Efforts to prevent violence against women and girls should be based on careful identification of causes
When the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in his message for the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women and Children ( November 25) that “every 11 minutes , a woman or girl is killed by an intimate partner or family member”, many people were shocked. This however is an often quoted fact when violence again women is discussed at world level, as also the fact that in the age group over 15 nearly a third of women suffer serious acts of violence including sexual violence. To this should be added abuse and sexual violence suffered by children which can leave a very lasting adverse impact. In the USA, where more reliable data is collected, nearly 40% girl children suffer from abuse and nearly 25% from sexual abuse.
While identifying causes of this violence, some are related to the traditional attitudes of gender inequality and discrimination as well as related attitudes of dominance over them by males. However what is important is that while high levels of violence of women have been recorded in several traditional societies, these have also been recorded in highly modern and ‘liberated’ societies where women have won significant rights of equal opportunities in many walks of life. Why do high levels of violence against women continue in such societies?
This is because the basic urge or the root cause of various kinds of violence at various levels comes from the basic instinct of dominance. Why is there class violence or caste violence? It is because of the urge of dominance. Why is there inter-faith violence? It is because of dominance. Why are there wars and civil wars? Again because of the urge of dominance of one over the other. Similarly gender violence is rooted in the urge for maintaining dominance, but one difference is that here it is more likely for violence to take place within close relationships. Several societies which try to introduce more equality for women at apparent levels but do not try to check the basic problem of relations of dominance because to do so would involve deep commitment to justice and equality for which the leadership is not prepared. Hence when outward level equality appears but deeper level dominance instincts remain, this continues to be reflected in high levels of gender-violence which inevitable involves high levels of violence in close relationships.
This is why this writer has persistently argued for years that all peace efforts should be closely related and supportive at various levels, and in this context the peace efforts and anti-war efforts, the inter-faith harmony efforts, the social and economic justice efforts and gender-equality and justice efforts are closely related. Without such a comprehensive mobilization, it becomes difficult for various social movements to achieve significant and desirable gains in isolation. In this context the high levels of gender violence even in the middle of surface-level efforts for equality can be understood.
While this is a basic reality, in addition we need to understand various important aspects of rapid social change as some of these have been linked with increase of several social problems including violence against women and girls. This includes increasing substance abuse, proliferation of violent pornography as well as several other trends. As these are significant in aggravation of violence against women, ways of reducing the harmful impacts of such trends should be found and such a careful effort can also help in preventing and reducing violence against women in significant ways.
Alcohol and Substance Abuse
In India and several other countries, in the case of domestic violence alcohol consumption by men has been identified as an important factor. This is a significant reason why several women’s movements have taken up the closure of liquor vends as a major demand. In various parts of world several significant studies have clearly pointed out that nearly 50 per cent of sexual assault cases involved the use of alcohol or drugs or both. According to a widely cited paper on ‘alcohol and sexual assaults’ by Antonia Abbey, Tina Zawacki and others of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (USA), “ at least one half of all violent crimes involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, the victim or both. Sexual violence fits this pattern. Thus across disparate population studies, researchers consistently have found that approximately one half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have been drinking alcohol. Depending on the sample studied and the measure used, the estimates for alcohol use among perpetrators have ranged from 34 to 74 percent. Similarly, approximately one third of all sexual assault victims report that they were drinking alcohol at the time of assault with estimates ranging from 30 to 39 per cent.”
However, these researchers also point out that while a woman’s alcohol consumption may place her at increased risk of sexual assault, she is in no way responsible for the assault. The researchers rightly say that the perpetrators remain legally and morally responsible for their behavior.
However, it also needs to be pointed out that while the data about alcohol consumption by perpetrators is relevant to almost all situations, the data about alcohol consumption by victims is not relevant to those social contexts, such as several parts of India, where alcohol consumption by women is very low. In such cases the main issue is the alcohol consumption of the assaulter only. In many of the most serious cases of sexual assault reported in India in recent times, alcohol consumption of the assaulter has been involved.
These researchers says that when a man is intoxicated he can more easily focus on his immediate sexual gratification, sense of entitlement and anger, rather than on his internalized sense of appropriate behavior, future regret, the victim’s suffering and the possibility that he will be punished for his actions. Another tragic fact to which these researchers draw attention is that in cases of sexual assaults involving alcohol consumption, the victim’s injuries are likely to be more serious.
Another study titled ‘alcohol consumption and woman’s vulnerability to sexual victimization – can reducing woman’s drinking prevent rape’ by Maria Testa and Jennifer A Livingston has stated, particularly in the context of highly modernized society behavior—campus life in the USA– “ a review of the literature on woman’s substance use and sexual victimization points to woman’s heavy episodic drinking as a risk factor, particularly amongst college samples. At least half of sexual victimization incidents involve alcohol use and the majority of rapes of college women occur when the victim is too intoxicated to resist (incapacitated rape). Despite the importance of woman’s heavy episodic drinking as being a risk factor, existing rape prevention programs have rarely addressed woman’s alcohol use and have shown little success in reducing rates of sexual victimization.” These researchers suggest that given the strength of the association between heavy episodic drinking and sexual victimization any young woman prevention program targeting drinking may prove a more efficacious program targeting sexual vulnerability.
In a widely quoted paper by Martin and Hummer argued that many fraternities create a social environment in which social coercion is normalized because woman are perceived as commodities available to meet men’s sexual needs. Alcohol is used to encourage reluctant woman to have sex. According to another paper by Antonia Abbey, “the peer norms for most fraternity parties are to drink heavily to act in an uninhibited manner and to engage in casual sex”.
Some studies also indicate the high incidence of alcohol or other drinks being spiked by date-rape drugs although the trend towards drink spiking may differ from one social context to another. However, the trend of spiking is strong enough in some societies for advisories to be issued asking women to take all possible precautions. Lisah and Miller conducted research with undetected rapists and found that 80 per cent of those who committed sexual assault in their sample did so against women who were incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.
Coming to the remedial aspects these may differ from one social- cultural context to another. Keeping view the widely recognized and highly adverse health and social impacts of alcohol and drug consumption, there is a clear and strong need for stepping up significantly various steps to reduce overall consumption of alcohol and drugs in society. Secondly, some more specific steps can also be taken for the protection of women from alcohol related sexual crimes as various high risk situations have been identified on the basis of various research studies.
Proliferation of Pornography
While the impact of proliferation of pornography on sexual crimes has been a controversial subject, the emerging consensus based on several studies is that if even a small percentage of men are adversely affected by excessive and violent pornography in this way, the overall effect on society can be to increase risks for women and girls to a significant extent.
When watching a pornographic video, did you also want to do the same thing? This was the straightforward question which was put to persons accused of rape and indecent assault in a nationwide survey in Japan. The results surprised many people. As many as 33 per cent of the respondents answered in the affirmative. When the survey results were classified according to age of respondents, it was found that among juvenile respondents as many as 50 per cent had answered in the affirmative.
Commenting on its data Seiya Morita, a teacher at Tokyo Metroplitan College, has written, “Only the most bigoted person can believe that sexual crimes are unrelated to the spread of pornographic videos which eroticize any and all sexual crimes ( rape, gang rape, sexual harassment ,molestation, sneak shot, confinement of women etc. ) and make them entertainment for men.”
Writing in a paper titled ‘ Pornography,prostitution and women’s human rights in Japan’ he has also pointed out towards a lot of anecdotal evidence regarding very violent sexual crimes being related to excessive porn consumption. More specifically he says that the criminals who video-recorded their rape scenes were in most cases strongly influenced by violent pornography; indeed a lot of pornographic videos were seized from their homes.
Such anecdotal reports have been appearing in India’s media also from time to time, but unlike in the case of Japan where this led to a well-organized national survey, no comparable attempt appears to have been made in India to collect more reliable data at a national level. According to several reports appearing recently, video clips of real life rapes and molestations are being sold in several cities in India. In fact there is a lot of such evidence from various parts of the world including India to show that the sexual violence shown in pornography can spill into real life exploitation and distress for women and girls.
This instigator role of pornography is exposed in a paper titled ‘What Does Pornography Say About Me(n)?—How I became an anti-pornographic activist’. This paper has been written by Rus Evin Funk. He writes, “ In my experience, and according to most of most of the literature, most men who sexually offend use pornography on a regular basis. …my work with men who sexually offend confirmed for me the ways that pornography creates and enforces messages about men’s sexualized use of violence with women. I can’t describe the number of times I heard men describe , utterly sincerely, how the women or children they raped ‘really liked it’—in spite of their having been arrested and convicted, in spite of the victim’s tears, her pushing him away, her attempts to get away from him. This belief is identical to the fantasies in so much hard-core pornography—pornography that depicts women being forced to do sexual things and ‘liking it’.”
Researcher Susan S. Cole has written, “ In spite of hopes to the contrary , pornography and mass culture are working to confuse sexuality with rape , reinforcing the patterns of male dominance and female submissions so that many young people believe this is simply the way sex is. This means that many of the rapists of the future will believe they are behaving within socially accepted norms.”
Unstable relationships and excessive partners
Rapidly changing social norms have led to increasing numbers of men as well as women in more modernized societies accepting multiple sex partners as the norm of recent times. In England the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles put the average number of partners for men at 11.7 and for women at 7.7, while another survey put the two figures at 9.3 and 4.7. In Sweden 14 per cent of the 55 year olds interviewed gave a figure of over 30 partners in their lifetime. Some surveys pointed to the problem of over- reporting, and the more regular finding appeared to be about 7 partners for males and 5 for females. A survey among female students in Sweden repeated a few years later revealed that the number of sexual partners per student during these few years had doubled to 11. Other surveys in some western countries suggested that the respondents were not even considering one partner relationship as one of the options (let alone an ideal or a desirable option). They had stopped thinking along those lines.
Such a change means that the relations are of much less duration, less stable and have lesser emotional attachment. In such a situation, it is only to be expected that the possibility of conflict and violence increases, and women inevitably are more likely to be at the receiving end of violence.
This was accompanied also by a big increase in the practice of casual sex, one night stands and hookups. These terms are used somewhat differently but on the whole refer to very temporary sexual relations with no emotional or longer-term attachment. Various estimates suggest that well over 50 per cent of the people in some western countries having experienced such relationship to varying extent, with the percentage likely to be higher in various university campuses.
As hookups became a subject of academic research, many studies pointed out how many of these hookups were associated closely with substance abuse, particularly heavy use of alcohol so that many hookups actually took place under the influence of alcohol with all the attendant risks. Other surveys, first in the USA and then in Norway, revealed how several hookup participants later expressed regret, and invariably the expression of regret was much more by women. An increase in depression and self-harm tendencies too was reported. The conditions in which hook-ups took place and the places of such meetings were conducive to occurrence of violence. Dating related violence in the USA is also reported to be alarming, with nearly 1.5 million high school students experiencing physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year.
Clearly careful work for reduction of those social trends which have been linked by researchers to increase of violence against women can also lead to reduction and prevention of such violence.
Bharat Dogra has consistently contributed articles, short stories and books on subjects of high social relevance.