To tackle all forms of interpersonal and sexual violence, the government needs to acknowledge that the patriarchy is the problem
Violence against women and girls, or VAWG, has become the shorthand way of describing all crimes such as domestic abuse, sexual violence, harassment and exploitation, some issues of trafficking, street harassment, online harms such as revenge porn and cyber flashing, covering a multitude of sins.
I am not that keen on the phrase although I do adopt it; it removes the agency from the perpetrator. Personally I prefer to refer to it as male-perpetrated violence.
For as long as I have worked in the field of interpersonal violence and abuse, in services that were exclusive to women, exclusive to men, and had a mixed client group, there has been a push to try to take away the tags of women and men from the conversation. Long before the current gender rows, I have sat in rooms where people profess as if no one had ever mentioned before that this violence happens to men too. No one has ever denied this fact. In fact, those of us who have this fact spat at us are more likely to have set up and run services for male victims of sexual violence than those who exclaim righteously on the subject.
In the Online Harms Bill the word ‘woman’ doesn’t feature
Men and boys suffer from interpersonal violence like domestic abuse, and they also make up a small but significant proportion of victims of rape and sexual assault. I know and love two women for example who both lost their older teenage sons to self-harm and suicide following a life living with a violent father.
So, the government releasing a strategy about men as victims of interpersonal and sexual violence is to be welcomed. However there have been eyebrows raised at the name of the strategy: “Supporting male victims of crimes considered violence against women and girls.” I am not sure why they couldn’t call it “Supporting men and boys who have suffered interpersonal or sexual abuse.” First, this would have dropped some of the stigma that men and boys may face in coming forward for what is considered to be a crime only against women.
Second, I am just not sure why the government continually wants to reject the idea of crimes that happen to women and girls at the hands of male perpetrators, and strip women and girls of the understanding needed to tackle these crimes. In the Domestic Abuse Bill they attempted to strip out all elements of it being a gendered crime. In the Online Harms Bill the word ‘woman’ doesn’t feature in hundreds of pages of documents. Violence against women is different to violence against men, it is not better or worse it is different, and it has to be understood in those terms in order for policy to actually work.
There are similarities of course. For a start, the main perpetrators of sexual and interpersonal crimes regardless of the sex of the victim is the same. It is men. It is patriarchal norms in our society that lead to power and control models that make perpetrators undertake violent and sexual crimes. In my experience men and boys suffer from living in a patriarchal society just as much as women and girls, it is the thing that tells them to achieve certain things, handle their feelings in a certain way and makes them assume they should be tough in the face of horror and crisis. It’s bad for all of us.
I do not think though that we help tackle these problems, which cause dreadful mental health in men and leave both men and women at risk of violence and sexual aggression, by ignoring the differences between the sexes and their experience of the world. We should have a strategy that looks to help men and boys who have suffered such violence but let’s call it that, instead of making it seem like a women problem that they were trying to keep all to themselves. Patriarchy is the problem.
Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding.
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