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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ell as working for a wage. When Marxists argue that it is the lack of power which underpins mens violence to women, this does not deny the unequal relations between women and men, but locates the fundamental reason why individuals bash or rape other human beings in the first place. The oppression of women and the masculine stereotypes explain why it is overwhelmingly men who attack women, not the other way around. However, women do attack those less equal in their homes: their children. I have never found a feminist who will argue this is because of womens power. To be consistent with the «male power» theories, this would have to be the explanation.

The problem with most research done on these questions is not only that the Marxist concept of class is not understood (often for instance, including white collar workers as middle class, blurring different class positions so that it is impossible to interpret the data in class terms); but also that most research actually sets out to discredit class theories, which affects the clues they look for and the way data is recorded. A survey in which women say their husbands battered them because they did not provide meals on time or refused them sex does not disprove the theory of alienation. No-one, when asked why they drink heavily or indulge in other alienated behaviour will attribute it to «alienation». If it could be recognised so readily, it would be easy to organise to rid ourselves of the cause of the alienation capitalist class society!

However, analysing violence against women in class terms does not simply involve dividing society into classes and measuring the level of violence. The working class is not a homogeneous whole there are all kinds of divisions, some of which (such as religious or ethnic) are often deliberately fostered by the ruling class, or are strengthened as workers look to these identities for solace and support in difficult circumstances. Others arise more directly from divisions in the workplace: white collar workers as a group have different traditions and see themselves differently from wharf labourers or coal miners. These divisions are not set and static. White collar workers identify much more as workers today then a few decades ago. Therefore any study which examined the incidence of violence would have to be sensitive to many varying factors, influences and sometimes rapidly changing situations. Workers involved in high levels of struggle are likely to exhibit less violence. This is often remarked on by participants in mass struggles, especially revolutionary movements. None of these factors is taken seriously in studies which are intent on proving the fundamental division is men against women.

The actions of men who assault women and those of the ruling class, both male and female, shows the difference between alienated behaviour, the result of powerlessness and the use of real power. The media barons actively promote sexist images. They are responsible for helping create the environment where women are attacked. But this is only part of the picture. Employers use the oppression of women quite blatantly to employ them for lower wages in factories with the most appalling conditions and often humiliating practices designed to keep the women in their place. Women in the ruling class employ women as servants for low wages, reinforcing the unequal relations of men and women in the workforce. Prominent middle and upper class women such as Caroline Chisholm last century, Women Who Want to Be Women today, and women who edit womens magazines for mass circulation, actively promote the sexual stereotypes. At a meatworkers picket in Albury in 1991, women played a prominent role trying to stop scabs. Wives of the meat bosses came to the picket and argued to the women workers that their behaviour was unfeminine, and they should not be involved in such disgusting activity. This incident highlights how the feminine stereotype benefits the ruling class. If women can be convinced that class struggle is unfeminine, it weakens workers ability to win concessions. On the other hand, the stereotype is not in the interests of working class men, an argument which is often won on picket lines with previously sexist workers. To compare the use of the stereotypes for profit of the ruling class with the violence of men with no social power, oppressed in the workplace and with few options in life is to completely confuse the idea of what social power is, and to let those responsible for the kind of society we live in off the hook. If we merely want to analyse peoples activity as a matter of academic interest, this remains an abstract question. If we want to change the world, it becomes of central importance.

The method adopted by Kirkby and Orr of attempting to distinguish between fundamental cause and less fundamental contributing factors is fair enough. The problem lies in their separation of gender oppression from class relations and their concern that giving any weight to the other contributing factors somehow will downgrade the importance of gender oppression. A Marxist approach is to attempt a concrete analysis in the framework of an understanding that alienation and class exploitation are fundamental. Then we can show how womens own economic independence (or lack of it), changing (or static) attitudes regarding womens role come together in the institution of the family.

For all their weaknesses, the most recent books at least focus on womens experience in the most important institution for understanding womens oppression the family. The shift in emphasis from the «stranger danger» stressed by Brownmiller, to the endemic violence towards women in the family is welcome not simply because it more accurately reflects reality, but also because it has encouraged analysis of the family as an institution. For all the weaknesses of a book such as Family Violence, it avoids the sweeping generalisations of earlier feminists such as de Beauvoir and Brownmiller who shared a vision of women as universal victims of male dominance. Their books are immensely influential and back up the widely held view in academic anthropology that women have always been regarded as inferior to men. The most recent books do not explicitly support this idea. Nevertheless, the idea that society is fundamentally divided between men and women is so powerful that without a complete break from it any analysis ends up accepting some version of the idea of «male power». So it is necessary to establish the serious flaws in the work of writers who propound theories of patriarchy or male power and to show that women have not always been oppressed. This provides a sound basis on which to understand that class society is the fundamental cause of womens oppression, and the fight for womens freedom from violence is bound up with the fight for socialism.

Marx explained the rise of classes as the result of the production of a sufficient surplus in society to enable a minority to be freed from work and to live off the labour of the majority. Friedrich Engels argued in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State that womens oppression arose with the development of private property and this division of society into classes. In order to keep control over their property and right to exploit, it was necessary for men of the new ruling elite to exert control over womens reproduction in a way previously unknown. This led to the family where women were subordinated to men. In order to oppress the women of the new elite, all women had to be controlled and regarded as inferior. Engels concluded from this that womens oppression would only cease with the end of class society. Engels theory was grounded in the proposition that the way human society organises production is central to all other aspects of life, that ideas do not come out of the blue, but are products of real material and social circumstances.

Brownmiller and de Beauvoir share a glaring weakness; the enormity of their assertions compared to their research or analytical material. De Beauvoir, in a chapter on the supposed «Data of Biology» writes about all mammals as though the sexual activity of whales and dolphins can tell us about human society. From this, the male is the superior, aggressive, competitive being, while the female is «first violated … then alienated she becomes, in part, another than herself by the fact of a lengthy pregnancy. In an attempt to deny her biological determinism, de Beauvoir appeals to the individualistic theories of existentialism which in turn confirm womans «enslavement… to the species» She accepts the reactionary concept «man the hunter» so common in anthropology and right wing popularised views of human nature: «In times when heavy clubs were brandished and wild beasts held at bay, womans physical weakness did constitute a glaring inferiority.»

So in spite of her professed attempt to show that womens position is defined culturally, she repeatedly returns to the concept of a fixed, unchanging human nature, and one which fits with reactionary views of humanity at that. It is not clear why, if this will to dominate is part of original human consciousness, there is any point in discussing womens oppression surely it is inevitable.

Brownmiller has been very important in establishing the idea that men have always been violent towards women. It is therefore worth looking at her argument at some length. The striking thing about the book is its complete lack of knowledge of anthropological studies and complete lack of scientific enquiry in support of her sweeping generalisations. How do we know rape is used by all men to intimidate all women? Brownmiller «believes» it.»

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