by Yasmin Jiwani - Feminist Research, Education, Development & Action (FREDA)
Opinions are often used to justify particular points of view, even when these run contrary to established facts. Opinions are also often predicated on single examples -- the exceptions to the rule, or cases based on hearsay. Too often, such opinions are used to legitimize sexist, racist and homophobic points of view. Such is often the case with discussions regarding violence against women. Here, the mythical notion of consent is resurrected and used to absolve responsibility on the grounds that the violence is occurring between consenting adults. This strategic turn is then used to decry any kind of state interference in the bedrooms of the nation. As concerned citizens, it behooves us to look at the facts before buying into popular opinion.
There was a time in our venerated English common-law tradition (1767 to be exact), that a man could beat his wife without any remorse or social sanction as long as he used a whip that was no wider than the width of his thumb! This law was predicated on the notion that a wife was her husband's property and hence subject to his authority. It was a time when women were not considered to be persons, allowed to vote, or own property.
So prevalent was wife-beating at that time that in the 1800s, there were several attempts to introduce legislation that would give magistrates the right to publicly punish men who battered their wives. On all accounts, the bills were defeated. Nonetheless, the practice persisted and with immigration, was transplanted into the so called "new world." Here in Canada, women didn't achieve the status of being persons until 1929. It was not until 1975 that wives could claim any compensation for personal injuries sustained from a bout of beating by their husbands. Ontario was the first province to pass such progressive legislation. Finally, as a result of concerted lobbying and advocacy by women's groups, the federal law was reformed in 1983, making it possible for women to charge their husbands with sexual assault.
As the historical record demonstrates, we've come a long way since 1767, at least on paper! Yet there are those who would argue, despite evidence to the contrary, that violence in relationships is a consensual act. Such an argument fails to take into consideration the CONTEXT in which violence occurs. In sports, participants might engage in violence on a consensual basis -- they get paid for being there. They are usually evenly matched in size and strength, and there are no overt signs of inequality between them. But even there, the violence occurs in a controlled setting, visible to the public eye and governed by rules. It is a far cry from violence that occurs in the home, in a relationship grounded in inequality and shielded from public scrutiny.
Statistics paint a grim picture of domestic violence. There is no consent in relationships in which women are systematically demeaned, humiliated, ridiculed, beaten, and ultimately killed. In Canada, two women are killed per week as a result of domestic violence. British Columbia suffers the highest rate of violence against women in the country, at 59 per cent. Rather than focussing on individual cases, the pattern of violence reveals that men -- and women are the victims in 90 per cent of domestic violence cases -- inflict violence on their partners because of possessiveness and jealousy. Men also respond with violence when they feel that "their" women don't meet their expectations concerning domestic work, when they want to punish "their" women for some perceived misdemeanour, and when they want to exercise their power and authority in the home. In all of these instances, men regard "their" women as property. Violence escalates when women challenge this authority.
Nor is such violence confined to the home. From the bedroom to the civic domain, violence makes itself felt at every level. Taking the form of sexual harassment, date abuse, stalking, rape, and murder, it terrifies, intidimidates and restricts the liberty of its actual and potential victims. There is no consent involved in such violence. There is no justification for it. The only common denominator is that the men involved seem to feel that they own their women partners. The relationship is not equitable. As countless studies note, women in violent relationships are isolated from any kind of support. They are continually subjected to physical, emotional and verbal abuse, threatened with their own death and the death of their children should they attempt to escape or call out for help.
Yet, there are those who would argue that women who endure violent relationships must in fact consent to them. The question often raised is that if they do not like it, why do they stay? Existing research provides numerous answers to this question. Women don't leave because by the time they have experienced such violence, their self-esteem has plunged dramatically. They have internalized the abuse meted out by their partners. They are often afraid for their lives and the lives of their children. Many women stay for reasons of economic security for their children. Society provides scant support for women who are single parents, whether by choice or not. Families headed by women have the lowest income levels in the country, averaging about $24,000 per year. Women don't leave because they have nowhere to go. Transition houses are already filled to capacity, and they are simply transitional. Finally, many women stay in such relationships because they don't think anyone will believe their stories of abuse. After all, the men who abuse them are not mad or psychotic. They look and act quite normal in their daily public lives. It often takes 35 incidents of violence before a woman approaches the police.
Too often, the tendency has been to explain away violence in relationships by suggesting that it is an extreme declaration of love or a particular expression of sexual attraction, one which undoubtedly the receiving partner appreciates in the same way it is intended. This glorification and romanticization of violence does nothing but cover up the dynamics of power and control inherent in violent relationships. Many rapes and beatings are premeditated by the perpetrators. Women in violent relationships are often dragged by their hair out of their beds or attacked while performing routine household tasks. There is no romance here, nor has consent been established. To simply focus on the violent act itself without taking into consideration all the emotional and psychological abuse that precedes it, is to lose sight of the larger picture of abuse.
Myths that argue violence is consensual fail to take into consideration the reality that violence in relationships is about power and control. The issue of consent in an unequal situation is like the mirage that deludes us into believing that we have finally achieved that state of grace -- equality between the genders and equality between all groups in society. Until that is achieved, we cannot even begin to discuss consent. At present, violence as a way to resolve disagreements, to communicate that might is right, and to exercise power over others, is a telling sign of our failure -- collective and individual -- to achieve a humane and compassionate society. It's time to make non-violence a rule of thumb in society.
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