Dancing Around the Issues:
A reply to Ulli Diemer

By Violet Black

It is very heartening for me, as a feminist and as a woman with some personal involvement in the issue, to hear about men's groups which are discussing the problem of violence against women and what men can do to prevent it. Therefore, it was with considerable interest that I read Ulli Diemer's article "Dances with Guilt: Looking at Men Looking at Violence." However, while I think that Diemer makes some very important points in this piece, I have strong reservations about certain of the conclusions that he reaches.

I agree with Diemer that theories and stereotypes which portray men as inherently violent (in addition to being highly questionable on the scientific level) can actually encourage men to evade responsibility for their violence. Such approaches do "give an easy out to violent men, who can say 'I can't help it. I'm a man. All men are violent. Men are violent by nature.'" Any men's group that accepts such a view is likely to spend all its time in a "cathartic wallowing in guilt," which ultimately undermines any attempts they might make to work against violence themselves and to reach out to men in society at large. In criticizing his group for getting bogged down in this biologically determinist line of thinking, I feel that Diemer makes a real contribution.

However, Diemer then goes on to state that "most men, including (him)self, participate, to varying degrees, in behaviours, attitudes, and structures which are sexist and which need to be challenged. But nothing is gained by blurring the line between violence and behaviours which, though wrong, are not violent." He continues: "(It) is completely counterproductive to then say that a man who makes a belittling comment is 'just as guilty' of perpetuating violence against women as a wife-beater or rapist ... We can't simultaneously maintain that violence against women is a serious crime, behaviour that is totally out of bounds, while also maintaining that it's on the same level as making an ignorant remark."

In the course of this argument, Diemer makes two implications which I find to be very disturbing.
First, he insinuates that violence is necessarily something physical - for example, beating or rape. Second, he suggests that it is possible to draw some sort of line between physical violence against women and "sexist" behaviours.

"Belittling comments" and "ignorant remarks" of a sexist nature can sometimes prove to be more harmful than actual physical violence. Let me give some examples. My sister, who was involved in a battering relationship with her boyfriend, was severely beaten on a number of occasions, including the time when she was pregnant with their child. On account of this behaviour, her boyfriend was imprisoned for several months. However, the emotional and verbal abuse she suffered in that relationship had far more devastating effects than physical violence.

My sister was told by her boyfriend that she was "no good" and that no man could ever be seriously interested in her. Given the context in which these "belittling" comments were made - my sister was a victim of childhood sexual abuse and had, because of the psychological trauma associated with that abuse, attempted suicide on a number of occasions - uttering them constituted, in my opinion, an overt act of violence. Even more violent was his "ignorant remark" that she was directly responsible for the death of this earlier abuser, whom she had charged and who had committed suicide on the eve of that trial.

Sexist attitudes and sexist remarks, such as those mentioned above, perpetrate violence against women. The direct violence that they perpetrate is, however, not physical but psychological in nature. To label sexually abused women as "damaged goods" (and, indeed, women as "goods" in the first place) and to suggest that women who charge their abusers are somehow exaggerating the seriousness of the problem, is to imply that women exist only for others, that women in and of themselves don't count. Such attitudes are psychologically violent, because they destroy women's self-esteem.

Attitudes of this type can even lead ultimately to physical violence. In such cases, though, the physical violence is inflicted by the victim on herself in the form of suicide attempts and/or what amounts to a slow form of suicide, eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. (My sister is a bulimic - something we have since learned is very typical of victims of childhood sexual abuse.) Even a decision by a battered woman to remain in a battering relationship can, in certain circumstances, be viewed in the same light. (After her boyfriend was released from prison, my sister went back to live with him again, only to have the whole cycle repeat itself once more.) Just because the violence involved in such situations is psychological and indirect does not mean that it is any less harmful than direct physical violence.

Admittedly, the examples of sexist behaviour and remarks that I gave above are extreme. However, even for cases which are considerably less serious - one example which Diemer mentioned is a man calling his wife a "dummy" - I still would argue that it is never possible to draw a line between physical violence against women and even relatively minor forms of sexism. This is because, although people act violently for many reasons (and Diemer has listed some of these,) the victims of violence are not just the most physically vulnerable members of society. More often, they are the most socially vulnerable members of society - the ones which society tends to regard as "second-rate" or even "defective." In a racist and homophobic society, for example, racial minorities and homosexuals, people who are socially rather than physically marginalized, suffer disproportionately from (to cite but two specific examples) police and "gang" brutality.

Sexist behaviours and remarks imply that women are somehow less important and less valuable than men. The consequence of this is that, in a sexist society, violence against women tends to be ignored, underrated or even condoned. All of this is not to imply that a man who calls his wife a "dummy" is "just as guilty" of violence against women as a rapist or a batterer. Nor does it imply that men can never criticize women or engage in arguments with them. It does imply, however, that behaviour which contributes in a small (or, depending on the exact context of the situation, a more significant) way to the maintenance of a system which devalues women allows violence against women to continue.

Diemer does not state categorically that violence must be physical and direct. However, the way he words his arguments strongly suggests this. Even if he intended only to draw a line between violence and sexist remarks or behaviours which are of a relatively minor nature in comparison to the examples which I have given above, I would still strongly criticize him for not making this absolutely clear. This is particularly important in light of recent research findings on therapy groups for batterers.

In an article in the July 5, 1991 edition of the Toronto Star, Michele Landsberg cities a report done by the federal justice department which reveals that, of the very small number of violent men who actually attend therapy programs, "two-thirds continue to be psychologically abusive." According to Landsberg, some groups even go so far as "teaching men better, more sophisticated domination techniques;" they are, in other words, teaching men how to control women psychologically so that they won't "have" to resort to physical violence.

The aim of stopping violence against women is not only so that men might not have to worry about the possibility, to quote Diemer, that "their wives will leave them, they will loose their children, their friends will shun them, they will be thrown in prison." Isn't it also, and even more importantly, that women should be able to live their lives in peace and freedom? True freedom involves not only freedom from physical violence, but also freedom from psychological control and freedom to make our own decisions.

In his article, Diemer endeavours to draw a parallel between attempts to link violence to males with attempts to link violence with members of certain minority groups. It is his view that "in Canada more violent crimes are committed by members of certain minorities than would be expected, given the percentage of the population they comprise." Diemer points out that this discrepancy remains even after allowing for the effect of racism on patterns of arrest and conviction. Strongly condemning efforts to link race and crime as "racist and reactionary," he explains that situation as follows:

"(T )he likelihood of someone committing a crime has nothing whatever to do with the characteristics they are born with ...Instead, we would say, crime breeds in conditions of economic, social, and educational deprivation and hopelessness, conditions such as those caused by the institutionalized racism of capitalist society. We would consider the existence of high levels of crime to be evidence of the need to change the conditions that cause crime."
Just as he opposes efforts to link race and crime, Diemer urges that efforts to link gender and crime likewise be abandoned. However, while explaining higher crime rates among certain minority groups in terms of racism, he fails to investigate the parallel connection between the higher rates of violence among men and sexism. In fact, Diemer insists on drawing a line between violence and sexism. Maybe the problem here is not just his lack of consistency, though; possibly the real issue is that it is at this point that Diemer's analogy breaks down. While racial oppression may produce higher rates of violence among some of those who are subjected to it, the oppression of women seems to have led (in general) to the opposite effect.

Diemer's analogy between the linking of race to violence and gender to violence doesn't stand up, indeed, precisely because of his refusal to investigate the connection between higher rates of violence among men and sexism. Probing this connection further reveals that the higher crime rates among racially oppressed minority groups actually represents a higher crime rate among the male members of such communities. Pointing this out does mean that one is compelled, as a consequence, to adopt a biologically determinist line of thinking, however. It seems clear to me that the gender-violence connection, rather than being rooted in biology, is a product of socialization.
In his article, Diemer does point out. that (direct physical) violence is not just something which some men do to women. Many victims of violence are male, and some perpetrators of violence are female. This is an important point, one which serves as an effective counter to simplistic theories of biological determinism.

In my sister's case, the man who sexually abused her was himself sexually abused as a child, first by a neighbour and then later by (at least one) priest. As an adult, my sister herself took out a lot of the intense anger she felt about what had happened to her on my mother, who knew nothing about any of this until it all finally came out, and who was trying her best to help all concerned. This anger manifested itself in the form of extreme verbal and psychological abuse ("it's all your fault," "I hope your car blows up and you are killed," and "The cause of my problems is six feet under and I'm glad he is,") and some relatively minor incidents of physical abuse (throwing objects at her.) Interestingly enough, my father was not subjected to any of this behaviour.

In sexist societies, masculinity tends to be linked with exerting power over others, particularly (but not exclusively) women. Since in such societies power and control are highly valued, men, who generally possess more power than women, are regarded as more important and "better." Because masculinity is defined in relation to power, men who are threatened with a loss of power face a concurrent loss of "masculinity." This loss of power can arise out of any of the myriad of oppressions and frustrations which characterize our daily life. Violence, in such circumstances, represents an attempt by men to reestablish power over others and, in the process of so doing, to secure "masculine" identity.

I feel very strongly that this definition of masculinity in terms of power over others, particularly women, explains much about why my sister's abuser, himself the victim of abuse, acted as he did. The concurrent valuing of men and devaluing of women connected with this definition also explains, to a large extent, why my sister herself chose her mother as the target of her anger. Sexist attitudes toward women hold mothers responsible for everything bad which happens to their children, and everything bad which their children do. They are blamed for these things not only by most men, but also by many women. In my mother's case, she was doubly blamed - blamed as mother of the victim of abuse and blamed as mother of the abuser.

For members of a men's group such as the one Diemer is involved in, I would hope that direct physical violence against women is "a thing which 'other men' do." (I use the word "hope" based on my experiences in a "peace" group where one male member of the executive, while working for international "peace," actually battered and raped his female partner.) However, violence can also be psychological and indirect. Sexist attitudes, behaviour and remarks, instead of being separable from violence, ultimately serve both as a possible mechanism for violence and as a justification or excuse of its occurrence.

Therefore, in addition to working to eliminate direct physical violence against women, members of Diemer's group, if they are truly concerned about the problem of "male violence," must also work to eliminate sexism. The key step in beginning this struggle is to challenge attitudes and behaviours which are rooted in the assumption that masculinity must be necessarily defined in terms of exerting power over others. Such attitudes and behaviours lead directly to the devaluing of those over whom that power is exercised. No line can be drawn between behaviours, attitudes, and structures which are sexist and violence against women.

Violet Black is a woman living in Toronto.
This article was published in Kick it Over #28 ( Spring 1992).

See also: Ulli Diemer’s reply.