Rosalind S Stone, PhD in Community Psychology answers some of the questions raised in the previous SVRI blog
There were so many questions raised at the recent SVRI conference in Cape Town, and to answer all of them adequately would require a full length book. However a little introspection and putting some of them in to context could help guide future initiatives dealing with what is a global problem, in spite of much of the research having been done in poorer African communities.
The recent All Men Are Trash hash tag annoyed many who saw it as an unfair generalisation, but I think the meaning of it was misconstrued; it was not intended to label all men as trash, but rather to convey the fact that women are unable to distinguish which men are a potential danger, and it is therefore necessary to regard all men with a level of suspicion and caution.
I guess the first subject to address is how we define violence; usually we think in terms of physical violence often involving a sexual act, but separating it from the more subtle emotional and psychological violence is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly women are frequently surreptitiously groomed via verbal abuse before being subjected to actual physical or sexual abuse. The old adage of ’Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me’ has been conveniently used for decades to minimise the effects of psychological abuse; this plays directly in to the hands of narcissists who can inflict harm without it being recognised as such. In psychology narcissistic personality disorder is defined as self-centred, arrogant thinking and behaviour, a lack of empathy and consideration for others and an excessive need for admiration. For me the mere fact that it is called a disorder is problematic, since it removes the accountability from the individual and shifts it onto a medical label, thus exonerating the person rather than making them aware that they do indeed have a choice as to how they treat others. The perpetrator thus becomes a victim of a condition over which he has no control. We could discuss at length the conditions and factors that create a narcissist but, very succinctly, it is a behaviour set born from a belief that there is a finite amount of love available and one needs to ensure that they get their slice of the pie by whatever means; although it may present itself as confident the underlying truth is the exact opposite. Love in this context includes all the subliminal indicators such as praise, one-on-one rapport, dignity, value and belonging. It stands to reason that children raised in homes where the parents are either physically or emotionally absent, or both, are more likely to display these traits as adults, and I would venture to say that boys are more vulnerable than girls due to another erroneous belief that affection will make a boy child a ‘softie’. It should be equally obvious that marginalised groups who have been subjected to discrimination (based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or economic status) will be more at risk of developing personality traits of narcissism and other forms of low self-esteem. At the end of the day it is a battle of the wills to see who is stronger, since both victim and perpetrator are struggling to overcome the same deep psychological wounds, in a world where survival of the fittest is the order of the day.
A man with narcissistic traits* will quickly disarm a woman and have her convinced that the problem lies with her, leaving her vulnerable to future physical and sexual abuse; instead of seeking assistance she will examine her own behaviour having been persuaded that she herself is at fault or lacking in some way. We see this in its most blatant form when women who have been raped are told they were asking for it because they had too much to drink or wore the wrong clothes, and this narrative is so well established in societies across the globe that many women fail to report sexual abuse because they have been conditioned to accept that they themselves are responsible. Even comments like ‘you made me angry’ shift the blame whereas in actual fact we are solely responsible, as adults, for our emotions and how we manage them.
*GBV can also be committed by a woman against a man, particularly in its emotional or psychological form.
This secondary grooming comes on a foundation of normalised violence in communities where it is either common place, or forms part of a cultural or religious norm.
This was brought home once in discussion with a group of isiXhosa men – while they agreed that it was not right for a man to beat his girlfriend, and that they would intervene if they witnessed it, they also all agreed that once lobola had been paid a man could use whatever force he deemed necessary to get his wife to obey him, and that it would be considered meddling to intervene. The rationale appeared to lie in the fact that an unmarried woman can leave her oppressor if she doesn’t like the way he treats her so ipso facto by staying she is agreeing to the abuse; the intervention by others would be purely to offer her an opportunity for immediate escape. In many other communities the subservience of a woman to her husband, due to cultural or Calvinistic religious practices, is also used as an excuse for physical violence. Historically the term used was Domestic Violence inferring that this form of abuse was a lesser offence, and perhaps even a necessary evil to ensure the appropriate and efficient running of a household. Semantics have a profound effect on how we process information and we need to be far more mindful of the words we use; many marriage ceremonies still pronounce a couple as ‘man and wife’ rather than ‘husband and wife’, and in some very conservative communities a woman may be referred to by her husband’s name, e.g Mrs Johannes van der Merwe, totally denying her any sort of independent identity.
It should also be remembered that marital rape was only recognised in South African law in 1993, but was limited in its scope, focussing mainly on the use of violence to force a partner into a sexual act. Only in 2007 with the Sexual Offences Act was non-consensual sex within a marriage recognised as rape; that means that having intercourse with a spouse when he/she is under the influence of alcohol, for instance, and therefore not able to give consent would be considered rape in a court of law. In many African countries there is no legislation on the matter, and some still protect conjugal rights. Lack of knowledge of the law within South Africa may be a contributing factor to IPV.
Children learn by example and thus we see certain behaviours passed through the generations until such time as someone stands up and questions it, and, since people generally resist change, this can cause a state of confusion and chaos within societal structures. The phrase Fourth Generational Conditioning is becoming more common among psychologists as we recognise that it takes about four generations to make a paradigm shift, essentially when there is little to no remaining resistance to the new norm.
One of the offshoots of exactly this confusion is the increasingly used excuse of ‘emasculation’; the actual meaning of the word refers to the removal of the external male sex organs (the penis and the testicles) but nowadays includes the psychological deprivation or reduction of strength, vigour and spirit; this speaks to the generational conditioning of boys raised in a misogynistic and patriarchal world order. The only long term solution to this is to teach boys that their value hinges on far more than physical strength, sexual libido or even financial success, and that the empowerment of women does not automatically disempower men.
Another matter that apparently raised some questions, and eyebrows, at the SVRI was the fact that much of the research has been conducted in impoverished African communities, rural and urban, leading to an erroneous bias that GBV and IPV are more prevalent within certain racial groups. On the one hand we could argue that this is indeed the case, not because of inherent predispositions but rather due to years of discrimination and disenfranchisement with the concomitant psychological dangers, as partially discussed above. However I would suggest that the apparent prevalence in these groups is also because it tends to be more overt, whereas in other communities where such behaviour carries a greater stigma and is generally frowned upon, it would be more covert in nature.
To put it bluntly a man who was raised to believe that gentlemen don’t hit women is less likely to do so in front of witnesses, and may even use tactics that would reduce the physical signs of such abuse; slapping rather than punching, targeting body parts that would be covered by clothing etc. One should also factor in the physiological truth that bruising is more noticeable on a pale skin and harder to detect on a darker skin, causing the abuser to exercise more caution to avoid being exposed as an abuser. In a community where ‘corporal punishment’ of a wife is accepted, and any perceived disobedience that is not met with immediate discipline would be seen as weakness, physical violence would be more overt in nature.
While GBV and IPV are just as prevalent in middle and upper class groups it may be more subtle or tend towards emotional rather than physical violence, as discussed above and in the section dealing with narcissism. But there are other factors that allow women in more economically stable communities to escape from abusive relationships – whether in the home or work place – not least of which is the fact that they may have a higher overall self-esteem and sense of self-preservation. Also they may have wider options available to them in terms of financially secure friends and family who would be able to support them during their period of unemployment or even homelessness in the case of an acrimonious divorce. They are thus more likely to leave an abusive situation before it becomes extreme. Once again the facts are often couched in polite language – the majority of divorce applications cite ‘irreconcilable differences’ as the cause of the breakdown with few stating ‘he knocks me senseless whenever he comes home drunk’ as the reason. In these more affluent communities both GBV and IPV are probably committed over shorter periods, and victims have access to better mental health care to guide them through the healing process. All of these factors would make it less likely that these forms of violence become normalised.
In addressing GBV, IPV or inequality in any of its forms we need to recognise that both men and women, and boys and girls, need to be heard and guided as to other means of handling their anger, frustration and even sexual libido. When it comes to emancipation of women we cannot simply issue a free ticket giving permission for them to do whatever they want; they need to also take responsibility for their own choices, how they respond in certain situations, and also to have a deep understanding of the factors at play. While it may be tempting to step out into an ideal world women and girls do need to understand that wearing an extremely short skirt does not condone rape, but it may provoke it, and one needs to make sensible choices based on the truth about the world we currently live in. Once again the need for attention and affection may result in, for instance, young schoolgirls wearing exceedingly short skirts (so short that everything is revealed when walking up stairs or getting in to a taxi!) which sends the incorrect message to men and boys who are themselves struggling to assert themselves.
All in all GBV and IPV are complex issues and must be approached with a clear understanding of the background, and the psychological and emotional conditioning within each community.