Damage: the silent forms of violence against women

How is it that those with the power to inflict most harm are blind to the consequences of their actions?

经过

Tue 30 三月 2021

一世t is a truism to say that everyone knows violence when they see it, but if one thing has become clear in the past decade, it is that the most prevalent, insidious forms of violence are those that cannot be seen. Consider, 例如, a photograph from January 2017. A group of identical-looking white men in dark suits looked on as their president signed an executive order banning US state funding to groups anywhere in the world offering abortion or abortion counselling.

The passing of the “global gag rule” effectively launched the Trump presidency. (它是 scrapped by Joe Biden soon after his inauguaration a few weeks ago.) The ruling meant an increase in deaths by illegal abortion for thousands of women throughout the developing world. Its effects have been as cruel as they are precise. No non-governmental organisation (NGO) in receipt of US funds could henceforth accept non-US support, or lobby governments across the world, on behalf of the right to abortion. A run of abortion bans followed in conservative Republican-held US states. In November 2019, Ohio introduced to the state legislature a bill which included the requirement that in cases of ectopic pregnancy, doctors must reimplant the embryo into the woman’s uterus or face a charge of “abortion murder”. (Ectopic pregnancy can be fatal to the mother and no such procedure exists in medical science.)

At a talk in London in June 2019, Kate Gilmore, the UN deputy commissioner for human rights, described US policy on abortion as a form of extremist hate that amounts to the torture of women. “We have not called it out in the same way we have other forms of extremist hate,” she stated, “but this is gender-based violence against women, no question.”

The resurgence of hate-fuelled populism has become commonplace in the 21st century. But it is perhaps less common to hear extremist hate, notably against women, being named so openly as the driver of the supreme legal machinery of the west.

It is a characteristic of such mostly male violence – “violence regnant”, as it might be termed, since it represents and is borne by the apparatus of state – that it always presents itself as defending the rights of the innocent. These men are killers. But their murderousness is invisible – to the world (illegal abortions belong to the backstreets) and to themselves. Not even in their wildest dreams, I would imagine, does it cross their minds that their decisions might be fuelled by the desire to inflict pain. Neither the nature nor the consequences of their actions is a reality they need trouble themselves about.

With their hands lightly clasped or hanging loose by their sides, what they convey is vacuous ease. Above all, they brook no argument. Their identikit posture allows no sliver of dissent (not among themselves, not inside their own heads). Such violence in our time thrives on a form of mental blindness. Like a hothouse plant, it flourishes under the heady steam of its own unstoppable conviction.

This moment stands as one of the clearest illustrations of the rift between act and understanding, between impulse and self-knowledge, which for me lies at the core of so much violence. We can name this male violence against women, as the UN commissioner did without reserve, but men are not the only human subjects capable of embodying it. Women throughout history have cloaked themseleves in state power. And men are also the victims of violence – the most prolific serial rapist in UK history, sentenced to life in January 2020, had preyed consistently upon vulnerable young, heterosexual men.

But in response to the increasing visibility of gender-based violence, I want to focus on one deadly mix in particular: the link between the ability to inflict untold damage and a willed distortion – whether conscious or unconscious – in the field of vision. Violence is a form of entitlement. Unlike privilege – which can be checked with a mere gesture, as in “check your privilege”, and then left at the door – entitlement goes deeper and at the same time is more slippery to grasp. As if hovering in the ether, it relies for its persistence on a refusal to acknowledge that it is even there.

To take another iconic moment of the last few years: Prince Andrew’s BBC television interview of November 2019, when he tried to explain that his visit to the home of child trafficker and abuser Jeffrey Epstein in 2010, barely months after Epstein’s conviction for sexual assault, arose from his tendency to be too “honourable” (staying with a convicted sex offender was the “honourable” thing to do). He was floundering in the dark. His denials that he had ever met or had sex with Virginia Giuffre, formerly Roberts, who states that she was coerced into sex with him when she was 17, were met with ridicule. It was an extraordinary display of blindness: to the young female victims, trafficked by Epstein – allegedly with the support of Ghislaine Maxwell, who is now awaiting trial – not one of whom got a single mention; to the self-defeating farce of his own case (unlike Oedipus, his blindness was atoning for nothing).

But he was also revealing a chilling truth, which I suspect played its part in the speed with which he was summoned by the Queen and dismissed from his royal duties without ceremony, despite the fact that he is reputed to be her favourite child. Honour, here in its royal incarnation, revealed its true colours as the right to violence with impunity. (In the UK any investigation into Epstein has been summarily dropped.) For that very reason Virginia Woolf warned women in the 30s not to be tempted by the panoply of power and the trappings of national honour – which would suck them into war. But the shiftiness is not an afterthought. It is hardwired into the whole process, the chief means whereby entitlement boasts its invincibility and hides its true nature from itself.

一世n one of his best-known formulas, Freud wrote of “His Majesty the Baby”, by which he meant the will to perfection and the burden of adoration that parents invest in their child. Narcissism starts with the belief that the whole world is at your feet, there solely for you to manipulate. Beautifully self-serving, its legacy is potentially fatal – as in the myth of Narcissus, who drowned in his own reflection in a pool – since it makes it wellnigh impossible for the human subject to see or love anyone other than themselves.

Aggressivity is therefore its consequence, as the child struggles with the mother, or whoever takes her place, against the dawning recognition that they are as helpless as they are dependent on others to survive. “Every injury to our almighty and autocratic ego,” Freud writes in his essays on war and death, “is at bottom a crime of lèse-majesté”. (In the unconscious, we are all royalty.)

But for those at the top of the social pecking order, narcissism mutates, not into loss, not into something you have at least partly to relinquish, but into an accursed gift, one that too easily leads to violence. No human, however powerful, is spared confrontation with the limits of their own power, with those realms, in the words of Hannah Arendt, “in which man cannot change and cannot act and in which, therefore, he has a distinct tendency to destroy”.

Arendt was writing in the 50s about the forms of murderous totalitarianism that had spread over the Earth, but her prescient words are no less relevant now, when dictatorships are on the rise, we face the destruction of the planet, black men are being shot on the streets of the US, and the rates of death from austerity, rampant inequality and impoverishment are increasing by the day. When the pandemic started to break across the globe at the end of 2019, it soon became clear that one of its most striking features would be the way it accentuates the racial and economic fault lines of the world – from the fact that black, Asian and minority ethnic citizens in the UK are four times more likely than white people to die of Covid-19, to the killing of George Floyd which, mid-pandemic, repeated and underscored a historic context of violence. Nor did it seem to occur to any of the (mainly) men in power that the mantra to stay home and save lives in fact threatened the lives of women subject to domestic violence who were now trapped inside their homes; under lockdown the rate of such violence has soared.

Who decides what is called out as violence? Who determines the forms of violence we are allowed, and permit ourselves, to see? Not naming violence – its often undercover path of destruction, its random disposal of the bodies it needs and does not need – is one of the ways that capitalism has always preserved and perpetuated itself.

In one of her sharpest insights and most trenchant ripostes, socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg cautioned against the charge that the 1905 Russian Revolution had spilt blood by pointing out that the level of suffering was nothing compared with the indiscriminate, mostly unremarked, cutting down of lives by the brute machinery of capital that had flourished up to then. “Abroad the picture created of the Russian Revolution is that of an enormous blood-bath, with all the unspeakable suffering of the people without a single ray of light,” she stated at a rally in Mannheim in 1906. “The suffering during the revolution is a mere nothing compared to what the Russian people had to put up with before the revolution under so-called quiet conditions.”

She then listed hunger, scurvy and the thousands of workers killed in the factories without attracting the attention of the statisticians. “Quiet conditions” is a key phrase – she is referring to the skill with which capital cloaks its crimes.

在一月 2019, Conservative ministers in the UK recommended that grant allocations to local authorities no longer be weighted to reflect the higher costs of deprivation and poverty, with the result that money could be redirected to the more affluent Tory shires (a move variously described as a “brutal political stitch-up” and “an act of war”). These moments of violence move silently, as do the women today who are so often the most affected: threatened by Brexit with the loss of equality and human rights protection, including employment rights and funding for women’s services (notably in relation to sexual violence, where the number of rapes reported to police in England and Wales doubled between 2013 和 2018, while prosecutions fell), 或者 forced into sex work as a result of the universal credit system, part of a Conservative overhaul of benefits for people on low household income that is now acknowledged as catastrophic for the most socially vulnerable.

When Iain Duncan Smith, the architect of the policy, was knighted in the 2020 new year honours list, 237,000 people signed a petition objecting to the award for a man “responsible for some of the cruellest, most extreme welfare reforms this country has ever seen”. The Department for Work and Pensions denies any link between the new credit system and survival sex, dismissing the tales of women as anecdotal.

It is generally recognised that the spending “free-for-all” inaugurated by Boris Johnson after his 2019 election victory was intended to secure a further electoral term, but will have no effect on the basic gulf between the rich and the dispossessed (the moneys released for the NHS are a fraction of what is needed). Nor is there any confidence that the flurry of NHS spending brought on a year later by the pandemic will be significantly sustained. To general outcry, the promised NHS pay rise for nurses has turned out to be a derisory 1%.

中号ale violence is the standout feature of the day, but it is also central to my argument that the masculinity enjoined on all men, and paraded by so many, is a fraud. On this, I take my distance from radical feminism, notably that of the influential school of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, which sees violence as the unadulterated and never-failing expression of male sexuality and power – a self-defeating argument if ever there was one (if true, then men will rule the world for ever). 反而, it is crucial for me that, even while calling out masculinity in its worst guise, we allow to individual men the potential gap between maleness and the infinite complexity of the human mind.

How can we as feminists make that gap the beating heart of women’s fight against oppression, against the stultifying ideology of what women are meant to be, and not allow the same internal breathing space to men? Surely our chance of a better world relies on the ability of all of us to stop, think and reject the most deadly “requisite” behaviours? No man comfortably possesses masculinity (any more than, other than by killing, one person is in total possession of anyone else). Indeed, such mastery is the very delusion that underpins the deranged and most highly prized version of masculinity on offer. Prowess is a lie, as every inch of mortal flesh bears witness. But like all lies, in order to be believed, it has to be endlessly repeated.

One of the most striking aspects of the saga of Hollywood producer and sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein, as told by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey who broke the story in the New York Times, is that he seems to have been at least as keen on the slow burn of coercion and resistance, which would sometimes go on for hours, as on any act of so-called consummation.

Rowena Chiu, 例如, describes how, shortly after being hired as his assistant, she endured four hours of threats, cajoling and bribes. 在最后, “He parted her legs, and told her that with one single thrust it would all be over”. She managed to get out of the room. (What exactly, we might ask, was in it for him?) Clearly, for Weinstein, the revulsion he provoked was a core component of his pleasure, which is not to say that he did not also wish to get his way with these women. “If he heard the word ‘no’,” commented one of the key witnesses in the February 2020 New York rape trial, who chose not to be named, “it was like a trigger.” For Zelda Perkins, another assistant who was subjected to his assaults, he was “pathologically” addicted: “It was what got him out of bed in the morning.”

If sexual violence always tends to spiral out of control, it is because the agent of that violence must know deep down he is on a losing wicket. Weinstein’s physical collapse after his arrest can therefore be read not just as a staged plea for sympathy – a day after photos were released showing him using a walking frame on his way into court in December 2019, he was seen walking around a supermarket unaided – but also as an inadvertent display of the fragility and eventual bitter truth of the human body, a truth his predatory behaviour was designed to conceal from the women he abused, from the world, and from himself.

This suggests to me that one reason why he got away with it for so long, why so many people in the profession chose to turn a blind eye, was not just brute negligence towards women, nor fear of the career-destroying consequences for anyone who dared to speak out; it was also because no one wanted to open the Pandora’s box of a man like Weinstein’s inner world, to look too closely at his greatest fears – any more than they wanted to recognise what, given half a chance, such a man might be capable of.

Ťhis puts anyone seeking to combat these forms of violence in something of a double bind, or at least imposes on us the need for special vigilance. If sexual violence arises from a form of tunnel vision, and from burying those aspects of the inner life that are most difficult to acknowledge or see, it is also the case that raising violence to the surface of public consciousness is not always transformative in the ways we would want it to be.

Perhaps nowhere so much as in the field of sexual oppression does the adage apply that recognising an injustice, and bringing it to the world’s attention, is no guarantee that the offence will be obliterated and justice prevail.

Weinstein’s February 2020 conviction for criminal sexual assault in the first degree and rape in the third degree, along with his jail sentence 的 23 years the following month, are a victory for women. 他是, 然而, cleared on the two most serious charges of predatory sexual assault, which means that one of the women – the actor Annabella Sciorra, who had been the first woman to testify against him in a criminal court – was not believed.

The suggestion by Weinstein’s lawyer, Donna Rotunno, that she would be an “excellent witness” as she had spent her whole life “acting for a living” appears to have been effective – as if only liars make acting their career. The idea that this trial dismantled once and for all the image of the “perfect” rape victim – someone unknown to the assailant, certainly not in a relationship with him that continued after the rape, able to recover and recount her experience with perfect clarity almost from the moment it happened – might also have been premature. There is also the risk that the fame that put him under the spotlight might turn out to have served as a distraction from the perennial, “mundane” nature of sexual crime.

In this case, revulsion against a sexual felon – the revulsion that also appears to have fuelled his own desire – and the law were on the same side. But time and again we see the legal struggle for redress against sexual assault brought up against the most stubborn forms of resistance and sidelining. This seems to be due, at least in part, to the fact that human subjects can be roused by what disgusts them; that licentiousness, even in the political order that is meant to tame and subdue it, can be a draw. This certainly seems to have played a part in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, when his ugly misogyny was either dismissed as mere masculine playfulness, or else championed, and positively fired up his base, as it continues to do to this day.

Chelsea Clinton has described such misogyny as “the gateway drug”, a soporific that lulls the senses and opens the door to greater nastiness to come. Permission is granted to a vicarious frisson of erotic pleasure and rage, so often directed towards women, which no one is in a hurry to admit to.

By common assent, Trump is a law-breaker: two rape accusations, one made and then withdrawn by his first wife, Ivana, and one from the journalist E·让·卡罗尔, who has sued Trump for defamation on the grounds of his denials and aspersions; multiple cases of sexual harassment, by his own boastful acknowledgment; numerous exploitative hiring and financial practices swept under the carpet or settled out of court, but still publicly known; not to mention the grounds for his impeachment in 2019 – abuse of power for political gain (passed by the House of Representatives and then blocked in the Senate).

Likewise Boris Johnson. There is evidence that in 1990, he agreed to provide the address of a journalist to a friend who wanted to arrange for the journalist to have his ribs cracked as revenge for investigating his activities.

In the case of Trump’s first impeachment, it was not that his supporters even necessarily agreed with him that the charges were a “hoax”, as he repeatedly claimed in the face of mounting evidence against him, or even that he could do no wrong. Rather, it was that he was adulated in direct proportion to the wrong that he clearly could do. It is because he was transgressive – because, in the words of US TV host Rachel Maddow, he could be relied upon to do something “shocking, wrong or unbelievably disruptive” – that it became “a rational newsworthy assessment to put a camera on him at all times”.

If violence is so rousing, it would seem to be in direct proportion to its power to suspend anything vaguely resembling thought, to release the rush of blood that gives you no time to pause. It allows no introspection, even though – or because – violence plunges so deeply into who we are. A law-breaker at the summit of politics is enticing. Arendt wrote of the danger to the social fabric posed by a world in which state authority and its laws have degenerated to the point where civil order and democracy, or even mere decency, come to be felt as treacherous: “Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognise it – the quality of temptation.” A lawless regime relies on the hidden guilt of human subjects, drawing them into the illicit, dissolute world to which everybody already at least partly belongs in the unconscious (no one is fully innocent in their dreams; forbidden thoughts are the property of everyone). 或者, in the words of a southern Baptist woman, asked on BBC television how she could vote for Trump given his moral failings: “We are all sinners.”

“Why”, asked German columnist Hatice Akyün in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, after the murder in June 2019 of Walter Lübcke, a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party (CDU), “are the people of my country not flooding to the streets in disgust?” Lübcke had been killed by a neo-Nazi as revenge for his sympathetic stance on migration. In October 2019, a video was released by a pro-Trump group with connections to the White House, which depicted Trump killing opponents and political journalists (in one sequence, the faces of all those shot, stabbed and punched were covered with the logo of CNN). When challenged, the organiser of the website insisted that the video was merely “satirical”: “Hate-speech is a made-up word. You can’t cause violence with words.”

Ťhere is a poison in the air, and it is spreading. This world of sanctioned violence, violence elevated to the level of licensed pleasure, is by no means exclusive to Trump and Johnson – even if, by general recognition, they similarly combine the qualities of self-serving autocrat and clown. The glow of attraction between them rivalled that of Reagan and Thatcher, whose belligerent neoliberalism in the 80s prepared the ground for so much of the destructive global order that has followed. But the rise of dictators across the world who boast of their prowess and nurse their distastes – in Hungary, Turkey, 波兰, Brazil, India – suggests that we are living, or may be on the verge of living once more, what Arendt described as temptation gone awry.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has proclaimed that he will finish the task of the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 到 1985. 在 2003, he told Maria do Rosário, a fellow member of congress, that he would never rape her because “you do not deserve it”. Perhaps most telling of all, 他 once quipped that only a “moment of weakness” can explain why one of his five children “came out a woman”. The formulation “came out a woman” is the real giveaway, as if an infant’s sexual destiny as woman were fixed from the beginning and she has no right to any other ideas. His words resonate with potential sexual violence, not just because he clearly holds all women in such brazen contempt. Ensuring that women will be women and nothing else, pinning them down as women, can be seen as one of the core motives of rape, which is why all rapes, not only those targeted at lesbian women, should be defined as “corrective” (In Brazil, a woman is the victim of physical violence every 7.2 seconds.)

Trans experience, also the target of violence, belongs here, 也, as it clearly binds the issue of sexuality to that of political struggle – freedom achieved and withheld. Despite being far more widely accepted than ever before, transgender people are still being killed for daring to present the world with the mostly unwelcome truth that sexual identity is not all it is cut out to be. Not everyone comfortably belongs on the side of the inaugurating sexual divide where they originally started, or to which they were first assigned.

Some cross from one side to the other, some see themselves as belonging on neither side, others on both (these options are by no means exhaustive). Sexuality creates havoc. Kicking it back into place – a doomed project – is one way in which an oppressive culture tries and fails to lay down the law. Bolsonaro has explicitly stated that removing “gender theory” from the university curriculum is a chief objective of his educational reforms.

Repeatedly, we see what intimate companions political and sexual coercion can be. 在西班牙, the ultra-right Vox party made huge gains in the country’s 2019 elections, entering congress for the first time. Visiting Madrid in April that year, I was handed one of its flyers, which specifically targeted “supremacist feminism”, “radical animal rights activists” and the LGBTQ lobby. “Supremacist feminism” is the sister term to “feminazis”, coined by the late US rightwing radio host Rush Limbaugh to describe radical feminists – who, he claimed, “want to see as many abortions as possible”.

实际上, the rise of Vox in Spain was propelled by the increased visibility of feminist protest against sexual violence, notably the nationwide demonstrations that followed the infamous “wolf-pack” rape of a young woman in Pamplona in 2016, and the trial that took place two years later. When two of the judges ruled that the men were not guilty of rape as there had been no violent coercion, and a third absolved the defendants completely of the charge, thousands of protesters filled the streets. A year later, in September 2019, protesters in more than 250 towns and cities across Spain declared a “feminist emergency” after a series of high-profile rape cases and a summer in which 19 women were murdered by current or former partners (the worst figures for more than a decade).

This is the context in which Vox agitates for the repeal of laws tackling gender-based violence, for the removal of all gender reassignment and abortion procedures from public health services, and for the dissolution of all federally funded feminist organisations. They have also called for the abolition of the Law of Historical Memory, which was designed to ensure that the legacy of Franco is not forgotten, to be replaced by a ministry to protect the rights of the “natural family” as an institution prior to the state, and for the building of a frontier wall to halt illegal immigration “encouraged by globalist oligarchies” – child migrants were presented as a special menace. Each one of these is an unabashed incitement to violence – against women, migrants, and against historical memory, which is being wiped off the page.

Far-right parties do not all hold the levers of power, but they stalk its corridors, releasing their ugly permissions into the mental and social atmosphere. “We’re only saying what everyone is thinking” is the common justification and refrain. They wrap themselves in the mantle of redemption, as if they were saving the world from burning injustice (righteousness raised to the pitch of frenzy is the particular skill of the far right). “Hate can exist without any particular individuals,” comments the narrator of Edouard Louis’s bestselling 2016 novel History of Violence, which narrates the story of his rape after a casual encounter on the Paris city streets. “All it needs is a place where it can come back to life.”

It is a paradox of human subjectivity that knowing you are capable of violence – recognising it as your problem, instead of blithely assigning it to someone else (of another race, class, nation or sex) – reduces the chances of making it happen. The idea of crushing violence – stamping it out or eradicating it from the Earth – simply increases the quotient of violence we have to face. We have seen this before, at the centre of 20th-century Europe, in the belief that the first world war would be the war to end all wars, a delusion that allowed that same war and its aftermath to carry on silently laying the groundwork for the next.

We are all subjects of violence, not least because we are embedded in a violent social world. There is always a point in any ethical position or turn – the struggle against injustice, the fight for a better, less violent order – where it starts and stutters, trips and breaks, before setting out on its path once more. At the beginning of The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt writes: “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think about what we are doing.”

If there is one thing of which writing about violence has convinced me, it is that if we do not make time for thought – which must include the equivocations of our inner lives – we will do nothing to end violence in the world, while we will surely be doing violence to ourselves.

This is an edited extract from On Violence and On Violence Against Women by Jacqueline Rose, published by Faber on 15 April and available at guardianbookshop.co.uk

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