"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Monday, October 09, 2006

On Victims and Victimizers

Cross-posted to my blog

There is a discussion in the comment thread on a recent Feminist Allies post about discussion of men as victimizers (in violent situations) without acknowledging that men are victims too, Daran makes the point that there is a lot of talk of men-as-victims with an addendum of "but they're men, so they're also perpetrators," with the implication that male victims of violence are somehow less harmed than female victims because of the latter group's lower tendency for violence. I don't know that this argument is especially common, but I have seen it made, or at least implied. Building a dichotomy of aggressors-vs-victims suffers from a glaring flaw: in fact only a very small proportion of the whole population of our societies is made up of people who are only perpetrators of injustice, or only victims, or neither: a patriarchical society maintains state because both women and men support and perpetuate it.

There have been discussions in various feminist spaces of "patriarchy hurts men too," but this is a difficult subject to deal with seriously because it is so often used by MRAs, rape apologists and other distasteful characters to justify the status quo, attack people trying to address real wrongs, or undermine female victims of violence, especially sexual assault and rape. Still, there is a lot of good argument to be made in "PHMT" discussions, such as the idea that part of the reason there is so much violence around is that violence is built into the societal male ideal, and that gender roles are set up such that much of this violence is directed at other males. So I want to make clear before going any further that in discussing male victims of male-perpetrated violence and the harm that patriarchy does to men I do not aim to belittle female victims or imply that the fact that men are harmed somehow reduces the harm done to women. If anything I say comes across that way, please point it out to me.

Promotion of Aggressiveness and Violence

Boys are encouraged to be violent in the games and sports they play. Television shows and movies geared toward boys almost invariably involve violent conflict, and violence and aggressiveness is exalted in myriad other ways. Throughout adolescence boys are taught in various ways, explicitly or subtly, that they can use violence and aggressiveness to advance themselves. The way to win in various games and sports is to be the most aggressive, the strongest, and so on. Likewise, the way to get ahead in one's career is often deemed to be through aggressiveness and dominance. This has been going on for as long as society can remember*, so that it has become normal for conflict resolution to be aggressive. If someone wants someone else's resources, violence is probably one of the first options they think of (whether they'd seriously consider it or not).

Gender Roles and Aggressiveness

So we have a society that promotes aggressiveness and violence in men, while promoting submissiveness in women. This is supposed to get conforming men into positions of prominence, while making conforming women attractive as wives. Thus men are set up as the ones who accomplish things and who occupy the important positions in society, while women are a sort of support class. This is related to what people refer to as "andronormativity": the tendency to act as though men are the ones who make up society, while women are "alsos," in the sense that "there are also women." Women, in this view, are a peripheral class**. So when women are in the workforce or otherwise taking part in society and "doing man stuff" they are expected to act in the same dominating and aggressive ways as men, since this is seen as the expected behaviour of those in positions of importance.

Gender Roles and Violence

Since society says that aggressiveness is a good way of dealing with resource attainment and conflict resolution, it is not surprising that violence is directed both at men and women. There are some differences between inter-gender violence and intra-gender violence, but overall they are very similar, especially in their cause: promotion of aggressiveness and violence as an effective tool to further one's goals. This is a direct product of the patriarchical societies that exist today. That aggressiveness and violence are not only encouraged against women but also against men is not in spite of patriarchy but because of it.

Just as gender roles are often harmful to a man when he is expected to live up to some difficult or distasteful ideal, so are they harmful when another man takes his gender roles too much to heart and attacks those he deems susceptible to or worthy of exploitation. Part of those gender roles is "take what you want." This leads to sexual violence when "what you want" is sex or sexual dominance, and it leads to street crime when "what you want" is drugs, money, or whatever else. So why are men not the only perpetrators of "take what you want" crimes? Because that attitude is more than just a part of a gender role: it's part of what one does to get to a position of prominence, regardless of gender. It just so happens that getting to a position of prominence is also part of a gender role: that is traditionally something that men do, not women. A female mugger is as much of a breach of gender lines as a female CEO, after all.

Victim Gender

So when a man is mugged, whoever is mugging him is doing so because they see it as acceptable to dominate another person in order to get what they want. Sometimes the motivation is dominance itself: there are people who attack strangers simply for the fun of attacking them. The same patterns are seen in situations where women are attacked: either the attacker wants to get something tangible from the victim (possessions or sex) or they want to exert dominance over her. All these forms of violence stem from the same philosophy: "To get ahead, you must be aggressive; take what you want, when you can." and this philosophy is entrenched in and intrinsic to patriarchy and any other system that encourages the exertion of power over those who have less of it.

* It is true that other animals, including primates, use violence to get what they want, and there is surely some of that in what we (as a species) do. But it is also true that we actively encourage violent behaviour, especially in boys, above and beyond any biological inclination we might have. So as a species that continually works toward suppressing and changing its instinctual programming, it seems quite a stretch to blame biology alone for our violence.

** The same thing is seen in studies of race, sexuality and other fields: issues are examined as though dominant class X is the default, while other classes are variants or deviancies.

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