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
"(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 Diemers reply.