The limits of anti-violence slogans

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, December 15, 2009 22:05 EDT
google plus icon
  • Print Friendly and PDF
  • Email this page

Apparently, on that show “Jersey Shore”, there was going to be a scene—highly advertised—where a dude up and punches a woman in the face. What’s unusual about this is that it happened on camera and in a situation where male-on-female violence isn’t that common (that I know of)—they’re not in a relationship, and he wasn’t trying to subdue her for sexual assault or anything like that. Apparently, it was a typical bar fight situation. But the unusual nature of the violence, and the taboo about hitting women, is such that MTV was initially going to run the scene with a disclaimer about how assaulting women is a crime (actually, assaulting anyone is a crime), and now they’ve just pulled it, though leaving in all other violence that doesn’t involve a man laying a direct punch to a woman’s face. Which of course brings up the inevitable question as to why a non-domestic violence bar brawl kind of situation should be pulled unlike other scenes of violence (including some actual domestic violence). Unfortunately, it gives the impression that MTV is condoning the other kinds of violence, just not a man punching a woman in the face. Cue the MRAs talking about how women have special rights.

Of course, the real reason is that there’s this long-standing chivalric rule that a man should never hit a woman. It’s really hard to protest against this long-standing tradition, and our great unease at the “Jersey Shore” punch shows why. A man who hits a woman is basically taking full advantage of his greater size and strength to fuck someone up he has every reason to believe cannot reasonably defend herself. But this whole situation reminds us that there’s more going on with this rule that needs to be examined, particularly the role chivalry plays in the creation of it, and why it’s simply an inadequate response to violence against women.

To start thinking about this, I want to revisit this whiny, misguided post by Cord Jefferson at Jezebel. I talked about it earlier in the context of domestic violence, but didn’t want to digress into talking about the rest of his post, which is basically about how women are more privileged than men because men are in danger of the face punch from men in bars, whereas women merely have to contend with rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence due to the patriarchy. To illustrate how men are so oppressed at the hands of women, Cord tells a story: He and a female friend are in a bar. Some men in the bar sexually harass his friend. She makes the choice to defend herself by dumping nachos on them. Cord runs over and, well, here’s the rest of the story:

The three men immediately stood up and squared off with my friend, and I ran over and put myself between them and her. “I’m sorry she did that,” I told them, my friend still screaming obscenities at them behind me. “But let’s let this one go, huh?” They didn’t. Instead, one of them cracked me in the side of the face while I turned around to try and calm my friend, who was in tears at that point. I fell hard, hitting my skull on a table on the way down.

When I came to, my face was in a pool of my own blood, and an ambulance was on its way. I couldn’t remember where I was, and the guy who beat me was long gone. But to this day I’m almost certain I knew what he was thinking the instant before he smashed my face in and gave me 36 stitches in my head: “I can’t hit a woman.”

From the details he offers, this is how he thinks it should have gone: Dudes harass his friend. She accepts her role as a second class citizen. Perhaps she walks over and thanks them for reminding her that she’s not a full human being. Everyone wins. Everyone who counts, anyone, so everyone male wins.

Or perhaps, dudes harass his friend. She goes home and cries, but doesn’t question their right to treat her like a second class citizen. Wishes she was born a man.

Or maybe, his friend revolts against being harassed. The men put the bitch down for daring to get uppity with a solid punch to the face. She and all women learn that they question the patriarchy at danger to their own hides.

One thing is certain. He does not think that anyone was in the wrong until his friend objected to be told she was a member of the sex class to be disposed of as random dudes in a bar like. The only real problem is that the amount of abuse and violence perfect strangers can dish out to women is limited to sexual abuse, and physical violence should be added to the list. Except of course that it is. I don’t know why his friend was brave enough to confront those guys that night. Maybe it was because she had friends around, or one drink too many, or because she was simply fed up with putting up with douchebags and their sexist bullshit. But what I do know is this: Most of the time most women deal with sexual harassment by keeping our head down and trying to escape the situation without giving any response if we can at all help it. Why? Because contrary to Cord’s whining assumptions, women do in fact think that men will hit women—and rape them and stalk them—and we don’t want to give a man who selects us for harassment any reason to think he’s justified in escalating the violence because we looked like we were insufficiently submissive to it. That it may not happen that often doesn’t mean that we don’t fear it. All it takes is once. And a man who harasses you has already indicated that he’s targeted you.

I would argue that what Cord discovered is not that women need to be popped in the face on occasion so that everything is equal between men and women. What he learned was that when it comes to the patriarchy, sexist men will enforce the rules not just on women, but on other men who seem insufficiently committed to the art of oppressing women. There are a number of ways men keep each other in line. They call each other “pussy” and question each other’s manhood if someone objects to the sexist milieu in any way. They demand showy displays of masculine callousness to get into the club. And sometimes if a man pushes back against sexism—or even seems to—they whip out violence. Cord wants to blame women for thinking they’re “precious” for getting hit. But he and everyone else knows that it’s sexism that’s to blame. He knew it going in, because he tried to escape the violence by agreeing that women should be sexually harassed by strangers to these guys. But the mere fact that he was willing to get involved apparently dissuaded them from believing in his commitment to maintaining high levels of sexual harassment, so they popped him. The lesson here is not that women should be more eager to be treated like subhumans. The lesson is that sexual harassment is a dominance display, and the harassers will often resort to violence to maintain the dominance they desire.

And this leads us to why “never hit a woman” is a problematic tradition. Obviously, if the guy involved in this did in fact his Cord instead of his friend because he wanted to be seen as the guy who doesn’t hit women, it doesn’t buy women much. He still thinks he owns women and can sexually harass them at will, and that he should never be held accountable for this. “Never hit a woman” doesn’t really do much to address the underlying cause of violence against women, which is male dominance and misogyny. And, as we see here, it all too often gives men a “get out of jail free” card to be pigs in every other way, but convince themselves they’re good guys because they wouldn’t close fisted punch a woman in the face. But many men who would never hit a woman nonetheless dominate women through humiliation, objectification, sexual harassment and assault, and other forms of violence such as shoving. (In fact, “Jersey Shore” showed a man shoving his girlfriend without getting overly concerned about the message that sends.) “Never hit a woman” doesn’t come from feminists; it’s an old-fashioned bit of chivalry. And like all chivalry, it’s a matter of giving women a few showy, special rights (that can be rescinded at the drop of a hat in many cases) in order to justify denying us equality. I’ve unfortunately dealt with a lot of men who pride themselves on never hitting women, even though they actually treat women like crap.

I do think most individuals who promote “never hit a woman” have the best of intentions—they abhor violence, and they probably don’t think much of men who shove or humiliate women in other ways. They’re attracted to the slogan because it’s a slogan, and because it’s so easy to drill into someone’s head. But as these examples show, it’s a poor substitute for a feminist approach, where men work hard at treating women like they’re full human being who deserve that level of respect, even if every sector of society is screaming about their inferiority. Truly respecting women hard work. Never hitting a woman is a lot easier. But of course, not hitting women is the automatic result of actually treating them like full human beings, instead of a second class that needs to be routinely put in their place.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
By commenting, you agree to our terms of service
and to abide by our commenting policy.