DVA Intervention: Focus on Patriarchy not the Penis

In this past week I have been writing, reading, and talking to different people and again and again I have found myself in the sharp end of contemporary feminist debate- the perceived conflict or clash between sex or gender identity as the priority focus in DVA support and theorizing. As a scholar of gender with a current focus on masculinities I wanted to share my thoughts- which is that Patriarchy seems to have dropped out of this discourse. (Some) feminists have become predominantly focused on bodies, victimisation, and access to resources. I think it would be pertinent to return to the ‘why’ point- which is that gender inequality and male domination exists because of patriarchal power structures.   

I am currently writing a book which is based on my research on boys and men’s experiences of childhood domestic violence and abuse (DVA) as well as later on-road and gang-involvement. A large part of the background work I have been writing about is the historic exclusion of boy child survivors in DVA support services, in particular in refuge. Children who experience DVA are framed under a gender-specific victim narrative- the overarching government policy has been the ‘Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy’, which in many ways rightfully reflects the gender disparity which frames most DVA- that it tends to be male perpetrators and female victims. However, within this discourse it frames children in a gender-neutral way- services support ‘women and children’- however in refuges in particular there has been a long tendency to operate upper age limits for boy children, which is ideologically linked to ideas of the ‘cycle of violence’- that boys as they grow into older adolescence are more likely to become perpetrators and to become a risk themselves.

One challenge that this brings is the essentialisation of children’s bodies and selves. This has equality impacts that reach much wider than just boy child survivors of DVA. Only this week, Galdem magazine, an online magazine which is dedicated to “telling the stories of people of colour from marginalised genders”, reported on a year long investigation into the trans-exclusionary practices of DVA front line support services. They found there was a ‘focus on the penis’– referring to the rejection of trans-women and trans-men from support services, despite the high levels of DVA the trans community faces. This resonated with me from my time working in refuge, where the focus was on the risk male-bodies posed over and above anything else which led to older boys who lived with DVA being excluded. I found that there was a strong image of the ‘ideal victim’ which was heavily reinforced by the rules and exclusionary criteria.

What we need to grapple with is that victims of DVA, including boys and trans survivors, can also be victims of abuse which is related to patriarchy.

It is not being male bodied which fundamentally poses the ultimate risk, but the related entitlement, power, control, and the wider cultural norms and practices which enable and in some ways promote male control over their partners and families.

An explicit reference to patriarchy seems to have been lost from the mainstream in recent years. Bob Pease’s (2019) brilliant book Facing Patriarchy  looks at the way in which certain feminist agendas have been deradicalised and mainstreamed as they have been adopted by governments and global agencies. However this neo-liberal co-option of women’s rights discourse has meant that there is now a de-politicised top line, which is acceptable, as it does not interfere with underlying senses of the bodily integrity of women and men and the natural order;

“Gender equality has been framed in terms of neoliberal economic objectives in relation to market transactions and competition where the focus is more on sex differences between men and women than gendered processes that reproduce patriarchy” (Pease, 2019: 36).

This was also typified this week as the right wing Conservative catholic MP Jacob Rees-Mogg spoke out in support of ‘gender-critical feminists’ who are focusing on essentialising women’s bodies and selves in the face of a perceived threat of trans-infiltration. This is an example of the curious way in which far right conservative agendas which seek to maintain traditional sex binary ideas and roles have ended up on the same side of radical feminist ideas.

“If the problem of women’s oppression has no name, it can easily be colonised by traditional categories of political thought” (Pease, 2019: 63).

The links between far-right conservative politics and the increasing essentialisation of sexed bodies was made by Alison Phipps in her 2020 book ‘Me, Not You’. She notes that the attacks on Gender Studies’ as a discipline is the “canary in the coalmine” (pg. 23). There are serious global moves to stop an analysis of gender identity as distinct from sex, and in that way to analyse gendered behaviours as anything less than natural and/or individual decisions. She posits this is tied up with political whiteness and a protectionism of capital, nation and maintaining the status quo. She has recieved awful online abuse for the publication of her work in this area, disappointly often from within the wider feminist movement.

The problem with focusing on essentialised bodies and experiences, without a focus on patriarchy, is that it just drives us to a point whereby the structures and mechanisms which oppress certain people (generally women and boys and girls, but not solely) are left unexamined. Instead, a focus on the penis, above a focus on patriarchy, leaves many victims of harm side-lined and invisible including boy child survivors of DVA, male victims of rape and sexual exploitation, trans survivors of abuse and harm. It also reinforces the way in which male children are more easily labelled as potential perpetrators over and above their experience of victimhood themselves.

To me, focusing on patriarchy and gender performance- in particular masculinity- is important. In my work I focus on the way that a particular group of boys survive DVA- those that later become gang-involved. I hone in on masculinity performance- and how these boys learn and grow to be men in the wider cultural patriarchal context. Boys and young men are as much ‘victims’ (or subject to) the pressures of patriarchy and cultural ideas of successful (or hegemonic) masculinity. Looking at issues through this lens also enables us to try and understand how boys and men who perpetrate violence themselves are navigating the complex gender, race, and class pressures that they face. I find Connell’s (2005) theorising of ‘protest masculinity’ useful here- it explores how marginalised men assert their masculinity when they are in a position of little material or societal capital. Men in this position can utilise violence in order to claim space and redress the balance of power in their lives.

For me understanding gender is key here, and it is a feature which is routinely rendered invisible in some state and charity strategies, as well as in some criminological literature, which insetad seek to deal with violence in both gender-neutral and individualised ways; as an ‘epidemic’, ‘adverse childhood experience’ or ‘risk factor’. We need to go back to basics and try and understand who does what to whom and why– what wider societal features and frameworks enable and promote violence, rather than an  individualised and thus de-politicised focus on gendered harm.

Focusing on women and men as essentialised bodies and beings limits our ability to explore how gender works as a performance. Violence perpetration is not a bodily fact, or biological destiny. Indeed, there is a growing body of work which is focusing on vulnerable masculinities
(see Maguire, 2021, or my paper Levell, 2020), along with an increasing acknowledgement that men do not always benefit from patriarchal power structures, which are deeply racialised and classed experiences. However, the wider societal structures allow and enable certain types of violence and abuse to continue without much impunity. This is related to the gender inequality which patriarchy creates and maintains. To understand patriarchal power structures, it is necessary to understand gender as a performance.

DVA is a patriarchal practice.

So why not divert from the labels of ‘Gender-Based Abuse & Violence’ and ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’ instead focus on Patriarchal Violence and Abuse?

Why don’t we re-focus more on the mechanisms that drive and enable the abuse rather than the sex/gender identity of the ‘ideal victim’.

If we start calling it what it is, then we can remember why feminism historically focused on the patriarchy as enemy rather than each other.  

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