COE 1999 : SEMINAR Men and Violence

Conclusions by the General Rapporteur

EuroPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 


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European Council of Europen - Human Rights

Section Equality between women and men

Seminar : Men and Violence Against Women

Strasbourg, 8 October 1999 - Palais de l'Europe - France


  COE- Recommandations
  COE- Military and construction of masculinity in society
  COE- Men's violence against Women and children in situations of armed conflict
  COE- Elder abuse and older men- towards an understanding
  COE- Male violence- the economic costs
  COE- But Where are the Men?
  COE- Police methods to counteract violence against women
  COE- Men's Violence against Women in the Arctic
  COE- Intimate male violence in the US and Poland
  COE- Gendering research on men's violence to known women
  COE- Explaining the inclination to use violence against women
  COE- Socio and Psychogenetic Attempts to Explain the Male
  COE- Growing up in the proximity of violence- Teenagers’ Stories
  COE- Socio-economic roots for cases of male violence against women in Russia


Conclusions by the General Rapporteur

Dr. Renate Klein, University of Maine

Mesdames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The seminar on men and violence against women provided an unusual opportunity to bring together over one hundred researchers, practitioners and policy makers to discuss a wide range of topics related to men’s violence against women. In the course of two days we addressed exceedingly complex issues, explored layers of meaning around men’s violence, and raised many more questions for future meetings of this kind. I applaud and sincerely thank the Council of Europe, and in particular the Steering Committee for Equality between Women and Men, and Ms. Ólöf Ólafsdóttir and her formidable team for making this meeting possible and providing a forum for the necessary interdisciplinary and international debate that needs to happen around men’s violence against women. Because the details of the reports presented at the seminar are available in print, I shall focus my conclusion on recurring themes and contested understandings.

Methodology and the Evaluation of Research

Several experts addressed the need for quantitative surveys in order to obtain data on the extent of violence against women. Ideally, such data would be reliable, valid, and comparable across different regional and national contexts. Although there has been a development in surveys from an early focus on crime in general to a recent, more specific focus on violence against women, survey design and use are far from perfect. As a minimum, a good survey needs to pay careful attention to the wording of its questions and incorporate language that makes sense to the women who respond to it. Terminology and language are extremely important. One example for this is the differential estimates of sexual assault when women are asked if they have experienced ‘rape’ or ‘coerced sex’. Other important issues in survey research include the matching and training of interviewers, the use of various response formats including closed and open questions, sampling frames, and access strategies that do not exclude those women who are marginalised and particularly at risk of being attacked or assaulted (e.g. elderly women, women belonging to ethnic minorities, immigrants, or the disabled).  The meaning of violence can vary considerably within individual respondents who reflect on different experiences with violence. it can vary within countries and across countries. and last but not least between men and women. While there are some examples of strategies to address the meaning of violence in the context of survey research, there are also many examples of surveys that do not address such variability of meaning but presuppose that violence means the same to women and men. Therefore, caution needs to be exercised in the uncritical design of surveys, and in the uncritical interpretation of their findings.

This note of caution needs to be extended to the evaluation of research in general. No research produces facts that speak for themselves. Data, whether quantitative or qualitative, need to be interpreted and organised within frames of reference. Therefore, it is also important to interrogate those frames of reference and ask to what extent they contribute to gender equality and the dignity of women. This is particularly important with regard to statistical data, because most of us are used to thinking of numbers as something ‘objective’, and considering the privileged position of the notion of ‘objectivity’ in contemporary science, numbers can be powerful tools of influencing the decision making of scholars, practitioners, or policy makers. It is also necessary to weigh the need for more data on women’s victimisation against the need of those women for safety, and to be careful not to ‘plunder’ women’s experiences with violence in the name of science.

Gender as a Fundamental Social Division

Several experts noted that research on violence as well as research on the development, maintenance, and change of feminine and masculine identities needed to be gendered in a way that recognises gender as a fundamental social division. This includes recognising that thinking in relatively rigid dichotomies of male and female difference may itself obscure our understanding of how gender identity develops, is solidified, or can be reconceptualised. It also includes recognising that adding women to masculine social contexts does not automatically deconstruct rigid notions of gender difference, as the example of women in the Israeli military shows.

Focus on the ‘Imaginary’

Another recurring theme concerns the inclination to interpret men’s violence against constructions of imaginary femininity or masculinity as compared to what women and men actually do or experience. For example, traditional psychoanalytic theory as well as some strands in recent men’s literature seem focused on imaginary notions of women, in which women and in particular mothers are constructed as overpowering, omnipotent beings. Such notions of female power are at odds both with the lack of power women in abusive relationships experience and with the perception of teenagers who grew up with violence in the home and who, even under considerable adversity, can have very positive images of their mothers that acknowledge the real-life dilemmas of mothers living with violent husbands or partners. A second example is the rhetoric of men as the protectors of women during warfare, which is at odds with the reports of men leaving women (as well as children and elderly men) behind in villages where they are attacked and/or sexually assaulted by male soldiers from the enemy camp. No doubt, individual men seriously wish to protect their families from harm. And yet, it is painful to witness how often women find themselves unarmed in war, and vulnerable in peace.


4. Four Perspectives on Explanations for Men’s Violence

The experts presented many complex explanations and social theories to explain men’s violence that can be highlighted from at least four different perspectives: explanations focusing on internal processes of the integration of violence into masculine identities, explanations focusing on external circumstances presumed to encourage male violence, the risk factor approach, and explanations focusing on the deliberate social construction of institutions that foster those masculine identities in which violence takes a central place.  

a. Internal Processes: Gender Identity Development and Social Learning

At this meeting we have addressed explanations that detail internal processes underlying violent behaviour and that draw on psychoanalytic theory, socialisation theory, and to some extent learning theory. Psychoanalytic concepts tend to focus on early childhood experiences around the differentiation of Self and Other that lead to complex patterns of the construction of Self and Other. More recent psychoanalytic work includes experiences during adolescence in the formation of gender identity and posits the possibility that, during this period of life, gender identities may in fact be revised. 

Similarly, notions of social learning tend to focus on early childhood experiences, although social learning continues into adulthood and indeed happens everyday throughout our lives. In fact, we usually do not enter some settings for social learning, such as the workplace or volunteer organisations, until we are adults and other settings, such as the family, may stay with us throughout our lives. 

If socialisation experiences and the construction of Self and Other do indeed contribute to the formation of violence-identified masculinities and men’s violence against women, we need to be open to the possibility that such processes continue throughout life, and likely in settings that are crucial for other purposes as well such as earning a living, or being integrated into the community. That is, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the ‘normal’ institutions of daily life and social organisation from the formation of masculine identities, including those identities that are ingrained with violence. What this means is that throughout life there is considerable opportunity both for reinforcing violence-identified masculinities and for revising them.

b. External Circumstances: Rapid Social Change, Instability, and War

The experts also addressed explanations that relate men’s violence implicitly or explicitly to social circumstances, in particular to notions of rapid social change and social instability, as well as to warfare and its societal aftermath. It is important to acknowledge the hardship that warfare and social upheaval create for those who have to live through it, and to investigate the potential role of international inequality in creating or perpetuating localised instability or war, and to understand the toxic effects on civic society ‘at home’ of wars waged in neighbouring territory. It is also important to explore how social change and war influence people differently and to examine who benefits from such changes and who becomes more vulnerable. 

A largely unexplored area concerns the transitions from periods of relative stability to relative instability and on to relative stability. For example, how do we come to terms with reports that individual men who appeared to be ‘peaceful’ before war seem to turn into violent women haters during the war? The experts debated whether violence against women during armed conflict was primarily a matter of permission to be violent and access to vulnerable victims, or whether there are other things going on in terms of gender relations and the construction of Self and Other, friend or foe. Such explanations are probably not mutually exclusive. Brutalisation of men in the context of armed conflict may be a multifaceted process that may include permission to be violent as well as training to be violent and training to dehumanise and objectify those who, by official propaganda or the memories of deep-seated humiliation, become the designated enemy.

In this context, the experts discussed the role of shame, and the silence around shame, which may continue across generations. As mass rapes of women during warfare have happened throughout history and continue to happen to the present day, women have been carrying a suffocating burden of shame that manifests itself in deep depression and is cloaked in silence. It is necessary to create conditions in which we learn to listen to those who learned to live with their shame in silence.

It is unclear how women’s experiences of shame compare to the shame that they bring onto their families and countries in those contexts where family honour is defined through women’s chastity. While the connections between the shame of individual women and the shame attached to notions of idealised femininity are not well understood, we noticed that the shame of individual women seems to contribute to their isolation and being outcasts of society, and is related to loss of control, whereas men in such contexts seem to have the option to clear their families’ names of shame through the honour killing of women and thus remain a respected member of their communities. That is not to say that individual men in such contexts are not conflicted over the issue of honour killings. It was also noted that sexual violence against women in situations of armed conflict involves attacks that may be tools to shame their husbands, fathers, and brothers, but are still attacks on the women themselves and their sexual and national identities.

c. Risk Factors

The concept of risk factors derives largely from research on public health. When applied to men’s violence against women, we need to distinguish between risk factors for being violent (such as believing that women are subordinate to men) and risk factors for being victimised (such as separating from a violent man). Our discussion of stress as a risk factor showed that the relationship between men’s experience of stress and their violence against women is controversial. In part, this controversy seems to result from the different perspectives different experts take on stress, the wide range of men’s stress experiences in different settings such as family, work, the military, or combat as well as the frequent observations of those who work with violent men that violent men do not seek out such programmes until they are experiencing sufficient stress. To advance this fruitful debate, it seems necessary to distinguish between different forms of stress (e.g., career-related stress versus the fear of losing one’s wife) and to analyse the relationship between stress and violence for different groups, not just for men, but for women as well. 

With all risk factors we need to pay attention not only to the correlation between risk factor and men’s violence, but to the patterning of that violence and thus to the targets of potentially stress-induced violence. To illustrate the importance of attending to the patterning of violence, so-called random sprees of violence by individual violent men often turn out to be directed rather systematically against individuals who may not have had any personal relationship with the aggressor but happen to belong to groups that the aggressor defined as worthy of being attacked or killed.

d. Explanations Focusing on Deliberate Social Enterprises

Finally, the military is an example of an institution that deliberately and systematically constructs masculine identities in which violence plays a crucial role. A gendered analysis of the military also makes clear that, at least in the case of Israel, men’s successful participation in the military, and thus their likely adoption of a violence-identified masculinity, is rewarded with considerable perks in civil society such as access to prestigious jobs and political influence. Mentioned only cursorily was the role of organised religion in the construction of gender identities and gender hierarchies, and the relative acceptance of violence against women.  We heard more of efforts to reform deliberate social enterprises such as the police and the legal system with the goal to reduce violence against women. Police training by battered women’s advocates has been instrumental in beginning to change the police response to violence against women, at least as far as violence in the home is concerned. Similarly, there have been many impressive, if recent, efforts towards changing laws and legislation so as to acknowledge more fully women’s right to safety, dignity, and integrity. However, there is an important difference between the examples of the military, the police, and the legal system. Legal reforms and reforms of police response for the most part are directed at the punishment of the perpetrator. In contrast, we saw how the military is instrumental in the construction, and subsequent reward, of violence-identified masculine identity, and thus in the production of potential perpetrators. So far, there has been no comparably developed, defined, and resourceful social enterprise instrumental in the construction of non-violence-identified masculinity.

Considering the frequent references to societal turmoil and warfare during this meeting we may note that the deliberateness of the construction of violence-identified masculinity may become invisible over time, and that such violence-identified masculinity in due time may appear to be an ‘inevitable’ response to social change.

5. Role of Community

Several experts spoke of the role of community in either encouraging or discouraging men’s violence against women. Communities include real people and the messages they send about men’s violence against women. Community includes family members and pre-school teachers, social workers, police officers or those who run intervention programmes for violent men. Community also includes the media and the imagery of men’s violence against women that is perpetuated by the media such as notions of stranger rape. Community also includes supranational organisations such as the Council of Europe, and the messages that come from such prestigious international communities. Community provides, or withholds, support structures. We discussed which support structures communities provide for women and men, respectively, and to what extent communities encourage or discourage men’s violence and non-violence. Several experts argued that such structures change as communities move from periods of relative stability to periods of upheaval or war, and may not revert entirely to the original levels of stability after periods of crises. What happens to women and men’s support networks during such changes? For example, to what extent does the formation of armed militias or guerillas erode social support from men for men’s non-violence? Occasional reports suggest that there are individual soldiers who try not to participate in organised rape, and who implore the women they encounter to pretend they had been raped so as to protect the soldier from being killed by his male peers for not raping.   From a different angle, the role of community support becomes chillingly clear in the lives of children and teenagers who have none. We heard about children who grew up in violent homes or in complete societal neglect. Too many find themselves with no support network, alone with their legacy of violence, shame, and confusion, and without a trustworthy adult role model who might be able to help them with the transition from fantasising a life of respect and harmony to actually living it.

Finally, communities bear some of the societal costs of violence against women. While cost estimates are fraught with methodological and ethical problems, putting monetary values on individual suffering may convince reluctant policy makers to invest more money in the prevention of violence against women.

6. Non-Violence and Non-Violent Masculinities

We need to know more about the creation of non-violence and the conditions under which non-violent masculinities flourish, just as we need to conceive of different trajectories towards violent masculinities. Not all men are violent, and not all men rape, even if they could. Why not? As research and practical work with violent men is just beginning, we also need to pay attention to non-violent men, their experiences, and their strategies of non-violence.

With regard to the individual or psychological level, recent psychoanalytical work highlights the creative potential of the tension between the assertion of the Self and the mutual recognition of the Other. While this tension may arise for the first time in infancy, it likely will continue throughout life. Some experts suggested that men’s ability to tolerate such tension might be related to their non-violence, whereas the ‘resolution’ of that tension through the construction of rigid gender or ethnic identities may encourage violence. With more fluid approaches to gender identity boys may be able to identify with mothers and feminine role models without ridicule, and girls may be able to identify with fathers and masculine role models without rejection.

On a societal level, creative potential may arise from sustaining the tension between privilege and equality. Often, this tension is resolved in the form of hierarchies and pecking orders, which leave some men relatively privileged and protected, and most women, as well as many men, relatively vulnerable. Most of us have lived within hierarchical social institutions for our entire lives, from the family, through formal schooling, to the workforce. That makes it difficult to conceive of less hierarchical social organisations. Nevertheless the efforts seems worthwhile so that “le savoir ne sera pas subordonné au pouvoir” (knowledge or wisdom will not be subject to power).

The promise of sustaining the tension between self-assertion and mutual recognition is also to fully realise one’s human potential. But why be fully realised if you can be partially realised and be president of a large corporation and drive an expensive car? The answer is, once you have tasted this creative tension, everything else is bland.

I thank the Council of Europe for organising this meeting, and I thank all participants for coming together and sharing their invaluable knowledge and insights.



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