The FRA study from the EU agency for Fundamental Rights released last Thursday did the usual rounds with the same old figures: 1 in three women have experienced abuse in their lifetime, 1 in 10 within the last 12 months. We know this; we can recite these figures off by heart. The report is simply more evidence of the pervasive extent of women’s experiences of violence that is so engrained in our societies.
Liz Kelly once said that the continued recognition of the magnitude of violence against women results in further normalisation rather than leading to resistance. We know globally, nationally and locally men’s violence against women is an endemic social problem and an enduring human rights issue within all societies and cultures (Amnesty International, 2004; Bond and Philips, 2000). The prolific extent of male violence against women is confirmed by official data, reproduced worldwide, year after year.
I have been a volunteer, activist and researcher in the field of violence against women since I was 18. My most recent research looked at what primary school children think about men’s violence against women. When I was writing up the research I reflected upon what sociologist Ann Oakley calls my autobiographical path, thinking about why I became interested in this field.
Often women become involved in the area of working against men’s violence because of direct experience but I had always assumed that I was not one of them, as I didn’t have any personal history. However when I sat down and reflected I was shocked, not only by the list of abuses I had experienced, but by my normalisation and minimisation of them – and how I still remained affected by them. Kelly (1988: 23) claims the experience and /or naming of violence is not always an immediate or present one, rather it can be ‘experienced by the woman or girl at the time or later, as a threat, invasion or assault’. My own recalled experiences of abuse included: physical abuse, experiences of coerced sex, flashing and indecent exposure, sexual assaults, physical assaults, verbal sexual abuse. Being aware of my own normalisation of personal experiences of violence made me acutely sensitive to the young people’s narratives of their own experiences and conceptualisations of men’s violence against women.
When I spoke to boys and girls aged 11 and 12 I asked them about what they understood violence was, about why it happened and why. I also spoke to the young people about their own lives, their friendships, their experiences. For the majority of young people violence was something that happened in a public place, between adult men who were physically fighting. Crucially there were visible injuries and official intervention and consequence. That is the men’s behaviour was stopped, they were told they were wrong and suffered consequence (such as jail). This same sequence was replicated at school. Boys would physically fight in public and be told by the teachers or playground assistants that their behaviour was wrong and they were chastised for it.
But that didn’t happen for the girls. Girls told me about of a multitude of experiences; of being pushed, shoved, kicked, followed, called sexualised names from their male peers. These examples did not fit the standardised constellation structure of ‘real’ violence: age (adult); gender (man) space (public) action (physical) and crucially, are generally without official reaction or consequence. Time and time again the girls – when they approached teachers or those in authority were dismissed for telling tales, ignored because of the ‘trivial’ nature of their complaint or relayed that old adage, ‘he’s only doing it because he likes you’. Thus their experiences were minimised and the behaviours, normalised.
This not only results in girls being unable to access a framework by which to make sense of their own experiences, but it also serves to invalidate and minimise many of their own experiences of violence and violent behaviour which is then replicated in their adult lives where much behaviour is seen as what Dobash and Dobash (1992) termed the ‘everyday interactions’ between men and women; the everyday sexism documented here.
The feminist project of ‘naming’, ‘involves making visible what was invisible, defining as unacceptable what was acceptable and insisting what was naturalized is problematic’ (Kelly, 1988: 139). It enables women to name, understand and challenge what had happened to them, by moving the private into the public domain and shifting the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
For me this also explains why countries such as Denmark and Sweden had higher figures for men’s violence against women in the recent study. Those countries with greater levels of gender equality are more likely to provide ‘official’ recognition for women which enables them to not only name but also define their experiences as violence.
We need to start acting upon these figures, rather than finding different ways of presenting the same old story. Preventive education and public awareness campaigns to encourage resistance to violence are essential. But we also need to challenge the normalisation of violence. We must contest the dynamics in heterosexual relationships where men’s power over women is naturalised, normalised and used as a justification both of and for the violence.