A Global Epidemic

This past week the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) released a chilling report stating that, globally, 1 out of 3 women experience physical and/or sexual violence. To be exact, 35.6% of all women around the world will experience some form of sexual or physical violence in their lifetime. The data comes from a meta analysis of 141 studies from 81 countries and is the most comprehensive study to date about violence against women globally. It is significant that the World Health Organization released this report because they frame it, of course, as a health risk and have appropriately identified this as an epidemic. More specifically, they indirectly highlight the relative global apathy around this issue by suggesting that if these numbers (35.6% of 52% of the world’s population) were about any other disease, there would be an international outcry and immediate action. To be sure, less than a dozen deaths from avian bird flu have been enough to send the world health community (and world community in general) into a state of high alert.


So why then is there so little response from world, national, regional and local leaders about this epidemic? Some answers can be found in the way the issue is framed, as Jackson Katz succinctly explains in his TEDx FiDiWomen talk where he suggests that calling this solely a “women’s issue” serves to place the sole responsibility for its solution on women. He contends that while women should of course be seen as leaders in this arena and that women’s efforts to end violence against women have been remarkable given the statistics, violence against women is absolutely a men’s issue and men must step up and take more leadership. Katz goes on to illustrate this by showing how the framing of this issue from “John beat Mary” to “Mary was beaten by John” to “Mary was beaten” to “Mary is a battered woman” completely takes the batterer, John, out of the picture and places the sole focus on “Mary” as both the site of the problem and the source of the solution. I notice this as well on college campuses where following a sexual assault the campus police will put up notices on all building doors alerting the community as to the general details of what happened and then offer a bulleted list of steps women can take to protect themselves from sexual assault. Incredibly, this list has never, ever included a simple suggestion that men actually stop assaulting and battering women followed by a bullet list of things men can do to bring an end to violence against women. As such, I applaud Jackson Katz’s years and years of effort to educate other men about violence against women (and girls and trans* folks) and how to end it.


Having said that, I think we are missing something significant if we do not simultaneously look at what it is in our global community that leads so many men to enact violence of one form or another against women. And before I go any further I want to disabuse the reader of any notion that “it’s testosterone”. Certainly the biochemical nature of our bodies can suggest certain ebbs and flows of emotional presence and dispositions at times, and yet to presume that men are overcome by their testosterone-based urges to the point of enacting violence against over one-third of half of the world’s population reduces men to knuckle-dragging sacks of hormones and is a naïve retreat into biological essentialism that is both insulting to men and dangerous to women Thankfully, this biologically essentialist rationale has been consistently debunked by sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists. And so if we cannot reduce the epidemic level of men’s violence against women to some form of biological root, it follows that there must be a sociological source to this violence. Given that the W.H.O. study is global, the drivers for these phenomenological, societal dynamics are many and varied: in some instances the ideological supports of women’s subordination is grounded in religious or spiritual beliefs, in other instances it is tied to a perceived economic order in which women’s role is to “reproduce” and men’s is to “produce”, in still other circumstances it has connections to something akin to a pseudo-social-Darwinism where men are superior because they are believed to be physically stronger and therefore that rightful order must be maintained, and in still other locales it has to do with more modernistic notions of dominance and patriarchy (rooted in Western colonization, for example) and the associated creation and maintenance of systems of privilege for men. Whatever the case, it should be clear that the W.H.O. study speaks to something much deeper, more insidious, and more difficult to transform than merely educating men about violence against women, girls and trans people. It requires an interrogation into the very foundations of gender and the construction of male dominance, privilege and norming of violence against women, girls (and boys) in multiple societies around the world. Without this type of deep focus, education about ending violence against women will not be sufficient in its depth and weight to overcome the more deeply rooted sources of the cycle of violence from past generations and the passing of those beliefs and behaviors to future generations. Please do not misunderstand, I absolutely think that attention to ending violence against women, girls and trans folks must happen and it needs to happen right now, and therefore the work of women’s groups, trans activists, and raised-male educators like Jackson Katz is incredibly valuable – we must stop the hemorrhaging immediately. However, we must also look to the source of the hemorrhaging and that requires a more intimate, honest and deep examination of the values, beliefs, and everyday practices regarding gender, gender role socialization, and the very notion of what it means to have a gender identity.


To do this, let me offer some basic starting points I believe are necessary within the context of the US. I am limiting my suggestions to a US context because it is the only one I am intimately familiar with and I do not want to fall into the trap of US exceptionalism by commenting on other communities around the world without a true and deep knowledge of those communities. In general, I think there are three areas of focus that will help us begin the process of getting to the roots of this issue and creating transformation in our society, in our institutions (education, healthcare, business, service sector, legal system, etc.), and in our own lives. The first is to question what is gender in the first place, the second is to look at the effects of a rigidly constructed set of gender roles and rules, and the third is to begin to envision a society that is ever-more working toward and embodying gender liberation. Those of you who are gender scholars or activists might find this list too limiting and perhaps even naïve, while those of you in some of the mainstream sectors mentioned just above might find these points too radical. As such, I encourage you to use your mastery in your given context to consider how you can lean in to each of these areas and extend the conversation as deeply, broadly and complexly as possible.


More specifically, I am suggesting that we all begin by interrogating “what is gender?” If you are an HR manager and have no idea how to start this, try asking “what are some of the assumptions, expectations, and even stereotypes connected to gender in my organization?” From there, begin to look at the impacts of those items on the culture and climate of your workplace, your organization’s efficacy, and the ability for each of your employees to maximize their potential. From here ask what steps can be taken to make the culture and climate of your workplace less reinforcing of these gender roles and rules and instead more open to the full human experience of everyone at the company. What education and training is necessary, what policy changes are necessary, what shifts in how meetings are run are necessary and so on. Again, this is for an organization that is on the beginning cusp of examining gender issues.


Similarly, if you are working in an E-12 setting, you can also identify what the typical gender role expectations are and then rigorously examine how the content, process, and overall pedagogical approach of your building or district either reinforces these limiting gender dynamics or supports their transformation. Be honest with yourselves about the devastating impacts of gender violence on ALL of your students (again, Jackson Katz suggests that while men commit an unbelievable amount of violence against women, most of the targets of male violence in the US are other men) and how imperative gender liberation and transformation are for your school or district. How much human capital are we losing in this society because we steep our young people in gender traps that limit their full human capacity? And, when answering this, dig deeply into the reality of how your school or district plays into or challenges this societal loss.


Those of you in higher education will most likely want to examine how your campus is responding to violence against women, girls and trans folks, If you are doing so in a “male liberal” manner you are most likely obfuscating the ways gender roles and gender socialization keep sexism and gender oppression (and the violence that goes along with it) in tact. I reference again the “sexual assault alert” from above and suggest that college campuses do a much better job of interrogating and deconstructing gender as a binary, and re-construct gender in ways that are rooted in liberation, equity and holistic identity development for all students, staff and faculty.


As you can see for the small sampling of contexts here, wherever you are starting this conversation, it is vital that you do so, and do so right now. As the W.H.O.’s report suggests this is not a new issue (obviously, if 81 countries have conducted 141 studies) and yet it is at epidemic proportions. A new urgency and a deeper focus are required if we are to respond in a way that says “this will end with me…this generation will be the last to be socialized into a world where 1.3 billion women experience physical and sexual violence.” And while the scale is large, the actions of each and every one of us deeply matters and I encourage you to engage as consistently and vocally as possible for the future of all of us.


*Note: The usage of the term “trans” here refers to the full complement of gender non-conforming identities, as well as communities who identify as transgender, transsexual, and gender queer.