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Home / Articles / Ending Domestic Violence / What Fuels Domestic Violence? Part 2: Misogyny

What Fuels Domestic Violence? Part 2: Misogyny

In the second part of our series, we examine how sexism and misogyny play­ a part in the continuation of domestic violence

Experts discuss if misogyny is causing domestic violence to continue

As a writer who has covered domestic violence for nearly the last decade, I am often saddened but not entirely surprised that there is never a shortage of stories to write about on the subject. There are always more survivors stepping forward. There is always another facet of abuse to dissect. There are always more barriers to shed light on that prevent victims from escaping. 

As a result, the question in my head, at least, goes back to why? Why is domestic violence continuing despite the ever-increasing amount of education and awareness focused on it? Why does domestic violence continue despite most of us (hopefully) knowing that it is fully illegal to control, threaten, harass, assault or otherwise harm our romantic partners? 

When I ask this question to the advocates and experts I interview, one of the most common answers I get is that male entitlement, sexism and misogyny persists and those facets fuel violence against women. While women can be abusive partners as well, the vast majority of domestic violence is committed by men. Sexism inherently teaches males from inception that they should assume to be in control. The stopgap, for abusers, at least, seems to be missing—there is no one, except perhaps their victims, telling them no. So, they continue. 

What Is Misogyny?

While sexism is discrimination or prejudice against one sex, or a gender stereotyping, misogyny is more severe by definition—a contempt or hatred of women that often manifests itself via social exclusion, sex discrimination, hostility, patriarchy, male privilege, belittling of women, disenfranchisement of women, violence against women and sexual objectification. 

In May 2014, Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree near the campus of the University of California-Santa Barbara, murdering six people and injuring 14 others by shooting them, stabbing them or ramming them with his car, what later became known as the Isla Vista Killings. In a video he uploaded to YouTube prior to his attacks, he blamed women’s rejection of him for his rage.

Four years ago, philosopher Kate Manne published the book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, and followed it up last year with her second book, Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women. She says she became especially interested in the study of how people define misogyny after news of Rodger’s killings broke.

The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague described Rodger’s killings as an act of misogynist terrorism, Manne told me, but media reports in the US mostly denied these killings had anything to do with misogyny. 

“People would say things like, ‘Well, he loved his mother.’ My feeling was, ‘If this isn’t misogyny then what is?’”

She says as horrible of a logic as it is, there is, in fact, logic to misogyny. 

“The way I tried to theorize it is there is this system, which I count as misogyny, that functions to police and enforce patriarchal norms and expectations,” says Manne. “And both norms and expectations have to do with feeling, as a man, entitled to certain goods like sex and care and reproductive and emotional labor from women. And it makes sense that if you have those false beliefs about what women owe to men, that there would be a common phenomenon of lashing out at women who don’t deliver those goods.”

She calls it a “completely wrong-headed but not incoherent moral system.” 

Gender Equality as a Progress Gauge?

Statistics on the presence and trending of misogyny aren’t easy to come by. Gender equality, however, has been monitored in various ways for decades. According to the Pew Research Center, 47 percent of the U.S. workforce is comprised of women and 53 percent by men, compared to 30 and 70 percent respectively in 1950. Women earn 83 cents for every dollar earned by a man. And while that number has leveled off lately, it has improved from 62 cents since 1979. If one were to equate education with income potential, 38 percent of women and 33 percent of men earn a four-year college degree, and in the last decade this statistic has favored women. 

Women are breaking the glass ceiling, however, progress is slow—women represent only 5 percent of the CEOs in Fortune 500 companies and only 20 percent of Congressmembers. The majority of adults want to see more women in high-ranking positions but six-in-ten women say gender discrimination is a barrier to female leadership, while less than half of all men surveyed (44 percent) believe this to be an obstacle. 

According to United Nation’s Statistical Division, women in the U.S. spend on average 15.3 percent, or 3.7 hours, of every 24 hours on unpaid domestic care work, while men spend 9.5 percent or 2.3 hours.

All these facts and figures point to one thing—gender equality is shifting, albeit slowly. And experts say this will effect the predominance of violence against women. Worldwide, it has been shown that “women’s equality is ….a constant predictor of both international violence and internal conflict,”  according to research published in a University of Tennessee-Knoxville journal. Likewise, a 2015 study from The Lancet reads that their analysis of data from 44 counties suggests gender inequality “serves as a key driver in women's individual risk of violence and provides insight into why prevalence of intimate partner violence varies across countries.”

What Misogyny Looks Like in Domestic Violence 

In cases of domestic violence, there’s a noticeable lack of conversation around misogyny and sexism’s role in our culture. Often, we are more apt to blame the individual abuser, who, of course, is responsible for their actions and should be held accountable. Yet, one has to wonder: what role does  sexism or misogyny play in violence, and how has it likely supported an abuser’s choice to control women up to that point?

One may argue that misogyny starts with reinforcing sexism and stereotyping. Examples include:

  • Paying women less than men for doing the same job 
  • Judging women as “good” or “bad” based on their style of clothing or overall appearance
  • A lack of diversity in genders in certain institutions (court rooms, hospitals, universities)
  • Talking down to someone based on assumptions about their gender
  • Teaching boys at a young age to be tough and to conceal their emotions
  • Normalizing the idea that young men should be the pursuers and primary decision-makers in their romantic relationships
  • Reinforcing aggressive male stereotypes in movies, television and music

Dr. Linda Olson is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, and licensed clinical social worker with over 30 years of trauma counseling. She says that she sees the male sense of privilege and entitlement play out in many of her couples’ relationships, though most men don’t seem to be aware of it. 

“Many grew up witnessing childhood domestic violence and don’t have a clue what abuse is and how they’re repeating it. It’s how their fathers treated their mothers.” According to statistics, 15.5 million children in the U.S. are estimated to live in families in which a parent or caregiver has perpetuated domestic violence at least once in the past year.

That inherited misogyny often manifests as a sense of shame, anger and denial, says Olson. Ego and pride also come into play, but Olson says these are also markers of something being “wrong” with the abuser. 

“It’s control, it’s overreaction, explosive outbursts, an imbalance of power and demeaning and degrading their partner,” says Olson.

The good news? Olson believes the pendulum is swinging. A lot of young men, she says, mostly because of the instant backlash social media can deliver, fear being perceived as misogynistic or sexist. As a result, men are becoming more conscious of at least their public persona around women, and perhaps examining their actions in a positive way. 

Manne, on the other hand, says she’s pessimistic, in some regard, about “the possibility of making rapid, large-scale social progress without an ugly, toxic, backlash.” While awareness and social consciousness is a necessary if not sufficient condition to addressing misogyny, she says her impression is that as social accountability increases, so do misogynistic behaviors themselves. People, she says, have become more emboldened, especially when men in power validate men’s misogyny. 

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What Can We Do?

The solution to reversing inherited beliefs like misogyny has to begin in childhood. 

“One thing I think about a lot in terms of sexual violence is anywhere from a third to a quarter of sexual offenses in the U.S. are committed by juvenile offenders,” says Manne. “So, as well as having to educate boys on not becoming men who do misogynistic things, we also have to realize boys are doing a lot of damage even in early adolescence. It’s clear that these boys are too young to hold fully accountable for what they do—they’re acting in accordance with things they were effectively taught under patriarchy.”

We have to teach them different lessons, she says. Lessons on why they are not entitled to women’s bodies and minds, how to not feel resentment when they don’t get what they feel they’re entitled to and, the last lesson, she says, which is not often discussed, is how to teach men to share caregiving responsibilities. If we looked at stats as one indicator of this, the U.S. Census Bureau shows that a little over 20 percent of fathers of minor children, or about 7 million men, are “absent” dads, meaning they do not live with their children and have little to no contact with them. 

Can mothers also help influence the next generation? Of course, say advocates. “Women are socialized to believe in gendered roles as well, and the system they live in outside the home reinforces that every day,” says Rita Smith, nationally recognized expert in domestic violence. “Unless they are taught they have a choice, mothers can reinforce the same gender roles they learned growing up.”

She adds that men, however, have not come to this work in any substantive way, in her opinion. “And until they do, they hold much more responsibility for keeping women in less equal status.”

Olson agrees. 

“It’s not enough to intellectualize. There needs to be action. [Men] need to begin acknowledging the truth, understanding and accepting it. Yes, I have been sexist. Yes, I have degraded women. And I’m working on it. That’s how we promote change.

Photo by Michelle Ding on Unsplash.