Gender and Violence: Brazil and the Need to Understand and Deconstruct Masculinities Everywhere

Protest against Sexual Violence, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Protest against Sexual Violence, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

    This blog entry was inspired by recent events in Brazil—the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro. It also owes a debt to one of my graduate students (a Mexican), who took my Gender, Globalization, and Development course this past winter. His remarks, particularly when the discussion turned to the Mexican case, emphasized the importance of achieving a better grasp of exactly what men think and why they behave the way they do. He observed that the literature on globalization, gender, and development, while accurately pointing out all of the ways in which women are exploited, subjected and repressed, does not really illuminate the ways in which male identity contributes to the problem. True, everyone agrees that patriarchy is at the root of female oppression, and that it involves power. However, we need to know why patriarchy has been so enormously resilient. This question is especially puzzling since patriarchy, particularly in its extreme forms, is arguably counterproductive to everyone’s welfare. 

Violence against Women: North and South

    The most brutal manifestations of this phenomenon (at least as reported in the media) appears to occur in Global South countries—most recently Brazil, but the case of India’s gang rape in 2012 also comes to mind. In addition, of course, “classic patriarchy” (the most restrictive and repressive extreme form) abounds in various parts of the Middle East, most notably within ISIS and the Taliban. 

    While there is less societal acceptance of its most physically brutal manifestations, however, patriarchy remains resilient in the West as the recent case of Thomas Pogge demonstrates. Pogge, an internationally acclaimed Yale University philosophy professor and an advocate for the reduction of world poverty, used his reputation and status to manipulate and sexually exploit young women scholars from the Global South. This behavior, which brought enormous trauma to its victims, is a form of structural violence. The fact that Pogge has largely escaped punishment for his crimes has prompted considerable outrage and caused many to ask how a scholar so supposedly concerned about social justice could behave in this way. The case also raises troubling questions about the intersectional subjugation wrought by race and gender. It certainly points to how far we, in the North, still have to go on the gender equality front. 

Changing Laws and Increasing Punishments is not Enough

    The belief in the “rightness” of male dominance is certainly one of the general and intractable features of patriarchy everywhere, even though its specific features vary markedly from society to society. Recent widespread popular demonstrations in Brazil demanding that the perpetrators of the recent gang rape be brought to justice suggest that the Brazilian public is intolerant of this type of behavior. The Brazilian government responded swiftly, establishing a special police unit to investigate crimes of violence against women and it has engaged in an all-out effort to apprehend the perpetrators. However, the arrest and incarceration of those responsible and even the institution of harsher penalties is not likely to have much of an impact. The 2012 gang rape case in India prompted mass mobilization and a new anti-rape law in 2013 that stiffened punishments for those committing sexual violence against women. However, impunity for the crime continues unabated

    This is so because the root of the problem is in the way men (and women) in particular societies understand what constitutes male identity. If society sees a central component of manliness as physical prowess and domination of other men and women, as it does in much of Latin America, then tackling physical violence against women must address this aspect of male identity. Notions of what constitutes manliness are deeply ingrained, woven into institutions and behavior through long historical processes. They will not be eliminated or transformed solely through new laws and increased incarceration rates. The reconstruction of gender identity is a long-term educational and socialization process and one that cannot begin too soon. 

Structural Conditions Reinforce Violent Aspects of Male Identity

    It may also be useful to consider some of the structural conditions (social, economic and political) that may be contributing to the reinforcement of particular forms of patriarchy and to violence. Societal concepts of manliness that require the ability to economically support a family contribute to anger and a profound sense of failure when these achievements are an increasingly distant possibility. A sense of failure alone can increase the possibility of violent behaviour and increase the depth of adherence to misogynistic thinking, particularly when there is a pre-existing acceptance of extreme forms of patriarchy. At the same time, limited economic opportunities also gives rise to livelihood choices by young men that have violence as a central component. Consider the fact that one important reason why young men join ISIS is the promise of both a salary and wife—goals that are well beyond a great many young men in that part of the world. The lack of economic opportunity for young men is a widespread problem throughout the Global South. In Latin American unemployment and underemployment is especially high among young men. In Mexico, many among them turn to involvement in the drug trade to obtain an income. Being forced by circumstances into such criminally violent activities only reinforces violence and physical brutality as a feature of male identity. 

    There is, in short, no quick fix for the violence and exploitation experienced by women. Addressing the problem requires a consideration of all of the various dimensions of male identity, and of all of the ways, it is reinforced by particular contextual conditions. It is a problem that has to be tackled by society as a whole. It is also a very long-term struggle and one that societies in both the North and South need to embrace with purpose and conviction.