The Language of Gender Violence

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Laurie says:

The language that used to define and describe violence against women and children infuriates me.

I’ve been planning to post about it. I just had my attention brought Jackson Katz’s talk at Middlebury College in Vermont and it’s brilliant. He spoke on how common language is perpetuating gender violence today.

Quotes are from an excellent article in Middlebury Magazine by Robert Keren. He’s an award wining journalist.

Problems of gender violence, which include sexual violence, domestic violence, sexual abuse of children, and sexual harassment, are viewed by society as “women’s issues that some good men help out with,” rather than seen as men’s issues.

Men and masculinity “have been rendered invisible in much of the discourse” around gender violence, Katz said. This is not surprising since “dominant groups often go unchallenged in society, and their power and privilege goes unexamined.”

“[Gender violence issues] affect women at every level, but I am here to say that the very fact of just calling these issues ‘women’s issues’ is in itself part of the problem.”…

The first problem with using the term ‘women’s issues’ when talking about gender violence is it gives men an excuse to not pay attention. A lot of men hear ‘women’s issues’ and they tend to tune it out and think, ‘Hey, I’m a guy,’ and they literally don’t get past the first sentence.”

Another way that people discuss gender violence is through the use of the passive voice.

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.

“So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys and onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction; there’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them…Men aren’t even a part of it!”

Next, Katz used a whiteboard on the platform at Mead Chapel (giving credit to author Julia Penelope for the exercise that followed) and wrote:

John beat Mary
Mary was beaten by John
Mary was beaten
Mary was battered
Mary is a battered woman.

The first sentence, Katz explained, “is a good English sentence: a subject, a verb, and an object.” The second sentence is the first sentence written in the passive voice, and according to Katz “a whole lot has happened. The focus has shifted from John to Mary. John is now at the end of the sentence, which means that John is very close to dropping off the map of our psychic plane. So it’s not just bad writing to use the passive voice, it’s also political. And the political effect has been to shift the focus from John to Mary.”

In the third sentence John is gone. In the fourth, the term “battered” is substituted for “beaten,” and in the final sentence of the sequence “you can see that Mary has a new identity. She is now a battered woman and John is no longer part of the conversation.” How language holds victims accountable, rather than their perpetrators, is demonstrated by the way the word “accuser” has supplanted the term “alleged victim.”

“This,” Katz stated, “is a very big shift in the conversation about sexual violence. People who come forward to allege that they have been sexually assaulted are now referred to routinely as ‘accusers.’ There’s a lot going on here with the use of this word. The public is generally positioned to identify sympathetically with the victims of sexual assault or other forms of abuse. So when you hear about a sexual assault you think, ‘That’s horrible. That’s too bad. Or that could have been me or someone I care about.’”

But using the term ‘accuser’ reverses the process, because it turns the victim into an accuser. “So we as a public are now positioned to identify sympathetically with him as the victim of her accusation, rather than with her as the victim of his alleged perpetration. This is subtle but deep, isn’t it? It’s another instance where victims are being told to sit down, shut up, and don’t come forward because if you come forward you are going to be an accuser, and then people are going to be questioning your motives…it’s just another way that we in society keep people from coming forward.”…

And he closed with a quote from Frederick Douglass, the 19th century orator and activist, who said, “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”

This information has been around for at least 30 years, including Julia Penelope’s article Prescribed Passivity: The Language of Sexism.

There’s so much more to say about this, but this article is so clear and cogent it deserves to stand by itself.

Thanks to Amy Thomson and MJ Hardman

Manhood? Or Penis-hood?

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Debbie and Laurie say:

Photographer Laura Dodsworth has completed a major project on penises (following a project she did on breasts). She calls the project, and accompanying book, Manhood: The Bare Reality, saying “One word for penis is manhood, so it seemed a perfect starting point to talk about being a man.”

Dodsworth did some admirable things for this project: she went looking for a wide variety of models, including trans men, men with micropenises, disabled men, and at least one strap-on. If you want to learn about the variety of penises, this is great. The Guardian article linked here includes interviews with several of the models, and the book probably has interviews with all of them.

This is a project we want to like. Familiar Men taught us both a lot about men and their penises, and the subject is under-explored, especially visually. But Dodsworth made two choices which deeply undercut the value of her work:
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First, she chose headless, and surprisingly bodiless, photography. Because all the men are standing in the same position, the same distance from the camera, with their hands in the same positions, the message is that the penis is the only differentiation, and thus the penis is the man. Anything else that might be of interest about each man is invisible, and thus unimportant. (Her breasts project is done in exactly the same format, equivalently making the breasts the only interesting thing about each woman.) In the same vein, she chose to make all the men nameless: not only no full names, but no first names, no initials, no handles, no aliases. Just their age, and the picture of their penis. Dodsworth succeeds in dehumanizing her models, reducing them to a single view; the interviews dispel this a little, but not enough.

Part of Dodsworth’s narrative about both of these projects is how brave these people were to have un-airbrushed pictures of their sexual organs shown in public. It’s always brave to tell your story; nonetheless, when we read these stories and the only visual context we are given is a picture of the penis that goes with the story, we lose track of the full humanity of the person behind the interview.
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Familiar Men exemplifies photographs of men of a wide variety of ages, ethnicities and body types, showing their entire body and face to the world. In Laurie’s photography and our joint work, the penis is not the man. Where Dodsworth anonymizes, we strive to personalize.

Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for the pointer!