How Sexual Violence Reinforces Patriarchal Power
Connecting individual perpetrators with broader social structures.
TW: rape, murder, sexual violence and harassment
The rape and death of Sarah Everard has prompted renewed conversations, both in the UK and internationally, on the pervasiveness of sexual violence in the lives of women and non-binary people. These conversations build upon the anger crystallized in Tarana Burke’s #MeToo hashtag, with a new generation of activists joining the movement. Police officer Wayne Couzens has pled guilty to the kidnap and rape of Everard and accepted responsibility for her death, though his formal plea to the charge of murder is pending.
This high profile case calls for research into the use of sexual violence within organized and state-sponsored institutions. It also provides fresh ground for theorizing the causes and means of preventing sexual violence. Recent popular discourse has focused on advocating for change within individuals’ personal lives, as opposed to targeting structures of power. But successful critique must be able to address the relation between these two spheres, encapsulating both the individual and the structural. Drawing on Promundo’s extensive research and participatory programs on transformative, feminist masculinities, we can ask: What does research say about the relationship between sexual violence and patriarchal power structures?
1 — Sexual violence is a tool for men to prove their manhood
We live in a gender hierarchy that valorizes sex and violence as symbols of power. For many men, these are tools to ‘prove their manhood, achieve the social status of a “real man”, and establish power over others.’¹ We can understand sexual violence as a logical combination of this — a broad spectrum of actions that employ hypersexuality and aggression towards social gain. Rather than referring merely to some innate male sex drive, this way of understanding sexual violence treats perpetrators as complex social beings. Their actions become less about satisfying individual desires than ‘regulating the gender performance’ of others and asserting dominance over them.²
It’s important to note that sexual violence is particularly useful to men who feel their gender is under question. It provides a means with which to both ‘assert agency and demonstrate their compliance with hegemonic masculinities’ at the same time.³ This violence reinforces both the individual’s own social position, and the dominant masculine norms to which they comply. These norms emerge from and support a patriarchal gender hierarchy that places masculinity and cisgender manhood above all else. Sexual violence therefore helps perpetuate this hierarchy, as a broad spectrum of ‘processes that serve to reinforce power structures that advantage all men,’ by affirming men’s dominance over others as the norm.⁴
2 — #MeToo hasn’t translated into direct action against perpetrators
In a study examining the impact of #MeToo on men and women in the U.S., around a third of respondents admitted to having sexually harassed someone in the past. Yet only three percent of respondents had ever been personally accused of harassment.⁵ With people less likely to be accused than to self-report harassing someone, we ought to question what concrete improvements have been made since #MeToo. Certainly, research suggests that our newly raised awareness of sexual violence isn’t translating into reports about or action against those who perpetrate it.
This fits the picture drawn by statistics on criminal convictions of sexual violence. In the UK, though cases of rape reported to the police have sharply risen over the past five years, the actual number of convictions has fallen.⁶ On top of this, only 16 percent of sexual abuse claims against Metropolitan Police officers between 2012–2018 have been upheld.⁷ Concrete structural barriers obstruct justice for survivors, and no doubt discourage many from reporting sexual violence. We are still fighting a culture of silence that prevents meaningful discussion, and a culture of impunity that prevents action against sexual violence.
3 — Sexual violence supports broader struggles for dominance
There has been lots of attention paid by researchers to the use of sexual violence as part of organized conflict. Their findings offer us clear examples of sexual violence’s role in maintaining power structures. Extremist movements and ideologies regularly deploy misogyny and patriarchal traditions to support their growth.⁸ Often, this means allowing or directly encouraging sexual violence against citizens of occupied territories.⁹ In this way, hegemonic masculine norms provide a basis for sexual violence that is used strategically as part of wider power struggles. Understanding this is crucial in theorising how individual acts of sexual violence support wider systems of cis-patriarchal oppression.
On the individual level, it is telling that men who join violent extremist groups often have a history of perpetrating sexual and intimate partner violence prior to joining.¹⁰ Equally, the sexual violence perpetrated by violent extremists is highly transmittable between generations — with young boys who witness such violence being 2.5 times more likely to commit it as adults.¹¹ This is fertile ground for understanding the connections between structural and individual dynamics of sexual violence, and more research is needed into the recruitment practices of extremist groups.
Sexual violence emerges from and reinforces patriarchal power
Reflections on sexual violence within violent extremism should motivate further research into its place within domestic, state-sponsored violence. While the severity, frequency, and purpose of sexual violence broadens during times of conflict, its foundations are laid during “peacetime.”¹² This point is repeatedly made by activists who call out the way state bodies such as the police perpetrate or overlook violence. Examples of particular relevance to this article include the case of Mark Kennedy and other Metropolitan police officers who deceived women into long-term intimate relationships as part of undercover surveillance operations.¹³
Ideologically, the “peacetime” foundations of this sexual violence are found in the attitudes of privilege and entitlement consistently expressed by men who commit rape.¹⁴ As this article has argued, they are weaponized to encourage violence and dominance, particularly in response to insecurity. More than benefiting individual perpetrators, this weaponising serves to maintain the system of patriarchal gender hierarchies. It creates a rape culture that pervades society, influencing the beliefs and behaviours of educators, lawmakers and police officers alike.
Recognising sexual violence’s structural nature is a potent tool for building solidarity between victims of its diverse manifestations. It gives us a common ground to understand how patriarchy and other systems of dominance maintain themselves over and in us. The violence enacted on Sarah Everard is continuous with that being resisted by Black Lives Matter, Kill The Bill, and countless other groups. Feminists must therefore work in solidarity with these movements, forming coalitions that advocate unilaterally for feminist, racial, trans and disability justice.
1 - Heilman (2018), p. 58
2 - Ibid., p. 11
3 - Ibid., p. 58
4 - Ibid., p. 9
5 - Kearl, H., Johns N. E. & Raj A. (2019), p. 37
6 - BBC News’ Reality Check team (2020)
7 - Townsend, M & Jayanetti, M. (2021)
8 - Fried (2020), p. 11
9 - Ibid., p. 9
10 - Ibid., p. 10
11 - Ibid., p. 15
12 - Heilman, B., Hebert, L. & Paul-Gera N. (2014), p. 3
13 - Police Spies Out Of Lives (2015). A full timeline of undercover Metropolitan police activities has been compiled here: https://www.spycops.co.uk/timeline-ascending/
14 - Heilman et al. (2014), p. 11
- BBC News’ Reality Check team (2020), Why Are Rape Prosecutions Falling?, viewed June 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48095118
- Fried, A. with Lauro, G. & Barker, G. (2020), Masculinities and Preventing Violent Extremism: Making the Connections, Washington, DC: Promundo-US
- Heilman, B. with Barker, G (2018), Masculine Norms and Violence: Making the Connections, Washington, DC: Promundo-US
- Heilman, B., Hebert, L. & Paul-Gera N. (2014), The Making of Sexual Violence: How Does a Boy Grow Up to Commit Rape? Washington, DC: ICRW & Promundo
- Kearl, H., Johns N. E. & Raj A. (2019), Measuring #MeToo: A National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault, San Diego: UCSD Centre on Gender Equality and Health
- Police Spies Out Of Lives (2015), Apology from Met Police — In Full, viewed June 2021, https://policespiesoutoflives.org.uk/the-case-overview/text-of-apology-from-met-police/
- Townsend, M & Jayanetti, M. (2021), Revealed: the grim list of sex abuse claims against Metropolitan police, viewed June 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/20/revealed-the-grim-list-of-sex-abuse-claims-against-metropolitan-police
This blog was authored by Tomara Garrod, Digital Engagement Consultant for Promundo-US. Tomara is a poet, producer, and facilitator interested in queering discourses around gender and sexual identity.