It is relatively easy to identify ways in which patriarchy harms and hinders women. What’s harder, but equally necessary, is the need to demonstrate how it also harms and hinders men.

The pandemic with the longest history is the pandemic of violence against women. It is a pandemic underpinned by what I have come to understand as the major structural factor linked not only to sexual violence but also to other forms of violence and to our human capacities for connection with each other and the planet.

That factor is patriarchy. What we experience, indeed who we are today, is shaped by the legacy of patriarchal thinking that has dominated most of human history for thousands of years. To understand the dynamics of sexual violence requires we recognise the fundamental impact of patriarchy and how it operates in tandem with other social inequalities and individual background factors.

‘Patriarchy’ is often seen as a term used by angry feminists. A classic definition of it by sociologist Professor Sylvia Walby calls it “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women”.

Such a definition can provoke the defensive “not all men” response that obscures recognition of patriarchy’s fundamentally systemic and structural nature.

The logic of patriarchy is manifest not only within our structures and institutions but also in the conceptual apparatus that shapes our inner thinking and how we make sense of the world and act within it.

Its influence, however, is not deterministic in the sense individual autonomy is erased and resistance impossible. Otherwise there would be no room for the advances and reforms we have seen in such areas as violence against women.

Calling for an end to patriarchy is often misunderstood as an attack on men, signalling a confusion that ironically reveals the deeply male-focused nature of patriarchal societies.

We should acknowledge too that patriarchy as a structural system is also fundamentally oppressive to men and contributes to expectations of male dominance, autonomy and entitlement.

The concept of a gendered binary of males and females, hierarchically ordered to privilege males, has shaped and infused our culture for at least several thousand years.

It appears the binary division came first, differentiating men and women. Then, with the development of agriculture, came the hierarchical separation establishing men’s work as higher in value and status than women’s. From this emerged a patriarchal system orientated around the dominance and importance of men over women and children.

It is not, however, a simple question of male power over women. We need to recognise the complexities of intersectionalities and the ways these interact with economic systems such as capitalism to establish differences of status and privilege.

American film producer Harvey Weinstein is accused of decades of manipulating, harassing and sexually violating scores of women and was convicted of rape and sexual assault in a trial involving two of them.

The allegations sparked the #MeToo movement and exposed how Weinstein acted from a position of ‘ownership’ over women with whom he worked – ‘ownership’ conveying the belief you can use what you ‘own’ however you want.

Treating women’s bodies as men’s possessions has a long patriarchal history evident from the first rape laws.

These recognised the real victim not as the woman raped but the man who ‘owned’ her. One man wronged another by defiling his daughter or wife and damaging his investment. A daughter was expected to be a virgin, for whom the father could expect the highest bride price. If on a wedding night her new husband found her not to be so, “the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she has wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house” (Deutermony, 20: 20–21).

We see here early indicators of male ownership of women’s sexuality and of an emphasis on women’s virginity and chastity.

A victim’s moral character determined if a rapist was held accountable or not – a trend still evident in courts today, where juries in rape cases are encouraged to focus on a woman’s character and actions and determine the extent to which she might be held responsible for her own victimisation.

For centuries, men had legal support in accessing ‘their’ wives’ bodies whenever and however they wanted. Husbands who raped their wives were not culpable of any crime. This only changed in the past 30–35 years in many countries, including New Zealand, and it remains legal in at least 10 countries today.

Rigid ideals of what masculinity means contribute not only to the violence perpetrated against women but also the violence men perpetrate against each other.

Another cultural factor is the objectification of women.

Weinstein was raised in a culture where women were treated as commodity items to sell everything from washing machines to tomato sauce, and he worked in an industry built in large part around the objectification of women.

Psychologist Professor Rachel Calogero has noted: “Sexual objectification may be the most pernicious manifestation of gender inequality, because under a sexually objectifying gaze, women’s bodies become – even if just for a moment – the property of the observer.”

This objectification is not only reflected in Hollywood but also reinforced through pornography and evident throughout the fashion and beauty industries now so globally dominant.

To be raised to view women as property is harmful to men, contributing to the difficulties they often face in maintaining a close emotional connection.

But objectification also contributes to women’s self-objectification, evident in their internalising of the dominant ‘male gaze’, promoting intense body surveillance of their own, and other women’s, bodies.

Women’s critical scrutinising of themselves and others can enhance shame and self-blame, undermining their sense of self in ways that can make them look like they are cooperating with an abuser.

Actor Gwyneth Paltrow, for instance, was slammed for accepting a role in Shakespeare in Love after her alleged abusive experience with Weinstein, the film’s producer, four years earlier. He maintained this proved her claim was false. But based on what we know about the impacts of sexual violence, her compliance could be seen as an understandable fear response to the power he wielded over her and how her belief in herself had been eroded. It is not surprising she and numerous other women felt silenced.

Classics professor Mary Beard has drawn attention to how, right at the beginning of the western literary tradition, the message given women was always to maintain their silence in public: in Homer’s Odyssey, almost 3000 years ago, Telemachus hears his mother, Penelope, speak in the hall of the palace and instructs her to get back to her quarters and remember “speech will be the business of men”.

This belief was reinforced through history by withholding education and literacy from girls. For centuries, universities were male-only enclaves resulting in men alone being prepared for public office and professions.

At times, extreme measures were deployed to enforce women’s silence – for example, from the 1500s until the early 19th century, women labelled as gossips or witches were punished by having a ‘scold’s bridle’ fitted and were sometimes paraded, shamed and abused in public while wearing it.

The pressure the bridle placed on the woman’s cheeks and nose made breathing difficult and speaking impossible, while the bit inserted in her mouth often had spikes that, should she try to speak, would splice into her tongue or cheeks.

The desire to silence women’s speech remains manifest today in more sophisticated ways, evidenced in the many ways rape victims are silenced.

The act of rape itself ignores a woman’s subjectivity and suppresses her agency; high levels of shame, blame, fear and self-blame mean few women disclose their experience, with only 6 percent of New Zealand women who allege rape reporting it to police; women who do report feel unheard when few New Zealand cases proceed to trial and in only 13 percent of these is the accused convicted; the trial process itself is revictimising and in our adversarial system provides little space for women’s narratives of what happened.

Weinstein and financier Jeffrey Epstein, who reportedly committed suicide in jail while facing sex trafficking charges, stand in a long line of offenders abusing their positions as wealthy white men for personal sexual gratification.

But patriarchal male power enables boys and men of all social backgrounds to victimise girls and women and expect to get away with it.

Through its imposing of hierarchical systems of power, patriarchy establishes the preconditions not only for sexism but also racism. In placing heterosexuality at the apex of the sexual relationship hierarchy, it paves the way for homophobia and the rejection of any sexual and gender identities perceived as ‘other’.

Patriarchal thought systems emphasise competition over collectivism in ways that have encouraged colonising mentalities and the valorisation of warfare. They foster the ‘othering’ of difference in ways that not only pit human against human but humanity against nature, enabling the objectification that facilitates using and exploiting the environment for our own use, pleasure and gain in a parallel process to how Weinstein, Epstein and others have used women’s bodies.

Calling for an end to patriarchy is often misunderstood as an attack on men, signalling a confusion that ironically reveals the deeply male-focused nature of patriarchal societies.

It is relatively easy to identify ways in which patriarchy harms and hinders women; harder, but equally necessary, is the need to demonstrate how it also harms and hinders men.

Rigid ideals of what masculinity means contribute not only to the violence perpetrated against women but also the violence men perpetrate against each other. They inhibit men’s emotional expression and empathic connection with others. Attitudes of entitlement and objectification of others can also justify environmental harm and exploitation, with not only the Earth viewed as existing for our benefit but also ambitions for human colonisation extending to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Ending sexual violence requires ending the gender inequalities that can make consent meaningless. But a system predicated on the superiority of half the population over the other can never deliver true equality. The good news is another system is possible. The only way we can all live happily ever after on this planet is if we join forces and smash the patriarchy.

This is an adaptation of Jan Jordan’s inaugural professorial public lecture, ‘The price of being “Friends of Harvey”: Men, Power and Sexual Violence’.

Leave a comment