Book projects – No Fallen Angels: 1: The threads of violence

Violence is a problem. It has always been a problem; I suspect that it always remain a problem. Yet just how much of a problem it will be in our time is probably up to each and every one of us. Unpalatable though it may sound, it seems to be our choice: our choices frame the form, and the degree, through which violence affects our lives, and the lives of those around us.

The face of violence is never constant. It always changes; the forms it takes are always changing; and the definitions and understandings of what is deemed violent, and what is not, are always changing. Behaviour which, in another country or another time, would be understood as ‘normal’, we see as violent; and likewise our own ‘normal’ behaviour other cultures may regard as violent in the extreme. Each culture has its own choices, and its own excuses, for the varied forms and faces of violence.

In our own culture, and our own time, violence is portrayed as having a specific face, and a specific gender: with very few exceptions, it’s male, and male alone. If we ourselves are male, violence is other men, every man except ourselves. Such is the filter through which we see the problem of violence: but it’s easy to forget that it is a filter, not ‘the truth’. “A way of seeing truth is like a finger pointing at the moon”, says the old Zen proverb; “only a fool confuses the finger with the moon…”

Male violence is a problem: that’s what our filter on violence tells us, and we accept that it’s true. Because we accept it as a problem, we also accept that we need to develop tools and techniques to tackle it: which we do, if not always particularly well. And if we say that only men are violent, we know who to blame, and who to fix – or who has responsibility for fixing it. This makes the search for solutions seem relatively simple.

But the subtle trap with our filter on violence is that it conceals far more than it reveals. Men’s physical violence is almost the only violence we acknowledge: and at the moment it’s the only one we seem, as a culture, to be willing to face. Reality Department, however, has rather different ideas about violence: and we will not be able to solve any problem of violence without listening to what it has to say, and seeing what it has to show us. I’ve learnt this the hard way. And in the couple of decades in which I’ve been actively involved in psychology and related issues, in and around the personal-development movement and elsewhere, the one point that’s been depressingly obvious is that violence isn’t a ‘male’ problem at all: it’s a human one.

Yes, I’ve seen men abused by men, and abusing other men; I’ve certainly been the former, and on occasion – though it’s always hard to admit – the latter too. Yes, I too have seen too many men abusing women; and I acknowledge those thankfully rare occasions when I’ve done so myself. And I’ve seen men facing up to having abused their partners, and learning to take responsibility for their own actions; I’ve known incest and rape survivors – both women and men – who were reclaiming their lives. There should be no doubt about the reality, and the effects, of that violence.

But all of that is only one side of the story. I’ve also watched women punch out their partners on the street, in a bar, in their homes; I’ve watched mothers savage their children – most often their sons – in stores and supermarkets. That too is violence: just as real as male violence, and just as damaging. I’ve known, and worked with, women who were recovering from abuse by mothers; children learning how – and why – not to bully; men sexually abused by women, from infancy onwards; children abusing their parents, in adolescence and in adulthood; elderly people being devastatingly domineering, or subtly spiteful and manipulative – and all too many other forms of abuse. Violence, in all its myriad forms, runs through the whole gamut of human experience. As one current strategy document – of which we’ll see more later – puts it, “There are no social, cultural or economic boundaries to violence”; but – despite that document’s assumptions – neither are there gendered boundaries, or any other definable boundaries. Violence is not ‘male’, or ‘female’, or any other label than ‘human’: it’s a human response, a human failing. And any attempt to describe it otherwise is itself a form of violence…

To define violence as ‘male’ is not so much a lie, as a startlingly shallow and blinkered piece of foolishness: a pointless and destructive myth that solves nothing and helps no-one. And given that it probably harms women far more than it harms men, the way in which this myth has been promoted as ‘feminist fact’ is particularly tragic…

I say this as if it’s obvious. It is, to me, because of what I’ve seen. It probably isn’t yet so for you, for exactly the same reasons: it doesn’t match what you see. Or perhaps because it doesn’t match what you’ve learned to not see… or what I’ve learned to not-see? We don’t know.

Therein lies our problem: which description is true? Is violence only, or primarily, ‘male’? Or is it ‘human’, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, whatever? The only true answer is that we don’t know; we can’t know. But I’d suggest that it’s at least worthwhile to explore the possibility that the current ‘politically correct’ description of violence does not show us what we need to see. It’s certainly true that the present approach doesn’t seem to be making much headway in solving the problems of violence: if anything, most of the problems have become visibly worse since that worldview gained ascendancy.

So I’d prefer to go back all the way to first principles, to the notion that everyone is equal, without exception. That’s the basis of the International Declaration on Human Rights: yet we need to understand that it applies equally to human responsibilities too. Hence I take the view that everyone, regardless of sex, age, race, religion or any other label, is equally human: and until I see otherwise, I’ll assume that each shares exactly the same human characteristics, and the same human propensity for joy, for love, for laughter, for caring – and for violence. Any other position, it seems to me, inevitably spirals down into sexism, racism or some other ‘ism’ that blames some arbitrarily-chosen ‘other’ for all the world’s ills; so in these terms, the only truly non-sexist position would be that the needs, the concerns, the fears and the feelings of women and of men must be regarded as of exactly equal value and importance.

And I see no ‘essential’ differences between men and women. Beyond the obvious effects of anatomy, terms such as ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ seem to me to have little meaning. Yes, agreed, women are still expected to do most of the caring in our culture, and men most of the mechanical work; but I’ve met men who are better nurturers than most mothers, and women who are better technicians, better engineers, better designers, better pilots, than most men. The differences within each gender are far greater than the differences between the genders: we’re each a different expression of the infinite strands of humanity – each of us different, yet each of us the same.

That’s my worldview, the filter through which I view my own experience.

What’s your worldview? What do you believe, about gender, about violence? What do you assume?

I also choose to acknowledge each person’s experience as their own – not as a statistic in some arbitrarily-defined social group or ‘class’. Generalisations such as class and gender may be useful as conceptual tools, but can easily be an intrusive insult when applied to individuals – and especially so if those individuals’ experiences are acknowledged only if they fit within someone else’s theoretical scheme. First and foremost, each of us is human: it might be respectful to treat each of us that way…

Having said that, I must, obviously, use some kind of conceptual scheme, if I’m to interpret what I see. The approach I use is deliberately, and necessarily, eclectic, since I’ve been involved in fields as diverse as skills education, psychology, robotics, magic, medicine, mythology and many others besides, but its roots are in perceptual psychology and holistic practice. To me, each person shares the same human traits as every other person; our unique contribution is the unique way in which we each express and experience those aspects of ‘humanness’. There is no difference; and yet each person is an expression of difference. That, to me, is part of the magic of humanity.

Another part of that magic is power. Humanity is powerful: and perhaps my single greatest delight is to be around people who are claiming their power, discovering to their joy that they are powerful in ways which they themselves choose. The problem, for all of us, is that this power has to be real: there are many illusory forms of ‘power’…

But what is ‘power’? What makes some forms of power ‘real’, and others not? Again, we’re forced to use some kind of conceptual scheme: but it needs to be grounded strictly in experience.

What, to you, is ‘power’? What forms of power, to you, are ‘real’? What difference is there between a sense of power that you feel within yourself, and a more abstract concept such as ‘political power’?

Political power, social power, sexual power, personal power, the power of persuasion, ‘power comes out of the barrel of a gun’, power-over, power-under, power-with, a powerful idea, a powerful expression, a powerful emotion: the list of different meanings of the single word seems to be without end – and many of them contradict each other. So for the purposes of this study I’ll combine two specific meanings, and explain why I choose them: the reasons are important.

The first is the felt sense of power, the feeling of power. Although it’s also highly individual, this is one of the few forms of power which we experience directly: we know when we feel powerful. We also know, often only too well, when we feel that we’re powerless. But it’s important to understand that both of these are feelings: they’re personal, and don’t necessarily have any connection with anything happening in the world ‘out there’. We do know, though, that there is a close connection between this felt sense of power, and a sense of choice: in particular, we’re likely to feel powerful when we achieve something that we’ve chosen to do; and to feel powerless when we believe we have no choice.

What is the feeling of power? of powerlessness? Reach inside to recreate those feelings from memories of your own life: observe how you experience them. What experiences and memories do you associate with the feeling of power, and of powerlessness? In what ways do these differ from your concepts of power and powerlessness? Which – the experiences of power, or the concepts of power – are more real to you?

The second meaning of power is the strict physical one: “power is the rate at which work is done”. When describing power in the abstract, we tend more to mean ‘potential’: in that sense, “power is the ability to do work”. It’s a bald definition, one that is more usually applied to machines rather than people; and it also leaves open the concept of ‘work’. That, for now, is deliberate: the important point is that this physical power exists only because something happens, something is done.

Machines have no choice, either in the work they do, or in the type of work they do. But humans are not machines: we do have choice. A central part of our power resides there: we feel powerful when we can choose the type of work to which we apply our power, and succeed in doing so. When we weave these two different strands together – a feeling of power, and the practice of power – we discover that power is the ability to do work, as an expression of choice.

In practice, the type of work doesn’t matter in the slightest: what matters is that something happens, as an expression of our choice. And that choice of ‘work’ can take any form at all, or even none: to dig a ditch, to solve a technical problem, to teach, to learn, to understand, to calm a fractious child, to recreate joy and laughter from the depths of despair – all these are, in their own ways, work. We imagine, or dream: and everything we do to realise that dream is work. Everything we do is work; and in everything we do, we can be, and feel, powerful. Or not. That’s the choice; that’s our choice. It’s always our choice – though there’ll be many, many times when it won’t feel that way…

Closely linked to all of this is the notion of responsibility. We each have responsibility for the expression of our choices. This is not the same as ‘blame’: the distinction is crucial. In this context, it’s safest to think of responsibility not as blame, but as ‘response-ability’: we each feel powerful when we’re able to respond to our needs and, where appropriate, those of others. To be responsible is a choice; being responsible also means that we accept the results of that choice. Responsibility is empowering; without responsibility, most of us soon sink into a state where we feel powerless. It’s not a pleasant feeling: which is why most of us will do almost anything to avoid it.

These interweaving strands – the ability to do work, the ability to choose, the felt sense of power or powerlessness, and responsibility or avoidance of responsibility – seem to underly all other forms of what we call ‘power’. That’s the reason I started from those two first definitions of power. Political power, social power, military power, the personal power derived from one skill or another, or through relationship with others: these are the same strands writ large on a social scale, or writ small in an individual moment of an individual life. Without an understanding of the power of individual choices, no description of ‘mass movements’ can ever make fully practical sense.

And it’s only at the individual level that we can ever make sense of violence. Violence too is a kind of choice: but it’s not an empowering one. I use a flat, all-encompassing definition of violence: violence is any means, in any form and at any level, by which an attempt is made to create the illusion of empowering the self by disempowering any other, or exporting powerlessness to any other – the latter being a somewhat less obvious form of violence in which we attempt to offload our powerlessness or our problems onto others without their explicit choice and agreement.

In short, violence is any attempt to prop ourselves up by putting others down, or by ‘dumping’ on them. No exceptions, no distinctions: whatever the outward form, the underlying aim is always the same.

Some people have a lot of difficulty with that definition: they want clear distinctions between one type of violence and another, assigning them differing severities or different importances. I’ve been lambasted on this point by more than one feminist theorist: they’ve insisted that I must see it’s ‘obvious’ that physical assault is worse than emotional, or mental, or spiritual, or whatever. But I don’t: what do I see is that the physical trauma of horrors such as rape usually heals far quicker than the emotional trauma – and sometimes even death would be preferable to the kind of living hell in which some people manage to survive. As with power, those ‘obvious’ approaches succeed only in entangling the issues in a web of subtle prejudices and assumptions – choking off any hope of understanding. To my mind, it’s simplest, and safest, to ignore the type of violence when trying to assess the severity of some violent incident. All forms of violence are essentially the same, in that they’re all based on the same illusion: that to disempower others is ‘power’.

What, to you, is violence? What is the relationship between power and violence? Explore your current concepts of these for a moment or two.

Our culture is so confused about power and violence that it generally describes violence as power. The only ‘power’ in town, founded in nothing more than an illusion – that is our tragedy… For example, as a culture we promote the notion that ‘power is the ability to avoid work’, which is almost the one thing that it isn’t. Power is a feeling, and power is also the fact of work, and of responsibility for that work; whilst violence is any means by which we attempt to avoid the feeling of powerlessness without taking responsibility for the associated work, or even doing the work at all.

Feeling powerless, yet not willing to face the work – whatever it might be – we try to force others to do it for us. We may even succeed – or appear to succeed – in doing this: but in the process we abandon our responsibility for the task – which doesn’t relieve us of the sense of powerlessness, but reinforces it. As a result, violence – whatever form it takes – is inherently addictive. The only known way out of this addiction is to choose to take responsibility – to be responsible for our power, and for our choices. That’s certainly the experience of those working in ‘perpetrator’ programmes for physically violent men: but it applies to all other forms of violence as well.

What do you feel as violence? What feelings do you associate with your experiences of violence – both done to you and done by you? Notice the differences between your immediate response to those questions, and the ‘filtered’ versions of those responses which come through a few moments later.

What differences do you note between your concepts of violence, and your feelings associated with violence? Which are more real?

The problem with violence is that it so easily seems the easier option: it can seem far less work to offload a problem onto someone else than to face it ourselves. No-one is immune from this illusion: I’ve yet to meet a single person who has not been actively violent at some stages of their life. Most of us, though, learn in childhood that the apparent advantages of violence are greatly outweighed by the many subtle and not-so-subtle disadvantages – which is why most of us, most of the time, aim to avoid being violent in our dealings with others, and with ourselves. But we can only learn to stop being violent by knowing how and when we have been violent: and in a culture which denies the fact of most forms of violence, and wildly punishes the few that it does recognise, that’s not easy…

The downside of violence, for those on the receiving end, is fairly obvious; but it’s not so obvious for the ‘perpetrators’ – indeed, once it does become obvious to themselves as well as to others, they’ll usually stop. There are many reasons why anyone would stop being violent, but the most important is that it becomes clear that the violence doesn’t work. It doesn’t achieve its total goal of offloading the problem – whatever it might be – onto the ‘victim’: that’s made certain by fear of guilt, fear of responsibility, fear of retribution…

The crucial issue is that the ‘perpetrator’ has to be able to recognise their own violence as violence: and no-one else can do it for them. No-one can force violence to end: it has to be ended by choice, and as a choice. Any attempt to force someone to stop being violent is itself a form of violence…


For answers, feel through some of your own experiences…

… and the almost invariable result is what psychologists term ‘denial’. The form of violence may change, especially under pressure: but the fact of that person’s reliance on violence doesn’t – the habit becomes, if anything, even more deep-rooted, though usually a little more carefully concealed. The only way to ‘make’ someone change from a habit of violence is not by force or by punishment, but by a quiet and careful process of education – literally an ‘out-leading’, into a more constructive, and more powerful, way of life.

For many people in our culture, the notion of education or counselling as a response to violence is absolute anathema: they demand that the ‘perpetrators’ be punished, that “justice should be seen to be done”. But it isn’t ‘justice’: it’s just another form of violence… and the purpose of that form of violence is to increase and affirm those people’s denial of their own violence.

I had a first-hand experience of this a year or so ago, after I’d been badly beaten up outside my house by an angry drunk who wanted to offload onto me his outrage about his ex-girlfriend. It had nothing whatsoever to do with me: I just happened to be the convenient target at – for me – an inconvenient time… Understanding that this, more than anything else, was the source of the problem, I said to several people that I wanted him not to be punished, but to get counselling to cope with his anger. The police, and eventually the court, took that latter approach: but they were almost the only ones who did. Everyone else wanted – demanded, more like – that I be angry with him, take revenge on him: and when it became clear that I wasn’t going to do that – to invent ‘feelings’ that I simply didn’t have – they were angry with me instead. Very angry, in some cases…

It’s a process known as ‘projection’: “he’s the violent one, not me!” In order to deny the degree to which we ourselves are violent, or any other way in which our behaviour is less than ‘perfect’, we ‘project’ it onto someone else, as behaviour that they – not we – are doing. It also occurs in the opposite form, where we project onto others positive traits – power, strength, beauty – that we feel are missing from our own lives; but the projection of blame and guilt onto some arbitrarily-chosen – or self-selected – ‘scapegoat’ is so common that at least two major religions have it as their foundation-stone. It is probably the most fundamental source of war: few people seem willing to recognise that the true face of ‘the enemy’ is actually our own…[1]

There should be no doubt that male violence is a problem; but it simply does not occur as much as is claimed, nor, often, could we honestly describe it as either conscious or deliberate. It is simply not true, for example, that “[rape] is nothing more nor less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear”.[2] That is, however, what many women now seem to believe – or have been taught to believe. Yet it’s the vehemence, the fanatical hatred, with which they decry and denounce men as ‘the enemy’, that indicate the state of ‘in denial’ that underlies so much of the surface layer of anger. In reality, it hasn’t much to do with men’s behaviour at all: it’s far more a projection onto all men, and men alone, of the forbidden face of female violence. And the energy locked up in the dishonesty – the self-dishonesty – of projection can only be released when people stop pretending, and turn to face their own illusions. So I’d suggest that if we allow that true face to emerge, and acknowledge female violence, respectfully, for what it is, those women would be able to reclaim for more constructive uses the power they’re currently expending on propping up the projections – and life might become a little gentler for everyone…

That last paragraph is likely to have stirred up some emotions – quite possibly a lot… If your response was any more heated than an indignant “That’s rubbish, it is all men’s fault!”, look a little closer at the anger: what exactly in your experience says that ‘it’ is all, and only, ‘men’s fault’? You may well find that it’s extremely uncomfortable to look closer, that it’s much easier to deny it all and blame men instead: and that’s why it’s called ‘denial’, and ‘projection’… Don’t think about this too much: just acknowledge whatever happened there, and move on.

The aim of all violence is to ‘export’ some issue, some problem, to others – to make it the responsibility of those others, and those others alone. Behind most violence is fear: a fear of the ‘perpetrator’s, which they attempt, through violence, to export to someone else. Very often what they want is for the other person to ‘act out’ the fear that they deny in themselves. In stereotypical male violence against women, the man tries to force the woman to ‘act out’ the fear that he himself does not have the courage to face; in that sense, violence is best understood as an act of cowardice. And in one stereotypical form of female violence, the usual fear that the woman is trying to export is fear of responsibility: our society calls this form of violence ‘blame’, and often regards it as a good idea, a woman’s ‘right’, a woman’s power…

“Where there’s power, there’s fear; where there’s fear, there’s power”: an old witchcraft saying, the effects of which we can see everywhere around us. But like most aspects of ‘the craft’, it has two very different sides: and it’s up to us to choose which side we’ll face. Given our society’s scrambled concept of violence as ‘power’, it’s hardly surprising that fear and violence seem so often to interweave: where there’s an illusion of ‘power’, underlying it there’s always an attempt to export fear. But the other side of this is that our real power – ‘the ability to do work, as an expression of our choice’ – is interwoven with, if not dependent on, our willingness to face our own fears. Not on exporting them to someone else, which is what the delusion of violence wants to tell us: that simply doesn’t work.

Where there is violence – a delusion of power – there is fear; and it does nothing but increase the fear, for everyone. Yet where there is a willingness to face fear, to accept ‘response-ability’ for our own fears, therein lies a real power – one which does work. And to do so – to face fear, or to try to export it to others – is a choice: and one which no-one else can do for us. Once we understand this, our own lives become, quite literally, empowering, for ourselves and for everyone – as long as we can maintain our acceptance of those fears, because they never do quite cease to be frightening…

If this seems too abstract, go back to your memories of learning a skill that you have now mastered – learning to ride a bicycle, perhaps. What were the fears? How did those fears reduce? Could you have learnt that skill by trying to force someone else to face those fears for you?

And what was the feeling of power, of achievement as you mastered each stage of the skill? Or the feeling of powerlessness, as the fears were renewed on facing the demands of the next stage? In what ways did you choose to be powerful, in empowering yourself to become skilful? In what ways were you responsible for your own choices here?

Fear may be a four-letter word, but it happens to be a fact of life. Fear is the natural means by which Reality Department warns us of an issue that we need to face. Our natural – adrenalin-driven – response to the impulse of fear is the three-fold ‘fight, flight or freeze’. And we do have some choice even in this: whether by nature or nurture, men tend to respond with the first, women with the second, and very young children with the third. In that sense, our culture forces on men a strange if often dangerous advantage: they are at least encouraged to face fear – and hence find a real power – whilst women are not. Instead, women are taught to expect that others will face their all fears for them: which happens, unfortunately, to be impossible. That impossibility underlies a great deal of female violence: especially in these so-called ‘feminist’ days.

In the feminism of two decades ago, perhaps the major concern was for women’s skills and power to be respected. Feminists of that era insisted that they were more than men’s equal in courage, in willingness to face their fears: and proved it, time after time. But quite suddenly, if quite subtly, that courage vanished: instead, all we hear is slogans such as “Women have a fundamental right to be safe” and “We demand the right / to walk the streets at night / without the fear of rape”. No-one would argue with those sentiments: yet rights are social, but fears are personal. No-one can take fears away from anyone; freedom from fear is not a ‘right’ that anyone can give. We can be responsible about someone’s fear, but we cannot be responsible for that fear: and the demand that we should be so, as in those slogans, is no more than an attempt to export that fear – and hence is actually a form of violence.

Any attempt to export fear to others is an act of violence. That includes, for example, the vast majority of advertising: its express aim is to convince ‘consumers’ to be fearful – combined with the implication that the fear can only be allayed by buying the advertisers’ products or services. (“Do you have enough insurance?”…) And whilst the fear reflex is natural, it can be overlaid by a kind of imagined or conceptualised fear – which is experienced as if physically real, even though it may have no physical existence at all. To be trapped in imaginary fear is to be trapped in powerlessness: and to teach others to be fearful is an act of violence.

One of the most common current guises of this kind of violence is described as ‘victim feminism’, teaching women to regard themselves as ‘victims’ of almost everything in our society. Far from empowering women by ‘warning women of the prevalence of male violence’, as it claims to do, it more closely resembles one of the classic forms of female violence against other women. In that sense, it seems likely that the key source of women’s felt sense of disempowerment in the past two decades has not so much been a ‘male backlash’ (though that undoubtedly does exist in a few areas), but far more the result of a small number of women trying to export their own issues onto every other woman. Rape remains a real problem, for example, but the so-called ‘rape crisis’ is (to rephrase Susan Brownmiller’s much-quoted statement) “nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which some women attempt to keep all other women in a state of fear about all men“… The results have been tragic, for everyone, but especially for feminism: it’s only now that some feminists have begun to recognise just how much the women’s movement, and women’s cause, has been damaged and betrayed by this violence from within.[3]

You may not be too happy about that last paragraph either, though the reasons for it will become clear later in the book. But what do you believe about that statement – that many ‘feminist’ issues are more the result of women’s violence than men’s? What do you feel?

What are the fears that underly those feelings? And how do you distinguish between fears that truly are your own – from your own experience – and those that have been taught to you by others?

You may find it useful to note down your responses, to review them later after reading more of the book.

Violence arises from fear; violence feeds fear, and fear feeds violence. To understand violence, we need to have some understanding of fear – particularly because violence is often the result, following the old adage that “attack is the best form of defence”, of an attempt to pre-empt a perceived threat. Here again I’d regard fear as a human problem, not a gendered one: men may sometimes seem less fearful than women, but only because what they most fear is the abuse they receive if they fail to simulate fearlessness…

One result of that cycle is bullying: most schoolyard bullies are trying to export some problem onto others, though often as a result of bullying, or in fear of bullying by others. Most bullies are trying to export their own low sense of self-esteem or self-worth – which is generally the result of bullying, either in the school or elsewhere. Bullying is extremely common: one British study of teenagers, for example, showed that it had been a significant problem for almost half at some stage, and sufficiently serious for one in five to have played truant to attempt to avoid it. A quarter of the students said it made them ill; many suffered nightmares, and a third did not know how to stop it.[4] Yet very little was reported – because to report it was to invite further bullying.

What does ‘bullying’ mean to you? What do you think of as bullying? What’s your experience of bullying?

Until recently, most studies of bullying in school focused only on physical abuse or extortion of money – and almost only on boys as ‘perpetrators’. That focus was the result of the usual filter on violence: and as usual, Reality Department has different ideas. The study showed that the type of bullying most feared was having rumours spread about them, their family or their sexual relationships; this was followed by by fear of physical violence, being called names, and being deliberately left out by their peers. Being forced to hand over money was judged the least worrying. Boys were worried most about verbal and indirect bullying – rumour-spreading, for example – whilst girls were rather more afraid of physical and direct bullying. The author of the study thought that “this was surprising: we would expect girls to be more worried about their reputations than boys. It is less surprising for boys because ‘intellectual’ bullying is the kind they are least likely to cope with.”[5]

But perhaps it’s not so surprising: because in the same way that boys learn to cope with physical violence, girls learn to cope with non-physical violence. Stereotypical male violence is physical; but stereotypical female violence is non-physical – and hence easily deniable, and much harder to challenge. In one Australian study, the researcher commented that “spiteful boys were noticed because they tended to be more aggressive and physically violent, while girls were prone to tease indirectly by excluding and ostracising others from play, writing nasty notes and whispering behind backs.”[6] Although some research had suggested female bullying reduced with age, she said, the researcher was concerned that this might only be because the girls concerned improved their skills and used their increasing finesse to hide it more effectively. Even at eight or ten years old, commented another researcher, “girls were more subtle than boys”; their verbal abuse and other, more subtle forms of non-physical violence, she said “can be far more hurtful than physical violence”.[7]

In the past, courtesy of our culture’s filter on violence, we’ve all but ignored non-physical violence – especially by women. Yet in some areas, such as in lesbian relationships, it’s become so serious a problem that it at last cannot be ignored. Lesbian domestic violence includes pushing, biting, hitting, punching and using weapons, as well as woman-to-woman sexual assault – and it occurs at much the same rate as in heterosexual relationships, if not more.[8] As one lesbian social worker commented: “Complicating this [problem of lesbian domestic violence] is a myth that violence against women is committed exclusively by men.” But physical assault is far from the only problem – as the social worker warns: “Violence is also not necessarily physical. A relationship can be extraordinarily abusive without the violent partner laying a finger on her partner. This type of abuse can be the hardest to put a stop to because it is so hard to explain.”[9]

Non-physical violence, she warned, included creating an impending sense of punishment; threatening murder or suicide; destroying or stealing possessions; insulting or humiliating in public; ‘crazy-making’; lying; unsafe driving; controlling money; isolating from friends or family; hurting – or threatening to hurt – children or pets; treating the other as a servant; and (more specific to lesbians) threatening to ‘out’ to employers or family. With the exception of the last, every one of these items occurs in a list issued by one national body in Australia – but described as forms of violence performed only by men…[10]

What’s your own experience of non-physical violence, such as described above? In your own experience, is it true that only men who do this? If not, why do you think someone would maintain that this is so?

Women’s violence is a problem. Like men’s violence, it has always been a problem; I suspect it will always remain a problem. But it helps no-one – men or women – if we continue, as a culture, to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Until we stop pretending, women who are abused by other women will continue, as at present, to receive little or no help; and women who are abusing other women will continue, as at present, to receive little or no help to stop. That in itself is a problem sufficiently serious to need urgent attention.

Yet in the meantime, almost all other forms of women’s violence are still strenuously denied – which again helps no-one. The social worker mentioned above commented that “lesbian violence is only now just being recognised openly as part of the wider picture of violence against women”, but avoids the issue that still seems too ‘politically incorrect’ to face – the fact that women abuse men too, in exactly the same way. A lot. Far more than anyone seems in any way willing to admit. Lesbian violence is not so much “part of the wider picture of violence against women”, but of violence against people in general – men, women, children, anyone to whom fears or issues might possibly be exported. As the picture widens, it will – must – expand to include all of us: no-one is immune from the illusions of violence. And attention is needed from all of us to face our collusion in its subtle myths.

But precisely because women’s violence has been so denied, and so concealed, we need to be careful how we dismantle its illusions. It’s essential that a study of women’s violence should not become an excuse for further violence – perhaps especially by women to women themselves. That danger is real: it’s one I take very seriously indeed, and I’d urge you to do the same. Since what we’re dealing with, in this near-obsessive denial and projection, is something akin to a collective trance, the closest parallel that I know would be from an incident in a friend’s study on post-hypnotic suggestion. A well-known trick in hypnosis is to make someone seem to disappear: there is no physical disappearance, of course, but the subject fails to perceive them unless forced by some physical impossibility to do so (such as trying to read a notice through the body of the ‘invisible’ person). One subject in their study refused to believe that he could be hypnotised – despite his own reported evidence to the contrary. The researchers steadily increased the numbers of ‘invisible’ people, until it was clear that, from his own descriptions, whole roomfuls of people seemed to him to be appearing and disappearing – yet he always managed to invent a suitable rationalisation to cover up the illusion, and to maintain his own delusions of ‘objectivity’. In frustration, the researchers eventually induced a trance in which only half of a person ‘disappeared’: but the result was not, as they’d expected, “OK, you’ve convinced me”, but something closer to a total nervous breakdown, as his rigid ‘objectivity’ fragmented into nothingness. Women’s violence is denied every bit as strongly, and the rationalisations are every bit as intense: yet it won’t help anyone if we create the same kind of result here…

Women’s violence is real: and we cannot help anyone – ‘perpetrators’ included – until, respectfully, gently, we allow it to become visible once more. And the first stage of this would seem to be to find out its prevalence: how it occurs, when it occurs, how often and how seriously it occurs. But immediately we hit a problem called ‘statistics’: because there are almost none available. Unlike men’s violence, for which there are statistics aplenty, it isn’t studied – because it isn’t deemed to be a problem. And it’s deemed not to be a problem because no-one collects statistics…

More accurately, it’s deemed not to be a problem because few statistics are published – which is not quite the same. There are other reasons why facts on women’s violence are hard to find: before we can proceed much further we need to understand more what those reasons are, and why they should be so. When ‘invisible’ violence is further concealed by yet more ‘invisible’ violence, we can expect that this isn’t necessarily going to be easy: but it’s the next step that we need to take.

[1] For a more detailed exploration of this topic, see Sam Keen, “Faces of the Enemy”.

[2] Susan Brownmiller’s much-quoted assertion, from “Against Our Will” (italics in the original).

[3] See, for example, Naomi Wolf, “Fire With Fire”; Lynne Segal, “Is The Future Female?”; Katie Roiphe, “The Morning After”; or Christina Hoff Sommers, “Who Stole Feminism?”

[4] From a survey by educational psychologist Sonia Sharp of 750 school students in Barnsley, northern England, aged 13-16, reported to the 1994 British Psychological Society conference, quoted in “The Independent’ [London], 28 March 94.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ms Sally Ryan, Magarey Institute, South Australia, reporting to the ‘Healthy Familes, Healthy Children’ conference, Melbourne, quoted in ‘Watch call on girl bullies’, “Herald-Sun’ [Melbourne], 15 Sept 94.

[7] School principal Mrs Jan Morris, speaking at the same conference, quoted in ‘Support key for pain-free school’, “Herald-Sun” [Melbourne], 15 Sept 94.

[8] As should be expected, estimates of the prevalence of mutual abuse in lesbian relationships vary wildly – from a ‘zero, of course’ statement that owes more to politicised wishful-thinking than fact, to the equally unlikely figure of ’50 percent per year’ that I’ve once seen quoted; yet it apparently does occur far more often than violence in male homosexual relationships. Martin Hiraga of the (US) National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is probably more realistic, and certainly better-informed than most, in arguing that “all the available evidence points to domestic violence in lesbian couples [occurring] no more and no less often than in heterosexual couples” (quoted in Katherine Dunn, ‘Media beat-ups conceal truth on female violence’, “The Australian” [Sydney], July 1994).

[9] ‘Anita’, Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre, Melbourne, writing in “Rebellious” [LaTrobe University student magazine, Melbourne], Nov 94.

[10] Television campaign organised by the National Committee on Violence Against Women – part of an advisory body for the Australian government Cabinet Office.

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