Preventative measures against violence [Women and Violence, Part 9]

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.
[This is the final part of my series on Women and Violence, which I wrote as a project for a Women Studies course I took this quarter. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

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.

Voice and silence [Women and Violence, Part 8]

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.
[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde writes the following description of her thought process when faced with a potential diagnosis of cancer:

[…] and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.

I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” (41)

The first time I read these words, it was like a finger had been pointed with uncomfortable precision, straight at my heart. I know what it means to be silent, out of fear, out of the desire to hide – out of the hope that, if I keep quiet, I won’t be the next target.

Silence isn’t always just about fear, of course. I know I have to pick my battles, and sometimes I know that taking on this instance of privilege will win me more headache and heartache than progress. Sometimes I honestly know that there’s no way that my voice will be heard. But along with those feelings comes the hope that silence will provide some sort of safety, like if I don’t call out the oppression around me, I somehow won’t be harmed by it.

It’s a false refuge, I know. Silence is where ignorance flourishes, and that is what allows the structures of oppression to continue to operate unchallenged. More than malice or greed, it’s ignorance of inequality that keeps us from dismantling white supremacy or patriarchy. And that ignorance requires collective action to change it – but of course, collective action requires individuals with the courage to participate.

But silence is a tricky issue for women, and women of color. Hell, if even Audre Lorde fell prey to it, that’s got to mean that silence isn’t easy to resist.

There are two other problematic aspects of silence that I want to explore, which are more complex than simply the fear of negative reaction, and which are tied specifically to issues of race and gender.

We just don’t know how to say ‘no’

Okay, that subtitle is somewhat sarcastic. I don’t mean that women don’t have the ability to actually say speak up for themselves, as if we lacked the courage or awareness. But there are ways that women are – sabotaged, we could say – in their ability to speak up for their own desires, especially when it comes to refusing other people – and especially when it comes to refusing men.

I have been in conversations with women in heterosexual relationships that revealed that they had trouble saying no to sex – either out of the assumption that it’s perfectly normal for a couple to have sex when the woman doesn’t really want to, or because they knew they could say ‘no,’ but felt bad doing it. I’ve had conversations about the origins of this difficulty, too – which reveals that just because women know they ought to be more straightforward, doesn’t mean they can be. There’s still that discomfort, fear, worry about causing trouble for the man. Even if that man is supportive! There’s the nagging concern that somehow we’re asking for too much by asserting our desires when it inconveniences our male partner.

Rather than assuming women just have some sort of biological imperative to have trouble saying ‘no,’ let’s look at these excerpts from Kathleen V. Cairns’ “‘Femininity’ and women’s silence in response to sexual harassment and coercion”:

This pattern may be particularly prevalent in established male/female relstaionships, where women often feel that their consent is, ‘constrained by [a] felt duty to be cooperative, to meet the man’s needs, not to be “inconsistent”, or accept a sexual duty towards a man whom [they are] having a close personal relationship’ [Cairns 1993a: 205]. (104)


Self-assertion or strength in purpose is generally reframed in women as selfishness, and as damaging to the well-being of men and children, since women’s obligations and responsibilities for other are expected to override self-interest. (101)

Tie these factors in to the way in which women are taught that we aren’t ‘supposed’ to have sexual desire, and you get this:

‘Struggling not to know or feel her own desire [and knowing] that she “should” say no, [she may] end up having sex “happen” to her’ [Tolman 1991: 65]. […] The experience of male persistence and coercion is complex for women. They experience strong ambivalence and undertainty about refusing male advances. […] Confronted with sexual harassment or coercion, women educated about their bodies through patriarchy are likely to have difficulty experiencing their bodies as their own, even after being ‘told’ through education that they have the ‘right’ of ownership. (100-1)

Women aren’t born feeling this way: we’re taught to. Consider these facts from “Marital Rape: History, Research, and Practice” by Jennifer A. Bennice and Patricia A. Resick: marital rape was codified into British and U.S. law through the “Hale doctrine,” a 1736 piece of writing by Sir Matthew Hale that stated, “But the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.”

Hale wasn’t the only guy who thought this way, of course; his written idea was supported by society-wide cultural assumptions about women, marriage, and sex. And these ideas do not die easily, as we can see by the fact that the Federal Sexual Abuse Act, which made marital rape into a crime on federal lands, passed in 1986. Marital rape was not illegal in all 50 of the United States until 1993. Even now, it is granted more exemptions than other forms of rape – making it clear that, under the law, women lose partial control over their bodies just by virtue of getting married.

Oh, but lest we forget – the principle behind the Hale doctrine can still be seen to rear its ugly head in non-marital rape cases.

So when women are faced with societal opposition to this extent, is it any wonder why we feel ambivalent about our ability to say ‘no’? And what other ways do we undermine women’s rights to assert their own desires, outside of sex and heterosexual relationships?

Silence out of defiance

There are, of course, instances in which we use silence with a purpose. One of my favorite descriptions of this comes from Mira Jacob’s “My Brown Face,” an essay in the anthology, Body Outlaws. An Indian American woman, she talks about her mother’s deadly use of silence to express her refusal or disapproval. It’s a use of silence that I, as an Asian American woman, am used to. I use it myself all the time – usually accompanied with a glare of death. 😉

Sadly, silence doesn’t always convey the message it’s intended to. Whether the gulf of understanding originates from racial or gender privilege, as Jacob describes, white men can misread her silence into something befitting the ‘Oriental girl’ stereotype:

[C]ontrary to my hasty logic (mute girl = bored guy), my silence only perpetuated the enigma, adding the brute element of interpretation. ‘I think you’re avoiding me,’ I heard at parties, often only hours after being introduced to a guy. ‘You’re scared of our connection, right? I know you can feel it. I felt it the minute I laid eyes on you.’ And here it was again, the bond, the miracle, the connection associated with my face, the need to be led into whatever temple I had available. I saw desire thrown back to me in fragments of Taj Mahal, Kamasutra, womanly wiles. I felt my body turn into a dark country, my silence permission to colonize. (10)

Of course, the use of silence is not common to all Asian women, nor is it limited to them. It can be used by women in any number of situations, when silence is the best – or perhaps only – method of refusal. Unfortunately, it’s too easy for men – socialized into entitlement to women’s consent – to be deaf to its meaning.

I hate to give up the tool of silence, which is (to me) one of the clearest ways I can convey my displeasure. Speaking often ends up being messy, my words tripping over one another and failing to convey my point. But in situations like this when it can be mistaken for compliance – and in a cultural context which, as described above, assumes women’s compliance – speaking up in dissent can be necessary.

Women’s words and women’s consent have been misused and abused to facilitate violence, whether in the form of verbal harassment or sexual assault. We need to recognize how silence has been forced upon us, so that we cannot refuse; or twisted, so that our silent refusal is ignored. Recognition can lead us to reclamation of both our voices and our silences.

Policing women through violence [Women and Violence, Part 7]

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.
[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

In an article titled “‘Femininity’ and women’s silence in response to sexual harassment and coercion,” Kathleen V. Cairns describes how harassment of women functions as a method of social control over women’s behavior:

[O]vert practices include the public, ritual shaming of women in the form of catcalls, lewd remarks and so on which serves to demonstrate the fact that ‘any man or group of men feels entitled not only to pass judgement on any woman walking along minding her own business, but also to announce it to her‘ [Kotzin 1993: 167] […]

In patriarchy, women are taught to accept that their femaleness, their simple presence, are responsible for men’s behavior towards them […] It becomes women’s responsibility to police themselves, to keep their dress, comportment and presence within approved limits to avoid ‘provoking’ harassment. (96-7).

This dynamic – of men acting with impunity to judge women, and women shouldering the blame for men’s actions towards them – can be applied to other forms of gender violence as well. What it comes down to is the way that negative reactions from men – or even the anticipation of those reactions – function to police women in everything from their appearance to their behavior.

Men policing women

Let’s start with the practice Cairns herself describes, of public sexual harassment. I know few, if any, women who have not experienced this in some form or another. Often this takes the form of men talking at women about their appearance or sexual appeal. This is distinguishable from actual flirting, because flirting is supposed to be a mutually consensual act, whereas harassment is just about a man making sure a woman knows his opinion of her, without caring about her participation in the interaction. (Anyone who’s been both harassed and flirted with/complimented can tell you the difference.) Harassment can also be quieter – lewd or invasive staring, muttered comments, or actual touching.

This practice polices women by imposing men’s opinions onto women about their physical attractiveness – whether the women are heterosexual or not, in a relationship and not looking for outside opinions, or just not in the mood. It reinforces the idea that the male gaze is upon a woman, that her appearance is not just for herself or a chosen few, but open to consumption and judgment by any man who sees her. Even if the judgment is ‘positive’ (“nice ass” as opposed to “ugly bitch”), it reinforces the authority of random men to inflict that judgment.

On the other hand, harassment can also be about punishment. Consider the recent study by University of Toronto professor Jennifer Berdahl, which found that, “The more women deviated from traditional gender roles – by occupying a ‘man’s’ job or having a ‘masculine’ personality – the more they were targeted.”

Women can be punished for things besides being ‘unfeminine,’ of course – as tekanji points out, men harass women for speaking up about gender issues, or just for being female. The ultimate result is the silencing or suppression of women, because we get afraid, frustrated, or just plain angry.

Violent policing

We can also look at tekanji’s examples and see how harassment quickly transforms from ‘only’ insults into actual threats of violence. These threats are almost uniformly sexual in nature, expressing that sexual assault will be used to punish deviant women, or even improve them (by causing a woman to ‘lighten up,’ etc.). How many of us (particularly feminists) have experienced or witnessed similar threats, about how we ‘need to get fucked’ in order to ‘get some sense’ or ‘learn our place’?

Of course these threats are verbal, and the one’s in tekanji’s post were communicated online. These men are not immediately and physically threatening women, and it would be safe to say that few of them actually want to rape the targets of their harassment (though I don’t trust any of them to be intelligent or worthwhile allies against sexual violence). One might be tempted to just blow this off as empty words, online aggression that doesn’t mean anything. Many people do blow it off.

But what does it mean when some men’s anger against women is expressed through threats of sexual violence, even in non-sexual contexts? And rape is a gendered form of violence, undoubtedly – women are the vast majority of victims, men are the vast majority of perpetrators, and when men are victims of rape by other men, there is the threat of the male victim being made ‘gay’ or ‘like a woman.’ All of this makes rape threats a gender-specific way of terrorizing women, above and beyond general physical threats against men or mixed-gender groups.

The effect of this type of threat is to police women’s behavior. Online, it can mean silencing a blogger, defaming her name for potential schools or employers, or driving her from a forum, community, or other space. Threats can teach women not to air certain opinions; or to do so only in private, regulated spaces; or to hide their gender identity; or to avoid sites that otherwise interest her; or to play along like ‘one of the guys’ in order to fit in.

Offline, the threat is more immediately physical, and the policing far, far more extensive. It determines who we talk to in public, the way we talk, the way we dress, the places we go, the times we go out, the amount of alcohol we drink, the people we associate with, the way we arrange our transportation … I’m sure you can think of more.

I am afraid to go out by myself at night. I don’t like being afraid, but I am. And the fear doesn’t really come from the threat of being assaulted – statistically, of course, I am far more likely to be sexually or physically assaulted by the men who are my friends and acquaintances than by a stranger jumping me in the dark.

See, I’m afraid because I have regularly been harassed when I’m walking by myself at night. It’s when I’m walking from my house to the bus stop. It’s not that late, just sometime in the evening after it’s gotten dark. I’m not dressed ‘provocatively’ (because we all know that’s an excuse, right?). But I get screamed at, by groups of guys from the safety of their own cars – loud, incoherent noises, meant to scare me or get some other reaction.

This doesn’t happen in the daytime. This doesn’t happen when I’m walking with my boyfriend. (He, by the way, walks by himself plenty of nights, and doesn’t seem to have this problem.) Sure, I’ve been harassed in broad daylight, but that’s been guys yelling in a sexual way, meant to offend (or perhaps ‘compliment’) me. This? The aggressive screaming? This is meant to police me. To let me know that I’m somewhere that I don’t belong, doing something that I shouldn’t be doing, and to let me know that these guys have the right to punish me for it by bullying me.

This policing works. I find ways to avoid walking alone at night, even when I want to go out – even though I know this isn’t right, and that I’m as entitled to be out there as any man, I can’t always convince myself to take the risk. I hate it, but I obey, because I don’t want the harassment. I’ve learned my lesson.

Women self-policing

Women police themselves in plenty of different ways. Not all of them are like my example above, where I was aware of the power dynamic. We internalize patriarchal disapproval or punishment in a myriad of ways, to the point where they become indistinguishable from our own reactions to ourselves.

Consider these excerpts Tomi-Ann Roberts and Jennifer Y. Gettman’s study, “Mere Exposure: Gender Differences in the Negative Effects of Priming a State of Self-Objectification,” which explores self-policing in the context of body image:

Although only a minority of women in the United States are actually overweight […] the majority report feeling fat and express this as a personal failure, which has been shown to lead to feelings of shame [Crandall, 1994]. Feminist theorists have described this as a cycle where the dominant culture constructs the ideal body and encourages women to monitor their own bodies as objects, and, as a result, women feel shame when they do not live up to these standards [McKinley, 1998].


Disgust can play a positive role in the development of a civilized society by internalizing norms for cleanliness, restraint, and reserve [Miller, 1997]. Unfortunately, it can also become a negative reaction to violations of these predetermined social standards. Insofar as many women experience a discrepancy between their actual body size and their ideal body size [Fallon & Rozin, 1985], women may become disgusted with their own bodies because they have violated a social standard by being unattractive or overweight, and hence “gross.” […] Indeed, it may be argued that the higher standards of cleanliness, hairlessness, odorlessness, and beauty held for women in our culture are a reflection of the greater burden placed upon women to “civilize” their bodies lest they be seen as “disgusting” by others [Roberts, Goldenberg, Power, & Pyszcynski, 2002]. (18-9)

It is also worth noting that the authors cite a study in which both men and women try on swimwear, and women “reported feeling more disgust, distaste, and revulsion than did men, who, in contrast, reported more lighthearted self-conscious feelings of awkwardness, silliness, and foolishness” (19).

Of course, there is always the possibility that women’s opinions of their own bodies are based on their own individual preferences. But why the strikingly gendered difference, between who feels “silly” and who feels “revulsion” about themselves? Why do women’s preferences about their bodies tie in so neatly to sexism, by keeping them spending their time, energy, and money on practices that make them smaller instead of larger and stronger?

And what is the role of male policing in all of this? How many of us have had husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, and friends imply to us, tell us, tease us, or threaten us about our appearance? weight? body hair? dress?

How much do negative reactions from men influence our behavior? And how much do we blame ourselves for limiting our actions, rather than those who impose those limitations upon us?