On 11 December, I was asked by my colleagues at an NGO to speak to a largely male audience on the occasion of White Ribbon Day (WRD), which marks the conclusion of the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence against Women. This year marked the 25 anniversary of the WRD which was started by a group of pro-feminist male activists in Ontario, Canada in 1991 as a response to the École Polytechnique massacre of 1989, where 14 women were shot dead by Marc Lépine, who claimed he was "fighting feminism."
While women's movements have made considerable progress over the last 25 years, much still remains to be done. Continuing crimes against women and children, socio-economic inequity, and a rising backlash against feminist and women's movements by men's rights activists (MRA) are among the central issues that I think we face today. In this article I wish to talk about the last one in detail, especially regarding violence against men. This is also partly in response to an article published in The Indian Express last week.
Gender-based violence—of which violence against women is a significant portion—operates on an asymmetry of power and privileges; it is embedded in social structures, and thus, cannot be "neutral."
The aforementioned article presented very pertinent issues of sexual violence against men and boys, which should inspire responses from feminists and activists who are committed to fighting gender-based violence. However, while I accept the author's premise, I believe that she conflates certain issues, inadequately questions some assumptions, and offers a false solution in terms of making laws gender-neutral.
Let me address these below.
First, I concede that there is a lack of studies focusing on male victims of sexual violence. In the US, several authors have drawn attention to this. Journalist Hanna Rosin's work, for instance, asks crucial questions with regard to how we can measure such incidences of violence (which are often perpetrated by women), and formulate responses based on it. A recent article in The Atlantic draws attention to a perhaps ignored aspect of sexual violence, the "female sexual predator," based on articles that review survey data in the US which indicate that a sizable number of perpetrators of sexual assault—on both women and men—tend to be women. This does challenge certain myths of sexual violence, and certainly needs to expand legal and sociological notions of what counts as rape, which until now largely focus on penile penetration.
However, the quantum of violence against women—which includes sexual violence, domestic violence, violence in workplaces, trafficking, etc.—continues to be much higher. The 2015 National Crime Records Bureau data, for instance, recorded nearly 3.14 lakh cases of crimes against women—accounting for 10.7 percent of all crimes committed. Although, there has been an overall dip of 3.1% in the crime rate since 2014, many researchers caution against viewing this uncritically, given the extent of underreporting crimes against women. Moreover, violence against women does not only include sexual violence, but also includes domestic abuse, and physical, emotional and financial abuse, contexts where gender-neutral laws would seriously ignore the specific and structural vulnerability of women.
Secondly, when we talk about male victims of violence we cannot ignore the social and political structures of patriarchy that produce conditions of violence, which are themselves gendered. Many feminists have continually insisted that gender-based violences are political-economic issues, and cannot be simply seen as men's violence against women. This makes the solution offered in the aforementioned article—"passing gender neutral laws"—particularly suspect, since gender itself is not neutral structure. As feminist scholar Joan W. Scott argues, gender was never a neutral concept; it is based on perceived differences between the sexes, and thus, signifies relationships of power and inequality (a point often echoed by women front-line workers I conduct research with). Even when we discuss cases of sexual violence where women are the perpetrators, the act of violence itself is significantly gendered in the way that survivors are silenced, and that their experiences are questioned or discredited. Gender-based violence—of which violence against women is a significant portion—operates on an asymmetry of power and privileges; it is embedded in social structures, and thus, cannot be "neutral." Indeed, gender-neutral laws would roll back precisely those gender-specific legislations that identify the systemic nature of gender-based violence, which enable us to talk about men's victimhood in the first place.
If the calls for recognising men's vulnerability to violence—including a whole spectrum of men—are based largely to discredit women's movements, then these calls are highly suspect.
Finally, one needs to question the privileged spaces from which such demands of gender-neutral laws emanate. Most men's rights activists today advance an upper-class/caste, heterosexual, bourgeois notion of masculinity. If men's victimhood has to be acknowledged, it cannot come at the cost of other men (and women) who are marginalised on account of their sexual orientation, race, caste, etc. If the calls for recognising men's vulnerability to violence—including a whole spectrum of men—are based largely to discredit women's movements, then these calls are highly suspect.
Feminist movements have learnt about the need for intersectionality and rectify their exclusions the hard way, which are now central to feminism. For men's movements to take seriously the issues of violence, they need to look more towards feminist responses to violence, which include social critique and solidarity. If, as men, we are to stop violence against other men, we need to remember and fully understand the meaning of White Ribbon Day. Questioning our privileges and our silences is non-negotiable; we cannot expect to have our backs patted or cheered on if, and when, we do make principled feminist stances. For that reason, it is imperative that we recognise the unpaid labour and emotional work that women have continually put in (which is also highly asymmetrical), and partake in it. In other words, we need more feminism, not less.