Feminists often refer to ‘male violence’ and ‘violence against women’. They imply that these are two aspects of the same phenomenon, and sometimes that it is made explicit in the phrase ‘male violence against women’. Certainly, there are cross-cultural assumptions about men being ‘more aggressive’ than women, and about women as passive victims. However, the terms ‘male violence’ and ‘violence against women’ are used in the context of a political ideology: feminism. They need to be examined, just as any other ideological claim.
There does not seem to be much relevant research in the social sciences. That is perhaps because it encounters classic issues, such as categorisation and ‘structure versus agency’. Research done by feminists themselves, does not examine their ideological claims: it is about the scale of the problem. Typically, feminist researchers collect statistics about women as victims of violence, and survey women to establish the prevalence of violence. The Counting Dead Women project exemplifies this approach.
To illustrate the ideological issues, take a possible historical example of violence, where the perpetrators are male and the victims female. In Nazi-German occupied Ukraine in 1943, a pro-German Ukrainian militia acting under orders of an SS officer, captures and executes two Russian-speaking Jewish women, born in Russia itself but resident in the Ukrainian SSR prior to the German invasion, members of the Communist party, and serving in the Soviet Army as political commissars with a women’s brigade.
The mainstream feminist position on this execution is that two women were killed by men, and that’s it. They were killed by some men on behalf of all men, with the intention of subjugating all women. It is not relevant, say feminists, that the women were Jewish, or born in Russia, or Russian-speaking, or communists. They were not killed for those reasons. The existence and nature of the SS is irrelevant. Nazi ideology and the Nazi movement are irrelevant, and so is Nazi control of the German state. It is irrelevant that Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and irrelevant that the Soviet Union was controlled by the Communist Party. It is irrelevant that German forces deliberately executed political commissars. Ukrainian nationalist collaboration with Nazi Germany is also irrelevant. The men did not kill for those reasons, say feminists. The only reason that the men killed the women, is that the killers are men and the victims women. That is the mainstream feminist position.
More formally stated: the feminist position is that every act of violence by a man against a women is of a specific type – ‘male violence’. It is structural and collective, never purely an individual act: it is committed on behalf of all men. It has a specific intention: to subjugate women, as part of the structural oppression of all women by all men (patriarchy). The victim is never targeted purely as an individual, but as a member and representative of the category ‘women’. The violent act is therefore ‘violence against women’, and not simply violence against one woman.
These are typical social science hypotheses, and can be tested. One way of doing that is to look at the distribution of the violent acts, the victims, and the perpetrators.
Obviously if ‘patriarchy’ was the sole cause of violence on this planet, then all perpetrators would be male, and all victims female. That is clearly not the case, and no feminist claims it is. If violence was a purely random act without any explanation or cause, then both perpetrators and victims would be a cross-section of the population, and that is not true either. The pattern of violence can tell us something about its causes: that is the way the social sciences work.
If human violence was primarily directed against women, then most victims would be women. However, in western countries victims are predominantly male, although with a trend to convergence. For homicides, detailed statistics are available: almost everywhere, more men are victims than women. Non-western countries may have different patterns of violence, and female victims may also be undercounted in the west, but so far the statistics don’t support feminist claims on this point.
Where the perpetrator is male and the victim is female, motive and intention can be inferred from the distribution of victims. If these acts were intended to target all women, or women in general, then the victims would be a cross-section of the female population. Proximity and opportunity must also be considered. For murder cases, the relationship between killer and victim is usually well documented. If ‘women’ were the target, then we would expect that men would kill their female partner/spouse, their mother, or their daughter, with approximately equal frequency. We would expect that men kill a female neighbour almost as often, as a female resident in their own household (similar proximity). We would expect female victims to be randomly distributed across age groups.
In reality, female victims of murder and assault are not a cross-section of the female population. That argues against ‘women’ being the target, and therefore against categorisation as ‘violence against women’. For instance, prostitutes are far more likely to be victims of violence than other women.
Equally, the perpetrators are not a cross-section of the male population, or even the adult male population. That argues against categorisation as ‘male violence’. The more the profile of male aggressor and female victim diverges from the general male and female population, the less likely it is, that male-on-female violence is part of collective action by all men against all women. The onus is on feminists who make such claims, to back up their claims with evidence.
Another way of testing such hypotheses is to look for the social and organisational traces, of a patriarchal structure of ‘male violence against women’. In the case of Nazi racial ideology, for instance, there are organisations such as the SS, with the explicit and documented purpose of implementing it. Feminist historians would need to find comparable organisations engaged in violence primarily against women, on the basis of a patriarchal or misogynist ideology. Patriarchal organisations certainly exist, but all of them seem to be religious. There are some cases of individuals who killed women, out of explicit and expressed hatred of women. However, there does not seem be any historical case of an ‘misogynist SS’ – an organisation killing women explicitly in the name of male superiority, or explicitly to subjugate all women.
Research on ‘male violence against women’ would also need to consider alternative categorisations, and derived alternative hypotheses. One significant possibility, is that some individuals are simply genetically violent, or predisposed to violence. Western social science treats biological determinism with great suspicion, so this is rarely researched. (A small minority of feminists do consider patriarchy to be biological in origin, deriving from the innate violence of men).
A less controversial factor, but also under-researched, is the link between personality type and violence. Intuitively, timid and shy people should be less likely to assault or kill others. If that was confirmed by the statistics, then perhaps we should be talking about ‘extrovert violence’ instead of ‘male violence’. Any categorisation of violent individuals is based on an assumption that the categories have explanatory value. The standard feminist assumption is that all men oppress all women, and from their perspective ‘male violence’ and ‘violence against women’ are logical categories. Nevertheless, the embedded hypothesis is itself no more than an assumption, until backed by evidence.
We don’t speak of ‘baker violence’ or ‘violence against archaeologists’, because we don’t think it would tell us anything, about the cause or logic of violence. Probably, no-one ever checked the statistics. But what if they did, and bakers turn out to be ten times more violent than non-bakers? Thousands of alternative hypotheses go unchecked, even in research which is intended to unearth previously unknown correlations. Typically, that kind of research looks at standard social science categories such as age, education, income, gender and social class – and not at issues which the researchers find absurd or irrelevant.
One more distribution which might be considered, is the type of violence. If all men who killed a woman used a knife, and no man ever used a knife to kill another man, then that would imply a specific male behaviour directed against women. In reality the availability of a weapon seems to determine which (if any) is used, rather than the sex of the victim. <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acid_throwing"Acid throwing is apparently the most gender-specific form of violence, with an estimated 80% of victims female, but it is also culturally and geographically specific. Male-on-female non-sexual violence is also probably more often accompanied by sexual assault, than male-on-male violence. (Rape and sexual assault can not themselves serve as indicators here, since the legal definitions are based on lack of consent, rather than use of force).
This is not an exhaustive list of options. It is simply a reminder that research can be used, to assess the feminist claims for the existence of ‘male violence’ and ‘violence against women’. This kind of fundamental research appears to be lacking so far: there are a lot of statistics, but they don’t answer the question of whether violence derives from patriarchy.
Until there is evidence for the existence of ‘male violence’ and ‘violence against women’, then the state should not institute policy against these phenomena. That does not mean that the state should ignore violence. Nor does it alter the criminal law, which already prohibits assault and murder. However, it is wrong for the state to institute repressive policy against a section of the population, on a false assumption of collective guilt.
In the case of feminist activism against ‘male violence’ and ‘violence against women’, there is another issue to consider. All policy can be mis-targeted, but feminist policy proposals seem especially remote from the problems they claim to address. As I pointed out earlier, recent feminism is strongly prohibitionist in tone, and excessively concerned with popular culture and male sexual behaviour. A modern feminist would seek the causes of violence in, for instance, music videos or advertising, or sexual harassment at work or school. If the state follows that approach in its policy to reduce ‘violence against women’, then the policy will almost certainly be misdirected.