Patriarchal Violence is Endemic: The Bad Apple Theory Will Not Save Us


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The age-old “bad apple theory” we keep defaulting to fails us both in its explanatory power and its capacity to create meaningful solutions — to create a society in which patriarchal violence is not the norm we need to understand how and why it is the norm.

Patriarchal violence is endemic:

In the wake of Sarah Everard’s abduction, rape, and murder, across social media, women recounted the daily strategies we take to try to avoid the threat of violence at the hands of men and boys. In yet another watershed moment, much like #MeToo and #TimesUp, tweet after tweet and post after post demonstrated that violence and the expectation of violence by men is an everyday reality for women and girls. And yet as women and girls once again shared their experiences that so clearly evidence that the problem is not with a few bad apples, murder and violence were explained as unusual, unlikely. Again, the perpetrator was positioned as a unique individual whose violence was explained as psychotic, or abnormal. These arguments were typified in an article written by Helena Edwards, a friend of Sarah Everard who said of Sarah Muder by Couzens

“she was extremely unlucky — that is all there is to it. Her abduction and murder is not, in my opinion, a symptom of a sexist, dangerous society.

There will always be the odd psychopath out there — male or female — and there can be no accounting for that fact.”

Edwards is not alone in this analysis of the situation we face: the bad apple theory is our modus operandi when it comes to understanding, explaining, and responding to patriarchal violence against women and girls — indeed all marginalized genders — by men and boys. Time and time again we see perpetrators of violence depicted as “monsters” in the media, legal constructions, within policy and legislation, and through public interventions and programs. The bad apple theory when it comes to patriarchal violence accounts for violence as follows: grievous violence like rape and murder are unexpected and unusual acts carried out by a few rogue individuals who are uniquely and individually “bad” because they are pathologically abnormal. They simply hate women. If it were true, the theory would be rather comforting in a way, which is perhaps one of the reasons it’s so often invoked.

The reality though is, rape and murder of women and girls by men and boys are very regular and very frequent. A woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK — a figure that is unchanged in ten years. One in four women and girls (over the age of 16) in England and Wales have experienced sexual assault1.6 million women aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year. The fact that in the majority of cases, the perpetrator of violence is known to the victim is significant: In 92% of cases of murder, the victim knew, was related to, or had some kind of relationship with the perpetrator. 62% of perpetrators were men who were currently or had previously been in an intimate relationship with the victim. In terms then of how we understand the abduction, rape, and murder of Sarah by Wayne Couzens, notwithstanding that he used his power as a police officer to abduct her (a fact addressed in part 2 of this series by our CEO Hanna Naima McCloskey) — the only other thing we can say with any conviction was “irregular” was the fact that Couzens was not known to Sarah before that awful night. And that is hardly comforting.

It’s not just a few rogue men enacting these most grievous forms of violence. And while we appear to have arrived at a point where the discourse had shifted to at least begin to recognize that violence against women and girls is endemic (the UK government reopened the public consultation on its strategy to end violence against women and girls in response to the collective reckoning following Sarah’s murder) we continue to resort to explaining these most grievous acts as outside of the norm in how we frame the perpetrators. The way violence is conceptualized acts as a fulcrum for public policy and the reliance on the bad apple analysis legitimates the criminal justice response we’ve long been wedded to: lock up the bad apples and all will be well.

But we’ve tried that, and all is not well.

The individualizing and pathologizing of patriarchal violence very effectively prohibit a collective reckoning on the conditions that produce and even legitimize violence. We are asking the wrong questions. Instead of “What’s wrong with these individuals?”, what might we find if we turn our attention to ask “What’s wrong with the conditions in our society that such violence is perpetuated so normatively”? What might we uncover if, instead of focusing on only the most obvious or visibilised expressions of violence, we instead sought to understand what other forms of violence patriarchy both produces and legitimizes?

To understand patriarchal violence we need to understand the organizing principles of patriarchy.

The specific organization of sexism that has existed throughout the world for hundreds of years is patriarchal — patriarchy is, in its simplest terms, a system in which cisgender men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property and resources. To legitimize these organizations of power, patriarchy relies on gender essentialism; the idea that there are two biologically distinct sexes with biologically predetermined characteristics and traits that subscribe them to distinct roles in society. People regularly point to science to evidence gender essentialist claims but the reality is, that this socially constructed set of ideas simply doesn’t hold: intersex people exist, therefore the sex binary does not. Gender-variant people have existed in virtually every culture in the world throughout recorded history. Even the scientific community is in large agreement that gender essentialism is a myth.

It has a stronghold though and armed with this myth, patriarchy teaches that men are rational and intellectually superior and women — positioned as the opposing group — are constructed as irrational and unintelligent but naturally caring. These ideas of course have a function: they operate as the “place making narratives” for society — when they are believed to be true the “proper” place for and treatment of these two opposing groups of humans is understood as already ascribed by nature. Men, governed by rationality and intelligence are deemed best placed to organize and control society, make decisions, and determine direction and outcome, for themselves and others. Women’s rightful place in the world, so the story goes, is essentially in support of and subordination to men; women’s labor, whether physical or emotional, belongs to men. Our bodies, too belong to men. Men and boys are taught to use aggression, violence, and force and that they are entitled to dominate. Women and girls are taught that they owe men. Trans, nonbinary, gender fluid, and gender variant folks are not only erased and invisibilized but positioned as abnormal — a frame that itself legitimizes violence against them. We have been very effectively engaged in the work of socializing one another into these gender roles for centuries — behaviors that are deemed to align with patriarchy are encouraged and rewarded — in homes, schools, places of work, and behavior that does not align policed and punished.

Grievous acts of violence against women and girls, trans, non-binary, and gender variant people, therefore, an expected outcome of a system of patriarchy; the logic at the root of the systems enables and legitimizes it. But the most grievous acts of violence are only the sharpest end — the tip of the iceberg.

To understand patriarchal violence we must go beyond narrow conceptions that imagine the most extreme acts as separate from everyday harms. Rape, domestic abuse, and femicide exist on a continuum of sexist violence that includes so many other acts and behaviors rarely considered either sexist or violent. “Locker room chat”, ‘jokes’, burdening women with “caregiving” tasks in the workplace (taking care of interns, making teas and coffees). Can we call these things violence? I think our resistance to recognizing these acts as such can be found in our resistance to recognizing them as sexist: sexism is by its very nature violent. We learned that Wayne Couzens had several allegations of indecent exposure, (including one just days before he murdered Everard) was reportedly nicknamed “the rapist” by colleagues, and had shared misogynistic messages with his male colleagues. These are all sexist behaviours and they are all surely violent. And they are all very common. There is continuity between these behaviors and the grievous ones — not only are they rooted in the same gendered logic but these everyday behaviors make grievous violence permissible. Making these connections is crucial because it highlights again why the bad apple theory is useless. It cannot account for this reality.

And so it is not that (some) “men hate women” as the traditional definition of misogyny puts it. Philosopher Kate Mann describes this definition as narrow and naïve. Mann offers us a different explanation of misogyny to reveal what it is that misogyny does: misogyny, she says i“the law enforcement branch of patriarchy”. Sexism offers up the ideology of the patriarchy (rooted in gender essentialism) and misogyny is the tool through which is enforced. Because the social order of patriarchy (and all systems of power/oppression/domination) relies on myths to legitimize unequal distributions of power, it makes sense that violence is wielded to sustain it.

Violence against women and girls and the very real threat of it, every day, is not bizarre and aimless then — it serves a function. Ultimately it is a tool that ensures the reproduction of patriarchy and sexism — the system that affords men and boys structural power in all areas of our society.

This also reveals a rather uncomfortable truth: whilst not all men and boys necessarily perpetrate or threaten violence against women and girls, because violence against women and girls is one of the key mechanisms through which sexism and patriarchy are perpetuated and maintained, all men and boys stand to benefit from it in seemingly indirect ways. Men’s positional power socially, politically, and economically — in organizational settings, education, health care, politics, and beyond — is an outcome of the same system that produces violence against women and girls and relies on it for its reproduction.

Violence against women and girls is not indicative of some ‘breakdown of the social order’ or a ‘rarity’ but is a fundamental part of the sexist/patriarchal social order. Recognizing violence as having a systemic function allows us to go beyond asking why violence against women and girls continues at such rates and into the terrain of understanding what violence against women and girls does in the worldUnderstanding patriarchal violence on a continuum of varying gradations, and connecting the interpersonal to the structural — it is clear that criminalization, policing, and prisons, are utterly ineffective. It is not effective in dealing with grievous crimes and it is certainly not fit for tackling everyday violence. This is why having been the primary approach to tackle violence against women and girls for decades, there has been no change in the levels of daily abuse experienced. Yet it persists: the government’s violence against women and girls strategy once again focuses attention and resources here almost exclusively. The same with the end-to-end rape review.

We simply must get beyond the idea that a few bad apples hate women and if we lock them up the situation we face will change. Any solution designing requires at the very base level an accurate analysis and the fact is: that patriarchal violence is endemic because it is systemic — the bad apple theory will not save us.

Thanks to Hanna Naima McCloskey

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