ‘rise above’ violence and its consequences, and it is part of a much wider colonialist pattern of white saviour complex.  Go read her piece, it is excellent, and the points she makes are more important than these ones.   I  just want to add a reason about why the very form of One Billion Rising is colonialist.

Most obviously, Ensler’s project takes its name from the Million Women March, and perhaps also from Million Women Rise. What’s that? You haven’t heard of either of those events? Could it be that’s because neither of them have a hugely successful and well-known white person pushing their carefully-crafted brand across the world?

“The Million Woman March was a protest march organized on October 25, 1997, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was founded and formulated by Phile Chionesu, a grassroots activist, human rights advocate, and Black Nationalist/Freedom Fighter. After several months of underground organizing, Dr Phile’, as she is lovingly called, asked Asia Coney to join her and she became the third National Co-Chair. The march was envisioned and intended to help bring social, political, and economic development and power throughout the Black communities of the United States, as well as to bring hope, empowerment, unity and sisterhood to women, men and children of African descent globally regardless of nationality, religion, economic status, etc.

Speakers at the event included Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela; Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Sista Souljah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Attallah and Illyasah Shabazz (daughters of Malcolm X), Dr. Dorothy Height, and a message was read from Assata Shakur from her exile home of Cuba. The Million Woman March, (MWM) as it is known, was the largest gathering in the world of any women anywhere. It has been considered a “social phenomenon” due to its unconventional and unique way of organizing and has influenced several mass gatherings by demonstrating a grassroots approach that had not been employed before. The Million Woman March was the launching pad for the development of the first global movement for women and girls of African descent throughout the Diaspora.

Estimates of attendance vary widely… Police sources gave numbers varying from 300,000 to 1 million.[2] Organizers estimated an attendance of 2.1 million.”

Yes: a genuinely grassroots movement of, by and for Black women.

Million Women Rise, meanwhile, is a UK-based, grassroots, self-funding, women-only march against male violence, led by Black and other BME women.  You’re going to have to take my word for it; they are so grassroots they don’t even have a wikipedia page.

So Ensler took Black women’s work, and turned it into a very successful, professional* brand (in addition to her very successful V-Day and Vagina Monologues brands) which she has exported all over the world.  It has also carried her name everywhere with it.

Even if Ensler came up with the name entirely independently (which seems unlikely, since she was politically active at the time) and forgot to research similar names, she is still working off the backs of BME women’s work.  (And other women’s work).  OBR has been spread around the world by existing feminist organisations doing actually effective feminist work (rape crisis centres, refuges, consciousness raising groups, activist groups of all stripes).  OBR gives these women and their groups a chance to use a slick and patriarchy friendly (look! We’re not prudes, we’re dancing!) brand, to raise some media attention and hopefully some funds.  But once the OBR ripples fade away, they’ll be back to the actual work.

To paraphrase one tweeter: I too feel blessed to be part of a global movement to end violence against women and girls.  We work under various banners: feminism, womanism, radical feminism, women’s liberation, the women’s movement – all of which make excellent hashtags.  We don’t need #1billionrising or, indeed, #danceyoassoff.

I feel bad hating on a women’s initiative, I really do.  I don’t like criticising other feminists in front of men and other non-feminists, hence the request at the top.  Generally speaking, I’d prefer that there was bad feminism happening to no feminism: for instance, I know that Ensler’s play, for all its problems**, has helped fund various bits of vital feminism. But sisters (especially my white western sisters): we must do better than this.

 

* I have some vague thoughts about how the OBR video reveals some of the problems with the project: its use of sensationalised explicit violence (without trigger warnings), its victim-blaming (all they have to do is stand up), its slickness (how much money?), and its portrayals of BME women (subjected to the ‘worst’ kinds of violence).  Feel free to write that up more coherently, if you can bear to watch it.

** Most notably: (from here, warnings for descriptions of rape/abuse and rape apologism)

Another very painful contradiction I noticed in the show was the treatment of rape and consent.  The two most prominent examples of this are, “Because He Liked To Look At It,” and, “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could.”  Both are portrayed as positive, healing experiences, but both stories lack explicit, enthusiastic consent.  ”Coochi Snorcher,” involves underage drinking and what amounts to statutory rape; I’d hardly call that a healing experience.  Even if the legal drinking age is an arbitrary number, the younger woman’s intoxication mixed with the older woman’s “insistence and thoroughness,” means explicit consent was almost assuredly not given.  I think it’s worth noting that the monologue originally called this, “a good rape.”  What more needs to be said?

“Look At It,” was just as bad; during the woman’s sexual encounter with “Bob,” she clearly states both, “no,” and, “stop,” as he undresses her.  Those words should have been a HUGE stop sign for Bob.  Even if the woman in this monologue learned a positive lesson from the experience, the encounter should be called what it was: rape.  (Side note: it was also really troubling when Bob said he wanted to, “see her,” in reference to her vagina.  It’s not that he wanted to see a part of her, or even an important part of her.  He wanted to see her.  This reduction of a woman to her genitals is squick-inducing at best (and millimeters away from transphobic at its worst)).

Rape is a race issue

[This article contains mentions of rape and sexual abuse, racism, and failure to deal with sexual violence.]

Remember the Rochdale sexual abuse case? Remember the racism in how white people reported it and commented on it? Remember the valiant efforts of some white feminists to say that race was not the issue here, but gender and class were, alongside the systematic disbelief and retraumatisation of all survivors?

Unfortunately, reality goes to show that rape is a race issue. I hope to write about this at more length at some point, but right now there’s a case in the media at the moment which shows this very well, all by itself.

Jimmy Savile would never have got away with it if he wasn’t white. And he probably wouldn’t have been nearly so successful in his career, and therefore would have had access to far fewer girls and young women.

Racial profiling (whether it’s done by the police, shop staff, or anyone else) necessarily involves two sides: being more likely to suspect/report/arrest people who aren’t white (and especially Black people), and therefore simultaneously being less likely to suspect white people.

This is even more prevalent when it comes to rape and sexual abuse. False rape accusations have been used as an important tool in shoring up white supremacy, especially in the US. But more pervasively beyond that, white patriarchy spends an awful lot of effort making it clear that rape is something that only certain marginalised men do. That those ‘other’ men – ‘psychos’, weirdos, queer men, and particularly, black and brown men – are who we need to worry about. In some ways, white working class men are also subject to this, although to a much lesser extent: one of the few images of sexual harassment that is allowed to be mentioned in public discourse is page-3-inspired builders coarsely commenting on passing women.

The necessary flipside to this is that privileged men – white men, mentally healthy men, respectable men – are put under the radar. Clean-cut desk-workers would never wolf-whistle a woman. It’s not white men who traffic women and girls. Oh, but he’s such a pillar of the community. But gang-rape is black gang problem. And even when white abusers are detected, are less likely to be dealt with properly: a black man abusing a white girl is much more likely to be seen as a real threat, whereas as minimising responses are more likely to be believed if the offender is white. Think of the effect of these allegations on his career. It must have been a miscommunication. He’s just old-fashioned, he’s doesn’t know those comments aren’t politically correct.  It was probably harmless. He’s just very friendly, that’s all.

Which makes it clear who these myths benefit. Men like Jimmy Savile – the personable, successful, respectable rapists, whose whiteness and other privileges helped them get away with it.

Not just a number: age, power and abuse

[Warning for discussion and description of abuse of intimate partners.]

I’m thinking about a longer article about women who abuse women they’re in relationships with, but it might take a while.  In the meantime, I wanted to get some thoughts that I’ve been having about age out of my system.

Age is a characteristic which affects how much power you have in society, and how much power you have in relation to any partners you might have.  It’s a bit different to several other characteristics that kyriarchy uses to allocate power, because it changes constantly.  Unlike gender, for instance, where the messages we’re given in childhood are different depending on whether adults think they’re teaching a boy or a girl, we’re all socialised as children, and the powerlessness that is enforced on children.  And most of us, hopefully, make it to old age, and the loss of power that is then enacted on us.

However, I want to talk about age differentials in between, and at the upper end of childhood, and how that can affect relationships where abuse is obvious, and where power and control are much less.  Being older than your partner contributes to your having power over them, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the size of the gap, your actual ages, how much your social circles and society values age, and what other power dynamics are going on.

Some brief bits of evidence from other people, for anyone feeling skeptical:

When professionals are trying to assess the risk of serious violence and murder in domestic abuse cases, a ten-year or more age gap, in same-gender relationships, indicates higher risk. (Found here (PDF))

This big study on teenagers’ experiences of dating abuse found that for girls with male partners, having a boyfriend even a year or two older, while it brought financial and status benefits, also significantly increased their risk of sexual and other abuse.

[I hate the work risk when talking about abuse.  It makes it sound like a storm or something uncontrollable, unaccountable.   Abusers choose partners who are younger than them because it gives them greater power over them.  That’s a better phrasing.]

So how does this work?  There’s nothing intrinsically powerful about being older.  Here are some example of how society enables this tool.

  • Via stereotypes and prejudice.  E.g., it’s easier to see young people as crazy, as flakey (unreliable), as rash, as violent.  As unwise, naive or stupid: they don’t know what’s best for themsleves, sometimes they just need some firm manipulation guidance.  They are especially clueless sexually, both about how to behave sexually, and their own sexual desires and preferences.  They’re just discovering themselves, after all.  So they need to be pressured taught about these things.
  • Via money.  Due to age-based oppression in the workplace, older people are likely to be earning more, and they’ve probably been earning for longer, so may have savings.  Financial power has huge impacts on personal relationships, especially sexual ones.
  • Via external social power.  Older people are more likely to have more powerful friends, more sources of support.  Things in their life are seen as more important because they’re older, and because their age allows them to access things coded as important: better jobs, housing, marriage, mortgage, parenthood.  They. their choices, desires and lives are seen as worthy of more respect.
  • Via internal social power.  All of these ideas are likely to have been internalised by both parties, such that they both may also believe that the older person knows what’s best for the younger, or that their desires are more important, or that they’re more worthy of respect.  These beliefs can impact hugely, changing the levels of entitlement, self-esteem, self-blame, and accountability that people bring to the relationship.
  • Via insitutions and structures.  If the people share an institution of any kind (school, university, workplace, religious organisation, etc) chances are, that instiution has a hierarchy based largely on age, or which at least reflects age.

There are probably other ways that society creates and bolsters age-based power – feel free to add comments.

So, how might this power be used in a sexual relationship?

  • I’ve already mentioned how age-power can enable sexual abuse.  The idea of the more experienced person quite coercively initiating the less experienced (usually a man initiating a woman, but there are prominent gay and lesbian versions too) is so enshrined in our cultures as a positive, sexy thing.  This can be backed up by sexual emotional abuse based on greater knowledge and experience, like “if you were really in love with me/straight/not frigid/lesbian/kinky/submissive/a woman/poly then you would want to ____”, or based on age-related entitlement, like “I’m a man of the world, you’re not adventurous enough for me.”
  • Financial and related control, such as monitoring their spending, withholding money, making them ask for money or putting them on an allowance.  More subtly, it can involve presuming that the older person’s career or education should be prioritised.
  • Isolation: ensuring that all of the couple’s friends are the friends of the older one, or at least of that age group.  [Side note: isolation can be achieved in quite subtle ways, such as kindly advising them that a certain friend/group is not a good influence on them, or saying that a certain hobby or interest annoys them or is inconvenient, or making certain things a secret so that they can’t talk about the whole relationship with their friends.]  The isolating effect of secrets is particularly useful in relationships affected by other age-related power differentials, such as an older person having an affair with a younger one, or a boss having an affair with an employee.
  • General entitlement and self-esteem: especially if the older person is bringing more money and status to the couple, they may feel that this and their age entitles them to have the final word, to contribute less in other ways, be respected more, to teach/advise the other person, to generally be in control.
  • Accusing the abused person of abuse: see the stereotypes paragraph above.  It’s easier to believe that a younger person is violent, uncontrollable etc, and actions taken by a younger person against an older person are more likely to be seen as bad, disrespectful, and not how things should be.

So that’s why it really pisses me off to see articles like this one at Autostraddle that celebrates relationships with a big age gap without mentioning the power imbalance or the potential for abuse.

Again, I’m sure that there are lots of other ways age-based power can be used – if you’ve got any ideas then do comment.  If anyone would like to share their own experience of abuse and/or shitty partners, then I promise not to approve (= publish) any comments which don’t treat those sharing with anything other than belief and respect.