Monday, March 10, 2008

Gender and violence

My Working With LGBT class put LGBT folks in to the social work perspective: the idea that an individual resides within their social, political and familial environments. Looking at the specifics of “Violence in gay and lesbian relationships,” the title of Christopher Alexander’s article, 25 to 50 percent of same-sex relationships have incidence of domestic violence, yet society is not adequately dealing with it because it is not adopting this person-in-environment approach where gender roles place a hierarchy in the relationship. In particular, I found it useful when looking at lesbian domestic violence victims, a population whose very sex puts them into an imaginary box because women are not seen as aggressors.

Emily Simpson and Christine Helfrich’s article, “Lesbian Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence: Provider Perspectives on Barriers to Accessing Services,” breaks down the barriers into three areas: systematic (which are often cultural), institutionalized (which include policy and vocabulary), and individual (which include clients, therapists, and every one in between). I think it is really important to break down huge issues, in this case homophobic responses, into pragmatic solution because it seems to be too much for most people to simply say, “let’s change.” Society needs a road map in which to follow, and pointing out these barriers seems to do that. At the helm of the research seems to be the way that gender roles affect societal, institutional and individual arenas. If at any level a woman is seen as demure, and not capable of being in power, their struggles will go unnoticed, or perhaps even worse, noticed but not taken seriously.

As a feminist who is dedicated to the eradication of the gender binary, I found Simpson & Helfrich’s interpretation of the movement to be interesting. They seem to blame the feminist movement as it has placed much of the abuse on the patriarch because feminist theory says it is the male-dominated society that perpetuates violence on women. Therefore, many feminists don’t touch on lesbian partnered abuse because it is two women, as opposed to a man maintaining his position of power through abuse against his woman. I think this theory can still be applied, as women most certainly find a way to be powerful by adopting these traditionally masculine gender roles – be it emulation or innate. Meaning, a biological man or woman has the ability to take out their aggression, and to be leaders by way of violence; actions that are often placed under the male (masculine) role; and therefore treatment and interventions for same-sex domestic violent abusers and victims can still be addressed through a feminist framework because it all boils down to gender role expectation.

I always felt that a large factor among men who beat up on the women in their lives includes that of gender role discomfort and anger because they don’t want to always have to be expected to make decisions, have economic power, or other responsibilities that come with being a male in our culture. Sure, they get to hold the ruling title in the patriarch, but not all men want this constant obligation to be aggressive. The same may go for a woman who may resist the societal expectation of submissiveness by taking out her aggression on her partner, and thereby adopting a traditionally male role of abuser. How we determine where a woman abuser is getting these roles, and then interpreting them, can be found by assessing their environment. And what researchers appear to see most often is that the gender binary causes victims to not get the appropriate treatment and intervention because gender identification is an oppression in our society.

Steven Onken defines oppression in his article, “Violence and Social Injustice Against Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People,” as “the act of molding, immobilizing, or reducing opportunities which thereby restrains, restricts or prevents social, psychological, and/or economic movement of an individual or group.” This oppression, Onken points out, is maintained by the powers-that-be, and in the case of DV agencies, those folks include all levels of aid who do not recognize the way gender role expectation effects victims and abusers (such as placing women abusers with other women, reducing the reality of the abuse because females are non-violent; not having appropriate resources addressing gay DV specifically, etc).

Why do these expectations exist?

There may be a plethora of reasons, but I often resort back to the capitalist foundation of our country that basically says that stability equals money, and therefore a man should be stabilized as masculine, and women should be stabilized as feminine. “Gender is one of the most effective means of social control; from birth we are encultured into a dual gender system, reinforced by all the major institutions,” as Onken states.

Of course, in our culture, heterosexism creates the gender roles, which thereby perpetuates the invisibility of LGBT victims because it defines relationships norms, in which a man is basically “allowed” to have (physical) power over the women in their lives. Emily Pitt and Diane Dolan-Soto’s article, “Clinical Considerations in Working with Victims of Same-Sex Domestic Violence,” highlights the way society uses “heterosexual roles to normalize abuse and shame partners for same sex and same sex desires.” More importantly, perhaps, gender roles are not always easy to distinguish in couple relationships such as, say between two traditionally feminine-looking lesbians, and as Pitt and Dolan-Soto state, if a person “identifies as a victim or abuser, it is important to recognize that her representation may not be necessarily accurate; [they] do not follow the same gender role behavior as heterosexual relationships.”

Instead, folks in the three barrier areas: societal, institutional and individual, do something that needs to stop: they make assumptions.

We rely so often on labels in order to quickly box people in, make a diagnosis, and then move on to the next person in line. A person’s biological sex or gender identification, then, are just one more way society capitalizes on being efficient and getting the job done. And it appears that labels go beyond just name-calling. In Joan Mclennen, et. al’s article, “Gay men’s domestic violence: Dynamics, help-seeking behaviors and correlates,” the idea of role-theory comes up, and explains the way people in a relationship take on their perceived role, based on society’s expectation, and can use it against one another to facilitate a domineering and violent partnership: “In this self-conceptualization, each gay partner’s status derives from his role in the partnership; [and] role conception influences both identity and behavior: enter[s] the structure of the self. When one partner is perceived by the other partner to have more status in the relationship, a power imbalance ensues.”

So, then, one can assume that if the media, et. al, create and perpetuate gender roles, there will continue to be partners who adopt one aggressive, and one submissive role, which causes a multitude of problems from drug abuse and domestic violence, to depression and suicide. Again, real issues that stem from a binary that is inconsistent with the real lives of humans. We are diverse, and limiting potential can lead to dire outcomes