The one you shouldn’t hurt at all

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post (“Why Can’t We Hate Men?”) has caused some fairly obvious ructions. The writer pulls no punches:

“I’ve rankled at the “but we don’t hate men” protestations of generations of would-be feminists and found the “men are not the problem, this system is” obfuscation too precious by half.”

The writer, Suzanna Danuta Walters (a professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University) thinks she has a warrant for writing off half of the species, on account of the violent behavior of some:

 “Women experience sexual violence, and the threat of that violence permeates our choices big and small. In addition, male violence is not restricted to intimate-partner attacks or sexual assault but plagues us in the form of terrorism and mass gun violence.”

I have looked at some of the issues to do with male mass gun violence in previous blog posts, and I don’t want to go over that territory again here. But, this does sound like an opportunity to discuss the first issue that Professor Walters raises—intimate partner violence (I.P.V.). A while back, a student of mine brought to my attention an aspect of I.P.V. that seemed rather under-reported, and that she had an ingenious idea for studying: Women being violent to other women. I confess that I myself wondered at the time how big an issue this was? Then she showed me the scientific literature on lesbian I.P.V., and please check through to the end for an edited sample if you want to get the full story. The TL;DR is paper after paper, documenting the disturbing fact that both sexes are hideously capable of perpetrating violence on the person they are meant to love.

By now, one hopes, everyone is more alert to this in the case of male on female I.P.V. But, when it comes to females being violent to female partners, we seem to have a curious blind spot. A member of the public, or early career scientist might be forgiven for not knowing this, but can I assume that a Professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, would be reasonably familiar with the scholarly journal “Journal of Lesbian Studies”? This is a peer-reviewed journal associated with The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT); The Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues – Division 44 of the American Psychological Association; and The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS). So, it should be pretty much in Professor Walters’ bailiwick. The reason I ask, is that a review of many years of I.P.V. research published there a decade ago by Carolyn West concluded that:

“There is no doubt that intimate partner violence occurs among lesbians. Evidence indicates that it may be as prevalent as among heterosexuals and that a full range of types of violence occurs, including verbal, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.”

The writers go into detail about that “full range”, summarizing a raft of previous work into violence perpetrated by women, on women partners:

“The reported rates of physical violence within lesbian relationships vary widely, with estimates ranging from a low of 8.5% to a high of 73% in former lesbian relationships.”

They go into details:

“Pushing, shoving, and slapping were the most commonly reported forms of abuse, while beatings and assaults with weapons were less frequent. Sexual violence also may be present in lesbian relationships, with estimates ranging from a low of 7% to a high of 55% in previous lesbian relationships”.

When it came to sexual abuse, the picture was no more pleasant:

“Victims experienced a broad range of types of [sexual] abuse, including forced kissing, breast and genital fondling, and oral, anal, or vaginal penetration. Victimization rates increased dramatically when psychological and verbal abuse was assessed, with more than 80% of surveyed participants reporting this form of abuse”.

These facts may not be generally known to the general public, but they are not news to those who work with victims, or to those who research human sexual behavior–especially same-sex sexual behavior. So, my question is—does Professor Walters not know these facts? That is possible—but there is another possibility to consider:

The Whitings, a husband and wife team of anthropologists, drew attention (in 1975) to an interesting division in human societies: That of the intimate and the aloof. In intimate societies, men and women (more or less) get along. There is some sexual division of labor, but both sexes share the domestic work. The men tend to be present at childbirths, they spend their evenings with their wives and children, and they eat and sleep with the family. In general, these societies tend to be more peaceful than the aloof ones. In aloof societies—that have grown up as distantly from one another as the Chukchee, the Yurok, and the Pomo–the men and women live much more separate lives. Some of these are what anthropologists euphemistically call “female gardening economies”, which is code for “the women do pretty much all the real work, while the men preen themselves and pick fights with one another”.  Sometimes aloof societies have sexually separate areas, like the house Tamberan of New Guinea, or the salaams of North Africa and the middle east. Sometimes, in the more extreme ones, the men and women can live in separate villages.

Now, of course, even in the most extreme aloof societies both sexes have to, ahem, meet up every so often (else how would little aloof society people get made?) How is this sexual behavior managed? In the usual human ways that such things are managed of course—with lies and hypocrisy. The two sexes tell tall tales about one another. The elders in the male group talk of how the women are all evil witches who will steal your potency (don’t worry though—those elders will protect you from them). While that is happening in the men’s camp, in the women’s camp the elder women will tell the younger ones that all the men are thugs and rapists (and guess what—the elder women will protect you from these). Quite often, each sex has its own separate creation myths—and usually the opposite sex star as the baddies who stole the good sex’s fire, magic, territory or all of these. Of course—gawd forbid that both sexes of the younger generation actually start talking and listening to one another without their minds first being poisoned against each other, else the jig is up…

What sort of tall tales might a modern day aloof proponent attempt to peddle? I’ll leave identifying the myths and stories in our culture, intended to incite men to hate all women, as an exercise for the reader. They are not hard to find, alas. Here is one that is intended to make women hate all men: That males are uniquely responsible for intimate partner violence. Am I attempting to downplay the incidence of such male-perpetrated violence? On the contrary: Its prevalence is, alas, almost certainly far more than most of us know, or wish to admit to ourselves. But then so too is I.P.V. perpetrated by women. And not just I.P.V. by females on male partners—which is all too frequently seen as either comical, or deserved. No such responses can be suggested of violence that women perpetrate on other women, however. Lesbian I.P.V. is a hugely under-reported phenomenon. One reason for this is that people’s schemas—like mine before my student opened my eyes to it–often do not admit that this is possible. My student’s ingenious method used vignettes (little stories) that described violence between lovers and then invited responses. Some vignettes used names that could be unisex. After asking questions about the legitimacy of said actions, or whether it counted as abuse, it was then revealed that the parties had both been female. Not only were people much less likely to ascribe the possibility of abuse to female perpetrators, she actually received some very angry emails about this from some people who thought that they had been tricked. People’s minds just slid off the possibility that women could do violence to other women.

Professor Walters needs to stop peddling aloof society myths. I.P.V. is, alas, a thing that happens between heterosexual and homosexual couples—of either sex. And, like with so many things sunshine is the best disinfectant.


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