I. Boyhood Violence
Some of my earliest memories involve shoving, hitting, being hit by, being choked by, scratching, biting, kicking, being kicked by, and being held to the ground by other boys. Though siblingless, I grew up next door to two best friends who were like older brothers, both larger than me. Being the runt, I resorted to aggressive overreactions of physical violence to preemptively protect myself—engaging in asymmetric warfare, using disproportionate force by instinct. In a home video I recently came upon, I am no older than three or four and can be seen furiously throwing one of these boys to the ground for no apparent reason: mild annoyance, maybe? I don’t remember this.
I do remember several occasions of larger friends holding me down and sitting on my head and neck. Unable to breathe, I found myself in a curious condition trapped for a brief instant deliberating between two possible paths of action: to panic and struggle with all my energy to wriggle free, or go limp and hope he releases me before I suffocate—I didn’t know how long it took people to suffocate at that age. I tried both. Sometimes saying, “I can’t breathe” worked.
My favorite toys were guns and soldiers. My greatest sporting achievements were in woodsballs – paintball games in the woods – in which I was top of my peer group in the act of shooting other kids. My paintball marker (gun) often left bloody welts on the other boys; I received bloody welts sometimes, too. One of the most painful places to get hit by paintballs is the inner thigh. Throughout elementary and high school (from age six to eighteen), I had plenty of experiences physically fighting other boys. I’ve been punched in the head my fair share, once just last year. I have shoved and glared and twisted fingers and arms and pushed faces into the ground. I held a boy’s face in the snow for a long time, until he started weeping. He probably couldn’t breathe. Most of the physical touch I received in adolescence was violent (importantly: this was partly by choice, I thought I was tough to refuse familial affection). Darth Vader was an early role model / likewise Aragorn son of Arathorn / both masters of the blade, the steely brood, and the indiscriminate murder. I had a toy lightsaber that would make a lightsaber noise when I hit someone.
Growing up, violence was mundane, ever potentially imminent, ubiquitous as blood and scabs and junk food. And I grew up in an extremely-abnormally-enviably stable, gentle household with doting parents in a safe community. Many, probably most, boys grow up in cultures of violence, violence immediate and abstract. Too many suffer worse than I experienced: enduring more daily indignities, more daily threats to their agency, more daily beatings, more constant fear. As boys, we are rewarded for violence by peers and parents, we are goaded to violence by its heroic depictions in mass media, we are punished when failing to inflict violence or respond to it with sufficient vengeance.
Boys who grow up in cultures of violence are early on prepared – by our peers, by our parents, by our communities – to cultivate violent behaviors that sometimes extend to include women. Add to these cultures of violence sexual mores that dehumanize women, transform them into objects of lust, or perpetuate the myth that women are prey that must be hunted, that enjoys being hunted, and the violence becomes all the easier to act out. My own violent upbringing has not spilled into violence against women (that I’m aware of) probably largely thanks to the fortunate accident of having been raised by radical feminists—another of my earliest memories contains a giant green sign in the garage reading, “Keep your laws off my body” that my mom would carry in marches on Washington. In my home, women were rigorously humanized. Unfortunately, not many boys’ developments are carefully cultivated by radical feminists; women remain dehumanized.
This is not to say boys are the real victims of violence against women.
This is not to say a boy’s upbringing is ever an excuse for violence against women.
This is not to say men lack the impulse control – or the responsibility – to mediate their behavior in adulthood, regardless of their childhoods.
This is not to say boyhood violence is the sole or even most important cause of violence against women.
This is not to say the conversation should focus on boys and men instead of women.
This is to say violence runs deep in the minds of many males and violence against women will probably not be reduced without reducing formative experiences of violence in boys’ childhoods. Dismantling rape culture entails understanding its roots. Violence against women will not be dismantled without changing the ways in which boys are raised, the stories they learn and characters they emulate, and the peer groups they form. The conversation must include the early violence that boys grow up in if we are to confront the violence they perpetuate in adulthood. We must contend with the brutal upbringing of boys if we are to dismantle rape culture and move beyond this endless cycle of #metoo. But while intervening in boyhood violence is necessary, it is insufficient.
II. Counterintuitive Intersections
Intersectionality refers to the intersecting identities that suffer common systems of oppression: gender(less) identities, sexual identities, racial identities, class identities. If intersectionality is to help us understand and dismantle oppressive institutions and eliminate, or at least punish, violence against women, then it must go far beyond identity.
Take this intersection for example:
Harvey Weinstein [sub: Donald Trump, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Mike Tyson, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Clinton, Roger Ailes, etcetcetc] was able to abuse women without consequence partially, and substantially, thanks to oil.
Wait, hear me out.
The American economy creates extreme power asymmetries. Weinstein was the head of a massive company with a lot, a huge amount, of wealth and power. The modern corporation is a dictatorship. Don’t be fooled by Boards of Directors or shareholders and the illusory power they are said to wield. Chief executives and their immediate minions tend to be all-powerful tyrants ruling over their employees by whim. If they get rich enough, they become all-powerful beyond their companies, enabling them to harass, intimidate, rape, and violate above the law. It is this power that enables men like Weinstein to commit violence against women for years and escape accountability. It is this power asymmetry that allows a billionaire to violate women and then get elected president. It is this power assymetry that silences women who fear for their careers, reputations, or well-being if they offend a powerful figure.
The modern multinational corporation – the social structure in which this kind of abuse is so rampant, the institution that incubates this power imbalance – started with Standard Oil. Standard Oil – now ExxonMobil – and its product built the oil economy we have today and set the model for the corporate hierarchy that dominates. Cheap, dense energy undergirds all the wild capital flowing through the economy, capital that is easily concentrated in a few massive companies and their unaccountable monarchs, pooling at the top of monopolistic industries. Oil money makes surplus, concentrated capital possible. When capital concentrates in a few men’s hands, it allows those men to abuse women (and men) with impunity. Whether in the context of corporations or not, wealthy men are powerful men, and powerful men too frequently can act without consequence.
Wealth hoarding is central to violence against women also because it takes money out of the hands of everyone else. Because of the poverty this inequality breeds, many poorer men feel an economic insecurity that erodes the sense of agency they once held. Many of these immiserated men react to that fear and frustration by acting violently toward those they deem less powerful than themselves: women, racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, poorer people. We can scold them all we want, but the fact will remain: desperate, insecure men will act violently toward those they deem weaker. Concentrating money in the hands of a few very wealthy people also takes money out of the hands of most women, especially women of color. The less wealth women control, the less power they possess, the less recourse they wield to prosecute abusers, and the more vulnerable they are to violence. The more broadly distributed the wealth, the more money in women’s hands, the more power they have to protect themselves from powerful men.
If we wish to reduce violence toward women, we must contend with economic inequality and the hoarding of wealth in the hands of a few brutal men. If we wish to reduce economic inequality, we must contend with the fossil fuel economy that directly enables it. Dismantling our savage, Darwinian economy – corporate oil capitalism – may be the single most important action we can take in dismantling rape culture and protecting women (and men) from violence.
Confronting rape culture also entails the hard work of parsing out friends from foes among our public leaders. This requires harboring a suspicion of people who may look like allies, but whose actions reveal a vicious disregard for the less powerful. People like Hillary Clinton who claim to be feminists while supporting actions that harm women, opposing redistributive policies that would overwhelmingly help women, and maintaining structures of power that keep violent men in positions of authority, uphold male – and, for that matter, white – supremacy. Likewise people like Nancy Pelosi who claim to be allies but dismiss issues of inequality and proudly proclaim “We’re capitalists!” Such neoliberal oligarchs who look friendly, who claim the mantle of feminism, but who hide a cruel agenda disempowering women, oppressing women of color in particular, and stealing from economically precarious women, these are insidious enemies to dismantling rape culture. A conversation on violence toward women that ignores wealth hoarding, that fails to wage a rhetorical war against the rich and the systems that make them, is an incomplete conversation. It is ultimately ineffectual.
Is #metoo just an ephemeral, collective catharsis that leads to no further action? Activism has become paralyzed by its fetish for awareness raising. It would be no surprise if this phenomenon falls into the same social media trap of making a spectacle of tragedy then dutifully disappearing from memory before it can impact the policy agenda or cultural progress.
But this outpouring of courage and heartbreaking vulnerability could be more than a viral agglomeration of likes, clicks, and shares. It could instead bolster the hard work of taking power away from the most powerful, savage men. If we want to break rape culture, if we want to hold accountable the psychopathic rich that rape and murder women (and men), if we want to stop the abuse that women suffer on a daily basis, then we have to confront cultures of violence and all the ways in which we contribute to them. We have to confront economic inequality, we have to break the asymmetries of power that give a few men all the wealth in the world and the impunity it buys, and we have to confront the toxic resources on which the economy is built, resources that allow capital to concentrate so perversely. We must meet at the crossroads of all these vast forces or we will continue to be ground down by their grotesque triumph: the psychopathic rich will hold our faces to the ground until we suffocate. We can have a savage economy run by rich rapists, or we can have broad respect for women. We can’t have both.