When you talk about gender-based violence, you are remiss to ignore the roots that lay beneath it: poverty, racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia. We must move towards positive culture change by addressing all of those pieces because those pieces are the basis for our work, our mission. One of the ways to break down domestic violence is to discuss gender-based violence as a whole, and in doing so, we must discuss gender – how it affects our society, how it is defined, how it should be redefined, and how to dismantle the groundwork that violence stems from. Dismantling harmful gender norms as well as providing gender-inclusive education and community engagement is essential to effective domestic violence work.
So. Let’s talk about sex…and gender! People tend to use the terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, but, while connected, the two terms are not equivalent. Sex is determined genetically and anatomically, while gender is a personal identity within us that can evolve or change. A person’s gender is the complex interrelationship between their body, identity, and social gender. Despite that there is diversity outside of gender and gender identity, the gender binary is often reduced to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being female and male. The binary is socially constructed and perpetuates harmful stereotypes about the attributes expected of “women” and “men,” it reduces what makes people human into these tiny, finite boxes that a lot of people don’t even fit into, and it excludes people who are intersex, transgender, and genderqueer. In most societies, there are inequalities between women and men in responsibilities, activities undertaken, access to and control over resources and jobs, as well as decision making opportunities. The assigned “roles” ultimately perpetuate an inequality which is the basis for a lot of exclusion of varied gender relationships and is the basis for a lot of gender-based violence.
One of the ways we see the harms of these rigid gender roles is when we look at societal expectations placed on boys and men and the effects of those expectations which is what we call “hypermasculinity.” Hypermasculinity describes the narrow but traditional ideas of what it means to “be a man.” When we hear people say, “be a man or man up”. What are they saying? They’re saying suppress your emotions, men don’t cry, men are calloused to their emotions as well as the emotions of other people, they’re saying a man is supposed to be aggressive, to love violence and danger, and very often this means that he is placing people around him in danger as well and exhibits disregard for the safety of others in chase of his own thrill. A manly man is sexually insatiable. A manly man holds dominance and power over others. A man is anti-femininity and must distance himself from anything that culture traditionally characterizes as feminine such as emotion / feeling / tenderness, and compassion. All of these are very human, natural, and what should be non-gendered characteristics.
Just like you have toxic and hypermasculinity, you also have toxic attributes in femininity, namely the biggest being the idea of hypersexualized femininity and traditional femininity. Traditional femininity assigns a very passive, naïve, sexually inexperienced (yet, simultaneously extra sexy), soft, flirtatious, graceful, nurturing, and accepting idea of women. So let’s take a second look at some of the common gender stereotypes of men:
► Men are tough and powerful.
► Men are unfeeling and insensitive.
► Men are logical, sensible and rational.
Now, what about the Common Gender Stereotypes of Women:
► Women are helpless and childish.
► Women are sensitive and intuitive.
► Women are scatterbrained, unstable and irrational.
When we look at the way society sees men and then at how it views women, we can see that society actually pits men and women against each other. Some gender stereotypes that pit men and women against each other include:
► Men are tough and powerful, not helpless and childish like women.
► Women are sensitive and intuitive, not unfeeling and insensitive like men.
► Men are logical, sensible and rational, not scatterbrained, unstable and irrational like women.
And we have this set of rules that we’re given. This set of rules for how we are allowed to function in society, how best to make everyone else comfortable, especially how to make men comfortable. And what happens when we violate these rules?
Shame. We are brought shame. We are shamed for the way we dress, the way our bodies look soft when they should look hard and thin, women are shamed for wearing our hair too short, or not wearing enough jewelry or make up and men are shamed for wearing their hair too long or dresses too “femininely.” And what does this do to the folks who don’t fit the category of man or woman? Or folks who don’t fit the category they are being told they should fit? These gender stereotypes bring about shame to everyone, to all genders just because most folks exist outside of the binary lines that were drawn for us. I don’t know a single person who, in living their true, authentic selves, fits the binary mold perfectly. We are all on a gender spectrum. I may still identify as a woman, but this does not mean that I fit the idea of “woman” that someone else has carved into their brain. No one does. And because we all grow up thinking that man and woman are the only two options, and that man and woman only look a certain way, we exist in this shroud of shame. And there’s a double edged sword of shame for gender roles. We are shamed for existing outside of the binary and we are shamed even when we try to exist within it. And more than that, this shame spills over into gender-based violence. In order to properly address GBV, we have to really understand that gender-based violence means that people of any gender can be perpetrators of gender-based violence and people of any gender can be victims.
This shame has created endless cycles of shame, expectation, and violence. So because of historical and social norms, men and women are pushed into these boxes of shame. Women, for centuries, were property to men, paid for by other men—their fathers. Research for decades was focused on violence against women. Shelters and crisis centers cater to women—I have folks ask me all the time about that “battered women’s shelter” I used to work at. We accepted men too, and LGBTQ+ folks. It wasn’t a battered women’s shelter. And so many shelters still cater primarily to women and the needs of women. Women with the #MeToo movement were encouraged to come forward and, I am in no way diminishing or devaluing how important that movement was and is because it was and is essential, but we can’t stop there. #MeTooLGBTQ #MeTooMen. It has to go beyond gendered services and be inclusive services. So for the boy who has been taught that he shouldn’t cry, shouldn’t show emotion, shouldn’t get hurt but has been hit every day… Do you think he feels comfortable coming forward? And for the girl who comes forward after being assaulted… What usually happens to her? She’s blamed. And even for the non-binary or transgender person who is assaulted, what services are offered to them? Survivors feel shame related to their abuse already because of the stigmas. This gendered approach is another layer to that. This shame directly correlates with violence. The relationship between violence and shame is complex and interactive. Much has been written about shame as a consequence of violent victimization. And the violence causes shame which makes victims less likely to come forward, it can also be a barrier for healing, and so many other things. And gender-based violence brings shame specifically related to a person’s gender. This never-ending cycle has to stop somewhere… But where?
One of the biggest steps that we can take towards ending GBV is to spread education and awareness that highlights even the seemingly small masculine norms that are harmful – the gross conversations that are dismissed as “locker room talk”; the aggressive behavior that is dismissed as “boys being boys;” the myth that when a child is picking on another child, “oh they just have a crush on you!” We must be willing to fight these traditional ideas and tendencies that feed hyper masculinity in order to prevent GBV.
We are all more than our gender identity and express ourselves in many other ways besides gender. Race, nationality, geographic home, interests, and faith… Men who are encouraged and given space to cultivate these other aspects of their identity instead of focusing on “manliness” are given opportunity to express themselves and know themselves outside of the “man box.” So, educators, counselors, therapists, folks who do male specific programming, can do so much for men by focusing on the many complexities of identity outside of gender. Another way we dismantle hyper masculinity is by implementing mental health programming for boys and men. With that comes understanding the impact of power & privilege on boys/men and their relationships and implement that education into programming for boys and men. Boys and men who understand their historical privilege, the history of feminism, and the impacts that their power has on the world around them are boys and men who will be about the work of deconstructing that power and privilege themselves. And again the focus of this type of education is to not to break men down – it’s not to inflict shame because that is not helpful – the focus is on the rigid male norms and giving men the power to break that harmful and constricting mold. Healthy masculinity is about releasing men of expectations to be the only bread-winner, the only leader, and provider for their family while leaving the care-giving solely to their wives. It’s these binary boxes of what it means to be feminine and masculine that have ultimately constructed a society for us in which men hold power – they hold power over finances and laws and the workplace; when these structural gender norms have some people always in power, always leading while others are always following, always submitted – that is a recipe for inequality and abuse. Supporting ALL people (including men) to be their truest, most fulfilled selves regardless of their gender or the gendered expectations is how we end GBV.