Sexual violence and capitalism

Increases in reported sexual assault do not necessarily reflect a rise in violence. It may, as Grabosky pointed out, reflect

Sexual violence and capitalism


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n youre married … its hard to delineate whats wanted and whats not. You cant just call it quits and go home!»

These statements are typical of the feelings which dominate the surveys. In many cases, because the woman feels she cannot refuse sex because of the expectations of marriage, the husband may not think of himself as ever having raped his wife. Of course their behaviour is uncaring and insensitive, ignoring their wifes sexual needs, of which at times they appear to be oblivious. But to say this kind of unwanted sexual activity (I call it this because in many cases the women do not feel it was rape, or that it was forced on them, because they accepted it) has nothing to do with sex is to gloss over the incredibly stunted and unfulfilling personal lives women and men have compared with the happy, smiling stereotype of the TV ads. In some ways, it is surprising that it is only a minority of women who suffer sexual assault and a minority of men who perpetrate it. This fact is an optimistic sign and affirms the refusal of the oppressed, both men and women to surrender their human sympathy completely in the face of the barrage from capitalism which degrades everything including sex to money relations.

The crime statistics Brownmiller relied on showed a clear class bias towards the disadvantaged involved in rape. However the question is far more complex when we look at domestic violence. Obviously men of all classes are influenced by the sexism of society, and are likely to see marriage as a licence to dominate their wives, because unequal relations exist between men and women of all classes. However, there is debate over whether sexual abuse occurs at different rates in different social groups and if so, why this is the case.

Because of the political shift away from class politics, not just by feminists, but in the academic world and even sections of the left, the analyses and surveys are heavily oriented towards trying to prove that class plays no role. One way of doing this is to put up straw positions. Jocelynne Scutt argues that her study «denies the theory that feelings of powerlessness and frustration solely underlie child abuse…» (my emphasis). Of course, these would not be sufficient to explain all abuse in the family; firstly it has to be explained why the overwhelming majority of abuse is by men towards women and adults to children. So the question of gender and attitudes to childhood, the role of the family etc have to be part of an explanation. She continues to make a more reasonable claim, that her survey does not prove these feelings «are experienced mainly by lower socioeconomic strata men». However, her study cannot tell us anything conclusive about the incidence of violence or reactions of individuals to their situation because it is too small a sample (312 participants) and is based on replies to a questionnaire. In another example she knocks down the argument that «unemployment inevitably increases wife-beating» (my emphasis). Such a statement would be absurd: today there would be a massive outbreak of marital violence, as unemployment skyrockets. But she does admit that unemployment made it more difficult to leave a violent situation, which does mean more violence for that woman than if she were well off.

There is an interesting contradiction in some of the arguments. Scutt is determined to discount economic pressures, or feelings of powerlessness arising from bad living conditions, an oppressive job and so on. She even suggests that men of higher socioeconomic position may be more violent because they internalise the social message of mens dominance more thoroughly. She speaks for many feminists when she puts the emphasis on the fact that «fathers are rulers in their household; he who rules is powerful». Yet when it comes to child abuse carried out by women, she accepts that feeling trapped, unable to cope and economic stress are contributing factors.

In spite of all the disclaimers about social class, in Family Violence it is accepted without question that Aboriginal communities suffer a high level of domestic violence. Liz Orr rejects the analysis that class may be significant, but then says «violence is endemic in contemporary Aboriginal society» why?

There is an assumption that if we can attribute the violence to «colonisation», «cultural subjugation» or «spiritual denial», then it is nothing to do with socioeconomic factors, that the theories of class have been defeated. «Colonialism» is presumed to be something other than imperialism, or class society, which axiomatically impacts negatively on the lives of the disadvantaged and oppressed. The fact that cultural subjugation and spiritual denial lead to increased levels of violence proves, rather than disproves, that unequal relationships between women and men can only be understood in the framework of a class analysis. This reveals a problem which occurs throughout the writing on the subject: lack of clarity about what a Marxist analysis is.

She maintains that domestic violence can best be understood in the context of unequal power relationships between men and women. There is, for example, a high correlation between traditional views of womens economic subordination to men and approval of husbands violence. She argues that to view family violence as an aspect of normal interpersonal conflict is misleading because all conflicts do not lead to violence and some men attack their wives when there has been no specific conflict. She is concerned that such an approach leads to focusing attention on preserving the family unit rather than «empowering» the abused women.

Orr makes a distinction between causes and contributing factors, which seems to be what Kirkby is getting at. Class deprivation may contribute to family violence, but it is not a cause. This differentiation is too rigid and leads to an attempt to isolate one factor which can be said to be the cause. This is very fruitful for «proving» that the unequal relations between men and women are the only cause, because the fact is of course, it is women who are on the receiving end. However this is not a productive approach if we want to understand how the situation can be changed. And it does not explain why a majority of men do not use violence. Unequal relations between men and women alone certainly do not explain the conditions mentioned by these writers among Aborigines. They are forced to acknowledge the effects of factors other than gender.

So even if we start with womens own experience, as Kirkby wants, we cannot escape the effects of economic and other factors on their likely victimisation. She herself admits that «women engaged in full-time home duties have been found in a number of studies to suffer a higher rate of abuse.» What we have to uncover is how the various economic, class and other factors intersect with the general oppression of women. In their concern to constantly put what they call «mens power» at the centre, these writers cannot theorise the totality of womens experience. To see the family as a place of conflict and tension does not lead to defence of the family. It can just as easily lead to the conclusion that, as the source of womens oppression, it should be destroyed. The fact is, those who emphasise «male power» do not advocate this at all. They are too concerned to demand that men change their behaviour and as we shall see below, theyre not too fussy about whom they take on as allies in order to achieve this. Or their analysis remains vague and confused. At the end of her article, Orr can only say lamely that violence against women «cuts across all age, class and race barriers, although the social response and cultural meaning of this violence is likely to vary.»

Jan Horsfalls book The Presence of the Past attempts a more theoretical analysis within the framework of patriarchy theory. Despite partial insights she cannot offer an analysis which explains why violence occurs.

She blithely ignores this potent question, asserting that male batterers of women gain «significant advantages» by their violence. What they are remains a mystery given that «the non-batterer can wield power in the same arenas without resorting to violence.» All we get is a hotchpotch of theories which see a fundamental division in society between a supposedly public, «male» domain and the private, «female» domain. Trade unions and the workplace are simply another place where working class men experience «male» solidarity and «retain some power in the public domain».

The ignorance of such a statement is breathtaking, given that women make up over 40 per cent of the workforce. The workplace is where women can gain potential power, as working class men do. Trade union organisation (and struggle, which she never mentions) is precisely where there is the greatest potential for unity between men and women which can undermine sexism and violence towards women.

The chapters on the structural causes of violence towards women remain purely descriptive. Aspects of Freuds and others theories are thrown together to describe what are supposedly the ways male and female gender attributes are constructed. The serious weakness is that it assumes children universally grow up in a two parent family. Only a third of families live this way in Australia today, divorce and remarriage are common, and in some countries in the less developed world workers often live in compounds and hardly experience this kind of family at all. Her narrow-minded, psychological approach blinds her to the fundamental problem. Capitalism de

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