Invisible Forms of Patriarchal Violence

In recent years, while attending university, I repeatedly encountered a perception among young people, both men and women, though more men than women, that feminism is no longer a movement with the intended goal to create equality between men and women. Instead I often heard that feminism had changed from a movement about equality into a movement about creating a new inequality, with men unequal to women. This is a common allegation made against any movement that seeks to rectify an inequality. All one has to do is read the speeches of slaveholders and segregationists and one easily finds this fear of being subsumed. It should be clear to any fair-minded person that these claims are absurd on their face. A society is obviously compelled to act in the face of an injustice as despicable as racism and sexism. But we must understand what people are actually saying when they claim that a social justice movement devoted to establishing equality is really trying to reverse an inequality, with the slave now the master, and master slave.

What they are truly saying when they make this claim is that the inequality is not an inequality at all, but the true state of equality. Your attempt to overturn this equality is the real injustice. The inequality has achieved such a state of normalcy that the reality of it is invisible. Within the context of patriarchal violence this applies in such subtle ways that even the most progressive among us can be unable to recognize it. It is not our fault. The culture is teeming with messages justifying this violence, and we are inculcated with it from birth. Heterosexual sex is one area of particular concern. If the violence perpetrated does not meet the narrow definition of violence accepted by the police, or by the society at large, then no violence was perpetrated. Though it is certainly relevant to the conversation I am not talking about the incidents of rape where the victim is not beaten, but still coerced into being raped. You know, I thought long and hard about how to phrase that last sentence. Often, even among feminists and progressive writers, that sentence will usually read: “Though it is certainly relevant to the conversation I am not talking about the incidents of rape where the victim is coerced into having sex”. One cannot have sex with a person who is raping them. Sex is consensual. Rape is not. Obviously the intention of the writer is not to imply that the victim somehow consented to sex while being raped. But patriarchy is so deeply embedded into the very language we use to not only converse with one another about these issues, but to think through them ourselves, that even the best among us often fail to recognize when it is molding our consciousness.

Patriarchy is so embedded in our society that even during consensual sex it makes an appearance. Recently I became aware of just how intimate this violence can be and how the banal, every day nature of it warps the minds of women throughout the world. A quote from Reina Gattuso:

“Recently, I had sex with a man I heard afterward is a rapist… I was sitting with my friend, drunkish, on the green quad lawn when she asked me about the night before. I uttered his name. She made a face and I knew it was bad. She had heard, she said, rumors. For years. Times he did not take no for an answer. Times he finished regardless. Things he said… But through the disgust, and the weird sense of guilt, and the retrospective fear, something clicked: A feeling I’d had through the sexual encounter, a feeling that wasn’t — but that related to — rape… Sometimes there’s a moment when I’m having sex that I think a lot of us have felt. I feel it with particular frequency with straight, cis dudes, but we can feel this across all kinds of gender and sexuality experiences. It’s the fear that, if I asked the person to stop, they wouldn’t. I don’t mean when we say stop and someone keeps going, or uses threats, or pressures us. I mean another, subtler feeling. It’s not necessarily wanting to say no. It’s the fear that, if we were to say no, we wouldn’t be heard. Sometimes, I test this feeling: Slow down. Stop. Not so fast. And mostly, people listen.

But sometimes, when I feel this feeling most strongly, I don’t test it, because I don’t want to know the answer. That’s what happened the other day, with the dude about whom I later heard the rumors. I don’t think that if a sexual experience is not affirmatively consensual, it is definitionally assault. I have had experiences that have not felt consensual in a deep way, but that also did not feel like assault. We live constantly under the violence of patriarchy; a lot of our daily micro-interactions are coercive. These undertones of coercion don’t just disappear when we get into the bedroom (or the living room, or the car). And they create a lot of experiences that are hard to find language for… I mean, what was so weird about that sexual encounter — what made something click in my head, in my heart, when I heard that he had raped — is the way it felt like he didn’t need me to be there. He didn’t need me to have a head. He didn’t need me to have a heart. He didn’t seem to even need me to be awake.

A lot of sex feels like this. Sex where we don’t matter. Where we may as well not be there. Sex where we don’t say no, because we don’t want to say no, sex where we say yes even, where we’re even into it, but where we fear — some little voice in us fears — that if we did say no, if we don’t like the pressure on our necks or the way they touch us, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t count, because we don’t count. This feeling isn’t necessarily assault, but it is certainly on a continuum with it.”

These interactions are common in households where domestic violence takes place. The abused, in order to survive, is forced to submit to a variety of coercions. They live in a constant state of paranoia, sensitive to every subtle bodily and psychological cue of their abuser. This is also the state of mind of many women throughout the world. A state of mind beset by the fear that a man will harm or kill them. We have a society in which women are terrorized on a daily basis by a violence that takes a great variety of forms. Living as a member of the privileged class within this society even I often fail to grasp the depth, and breadth, of this violence, and the seemingly innumerably subtle forms in which is finds expression. Thinking back on those interactions with individuals who claimed that feminism is a movement seeking to establish a matriarchy I am struck by how little of what they had to say is in any way something they independently produced. It reminds me to be aware of such a flaw in myself; for we are all susceptible, some of us more than others.



Purvi Patel, Women, and Male Supremacy

An Indiana woman named Purvi Patel was recently sentenced to over two decades in prison after being convicted on charges of feticide, or the unlawful termination of a fetus, and neglect of a dependent. How can those two charges co-exist in a criminal case in a country where abortion is legal you might ask. In July of 2013 Patel went to the emergency room because of sustained vaginal bleeding as a result of a miscarriage of a stillborn fetus. Not knowing what to do Patel told the medical staff at the hospital that she disposed of the stillborn fetus, though the prosecution claimed that the fetus was born alive, in a dumpster and came to the E.R. once realizing that she could not put an end to the bleeding. The police discovered text messages exchanged between Patel and a friend of hers in which Patel claimed to have attempted to purchase abortion-inducing pills from Hong Kong. Under Indiana law it is illegal to purchase these legal drugs online.

The pathologist who examined the evidence and testified for the defense argued that the fetus was approximately 23-24 weeks old and so its lungs were too underdeveloped to survive outside the womb. The pathologist testifying for the prosecution argued that the fetus was actually 25-30 weeks old and was born alive, using the “lung float test” –whereupon one places the lungs in a tub of water and if they float they supposedly have air in them and that air was supposedly acquired through breathing- to make this determination. However, this methodology, going back some three hundred years, and has not been considered scientifically valid for a century, given the variety of ways that air can enter the human body; even the pathologist who posited the theory to the jury as evidence of a live birth admitted that the lung float test is, in and of itself, unreliable. Frankly, it is disturbingly reminiscent of the Trial by Ordeal methods used to determine whether a woman was a witch by throwing her in a body of water to see if she would float or sink.

The prosecution’s pathologist claims there was other evidence indicative of a live birth such as the “weight of the lungs and the other organs, the inflation of the lungs and the air sacs, the presence of blood in the lung vessels and the ‘relative maturity’ of the lungs…along with a lack of blood in the baby’s body”. To the defense’s pathologist this same evidence was inconclusive. Also, the government’s own toxicologist could find no evidence of the abortion pills they claimed Patel took to induce her miscarriage. So, there was no actual direct evidence that supported the charges made by the state, and yet a woman will likely spend the next two decades behind bars.

Then there are the violations of her civil and legal rights. She was interrogated by police after being anesthetized, after losing a substantial amount of blood with the volume percentage of red blood cells present in her body at 22.1%, never having been read her Miranda rights and the judge permitting her illegally and unethically acquired statements to police to be entered into evidence at trial. All this fails to include that a politically active anti-choice OBGYN was permitted to testify in court that the fetus was 30 weeks old despite the fact that OBGYN’s “are not experts in assigning gestational age at birth”.

If one were attempting to scientifically determine the age of the fetus, which was “male and was 12.2 inches (30.99 cm) long and weighed 1.46 pounds (662 g). The body had exsanguinated so we should add about 100 ml/kg of blood, or 70.17 g (the weight of 66.2 ml of blood) to achieve a birth weight of 732.17 grams. Using average fetal growth curves for a male fetus (these are well known) the length is equivalent to 23 weeks gestation and 1 or 2 days and weight of 24 weeks and 3 or 4 days gestation”. Therefore if had experienced her miscarriage in the hospital instead of in her home she would not be in jail now because “at 23-24 weeks a woman is allowed to decline resuscitation” for extremely prematurely delivered fetuses whose viability outside the womb is highly unlikely.

This is not the only case in the United States where people have been arrested, charged, prosecuted, and convicted in the wake of the miscarriage of their pregnancy. Here are seven other cases:

“1. A critically ill, 27-year-old Washington D.C. woman was 26 weeks pregnant when a judge ordered her to have a Cesarean section. He did so with the understanding that the procedure would very likely kill her. It did. The baby died as well.

2. A pregnant woman in Iowa fell down a flight of stairs and went to the hospital. The hospital reported her to the police who arrested her for “attempted fetal homicide.”

3. A Utah woman gave birth to twins, one of which was stillborn. Her doctors blamed the death on her decision to delay a C-section. She was arrested for fetal homicide.

4. A Louisiana woman checked in to a hospital due to vaginal bleeding. She was locked up for a year on charges of “second-degree murder before medical records revealed she had suffered a miscarriage at 11 to 15 weeks of pregnancy.”

5. A Florida woman “was held prisoner at a hospital to prevent her from going home while she appeared to be experiencing a miscarriage. She was forced to undergo a Cesarean.” She still lost the baby, and her two small children at home were left without her while she was held. A state court ruled that this detention was wrong, although it would have been fine if she were further along in her pregnancy.

6. Another Florida woman who went into labor at home was picked up by a sheriff, driven to the hospital and forced to have a Cesarean against her will. She filed suit, and the court concluded that the woman’s personal constitutional rights “clearly did not outweigh the interests of the State of Florida in preserving the life of the unborn child.”

7. A severely depressed, pregnant 22-year-old woman in South Carolina tried to commit suicide. She was jailed for child abuse.”

It is unlikely that this trend will stop of its own accord. Since the anti-choice misogynists are unable to outright criminalize abortion they have taken to targeting pregnant people and their abortion rights in less direct ways by passing feticide laws, medically unnecessary clinic regulations, created delays between appointments and procedures, etc., etc., etc. Ultimately this issue is about self-determination and autonomy. But this is not the only issue where beliefs about women and self-determination intersect. Frankly, any conversation about women, but particularly about female sexuality, is littered with ideas intended to restrain a woman’s autonomy. Examine any conversation and it becomes strikingly obvious that value judgments are routinely made to restrain, restrict, or justify a particular legal or moral consideration about women and how they manage their bodies and their lives. Whether it is about contraceptives, consensual sexual activity, number of sexual partners, sexual assault, abortion, clothing, employment, family, and on, and on.

Recently a new phrase entered the American lexicon, the “War on Women”. This phrase, and its emergence in American culture, is both laudable and frustrating. Calling these activities a “War on Women” belies the reality that this is the status quo throughout the world. The “War on Women” did not begin with the election of the Republican Party to the majority position in nearly two-dozen states and the national Congress, and it will not end if Hilary Clinton is elected President in a few years. The banal regularity of patriarchy is precisely what makes it so destructive, and yet so difficult to combat. It must be challenged every day, in every venue, and the people most needed in this fight are men. We are the problem. Certainly there are women who perpetuate this antagonism, but regardless of their behavior the structural inequality between men and women remains. It is real, concrete, and institutionalized; protected by law, politics, religion, education, the police, the courts, and the broader culture. While progress has been made in important ways there is no conceivable reason any fair minded person could believe there has been enough.