Feminist Studies 138: Relationship Abuse and Prevention

FEMST138 was a very good class. The teacher, Nicole Baran, works at the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness, so she had a lot of practical knowledge about the subject.

The most significant thing that I learned in the class was just how culturally entrenched patriarchy is. So many thing that we think of as completely neutral were either originally used to oppress women or still oppress women to this day. Even going to our language. How many people say "rule of thumb" without knowing its origin? It turns out, the "rule of thumb" is that a husband can beat his wife as long as the rod he uses to beat her with is no thicker than his thumb. 

The more direct way that our language actually reinforces patriarchy is with victim blaming. Often, when a woman is a victim of abuse, the questions will blame her for the abuse rather than blaming the perpetrator. This is often overt: "she likes abusive men" or "she looks for abusive men," "she was wearing something promiscuous," "she had alcohol that night," "she came on to him," or "she provoked him." A lot of the time, people blame victims even while trying to help them: "if only she had taken that self defense class" or "I told her she shouldn't wear that skimpy outfit." 

As a result of this victim blaming, victims of relationship abuse are harmed by the society and legal system in addition to by their abuser. When a woman comes out as a victim of relationship abuse, people ask her why she's putting the abuser through such a hardship. In fact, there's such a social stigma attached with being a victim that the false reports of rape are lower than the false reports of most other crimes (even though there is a myth that women always cry rape). When a woman tries to get help from the legal system, she is often denied. In fact, men who abuse women are punished far less than women who fight back against their abusers. The movie "Defending Our Lives" tells the stories of several women who repeatedly went to the police after being beaten only to be turned away. Then, when the man tried to kill the woman and she killed him in self defense, she got a life sentence. 

Another harmful myth is the myth of mutual abuse -- the myth that women abuse men just as much as men abuse women. What's interesting is just how flawed the science is that comes to this conclusion. In the scenario where a man chokes a woman and the woman tries to scratch him so that he doesn't die, the Conflict Tactics Scale (the methodology used to get these bad statistics) gives one count of violence to the man and two counts of violence to the woman. Apparently, scratching someone in self defense is twice as violent as trying to kill your wife or girlfriend because scratching leaves a mark where choking doesn't. In fact, 91% of the victims of sexual assault are female and 99% of the perpetrators are male. 

The myth of mutual abuse is particularly horrible when children are involved. Men get custody of the kids just as often as women even when the man and woman are separated because the man was beating the woman (and, often, the child as well).

One thing that I liked a lot about the class is that Nicole didn't like exclusionary philosophies. As a result, a lot of the class talked about relationship abuse in same sex relationships, transnational perspectives on abuse and the unique challenges that immigrants can face, abuse in different age groups and ability statuses, abuse and socioeconomic status, and abuse in communities of color. This made the class inclusive, which strengthened the overall message, and it demonstrated the prevalence and importance of addressing domestic violence because it spans across so many lines of identity.

The structure of the class also worked very well. There were readings for each class (I didn't do all of them, but I liked what I read). Each class was structured as a lecture (except for a few special ones towards the end that were more about us students giving presentations and one or two others where we watched movies about relationship abuse), but the lectures were very engaging, and I always asked a few questions. My one criticism of Nicole's lecturing is that the powerpoint slides that she uses are from presentations that she gives to other communities (because she works 70 hour weeks trying to educate people all around the bay area about relationship abuse) rather than being tailored specifically for the class. As a lecturer, though, Nicole makes up for it because she doesn't rely on her slides; she actually knows how to lecture (which is hard!), and her material is always very interesting. Also, the assignments are structured as journal entries rather than papers, which, as discussed in "Time is Valuable: Writing Isn't," works very well for me.

There were also weekly discussion sections that were fairly good. In one section, one of the other folks said something like: "I believe in fluid gender, but I also realize that abuse is a gendered issue. How do I resolve that?". I responded "a belief in fluid gender doesn't preclude gender analysis. It is perfectly consistent to believe both that people should be free to identify however they want to and to analyze the socialization of gender: there are people who do identify with less fluid notions of gender and images that are prescribed by the media. You don't have to believe in static gender to see that traditional ideas of masculinity can be harmful. Or, for that matter, to see that higher levels of testosterone can be harmful."

After section, Nicole said that I should intern at the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness. *sigh*. Yet another thing that must be done to save the world.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009