Lesson 9: Women and Violence
Why are Women Targets?
The point of this lecture is to help you to understand that violence is not an aberration. It is not about some really sick men
targeting women as Mark Lepine did when he entered the Polytechnique in Montreal and shot dead 14 women in the
engineering class on December 6, 1989. His argument for their murder was his hatred of women and particularly feminists for
having supposedly denied him the opportunity to enter the engineering program. He had another hit list of prominent women
feminists who he also wanted dead. Marc Lepine may have been a misogynist but he also lived in a culture that regularly
Violence is deeply embedded in our culture and in our social practises.
The United Nations has stated that "Violence against women is the most pervasive form of human rights abuse in the world
today. It includes assault, battery, rape sexual slavery, mutilation, and murder. It is not tied to poverty or economic upheaval...it
cuts across social and economic situations and is deeply embedded in cultures around the world — so much so that millions of
women consider it a way of life."
Both the United Nations and the World Health Organization believe:
1. Violence against women must be understood in the context of socially constructed notions of gender. If boys are raised to
hide emotion, see sensitivity as a weakness, and view sexual potency as wound up with interpersonal power, and girls are
raised to be dependent and support masculine entitlement, then interpersonal violence should be no surprise.
2. Violence by men must be seen as related to masculine dominance in society generally. Indeed, entitlements associated with
masculinity produce a range that some scholars term the "rape spectrum." This means that all sexist behaviours are arranged
along a continuum from perhaps unexamined feelings of superiority over women on one end to rape on the other. Male
domination of political systems that address these crimes is also an issue.
3. Male sexual violence is related to the ways violence is eroticized and sexuality is connected to violence. Although
pornography is the best example of this problem, women's magazines, and advertising generally are rampant with these
4. Finally, we must understand violence against women in the terms of the normalization of violence in society. We live in a
society where violence is used to solve problems everyday.
I find it necessary to quote the United Nations and the World Health Organization because of the challenge that is often raised
that feminists exaggerate the extent of this violence. It is not enough that our governments, our universities and our shelters
produce numerous studies confirming the high rates. Again, I think of a student this year who, arrived in class having been hit
by the man she believed loved her. The United Nations and World Health Organization's analysis recognizes that violence
against women takes on both blatant and more nuanced forms in every conceivable place where humans are located. At the
core of this pervasive expression of violence, is the dominance of men in all the major institutions within society.
So once again to quote from a United Nations' document:
"Recognizing that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women,
which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of
women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanism by which women are forced into a subordinate
position compared with men."
(Note: All above quotes are found on the United Nations website under the heading "Declaration on the Elimination of
Violence against Women.")
Violence against women in any form is about power and control be it rape or the continued abuse by one's intimate partner.
Unfortunately our very definition of masculinity includes descriptions that intimate men's entitlement to power and control
over others. Women do not go looking for an abusive relationship. For most there is nothing in their history that would predict
a selection of someone who might at some point be a batterer. Often times, women will describe these individuals as
charismatic and giving in the initial stages of the relationship. For women who are raped by strangers or by men that they
know, they are no more looking for violence than a woman is by her husband. Women who wear sexy clothing, or who drink,
or who have sex toys in their washrooms are not asking to be raped as too often seems to be the response from the police, the
courts and society as a whole. This is victim blaming that in the end absolves us of the culture of violence we perpetuate and
the man's own culpability. We spend an enormous amount of time as a society seeking to find ways to blame women.
When women are raped, the onus is placed on the victim to prove she did nothing to invite the encounter. Rape is a sex act with
the intent to exert male power over women. Most frequently, women are raped by men they know, which makes it that much harder to prove it was a rape or to prosecute at all. The most successful cases in the court system are those where the woman
was white, middle class with no particular defining history of sexual promiscuity or drinking and the perpetrator was a man of
The view of society tends to be that sex is a male entitlement. Men's promiscuity or violence is often explained by comments
like, "men always need sex". Comments that excuse men's behaviour function to imply that men must be forgiven for their
"indiscretions" because their sex drive is "natural."
Here's another statistical norm: most women at some time in their lives will be coerced into sex.
Men who rape tend to interpret certain behaviours as invitations. These activities are as benign as being at a party or at a bar, or
appearing flirtatious. When men who rape have been interviewed they indicate that women with long hair are easier to rape
allowing the rapist to maintain physical power over them. Serial rapists are attracted to certain types of women as Jane Doe
(Jane Doe was raped by serial rapist in Toronto — her book is in the suggested reading list at the end of this lecture) found out
after her brutal experience. They tend to stalk their victims in advance to familiarize themselves with their movements and
whereabouts. In Jane Doe's case, a serial rapist was known to police to be operating in the neighbourhood where she lived. The
Toronto police had formulated a composite of features the rapist preferred in women, but even with all this information, the
police chose not to alert women in the area. The night Jane Doe was raped, while alone in her apartment, the police were in the
neighbourhood waiting for the next assault to be reported.As Jane Doe describes it, she was victimized twice — first by the
rapist and then by the police and justice system. It is because of her battle in the court system that the police are now obligated
to warn neighbourhoods of suspected rapists. (See Jane Doe's interview in the feminist magazineHerizon Summer 2004)
What makes rape so difficult to sort out in a society where sex is talked about all the time is that it is both a sexual and violent
act. We have trouble knowing where the violence begins. That is until you discover that rapists virtually always describe sex as
a male right whether offered or not. They also tend to prefer sex that leaves the woman helpless and them in power.
The police and justice system are set up so that women must prove that they are "good girls". The process is so terrifying and
flawed that most women refuse to report their experiences knowing the kind of trauma they are likely to suffer. In fact,
Madame Justice L'Heureux Dube wrote when she was still a Supreme Court Justice here in Canada,
"The woman who comes to the attention of the authorities has her victimization measured against the current rape mythologies
i.e. who she should be in order to be recognized as having been, in the eyes of the law raped; who her attacker must be in order
to be recognized; in the eyes of the law, as a potential rapist; and how injured she must be in order to be believed. If her
victimization does not fit the myths; it is unlikely that an arrest will be made or a conviction obtained."
Justice l'Heureux Dube's comments do not point to a very hopeful prognosis on the possibility of obtaining some modicum of
justice for women.
Take a few minutes and analyze exactly what L'Heureux Dube is saying about mythologies. What are these myths about
women and rape? How might race and class come into play either for the victim or the attacker? Who is likely to find justice
and who might not?
Should a woman report a rape she must pass the inspection of the police. If they judge her to be at all compromising in terms
of the "good girl" myth, they may not choose to take further steps. What L'Heureux Dube recognized was that the entire system
carries biases about rape. "Bad girls" are defined by the police as those who may have sex toys in their bathroom, who might
have had premarital sex, who might have been at a bar drinking, who might have worn "seductive" clothing or been flirtatious.
If the woman is in the sex-trade, her accusation, in all probability, will be entirely dismissed. The "best" victim is always a
white, middle class, married or single but virgin woman who is raped by a stranger. No wonder so many Native women in
British Columbia could be killed and the police did little to discover why these women were disappearing (see accounts of the
Pickton farm murders on the web).
The other difficulty can be who the rapist is.As we found in the Paul Bernardo case (if you are unfamiliar with this case take a
moment and review its history on the Internet), because he was white, polite, and seemingly very middle class, he was not
considered a serious candidate for the murders of Kristen French or Leslie McHaffey even though there existed a substantial
amount of evidence indicating otherwise. To our horror as Canadians, we discovered that "good boys" like Bernardo (and their
wives!) can be both murderers and serial rapists as he was later found to be.
Some police officers will say that women:
• will lie to protect their reputations because they've been caught in an adulterous relationship or were out beyond a
• will lie about having fantasies about rape or violence; • lie because its part of their nature to do so;
• love to be overpowered sexually.
All of the above are stereotypes but they influence how some police officers may choose to respond to the situation.
The Consequences of Rape:
How long does it take to recover from a rape? Some women never recover but common responses include the gaining of
excessive weight or becoming sexually promiscuous. There are many other responses that include profound depression and
withdrawal and in some cases suicide. Few therapists know how to treat women who have been raped in part because they are
unfamiliar with the gender components of the act itself. (For references on the impact of rape see the Suggested Reading list at
the end of this lecture.)
Undoubtedly rape changes women's lives forever. If they knew the rapist the questions they must deal with are profound and
life altering. The damage occurs at so many levels. Women often become attuned to the reality that being raped once does not
preclude being the victim of another assault.
There are now growing numbers of women who are victims of date rape. This usually occurs at the end of a date in a woman's
home, or in a car. Some of these occur with casual acquaintances others with men at bars, parties and social events. Date rape
is also becoming more difficult to prove with the use of rohyphnol. Often put in the drinks of women, its chemical composition
can not be traced in the body after 24 hours. Because the victim is rendered unconscious for a period time, there is no way a
woman can substantiate her rape.
The information women receive usually focuses on the ways in which they can protect themselves. The substance of this
material appears to indicate that women can protect themselves when in fact the likelihood is that they can not. While the
information is useful and important, we must not forget that a man who intends to rape will regardless of the obstacles. Nor
should we forget that the deeper issue is one of confronting the roots of violence against women in our society.
The Supreme Court of Canada recognizes that sexual assault is a gendered crime where 99% of the offenders are male and
90% of the victims are female. Clearly we need to recognize that men are not biologically created to rape women. Rather we
live in a society where masculinity is defined by aggression, sexual promiscuity and initiative.
Bill C49 is Canada's "No Means No" law. It was the first bill passed by parliament that engaged in serious consultation with
women who had been raped, women who counsel rape victims, lawyers and police. The core of this law states that when a
woman says no to sex and the male proceeds — a sexual assault has occurred. This law is meant to protect women. However,
in recent cases men have shown that they can exempt themselves from responsibility by claiming they understood the woman
to have said "Yes".
The fear of rape affects most women. It dictates how women dress, act, where they walk and when, where they go and at what
time -- in effect, the fear of rape limits their freedom.
If you recall our discussion on slavery, rape during that period was also used as vehicle for control and domination. It kept
women in fear.
Our ideas about rape and domestic violence have been slow to develop. Generally in the 1960s and 1970s, the police would
only act when women were killed (unfortunately this sometimes remains true today when the woman is aboriginal). Up until
1983, men were legally able to rape their wives when laws regarding sexual assault were finally overhauled dramatically. But
why did these changes in understanding the gendered nature of sexual assault take so long? In a system where the men write
the laws and are in large numbers the parliamentarians, the police and judges, it takes much longer for them to understand the
gender analysis necessary to write and execute just laws that recognize sexual assault by strangers or family as more than sex.
When women try to make clear why they remained in their abusive relationships so long, they often begin by explaining they
were taken by complete surprise by the first mean comment or the first hit.And then, by the time these events had become
daily occurrences, the women were so physically and emotionally beaten down it was easier just to stay. (For a horrifying
account of a woman’s attempt to flee an abusive husband, see the Globe and Mail, Monday January 10, 2000).
Research has found that women over the course of time often lose sense of the relationship’s pathology. For many women, they
find it difficult to imagine a way of surviving outside of the relationship. If the partner has been violent, it is also five times as
dangerous to leave the relationship as it is to stay. Far too frequently these days, women are killed after having ended the
relationship. As I write this, there have been two women killed in Toronto by their estranged partners in the last two weeks.
Men are also choosing to punish women by killing the children. In these relationships, men’s aggressiveness is used to
maintain if not secure women’s subordination. Violence, in the case of abuse, is used to control women so that they are unable to exercise any form of independence. Most often in these cases, women are permitted few outside friends, some are not
allowed to work, others must keep their partner informed of their whereabouts repeatedly during the course of the day, and
most have no access to the financial sources in the family.
Statistics are hard to trace since so much domestic violence goes unreported.Approximately one in ten women in Canada will
experience violence in her life with her partner. Should women hit back during a bad bout of violence, they risk being arrested.
Recent changes in how domestic violence is approached, allows the police to arrest both the abuser and the victim if she in
anyway sought physically to protect herself. Again the “good woman” is the one who passively allows her partner to destroy
her. This is the woman who will receive the most justice (maybe).
Women have been kicked, punched, beaten, burned, threatened, knifed and shot by their husbands and boyfriends. Female
students at this university have been stalked by current and former boyfriends who are threatened by the freedom women may
have on campus. These men fear their lack of control over the activities and behaviours of women.
Abuse blasts away at the all conventions of what a marriage, or love should be. It destroys trust. And as you know from your
readings, it can happen to any woman of any social or economic class.
Humiliation plays an enormous part in whether a woman will admit to a rape or to an abusive relationship. The embarrassment
that accompanies these experiences of vio