TW: Violence against women
The recent death of Eurydice Dixon in Melbourne’s inner north has highlighted the current discourse surrounding violence against women and misogyny within our society. The response to her death included statements from Police Superintendant Clayton “.. [to] make sure you have situational awareness” (cited in Ford, 2018), as well as the memorial being defaced by a man just days after her death (Fox Koob, 2018). This discourse of victim blaming, and the imbalanced pressure on women to ‘take responsibility’ is perpetuating misogyny and patriarchal values. I argue that current discourse surrounding gendered violence is too focused on women taking responsibility for themselves; instead of focusing on how socialisation within a sexualised culture is impacting young boys. This essay will be exploring the media influence on such attitudes and the implications of such discourses. I will begin by taking a look at moral panic surrounding the sexualisation of our culture and the impacts of focusing specifically on young girls. As well as briefly discussing the consequences of porn as the ‘new’ form of sex education. Following on will be a discussion on hegemonic masculinities and rape culture which focuses on two study’s within the Australian context. The final part of the essay will focus on the media representations of such violence and will look further into the perpetuation and consequence of rape myths and victim blaming.
Moral Panic & Sexualisation as Socialisation
There is no denying that we are living in a sexualised society and we are constantly exposed to sexualised images, overwhelmingly the images we see are of young, beautiful, semi-naked women. The moral panic surrounding this sexualisation is often discussed in regards to the effects on young women; very rarely do we discuss the impacts of this sexualised culture on young boys. This section of the essay will take a look at our sexualised society and the way in which images are being interpreted and understood through socialisation. I will briefly discuss the impacts of porn as sex education and the pressure on young girls to be able to critically analyse the over abundance of sexualised media in everyday life.
In the article by Mulholland, she discusses the ‘moral panic’ surrounding the impact of the normalisation of sexualised/pornified culture in relation to children, specifically how the images are affecting young girls. There are a handful of self-appointed ‘experts’ who seem to dominate discourse around this issue. Most of these ‘experts’ have linked pornography with danger/harm but have stressed that the harm inflicted affects girls more so than boys. The dangers discussed are often those issues linked to “depression, body image, and self-esteem, coupled with concerns over child abuse” (Mulholland, 2013, pg. 69). Depression, self-esteem and body image are all issues that are self monitored within a person, arguably more often seen in teenage girls than boys. But the issue of child abuse is leaning towards the notion that these images are having an impact on men, and the way in which they view women and girls as being sexual objects whose existence is purely for male desire and pleasure. While ‘child abuse’ is mentioned in Mulholland’s article my previous statement is only an assumption as it was not discussed further than this brief mention. It appears that the moral panic needs to be extended to include interrogating the impacts on all young people including, if not especially, young boys. If boys are growing up in a culture where their female peers are constantly being monitored and judged then boys grow up understanding that it is the girl’s responsibility to take care of themselves. As discussed later many young boys understand sexual assault/violence to be a women’s issue, one that does not concern them. As Flood states “..ending men’s violence against women will only be successful if men are included in addressing the issue” (Flood cited in Hill & Fuller, 2016, pg. 44).
Not only are the publicised sexual images having a gendered impact but contemporary porn is arguably the new form of sex education. If men (and women) are using the internet to educate themselves about sex and sexuality, we need to assess the types of porn that are available to the mass population. When young people aren’t receiving the right type of sex education but have access to online pornography, it isn’t hard to believe that these young people will understand sex through a pornographic lens, a lens which is far too unrealistic. Unfortunately much of the mainstream porn currently available is catered to the male gaze; and themes such as ‘rape’, ‘abuse’, ‘teen’ and ‘rough sex’ are all widely available within the porn industry (PornHub, 2018). Further research should be undertaken to fully explore the impacts of degrading sexual imagery becoming normalised. Research has found that girls are often quite media literate; Gill discovered that young girls are actually very capable of ‘unpacking’ and understanding sexualised images, regardless of the overall (mostly negative) impact the image may have (Gill, 2012, pg. 740). The ‘individual obligation’ to be media literate seems to be heavily biased against women and it interests me here that little research has been conducted on how boys are interpreting the same images.
If this sort of bias is happening out in the public sphere, young boys growing up will not have to experience gendered prejudice that holds women more accountable than men and will understand that this is the natural order of the world. Duschinsky argues that
“The use of ‘sexualisation’ as a developmental narrative focused on ‘girls’ to highlight misogyny in wider society has succeeded in centring moralising attention on young women and sex, rather than critical attention on sexism and heteronormativity” (Duschinsky, 2013, pg. 4)
Focusing on girls interpretations rather than boys understandings shows boys that they don’t need to unpack these images, it is the responsibility of girls to make sure they dress/act/speak etc. appropriately.
I argue that in our current society the sexualisation of our culture is now a part of the socialisation process. Young people are being socialised into a rape culture, and the constant surveillance and monitoring, as well as the moral panic put onto young girls, with little discourse around the boys, further perpetuates a patriarchal and misogynistic understanding of our society.
Hegemonic Masculinity & Rape Culture
Hegemonic masculinity is a vital concept when addressing violence against women and ingrained misogyny. Hegemonic masculinity refers to the “ideal image of the male against which all men are judged, tested and qualified” (Kimmel cited in Feasey, 2009, pg. 358). Context is important here, and dominating masculinities may not be the same across different historical and geographical contexts. What does permeate across all contexts is the unification of differing masculinities to continue patriarchal and sexist domination over women. Hegemonic masculinity is a performance; and unfortunately violence and sexual harassment (predominately against women, but in some cases against men who are lower down within the masculine hierarchy) is often a part of this hegemonic performance. Too often men who undertake these violent ‘performances’, especially adolescents, are rewarded with popularity and power from their peers (Robinson, 2005, pg. 22).
In the Australian context, it could be argued that prominent male sports players, particular within team sports, are the ideal hegemonic male. The media tends to paint male sports players as ‘stars’, ‘heroes’ or ‘role models’ and the way in which these ‘heroes’ are portrayed is another important aspect to look at when investigating the relationship between the media and violence against women. Hill & Fuller researched the media’s representation of multiple sexual assault/violence against women incidents that involved Rugby League players between 2005 and 2015 (Hill & Fuller, 2016). While international studies have shown correlation between male-dominated team sports and violence against women (Toffoletti cited in Hill & Fuller, 2016, pg. 42) this study focused on the media commentary provided by other players within the league in response to particular allegations. They found four main discourses with the most prominent being ‘discourses of support’ (67% of the articles researched); teammates showed support and sympathy for the accused. Hill & Fuller argue that “domestic violence and other social issues are framed through a football discourse, rather than a discourse of domestic violence, and valued in terms of the impact of the incident in terms of sport” (Hill & Fuller, 2016, pg. 47). By shaping gendered violence discourse within mass media in terms of sport, rather than socially it highlights that sporting achievements are prioritised over public social issues. These representations in the mass media are extremely damaging and influential, especially to young boys who do idolise these sports ‘stars’. If young people, especially boys, see that violence against women is accepted and inconsequential, this becomes normalised as part of the habitus (discussed further in the following section). It also highlights a separation between private and public, as much of the discourse stresses the need to detach the off-field allegations from the on-field achievements. As discussed in the following section, understanding violence against women as a public rather than private matter is one of the main shifts we are currently witnessing.
Through mass, social and other forms of media we are constantly exposed to sexualised images everywhere we go, and how men are interpreting the connotative messages are having a direct impact on how young boys are forming their identities. In Robinson’s study spanning 10 years he investigated the cultural and gendered understandings surrounding sexual harassment in Australia’s secondary school system (Robinson, 2005). He highlighted two key myths which were common among the adolescent students; (1) “the dominant discourse of sexual harassment as being primarily a physical phenomenon was especially prevalent amongst the boys”; & (2) “girls were considered to be the main ‘victims’ of sexual harassment and therefore it was seen as an issue that only girls had to deal with” (Robinson, 2005, pp. 23-25). This second point is a great example of how adolescent boys have already been socialised, by their teenage years, to understand gendered violence as something that does not concern them. This is one of the foundations of rape culture as we know it, and this demonstrates that sexism starts at a young age.
Media Representations of Violence
It is hard to say whether violence against women has been increasing or decreasing over time as it has, up until very recently, been privatised and not discussed openly. The media plays a huge role in the socialisation process as well as cultural understandings of gender roles. In discussing the function of media (specifically newspapers in the 90’s), Colin Mercer states “[the media] provide not just representation but a daily regular form of reading and training in knowing where you are and how best to do things there” (Mercer cited in Naylor, 2001, pg. 189). In other words, the media dictate to us how to correctly operate in society by providing stories of normal/deviant behaviour and the rewards/consequences of such behaviour. The way in which violence is reported in the media is extremely important when trying to understand gendered socialisation processes especially in the last two decades. Prior to the rise of social media, mainstream media held a large responsibility in regards to providing ‘newsworthy’ stories to the wider public. The stories provided by mainstream media reflected “contemporary attitudes and concerns about gender” (Naylor, 2001, pg. 181), which in turn forms the society’s ‘habitus’; which is how we understand the world through our personal life experiences as well as group cultural understandings (Routledge, 2016). In other words, habitus represents our social norms. Discourse surrounding violence against women and domestic violence has heavily increased especially over the last decade, and Morgan and Simons suggest that part of this increase is thanks to social media (Simons & Morgan, 2018). They propose that the practices of journalists before social media heavily relied on communication with local police forces in order to find stories that were newsworthy. An anecdote by a journalist from a major newspaper in Melbourne which featured in Morgan and Simons’ article outlines the view that domestic disputes were ‘viewed as private business’ (Whinnett cited in Simons & Morgan, 2018, pg. 1204). By viewing domestic cases of violence against women as ‘private business’, it frames the issue on an individual level. Meyers proposes that “the more prevalent the crime, the less it would be reported [in the media]” (Meyers cited in Naylor, 2001, pg. 181), this feeds back to the ‘newsworthiness’ of reporting on these stories. The normalisation of these media practices were shifted when social media was enforced as a tool for news-reporting. Instead of journalists telling the ‘news’ according to the opinions of local police forces, reporters and journalists were able to engage directly with the public in order to find new stories. As well as new engagement practices, the rise of social media allowed larger media outlets to track the metrics of what was ‘trending’ within public discourse. This shift is important when looking at violence against women as a social issue, rather than a private matter. The more visible these stories become, the more likely women will have the confidence to speak out if they find themselves in an abusive situation.
The media is also responsible for a discourse of widely accepted rape myths as well as victim blaming; both within mainstream media as well as social platforms. As discussed previously the habitus of a society silently shapes cultural understandings of a community and Ståhl et al. propose that victim blaming is a reactionary response to a threat against the habitus, or status quo (Ståhl et al, 2010, pg. 240). They further argue that “rape myths are attitudes and beliefs that are generally false but are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women” (Lonsway & Fitzgerald cited in Ståhl et al, 2010, pg. 240). Not only do rape myths justify male aggression, rape myths seek to normalise aggressive male behaviours by creating a discourse that male aggression is a ‘natural force’ and that women should do everything within their control to protect themselves. Within this discourse both genders are conditioned differently; men are not encouraged to take responsibility for each other, as violent crimes against women are often framed as random attacks; women are habituated to constantly ‘take responsibility’ as well as monitor what we wear, say, how we act and be aware of our physical surroundings; but even when we do all of these things we are still at risk of being attacked.
Much like the lack of discourse around impacts of sexualisation on boys, the lack of public discourse around violence against women has a similar outcome. We have seen that boys being excluded from the moral panic as well as sexualised socialisation has resulted in adolescent aged boys viewing violence against women as ‘not their’ problem; women who lack representations of their issues in the wider public results in them continuing to understand their problem as ‘private’ and this leads to many remaining isolated as well as a failure to report incidences of abuse.
The discourse that the mass media has employed up to this point in time has had a degenerative impact on how society comes to understand normalised gendered roles. We can see that sexualisation of society is having a negative impact on both genders, and education around healthy sexual practices is important for all young people. Social norms are constantly evolving and changing overtime and this is also true of gender norms and roles. This alludes to the fact that hegemonic masculinity will evolve overtime and that the hegemonic male will be determined by the societies habitus and understanding of contemporary social norms. The rise of social media has been extremely beneficial to bringing violence against women out of the private and into the public discourse and I remain optimistic to see us working towards a more equal society.
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