Gendering Violence: Culture and Domestic Abuse

In their article, Gendering Violence: Masculinity and Power in Men’s Accounts of Domestic Violence Anderson and Umberson (2001: 358) investigate the question of gender within the context of domestic violence. В Through in-depth interviews conducted with 33 respondents accused of domestic abuse (Anderson and Umberson, 2001: 358), the authors conclude that the construction of gender and the determination to affirm maleness plays a role, both in the instigation of domestic abuse and in the way in which male abusers narrate their stories (p. 375). В Gender, in other words, is identified as the key to understanding domestic abuse and the perceptions of male domestic abusers. В This argument is reminiscent of West and Zimmerman’s (2002) argument. В As this research team aptly remarked, В«In the beginning [of gender scholarship], there was sex and there was genderВ» (West and Zimmerman, 1987: 125). While sex was seen as biologically determined, gender was understood to be socially constructed and thus arbitrary and (potentially) various and changeable. Moreover, scholars have increasingly come to see the perceived polarities and essentialism of male and female attributes as artefacts of the focus on gender difference itself. It is these perceived polarities and the essentialism of male and female attributes which are at the heart of gender differences and fundamental to the entire gender construction process a process which sometimes involves the engagement in abuse as a strategy for the assertion of male authority and the affirmation of manhood.

Gender scholars have long recognized that the interrelationship between biology and culture is far more complex than the sex/gender dichotomy suggests. They have also come to see the meanings of sexuality, and even of bodies themselves, as socially constructed (West and Zimmerman 1987: 125-126). A leader in deconstructing the initially useful but ultimately false sex/gender dichotomy has been Judith Butler. Butler (1990) has sought to В«denaturalize» the В«regulatory fictions of sex and gender» (p. 32). Following Foucault, she attacked the notion of the В«natural,В» the foundation of the belief in an asocial gendered self, as a dangerous В«illusionВ» of which we must be В«curedВ» (Butler 1990: 93). This is correct insofar as gender differences can be seen to be miniscule compared to the vast range of similarities between male and female human beings, and insofar as even those differences which may exist can be seen to be artefacts of the focus on gendered difference itself. Moreover, it is increasingly recognized that there is nothing «natural» which we can «objectively» apprehend independently of received cultural meanings and understandings.

However, Butler (1990: 147) goes on to argue that gender (and presumably other sources of stratification such as class) is in fact a «fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies» Insofar as Butler’s subject has no depth, only a surface constituted through signs, the source of her subjects’ agency or ground for resisting such inscription remains unclear. Ultimately, Butler even faults Foucault for viewing discourse as merely one (rather than the only) mode by which power is manifested, and for his alleged covert commitment to a true body beyond the law. Thus, Butler calls us to struggle to subvert the gender order but provides no resources to inform such a struggle. If an alleged group of individuals, such as «women» has nothing «real» in common, on what grounds can they theorize, let alone oppose, their oppression? As Iris Young (1997: 12-13) observes, «On the one hand, without some sense in which ‘woman’ is the name of a social collective, there is nothing specific to feminist politics. On the other hand, any effort to identify the attributes of that collective appears to undermine feminist politics by leaving out some whom feminists ought to include.»

In a very real sense, at least according to this researcher’s interpretation of the Anderson and Umberson (2001) article, the commonalities in male narratives on abuse, provide the opposite gender with the grounds for establishing themselves as a collectivity. В Irrespective of whether or not they have, themselves been abused, Anderson and Umberson (2001) quite effectively open up, or should, the female eye to the depth and intensity of the internal struggle within males. В On the one hand, society expects them to respect the notion of gender equality and recognize relations between the sexes as a partnership but, on the other, that same society expects men to be males. В It expects them to forge a male gender identity which is based on the establishment of their authority/power, both physical and otherwise, within the domestic setting or vis-a-vis their female partner. This is amply evidenced in one of their respondents’ narration of the circumstances which culminated in his having to physically react against his female partner:

For years they all [his friends] say «Bill… she wears the pants.» Or maybe like, «Hey men, we’re going to go Oh, Bill can’t go. He’s got to ask his boss firstВ» (Anderson and Umberson, 2001: 367).

As may be inferred from the foregoing quote, abuse assumes the form of protest over perceived emasculation (consequent to the female’s assumption of authority) and is, at least partially, instigated by societal expectations of males and the pressure which men feel to construct their maleness, their gender. Gender construction and gender perceptions, in other words, are at the heart of the tendency towards domestic abuse.

In the final analysis, Anderson and Umberson’s (2001) article, when read in conjunction with West and Zimmerman (1987) and Butler (1990) leads us to a very interesting finding. In an age where gender equality is, supposedly sacrosanct, men are under pressure to establish otherwise. Similarly, women are under pressure to affirm their equality and to reject the very notion of male authority/power. В The implication here is that in their respective bids to construct their gender identity according to contemporary cultural expectations, the potential for conflict becomes highly probable. В Men are expected to construct maleness and females, womanhood, with the first necessitating the affirmation of authority and the second of equality. Domestic abuse, as illustrated by Anderson and Umberson (2001) can become the outcome of this conflict.


Anderson, K. L. and Umberson, D. (2001) Gendering violence: Masculinity and power in men’s accounts of domestic violence. В Gender and Society, 15 (3), 358-380.
Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble. New York, NY: Routledge.
West, C. and Zimmerman, D. H. (2002) В Doing gender. В Gender and Society, 1(2), В 125-51.

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