It’s commonly believed (or just assumed) that violence against women is more common or worse than violence against men, even though the actual statistics do not support that (Non-Feminist FAQ). Here I examine some of the ways that people talk about gender and violence that have the effect of downplaying or side-stepping violence against men and contributing to that misconception.
- Only talk about violence against women. Ignore and conspicuously avoid mentioning violence against men or comparing the two.
- Focus on fear of violence rather than actual likelihood of facing violence.
- Focus on the sub-types of violence that affect women more.
- Assume that women suffer violence because of their gender, while men suffer violence for other reasons.
- Only count cross-gender violence.
- Victim-blame. Make assumptions and use stereotypes to portray male victims as less sympathy-worthy, or not really victims at all.
(Length: 1,800 words)
Method 1: Only talk about violence against women. Ignore and conspicuously avoid mentioning violence against men or comparing the two.
This can be seen in frequently expressed sentiments like “violence against women is way too common”, “we need to end violence against women”, and “violence against women is tragic”. What about violence against men? Is it just common enough, something we shouldn’t end, or not tragic? Technically these statements don’t mention men or say any of these things, but they certainly imply something along those lines. It’s like if someone says “women are emotional”—they didn’t mention men or make an explicit comparison, but the implication in most contexts is that women are more emotional than men.
Statements singling out violence against women as tragic would be more justified or understandable if violence against women actually was more tragic (if it actually was worse in some way), or if its tragic status was underappreciated compared to violence against men. For example, say what you want about the membership, tactics, and demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, but black people are more likely to be the victims of violence and violence against them is generally taken less seriously, and so the slogan “Black Lives Matter” merely challenges that (rather than implies anything about white lives not mattering). Women are very much not in the same position as black people when it comes to violence, however. As mentioned in the FAQ, men face violence at equal or higher rates (including higher rates for murder, the most serious type), crime against women is generally punished more harshly, and violence against women is generally seen as less morally acceptable than violence against men.
Method 2: Focus on fear of violence rather than actual likelihood of facing violence.
For example, “women are worse off because they’re more likely to fear for their safety when walking home at night”. This works because women tend to fear crime more than men, even types of crime that they’re less likely to encounter than men. (This happens for reasons of biology and socialization. Testosterone has been linked to lower fearfulness, we tend to emphasize threats to women’s safety more, and we encourage men to take a more nonchalant or machismo approach to their safety.)
On multiple occasions I’ve brought attention to this, and often the response is to say that being socialized to fear for their safety more is a disadvantage that women face. This is valid, but it’s a separate issue from violence itself (the two should not be confused), and the solution (to the part of it that we can fix) is to stop focusing on women’s safety more than men’s and stop treating “violence against women” as something separate from and worse than “regular violence” (i.e. against men).
Method 3: Focus on the sub-types of violence that affect women more.
This includes failing to acknowledge that these are not representative of violence as a whole (or failing to mention the sub-types that affect men more). One example is focusing on the chances of each gender being murdered by a partner (women’s are higher), while neglecting the chances of each gender of being murdered in general (men’s are higher). Another is talking about how women are more often sexually assaulted, and ignoring that men face higher rates of many other types of violence (in Canada in 2009, women were more likely to be sexually assaulted, and men more likely to be robbed or physically assaulted).
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with talking about types of violence that affect women more. The problem is when the gendered aspect of those gets talked about much more than the gendered aspect of the types of violence that affect men more, or when those types are used as proof for why women are much worse off when it comes to violence.
Method 4: Assume that women suffer violence because of their gender, while men suffer violence for other reasons.
Wikipedia’s page for “violence against women” (as of August 16th, 2016) says that it’s “also known as gender-based violence” and that it refers to “violent acts that are primarily or exclusively committed against women”. The article also notes that it’s sometimes considered a hate crime. The European Institute for Gender Equality uses the terms “violence against women” and “gender-based violence” interchangeably, “as it is always understood that gender-based violence means violence against women and vice versa”.
There are two problems with this. First, although it’s true that if a type of violence happens to women more often then on some level it’s “because of their gender”, this language is misleading about what exactly that means. With terms such as “hate crimes”, it implies that these are acts motivated by some sort of bias, prejudice, or hatred against the gender. And some of them probably are, but “because of their gender” can also mean acts of violence that one gender is more likely to experience due to some other factor like more often being in a certain situation or environment, rather than bias or prejudice.
For example, as alluded to by the article “Rethinking Violence Against Women As Hate Crimes”, most men who commit intimate partner violence (or sexual assault) against women wouldn’t do it to another man. This might sound at first like clear evidence for the male perpetrator having some sort of bias, prejudice, or hatred against women, but think a bit deeper. Someone can only commit intimate partner violence against an intimate partner, and if he’s a heterosexual man then he wouldn’t have an intimate partner who’s a man in the first place! It’s the same for sexual assault, which someone is much more likely to commit against the gender they find attractive. For this hypothetical man it’s very possible that the things specific to how he sees women are the “intimate partner” and “sexual” part, not the “violence” or “assault” part. Indeed, there’s a pretty good chance that if he has no problems committing these types of violence against women that he’s also fine committing other types of violence against men. I don’t mean to say that no intimate partner violence or sexual assault happens because of bias against women, only that it’s a mistake to treat that as the default reason or assume sexism when it happens (at least in the Western world).
The second and more important problem with the view presented above is that it’s also true that if a type of violence happens to men more often then on some level it’s “because of their gender” (in both of the ways mentioned in the second paragraph). Let’s look at attacks by strangers. In Canada in 2008, men were 80% of all reported attacks by strangers. In the United States in 2010, men were twice as likely to suffer violence from strangers. If someone feels disrespected by a man and hits him (when he would not have hit a woman who made him feel disrespected) then we can say that it’s physical assault “because of his gender” in the first sense (he has a bias that it’s more acceptable to hit men than women). And then of course there are many situational differences (“because of their gender” in the second sense) that are at play in stranger violence as well.
Method 5: Only count cross-gender violence.
If you compare only rates of woman-on-man violence with man-on-woman violence, you end up with the impression that women are much more likely to face violence. But it’s hardly acceptable to ignore the large category of man-on-man violence, because it’s not like an act of violence is “cancelled out” if the perpetrator and the victim share the same gender. Men face violence at equal or higher rates than women. The fact that the perpetrator is usually another man hardly lessens the impact. Interestingly, I’ve seen a similar method of focusing on cross-race violence used by white nationalists. Although black people generally face higher levels of violence, they focus on the fact that black-on-white crime is more common than white-on-black crime. Here’s an example from American Renaissance, an online white nationalist blog/magazine.
Going back to a topic from the previous section (Method 4), one point that could be raised here is that if most violence experienced by men is committed by men, doesn’t that rule out it being “because of their gender” in the sense of bias? The answer is no. Most people understand how women or black people can internalize negative biases against their own group, so why couldn’t men internalize negative biases against their own group?
Method 6: Victim-blame. Make assumptions and use stereotypes to portray male victims as less sympathy-worthy, or not really victims at all.
An example would be dismissing men’s higher rate of being murdered by describing a typical male victim as someone who “just” makes bad decisions and associates with drug dealers. This would be like dismissing women’s higher rate of being murdered by a partner by describing a typical female victim as someone who “just” makes bad decisions and dates drug dealers.
This isn’t an assertion that it’s inherently wrong to evaluate a crime’s severity based not just on the effect but also on the victim’s actions or choices and how “innocent” they were. How comfortable you are with that is up to you, and it’s not a topic that will be addressed here. The point here is that we need to be consistent. If it’s not acceptable to do to female victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or intimate partner murder, then it’s also not acceptable to do to male victims of physical assault, murder, and robbery. If the thought of doing it to women shocks you then you shouldn’t do it to men. And if you don’t have a problem doing it to men then you do that with the understanding that you’re opening it up to be done to women too.
The reason inconsistency is a concern is because of traditionalist stereotypes of agency and the idea that “men do things and women have things done to them”. The implication of male hyperagency and female hypoagency here is that violence against men is more easily seen as something the man brings on himself while violence against women is seen as more “pure” victimhood.