violence against women is not the problem

As a bit of a preface, I am writing this as an activist working to end men’s violence against women. So this essay is largely a self-critical analysis of how I situate myself amongst the strategic landscape of the movement for gender justice.

Abuse, as Dr. Evan Stark argues in his book Coercive Control, is fundamentally a crime against liberty. Physical violence is, at most, merely instrumental to the purpose of subjugating women. Physical violence has been a powerful force in keeping women down, but is by no means the only (or even most) effective tactic available to agents of patriarchy (of any gender ;). Since feminists have successfully unearthed the epidemic problem of men’s physical violence against women, physical violence has become less and less effective, and more and more risky as a means of controlling individual women and communicating to women at large their “proper place” in our society. As a result, the active enforcers of patriarchy (who we commonly refer to as “abusers”) have abandoned or deprioritized physical violence while more intensively embracing other control and subjugation tactics.

Why is it the anti-DV movement’s fault that abusers have strategically shifted their tactics? That’s just patriarchy being all clever and sneaky and persistent and stuff, and of course we have to adapt to it. Targeting physical violence I fear amounts to a game of whack-a-mole, where the moles are the various subjugation and control tactics available. So what if we take Dr. Stark’s core message to heart and reframe the issue — including each individual case of abuse — as a fundamental crime against every woman’s liberty. What if we emphasize and target the entire range of tactics that abusers use in their personal relationships for the larger purpose of maintaining societal patriarchy? How would that affect how we identify, interact with and respond to abusers and survivors?

Emphasizing physical violence as wrong in and of itself has several negative implications:

  1. It implicitly criticizes women who consider violently defending themselves or their children,etc even though that may be some women’s best available option. It opens the door to explicit criticism of survivors who consider out loud or choose to defend themselves physically.
  2. It distracts from the real issue, and allows the agents of patriarchy to lead and frame the strategic landscape, staying one step ahead of us while the true problem remains hidden in plain sight. Grammatically, physical violence is the punctuation at the end of the abusive sentence. If we only see the discombobulated punctuation (the occasional “!” or “.”) while ignoring the continuity of abuse embodied in the preceding sentences and paragraphs, then patriarchy has obtained a strategic victory out of our willful ignorance. I believe this is true even beyond each individual case, relating to male privilege: If abuser A occasionally uses violence, and ends up killing Victim A for trying to leave him, and that story is shared (e.g., through our mass media) with survivors B and C, then abusers B and C don’t necessarily have to use (as much) violence in order to effectively retain control. One abuser’s violence is another’s implied threat. Same thing with sexist jokes from “non-abusive” men and women: such things say to abusers “we are on your side” and to survivors “you are alone.”
  3. It leaves individual feminists and allies (and by extension, the entire movement) internally vulnerable to the *entire range* of tactics available for subjugation and control, either as an abuser or as a victim. This can contribute to unnecessary in-fighting, and is itself part of the larger divide and conquer strategy that is so effective at stalling progress toward the fundamental goal: liberation.

In summary, physical violence is not the problem. Rather, it is a tactic, a tool. Right now, it is Master’s Tool, and as long as we see the opponents of liberty as “Masters” and the tools they wield as “theirs” then it will remain as such. The problem is much wider and deeper than physical violence: these are crimes against liberty. And as the Dalai Lama says (paraphrasing, shut your eyes, vaunted pacifists!), sometimes it is okay to fight back.

PS Regarding Audre Lorde’s often-abused quote referring to Master’s Tools:

If one looks at the actual Audre Lorde essay, one finds that […] Lorde argues against internalizing a patriarchal fear of difference — in particular, racism and homophobia — in the women’s
movement, which in her view will never dismantle the “house” of oppression in which we as women live. For example, simply read the very last paragraph of the essay:

“Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and
loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”

It horrifies me that we can have a WMST-L exchange regarding a famous Audre Lorde quote without any mention of the location and passion of her articulation (at an NYU conference in which black feminists and lesbians were barely included). I urge all of you to actually read the entire essay
(not sure if this is identical to the ‘Sister Outsider’ version, but it looks like it) as a *political* intervention, not the Black Feminist Quote Generator.

I could try to explain more Lorde, but it’s easier and more powerful to just read her. And more respectful, too.

Madhumita Lahiri

One Response to violence against women is not the problem

  1. […] according to sociologist Dr. Evan Stark, the term “domestic violence” is a bit of a misnomer: Up until they try to leave, abuse survivors experience “coercive control” — a […]

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