Does equality breed violence against women?

Carolyn Moynihan
4 April 2014
Reproduced with Permission

The statistics in a recent international report on violence against women are deeply disturbing: one in three women has been physically or sexually abused; one in 10 has experienced sexual violence; one in 20 has been raped. Where? Not in a developing country mired in civil war, but in Europe, wealthy, women's rights obsessed, feminist finger-wagging Europe. How can this be?

The mystery deepens when we learn from Violence against women: an EU-wide survey that around half of women have suffered sexual harassment or psychological abuse and that 20 percent of young women have been harassed via social networks or text messages.

Most astonishing of all, the European countries with the worst statistics are those famed for their enlightened social attitudes and sexual egalitarianism - the Scandinavian utopias of Denmark (with 52 percent of women reporting past abuse), Finland (47 percent) and Sweden (46 percent). By comparison, Austria, Croatia, Poland Slovenia and Spain have a partner violence rate of 13 percent, and non-partner rates are 10-11 percent in Portugal, Greece and Poland - making these countries look positively benign towards their womenfolk.

Taking them at face value, these figures deal a severe blow to what is generally regarded as progress. Writing in the highbrow British magazine Prospect, Serena Kutchinsky says: "I have always believed that the closer we come to a gender equal society, the less gender violence there will naturally be." But the EU report poses a worrying question. "Is violence a by-product of equality?"

In trying to answer this question she finds it is not all down to reporting bias. Blanca Tapia, spokesperson for the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency, which produced the report, tells her that "some men don't cope well with the gender role reversal" that sees women earning more money and occupying more senior positions than their male counterparts, and "lash out".

Kutchinsky considers the fact that equality for women in a country like the UK often means an equal share in the binge drinking culture that breeds violence - both on the street and at home. It's also possible that men, who are more liable to settle disputes aggressively, "cease differentiating between the genders and forget to apply restraint when dealing with women they consider to be their equal." But that's about all the slack men are cut.

Women, needless to say, are cleared of any responsibility for the trouble they experience. Noting that only 14 percent of abused women report incidents to the police, Tapia says: "Too many women don't report it because they feel that somehow it's their fault; maybe their skirt was too short, maybe they provoked the guy to utter those words … You never see a black man apologising for being black. It's absurd that women should feel this way… We were not put on this earth to turn men on."

And Kutchinsky adds: "We need to fight against any feelings of shame or guilt that a partner's, or a stranger's actions might produce…" The solutions she comes up with are more reporting to the police, ratifying the EU's Instanbul Convention, which calls on governments to have an active programme for combating violence against women and domestic violence, and, above all, re-educating men.

But before signing up to any more high-minded schemes and sending men in large batches to gender re-education camps, we need to consider whether there are reasons other than male sexism fuelled by the demon drink why increasing gender equality would go hand in hand with high - increasing? - levels of abuse of women.

We can concede two explanations offered in the FRA report. First, that women in more egalitarian societies are more ready to disclose their experiences - whether to the police, or in a survey by the EU. Second, that as women move into traditionally male employment domains they are likely to be a higher risk of sexual harassment in the workplace. This certainly seems to be the case in the military, for example, and the FRA survey shows that women in professional and higher management positions were at greater risk than women in some other occupational groups.

The main risk factor, however, is age. On the whole, both partner and non-partner violence are most prevalent in the youngest age-group (18-29) and lowest in those aged 60 and over - and this remains true even for the lifetime experience of the oldest group. The FRA report finds this counter-intuitive and suggests (without using the ageist word "forget") that it might be because some experiences were "many years ago".

That is speculation. The data shows that young women today are more likely to experience abuse than their grandmothers' generation. Why?

In spite of everything that the women at the EU Fundamental Rights Agency and others might say, the behaviour, including manner of dress, of women in the workforce and public places has to be taken into account. If "women were not put on this earth to turn men on," why on earth do so many go to work in a style that emphasises their sexiness? Why do young women dress in miniskirts to go out and get drunk?

To ask such questions is not to "put all the blame on women" but to approach one aspect of the problem of sexual abuse rationally. It is irrational for a woman to flaunt her sex and then complain that a man has responded to her signals, or for a girl to put sexy photos on her Facebook page and then complain about cyberbullying. The refusal to acknowledge women's moral agency in today's battle of the sexes seriously undermines exercises like the FRA report.

More importantly, when it comes to partner abuse, the FRA keeps us in the dark about a significant risk factor. Many studies have found that married women experience less violence than those in cohabiting relationships, but the FRA report lumps together those married, cohabiting or just in a relationship as simply "partners". When MercatorNet asked the agency for the data on household composition we were told it would not be available to researchers until later in the year.

Yet the differences may be important. A 1990 study by Stets and Straus found that 35 percent of cohabitors, 20 percent of daters and 15 percent married couples experienced a form of violence. A more recent study (2012) reduces the gap between married and cohabiting couples but still shows a higher incidence of violence among the latter.

This is relevant to the Nordic enigma of high rates of gender equality and high rates of violence - and the opposite pattern in many southern and eastern European countries. As a recent OECD report said, "While cohabitation rates are high in France, and the Nordic and Anglophone countries, they are very low in Greece, Italy, Poland and the Slovak Republic, and negligible in Turkey."

If it comes to a choice, then, in which type of country would people want to live? Probably neither.

Most people, still, want to get married - at least in America - and the majority globally agree that marriage is not an outdated institution. Which makes sense, considering the natural evidence that men and women are, in one way or another, meant for each other, and the scientific evidence that married couples are happier and children are more likely to flourish when raised by their own mom and dad. So the Scandinavian model won't do.

On the other hand, the role segregation associated with the mother-housewife/father-breadwinner model common in the mid-twentieth century seems doomed. The changes in women's education, values, technology and the job market point towards a more equal sharing of roles over the lifetime of a marriage.

More equal, though, not strictly divided. Research by family scholars Brad Wilcox and Steven Nock shows that married women are happiest when their marriage combines elements of the new and old. They find that both men and women "continue to tacitly value gendered patterns of behaviour in marriage" and what matters regarding roles is equity, or fairness, not strict equality. What is decisive for women's happiness, however, is how much affection their husbands show them ("men's emotion work") and having the same ideals about marriage.

If this is the case, pushing the egalitarian model of relationship between the sexes as a social ideal could throw many women and men into conflict with their own instincts and with each other. This would not only spoil their chances of happiness but lead to frustration and actual violence.

Of course, any reference to nature and instincts will be greeted with disdain in the corridors of female power, but such things may still be real. In which case we could waste an awful lot of social resources trying to reform men.