OK, I really need to get on with work, not joining in the fun and multi-valent discussion on my dating post. But I want to start unpacking the tangle in this thread, starting from pw201's comment that violence against women is so often taboo (even among men who might be violent to other men, I think) that I was shocked to learn that women genuinely feel they might be at risk of it.
So far two women have commented that violence against women absolutely isn't taboo, and three men have maintained that it is, and lots of people haven't seen the discussion because it's buried at the bottom of a long and collapsed thread.
Facts: yes, women are afraid of violence, particularly sexual violence. Some of that I think isn't justified. But even if you're male you must be aware of the background of chatter that it isn't safe for women to go out alone after dark, and a woman on her own should be careful in particular areas, and women need to learn self-defence, and all that kind of thing. Any woman who is alone with one or more men is going to be aware of that. She may reject it intellectually, but she's aware that she's expected to be afraid in such a situation.
Yes, women suffer from male violence. I mean, duh. I hope nobody is actually denying that this is true! There aren't any completely reliable stats on the prevalence of rape, and any rape at all is too much. But somewhere in the order of one in four women are raped or experience serious sexual assault during their adult lives. If that statistic is an order of magnitude out, it's still an extremely common crime. Unless you are a complete hermit, you almost certainly know several women who have been raped.
So, if there is a taboo, it's not working. I can think of several possible reasons for this. Speculation:
Maybe there isn't in fact a taboo. But the perception that there is one must come from somewhere. Since a taboo isn't actually a physical thing but a matter of perception, saying that there is a perceived taboo is the same as saying that there is a taboo.
Maybe the taboo just means that violence against women takes place in secret, not in the open, as neonchameleon suggests. This is at least partly true. Though things that are illegal tend to take place in secret anyway, which doesn't say much about whether they are taboo or not.
Maybe the taboo is very limited in scope. Incest, for example, is pretty uncontroversially taboo; some people still commit incest, and a lot more fantasize about it, but they are likely to be very acutely aware that it is considered disgusting by most of society. Is that the case for rape and violence against women? To an extent yes; just about everybody would enthusiastically agree to the proposition that rape is wrong. However, you're a whole lot more likely to see rape portrayed and discussed in the mainstream media than you are to see incest. As for more general violence against women, pretty much any film or novel that includes violence at all is going to include a portrayal of female victims. It's seen as bad, maybe even especially bad compared to attacks on men, but it's out there, it's part of the background in a manner that doesn't seem congruent for something that was really taboo.
Maybe only a proportion of people accept the taboo. Obviously, the great majority of people would never dream of raping a woman in any circumstance. I think we can discount most of them as being people who are not violent anyway; they don't hold back from raping women because of a specific taboo, they just generally don't have any inclination to do anything like that. Are there some people who wouldn't hesitate to get into bar brawls with men who look at them funny, or beat up men in order to rob them, but would never lay a hand on a woman? Yes, probably such men exist, but I would guess it's a very small category.
I don't agree with the implication in the comment discussion that "men like us" hold the taboo, whereas some unspecified group of outsiders are barbarians who often hurt women. There is no indication that educated men are less likely to rape than less educated men, or that white men have more respect for women than any other ethnic group. To the extent that violence against women is taboo, it is often used to demonize outsiders, foreigners, or poor people, or people of a different religion. It's unhelpful to give any credence to what is essentially a xenophobic myth.
Maybe rape is not seen as violence. This is the explanation I most favour. You might well find men who would never punch a woman in the face, because that genuninely is taboo, but would hold a woman down and force her to have sex, or would have sex with a woman who was unconscious or extremely drunk or mentally incompetent. Or who would use implied threats of violence to get women to comply, such as violence against her pets or breaking things in front of her or cornering her somewhere she couldn't escape or get help and then initiating sex.
Maybe the taboo doesn't apply to all women. neonchameleon brought up the idea of chivalry, which is a definite example of this. "Good" women, who are upperclass, sexually "pure" and usually beautiful, are protected by chivalrous men, even to quite extreme extents. Women who fall outside this magic circle are fair game. However, most of the time it's a lot more subtle than that; most men these days do not claim to be following the rules of chivalry, or openly admit to raping peasants, servants and so on.
But there's a kind of weird division going on among misogynists where some women don't really count as people. You get some deeply sexist men who will go on about how they respect and admire and of course are attracted to women, and would beat up anybody who ever touched a woman when he shouldn't, and so on. But they also go on about slags or sluts or bimbos or hos or some other word which basically means, women who have sex outside committed relationships. Such women are discussed in the most graphic terms; this kind of sexist doesn't usually admit openly to wanting to rape such women, but he does talk about all the terrible things that might "happen to" her if she goes about dressed like that, and anyone who gets drunk and goes home with strange men must be "asking for it", and she obviously has "no self-respect" (so why should I respect her?).
Similarly, there's the undercurrent of justification for domestic violence. Of course beating your wife is wrong, but she was such a terrible nag, she drove him to it. Even more so if he suspected her of having an affair; violence in that case is seen as a crime of passion, or justified revenge. Obviously, I don't think it's morally acceptable for women to cheat on their husbands, but the appropriate response is to divorce them, not to beat them to a pulp or shoot them, and the latter happens far more often than would seem reasonable if violence against women were really taboo.
So in short, my question is, if violence against women is such a taboo, why is it that so many women get attacked?
I've set comments to partial screening here because sometimes this kind of discussion attracts trolls. If you have something intelligent to contribute but you're not on my flist, be patient, I'll unscreen your comment as soon as I get to it. I do also expect people to engage sensitively; bear in mind that just on a statistical basis there are probably women reading this who have been raped in the past, so it's not just an abstract hypothetical issue to play intellectual games with.
Taboos are often against talking about things, or about doing them in public, not against doing them. (On a mundane level, this makes sense: for example, a taboo against urinating in public is useful; one against urinating at all would be impossible for humans to follow.)
In particular, a large piece of this taboo is against identifying the violence. There has been, and to some extent still is, a taboo against the victim talking about the crime, whether or not she names the criminal. Part of that is the undercurrent you mention--if enough people believe, and say, that "she must have asked for it," reporting the crime can make other women, and men, think worse of the victim than if she keeps quiet, maybe says something vague about "not feeling well" rather than go to an event where she couldn't hide the physical effects. A woman can report that her bag was snatched, or that a burglar broke into her home and stole her jewelry, without people thinking that there's something inherently wrong with her, just as a man or a woman can report a car theft, and at most get well-meaning advice to consider renting garage space.
[and now I'm going to go back and look at that other thread]
*lightbulb* So the taboo actually ends up making the situation worse, because if a woman is attacked, especially in an intimate context, it's very difficult to talk about. That chimes with some of the other suggestions people have made, about this imaginary, almost fantasy image of rape involving a random attack by a brutal stranger on a pretty woman. Because of the cultural idea of rape as the ultimate horror, it seems like something outside human ability to handle. But it doesn't seem something that is impossible to perpetrate, unfortunately.
I don't agree with the implication in the comment discussion that "men like us" hold the taboo, whereas some unspecified group of outsiders are barbarians who often hurt women.
I could specify some groups of outsiders if you like...
But other than extreme cases, part of the purpose of my comment was to state that there is a taboo particularly in certain circles - but this is not the same thing as saying that it does not happen. If anything the intended implication of the comment as a whole was that "men like us" hold the taboo - which is in large part sweeping the problem under the carpet rather than an actual claim to any superiority.
I'll post a reply to the substance later - but I wanted to clean up the potential misinterpretation first.
Thanks, that clarification does help. And you agree with several other commenters that the taboo aspect just means the issue doesn't get talked about or dealt with, not that violence doesn't happen. That's close to the secrecy idea that I picked up from your original comment.
I think there is a taboo, but it's one of these huge social hypocrisies, like the Victorian attitude to sex.
As you're no doubt aware, the great majority of rapes are committed by someone acquainted, at least casually, with the victim. There are presumably some rapists who fit the stereotype of someone lying in wait for a random victim to come along to pounce upon, but these are pretty much the exception. And I suspect (though I am largely guessing) that most actual rapists, whose victims are girlfriends, or ex-girlfriends, or someone they go on a date with or go home with after a party or whatever, are able to convince themselves (and receive general support for this view in their social circles) that this is not really rape, they wanted it really, women like it rough, no means yes, etc. etc. So they'd share in the general taboo of rape, think it's clearly wrong, but the thing they're thinking of is a fantasy version which doesn't apply to them. Basically, few people like to think of themselves as bad people, so we are very good (humans generally) at finding ways of defining categories of bad behaviour so as to exclude our own. It's a similar thing with racism. Almost no-one is a racist - it's a taboo these days. So they're "not racist but". The category of racism gets defined so narrowly as to exclude all but the most extreme racist behaviour and opinions.
With regard to violence against women more generally, again I think there is still the chivalric taboo. For most men, of any social group, it would be a shameful (and unmanly) thing to hit a woman in public, to pick a fight with a woman in a bar, etc. Even for men who might well pick a fight with another man. But hitting "your" woman in the privacy of your own home? Another matter. Again there will be all sorts of self-justifications going on, and I suspect a lot of subtle mental reclassification. (And domestic violence happens very much in middle class households as well as working class, on the point about "people like us" and "others").
Overall, I suspect various of your explanations have some truth, such as rape not counting as violence, the taboo not applying to all women, some men not counting women as people, etc. - but I'd add the explanation of the role of the taboo as setting up a particular, extreme and atypical, notion of unacceptable behaiour, with the effect of (and perhaps even to some extent the purpose of) justifying other forms of the same thing that don't fit the very narrow parameters of the taboo.
I think you're right. My original comment should have referred more specifically to the case where a woman is being bothered by a stranger in a public place, like a bar or club, or on the train (as mentioned in the Making Light posting used as an example). If a man is out with a group of men and gets blown off by a woman, however rudely, striking out in response would make him look very bad indeed, and would, I hope, send other men running to her aid (in the "is this guy bothering you?" sort of way, which can itself be a dominance display, to be sure, but which might be welcomed by the woman at that point).
Years and years and years ago, my father was a junior branch official in what was then the AEUW, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering workers.
Different unions - and, indeed, different branches - had their own distinct culture, and we're going back to the days when a union was, if not quite a brotherhood, a fellowship and social club and an old-style 'friendly society' that performed a lot of social and welfare work.
Needless to say, the job was more than drafting resolutions and representing the workers in discipliniary hearings. More, indeed, than calling on the widows and sorting out the odd dispute with the council Housing Office.
Bluntly, dad went 'round with the Branch Secretary to 'have a word' with men who beat their wives. They (and the convener, who approved all such actions and organised help* for the difficult cases) regarded such men with disgust - I heard the words 'weak little men' - and I have always filed away that little bit of his life alongside the knowledge that, before he wore a collar and tie to work, he carried a four-foot pipe wrench as his friend and companion among the thugs of Dublin Docks.
I digress. A Midland factory of skilled and semi-skilled workers was a society of men who did not tolerate violence against women and acted forcefully against it. But I suspect that the dockers - and the builders I lived and worked among when I was on the motorways - tolerated it. Even though they, too, were still a cohesive community before the atomisation of society that happened in the 1990's. I heard enough, over the after-work pint, to know what went on: a woman with brothers was usually left alone (I heard them boast of 'sorting out' the problem) but that was all... And not nearly enough.
It is certainly not 'taboo' in the lower strata of society. And I suspect that, in a less cohesive society on general, the social pressure that kept it down has evaporated: a 'taboo' is an act of community.
*I saw the 'help' once; a truly terrible man who blotted out the sun. He referred to them both as 'Brother' - very old-style - and I believed him to be a collier, although I never heard his name or spoke to him. I must have been about eight years old at the time.
God alone knows what favours the miners owed us, to offer the services of such a man.
What a story, thanks so much for discussing it here! I'm not terribly good at class analysis; I think I would have lumped together everyone you've mentioned as "working class". But it's a very good point that in order to have a real taboo, you have to have a community who can enforce it. I was thinking of "the West" as one giant society, and asking whether there is a real taboo regarding violence against women. But that isn't a sensible way to frame the issue, the question needs to be asked about specific social groups.
This might come out a bit jumbled because I should really be reading for my thesis rather than exploring this issue so I'm going to jot down my thoughts rather than carefully working out what to say.
I think with violence toward women, like with sexual child abuse, there's a huge taboo about something that a very large proportion of the population have the urge to do. The taboo conditions people to feel guilty about even acknowledging the urge they have to do the Bad Thing. I think the way people psychically deal with this is to externalise the Bad Thing onto a archetype that they can distance themselves from.
So Rape stops just being having sex with a woman without her consent and becomes a stranger on a dark (probably rainy) night violently attacking a white, middle-class, virginal woman. She's young and pretty. He's big and physically strong, possibly armed. She cries, begs for mercy, screams. He leaves her, a crumpled heap, covered in bruises with salaciously torn clothing. That's the image of rape we see in films. That's the image of rape we have in our heads.
So a man who just happened to have sex with a woman without her consent can rest assured that he isn't a Rapist because he knew the woman he had sex with and she didn't scream. He raped her during the day so it wasn't Rape. She'd had sex before, in fact, she'd had sex with him before so it wasn't Rape. She was ugly so she must have been been grateful really so it wasn't Rape.
Statistically, a scarily huge proportion of the male population has raped or sexually assaulted a woman, but thanks to the stereotype, most of them can rationalise themselves out of being Rapists.
The achetype of Rape also misdirects women's fears toward the outside and strangers when statistically a woman should really be scared of the men closest to her. Perhaps this adds to the attractiveness of the archetype. We don't want to think of our loved ones as the people who are most likely to rape and kill us. We also want to be able to feel like we have some control over our risk of being raped and 'don't go out alone at night' is a much easier thing for most women to do than 'don't have any kind of relationship or friendship with a man', even though the latter would be a far more effective way for a woman to avoid being raped.
I agree with this. In addition, I think that this is one of the main reasons why the statistics for prosecution of rape in this country (UK) are so low. If the police caught up with someone who attacked a white, middle-class woman in the streets, leaving her bruised and beaten, then the prosecution would be easy. However, if a woman goes to the police because her husband of 10 years has raped her, then, however much the trauma, however much the police are convinced by her story, they know that they have no hope of providing sufficient evidence that the sex was nonconsensual to persuade a jury.
I think there is a difference between violence, and rape, and it is a mistake to conflate the two. Rape can be violent, but is not always.
Specifically, violence *has* to involve physical assault. Being threatening, manipulation, drugging etc are all horrid activities but they are not violence. Saying otherwise starts a very slippery slope which starts with direct physical attacks and ends with thought crime.
If it's not violent, but is still a form of assault or violating a person it should be more correctly described as abuse.
You're right. You're so right. Part of the reason that rape isn't counted as violence is that sometimes it actually isn't. I suppose people talk of sexual violence to make it clear that rape is more than "just" having sex when you don't want to. But it would be perfectly possible for someone to hold a taboo against violence towards women, but still commit rape because that isn't covered by the taboo. Thanks for making the distinction clear.
Most women are also ashamed of going to the police or any authority although we have the human rights here which should protect the victims.
There Islamic countries and properly others as well where there is a hierarchical system where women have no rights. Men can do whatever they like with them. It is an absolutely terrifying situation. I am glad not living there.
Good point about the barriers to reporting. At that level it seems that the police are not upholding any real taboo about violence against women; in fact they are not even upholding the law against such violence.
I think we need to be careful about making gross generalizations about such things as "Islamic countries". There's a huge problem with rape in Christian and secular countries, and simply blaming it on those weird foreigners with their nasty misogynist religion doesn't help. I do agree that legally the situation is relatively good in the UK, but that's of limited use when social reality hasn't caught up with the legal status.
I agree with an earlier commenter that it is important to draw a distinction between sexual violence against women, and other violence against women. I think there is a taboo against violence against women, but that it doesn't entirely, in all circumstances, prevent that violence from happening.
In the case of general violence (that could be directed against men or women), like muggings for example, I suspect there is a taboo among potential muggers that discourages them from mugging women. That taboo is linked to societal chivalry, which comes from the perception that women, in general, are weaker and more vulnerable than men. That isn't to say that this taboo actually makes muggings of women not happen - it is just one factor going into a potential mugger's calculation as to whether to mug a particular potential victim. A mugger may sometimes opt not to mug a woman (especially in the presence of other men) because, of all the crimes he could commit, it would be perceived by his peers as one of the most cowardly options, and he might be (at best) derided for only being able to rob a helpless woman, or (at worst) be beat up by the other guys for attacking a woman - one who reminds them of their wives, sisters, and mothers. On the other hand, if the mugger is particularly desperate, and especially if he is alone and doesn't intend to try to brag about the crime, he may select a female target specifically because she is likely to be weaker (and more scared of rape) than a man, and more likely to give up her cash without a fight. So there may well be a taboo against violent crime against women, but, depending on the circumstances, it may have a stronger or weaker influence on the potential attacker, and may or may not actually prevent violence against a woman.
If we expand that concept to sexual violence against women, I guess we would expect violent rapes with one perpetrator to be more common than violent gang rapes, and that the perpetrators of violent solo rape wouldn't go out and brag about it much. In order for a man to feel comfortable that he will not be restrained (and expect that perhaps will be cheered on) by his male friends in a gang rape situation, I think he has to be confident that the potential victim is "other" enough to not remind his friends too much of their mothers and sisters. I suspect that violent gang rapes may frequently cross racial and/or socioeconomic lines - making the sexual violence more socially acceptable and weakening the chivalrous impulse among the attacker's peer group.
I guess, like the non-sexual violence situation, I recognize that there may be a social taboo influencing attackers in the direction of not hurting a woman, but that that taboo is not the only factor influencing them, and that it certainly can't be depended upon to prevent such attacks.
Thanks, interesting thoughts. I can believe that there is a partial taboo, but that there are other factors so the taboo on its own doesn't go all the way to stopping violence.
I wasn't thinking so much about violent crime such as mugging (yes, it's always a crime to assault people, but that's not the point), but more of directly personal violence. That's the kind of situation where chivalry is more likely to be relevant.
I'm not a criminologist, but I find it unlikely that muggers are primarily aiming to impress their mates, they're aiming to get some cash. I have definitely read of cases where women are targeted precisely for the reason that fear of rape makes them more likely to give up their money, as you described. It's not so much that women are weaker as that (most) women are heavily conditioned against fighting, and that makes them softer targets. I would guess.
That's a very good point you make about rape, though. Yes, rape of one woman by one man is kept very secret, and probably the perpetrator even denies it to himself, as other people have mentioned. There is certainly some degree of taboo that is being violated there. But it makes a lot of sense that gang rape is more common if the victim is other, and therefore outside the protected group of women one is supposed to be chivalrous to.
My assumption is that there is a taboo. It's not considered acceptable for anyone to approve of attacks against women.
On the other hand, as you have pointed out there being a taboo does not stop people doing things, be it incest or BDSM or rape.
The idea of a taboo is, and always has been, a matter of public behaviour. Public behaviour is almost always different from private behaviour, therefore there being a taboo on a particular act will not prevent people from doing it secretly.
In the end, no taboo is completely effective, simply because of that divide between public behaviour and private. It is simply a matter of how many people have the secret desire to do something that makes some taboos more effective than others. Very few people actively desire sex with a close family member, so that taboo is mostly effective. Most men desire sex with women, and a fair number of men are over-aggressive. This combination leads to rape, especially in situations where inhibitions are lowered (for some reason while it is often pointed out that women get drunk and are raped, it is never stated as a possible reason for the rape if the rapist was drunk. People often accuse pornography/films/computer games for encouraging rape and completely ignore the probably extremely high effect that alcohol has on the number of rapes, which to my mind makes their arguments for banning the aforementioned targets rather hypocritical)(better stop there. got carried away)
I think you may have a point about Rape not necessarily being seen as 'violence', or even a crime. I suspect many Rapists use the 'she was asking for it', or equivalent, argument, to maintain their sense of self-respect ('I never hit a women in my life...', 'I always treated her well', etc).
Many rapes, indeed, I believe most, happen with a man the women knows. This being the case, rape and violence do not necessarily have to be tied, and it is important to acknowledge that non-consensual sex is rape whether violence was involved or not.
For all that it is considered un-politically correct to say so, I do think some men (yes, white, educated, middle class men), do still see the woman with whom they are involved, girlfriend, wife, as, on some level, property. 'If I want sex, why shouldn't I have it?' 'She said 'yes' yesterday, so why should today be different', 'she loves me, hence she has already given her consent' etc. The idea that a women retains fundamental possession of her physical body inside a relationship is not very firmly established even in western tradition (and indeed, rape within marriage has only been illegally in the UK since 1994 - see Home Office Research Study 237, Rape and Sexual Assault of Women: the Nature and Extent of the Problem).
Perhaps from the other direction: suppose we assume a certain amount of violent inclination present in all people, rather like it's pretty safe to say that people have broadly the same amount of anger. If men get angry, or by extension violent, it's not nice but it's okay. On the other hand, if women get angry or violent, it's very much not okay at all. You're not a proper woman any more if you get angry, so a lot of women suppress being angry; perhaps the same is true to some degree of violent impulses? Then you would come up with the answer: men being violent is taboo insofar as violence generally is frowned upon, but women being violent is absolutely, utterly taboo, so much so that it generally isn't even much of an issue because it doesn't even surface.
Of course there are other factors like it being dumb to start hitting someone who is bigger and stronger than you - those aside.
Taboos are about things folk are afraid will happen. Homosexuality has been a taboo in monotheist cultures for centuries. Didn't stop it happening.
Men are typically bigger and stronger than women. So there is more male-on-female violence than the other way round. Of course, in Western countries, there is also a lot more male-on-male violence than male-on-female violence. Which suggests the taboo does have an effect (women typically being easier victims than other males).
I'm in the "it's taboo for some people" camp. I don't think it divides along class lines; certainly there are working-class men who would never strike a woman and upper-class men who strike women whenever they feel like it, and vice versa.
I'm one of the apparently rare women who aren't afraid of violence. I'm just...not. There have been some specific situations where I was afraid, but most of the men I know have experienced specific situations where they were afraid, too; I would say that my fear of violence is much more like the average man's than like the average woman's.
I just want to ad another thought. I heard that laws changed. I am not sure if it applies to all EU countries. Rape of the wife or partner at home was not regarded as rape. Now it is a crime. Even here you had not always the legal protection.
Hmm, I've been pondering this one for a day or so now.
I agree that there's a taboo of sorts against male violence towards women.
This sort of featured when I was 7 - 8 or so and some boys were hitting me at school. My instincts about equality were in full force and I rejected the idea that it was wrong for them to hit me because I was a girl. It was no more wrong than for them to hit another boy. I certainly hit back.
As a grown up, I still think that taboo is silly because it assumes women are unable to take responsibility for their choices and actions ie. 'If you were a man and did that, I'd hit you' while leaving male to male violence acceptable.
I also agree that there are instances of male violence towards women - I can see what other people are saying in terms of men not seeing their own behaviour as falling within that taboo.
I think there's a need for better education in terms of the real risk levels of particular activities, self defence training for both boys and girls, better communication skills [people asking for what they want, politely declining that which they don't & accepting other people's refusals gracefully].
This is likely to generate flames, but anyway; I think part of the reason it's so hard to get convictions for rape is that it's seen as a horrible crime and juries are wary of convicting lightly. If it was acknowledged that it was much more common a crime and somehow less taboo with less stigma attached to the people who did it, it would be easier to get convictions for it.