I realize that a quarter-long series of articles about violence against women can be depressing, and I’d like to end this on an optimistic note.
Unfortunately, I don’t have The Solution to violence against women. Even I don’t have delusions of being that wise. 😉 But – and here I’m engaging in a bit of hubris – I believe in the power of language to educate and agitate for change. That’s one of the reasons I chose to undertake this project, and why I choose to blog in general. Writing and dialoguing is important. It’s powerful. It’s consciousness raising in cyberspace.
The weakness of dialogue is that people can simply choose not to listen. Words are just words and, by themselves, can’t stop something physical like violence. But, you know? Physical intervention isn’t necessarily what stops violence, either. The kind of violence I’ve been writing about is more than a single, contained instance of extreme violence that can be thwarted by knocking out an individual perpetrator.
Instances of violence such as the ones I’ve written about don’t spring up, fully formed and self-contained, out of vacuums. They come from someone ‘who was always such a nice guy, but …” They happen when factors that are already there ‘just get out of hand.’ They don’t disappear once they’ve occurred – they leave traces. So what makes us think there aren’t any traces before they happen? And those traces, being small and unremarkable, can also be changed by our small and unremarkable efforts.
Changing our definitions
First and foremost is the need to revise our understanding of what ‘violence’ is. Whether that means making the debatable move of classifying cosmetic surgery as violence, or the obvious and necessary recognition of marital rape as a form of rape, we need to make it clear that certain practices that society accepts without question are, indeed, harmful or violent.
It seems strange to say that we might be unaware of violence – that something so damaging could escape our notice – but in cases like marital rape, it’s true. Women might be hurt or angered by their experiences, but if the surrounding society denies that they have experienced violence – if they are told that they are simply fulfilling their ‘wifely duty’ of providing sex for their husbands, whether they want it or not – they might have a difficult time articulating their suffering as being an instance of violence.
And without the label of violence, our ability to combat things like marital rape is hampered. Because then it’s easy to dismiss it as a ‘misunderstanding,’ a ‘mistake,’ or just a ‘bad experience’ – unfortunate, but not worth action. Perhaps, in the case of marital rape, a bad husband – but certainly not a systemic problem that implicates our understanding of heterosexual relations. But with the language of ‘violence’ at our disposal, we can emphasize the harm and wrongness of these actions, and join our struggle to those against other forms of violence.
Changing our language
I’ve already talked about aspects of our language use that perpetuate violence against women. The way we talk about things – everything from the words that are ‘normal’ to use, to what is ‘normal’ to talk about at all – shapes how we think about practices of violence.
One aspect of our language that I want to highlight is our use of the virgin/whore binary. Our understanding of rape and sexual assault involves a dichotomy between women who are innocent, virginal victims of rape, and women who are promiscuous – and therefore can’t be raped. This division is obvious in the ways that female rape victims are treated, as we scrutinize a victim’s history to see: Did she ever have sex? Did she have sex with many men? Did she have sex with the alleged rapist? Did she have sex with him many times? Each ‘yes’ is one more blow against the victim’s case, one more reason that she’s a whore and not a virgin, and therefore not a ‘real’ victim.
One way we can fight against this discursive bias against women is to end slut-shaming. Stop making that division between women whom we like/who are like us and have ‘enough’ sex, and women whom we don’t like/who aren’t like us and have ‘too much’ sex (or too ‘dirty’ sex, or sex with ‘too many’ partners). Stop creating that artificial line which women must not cross, lest their ability to refuse sex no longer be respected. Stop buying into the idea that there even is an amount of sex that a woman can have that invalidates her ability to refuse sex.
And stop, stop, stop using ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ as an insult for women, even in non-sexual contexts, because it just reinforces the idea that this is a label we can use to punish women for doing what they’re not ‘supposed’ to.
The influence of language doesn’t stop here, of course. There’s also the way we talk about violence against women, as something that women passively experience rather than men actively perpetrate against them. There are the ways we talk about women’s emotions (especially anger) as opposed to men’s as less valid, less rational. There’s the way we talk about sex in general, as an aggressive activity that involves one party dominating another, and therefore automatically predisposed towards violence.
Changing our language means changing our understanding. And that means how violence is responded to, and how – if – violence happens at all.
Changing our ideas of women and men
In the previous entry I explored the ways in which women are socialized into keeping silent about violence against them. That’s one of the many ways in which standard ideas about what ‘women’ should be work to perpetuate violence against women – supplemented by standard ideas about what ‘men’ should be that grant them impunity to commit violence.
Just like altering our language is a small but crucial step to altering our conceptions of violence, so is attacking the rigid gender roles that allow men to hurt women. For example, to counter the forced silence of women, we need to encourage women’s assertiveness, from childhood onward. Stop telling little girls to quiet down, especially if we allow boys to be louder without censure. Stop telling girls that being ‘ladylike’ means not complaining, not making noise, not drawing attention to themselves. Stop shaming women who call attention to sexual harassment for ‘making waves’ in the workplace. Stop calling women ‘bitchy’ for being assertive – and if they’re being overly aggressive, criticize them the same way we criticize overly aggressive men, rather than reserving gendered insults for them. Stop assuming that only mothers have to decide if they’ll sacrifice work to be a stay-at-home parent. Stop judging mothers who aren’t stay-at-home parents. Never, ever assume that a woman ‘should’ have sex with anybody, for any reason.
This change won’t stop violence. It will make violence less easy, less expected, less unremarkable. So would other, similar changes, such as eradicating our expectations/ideals of women as passive, thin, delicate, gentle, sexy-but-not-too-sexy, self-sacrificing caretakers, emotional, irrational. Hand-in-hand with this change would be the end of expecting and encouraging men to be aggressive, dominating, emotionless, sex-obsessed, and violent.
These changes, while vast in scope, are not difficult to start. This is what we can do. It’s well within our capabilities. Anyone who says that they can’t stop violence against women is lying, either to themselves or others.
Keep thinking, observing, talking, writing, fighting.