Violence, Victims and Gender

Violence, Victims and Gender

Steven Connor

Cherie Booth has recently lent her voice to the campaign announced by Sheryl Gascoyne against male violence against women. She is quite right to do so and it is right and important that they should be suppported. Male violence against women is indeed appalling and the evidence of it indeed teemingly and sickeningly to hand. But violence by men against women is a by-product or special instance of the much more general violence by men against everybody, all the time. There is abundant and unarguable evidence that most victims of male violence, whether on streets or battlefields, in playgrounds, classrooms, prisons, hospitals and barracks, are male. Given that these victims massively outnumber their violators, it looks as though what men have historically mostly been for is to be the subjects of other men’s violence. Why are we unable to get worked up about this?

When women are the victims, what has occurred is undubitably violence. When men are the victims, we are much more likely to read what is happening as shared aggression, and aggression is something for which men themselves can be thought partly responsible. Sharing a gender with the person handing the stuff out seems to make the whole thing in some weird way consensual. When, as so often, a woman is subject to menace and violence in the movies, it is rightly seen as a horror, or a horrifying thrill. When a man is coshed, stabbed, shot or given the works, it is merely a device, part of the invisible workings of the narrative. Violence against females isn’t funny, but violence against males is a powerful engine of laughter. How many female cartoon characters can you think of – quick! – at whose dismemberment or pulverisation children are invited to laugh? When outrage gathers at the bombing of civilians, it is outrage that the violence has been deflected away from what generals, politicans and journalists smilingly agree are its `legitimate targets’ – for which read soldiers (for which read men).

Recently, in the course of a laudable and powerful TV programme displaying the BBC’s commitment to human rights and concern about torture (Human Rights and Human Wrongs, BBC2, 7 December 1999), an Amnesty representative was to be heard carefully explaining why torture was so much worse for women than it was for men. The claim was that there are extra and, as it were, supererogatory forms of torture, such as rape and other sexual assaults and humiliations, to which women are particularly subject. Please let me not be the only person to find this statement amazing. I’ll come clean (if you will, too). I’ll admit that there is a terrible, seductive plausibility in the picture of the men prisoners at break time playing table tennis and handing round the Kit-Kats while the women are hauled in for their extra dose. But really, the point about torture is that people are taken to and then beyond the limits of their endurance, in whatever ways the (almost exclusively male) swine who are doing the torturing can think up. That there should be specialised female tortures is only natural, if you see what I mean, since torture is by definition the specialisation of anguish. Really, nobody suffers more than anybody else under torture, because everybody suffers more than anybody else. Torture is designed to make you the only person in the world, to force you to coincide completely with your customised and incomparable pain.

The willingness of an Amnesty representative, of all people, to repeat such sad drivel is the evidence of just how hard it is for anyone to imagine the suffering of men, or see it as an issue. When we try to bring the fact of generalised male violence meaningfully together with the fact of generalised male victimisation, we encounter a vast continent of moral sleep and imaginative anaesthesia. As a consequence, we don’t even know how to begin understanding the consequences of boys growing up internalising this continual certainty of violence, along with this narcotic indifference to it. Boys learn early on that the slashing and slaughtering and raping and battering and butchering of males by other males is the default condition, the neutral and shruggingly immutable background against which violence towards women and female children starts forth as a repugnant perversion of the order of things. Repugnant, but also vividly picturable and therefore morally quickening.

Look back on the expiring century and it is hard not to see its leading achievement as the ever more intricate machinery to accelerate the transformation by men of other men’s bodies into sewage. If it is vital to understand the inflicting of violence in terms of gender, and it surely is, it is a vileness to think of its victims in the same way. Violence is fundamentally and inescapably an issue of gender. Suffering is not.