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Relationship Abuse Is More Than Individual Acts of Violence

opposing verbal abuse does not lead to censorship

Forum: WMST-L
Date: 05/02/2005

This is in response to Daphne Patai's challenging of rhetorics expressed in Clotheline Project shirts and labeling them as "hate speech" (by which she is actually referring to angry or aggressive tone, but not necessarily hate speech).

On 5/1/05 12:24 PM, "Daphne Patai" wrote: "Verbal abuse hits just as hard" (MacKinnon view that cannot distinguish between verbal and physical abuse. If people really believe this, then no doubt women are as abusive as men--just with slightly different means; all sorts of data show women's greater verbal gifts. Again, this view that words equal deeds allows everyone to be a victim.

You are missing the point of the statement expressed in the shirt. It is not suggesting that verbal and physical abuse are the same. In the many years of working against relationship abuse we've learned that abuse is not about specific act of hitting or kicking or even yelling, but a pattern of power and control. In an abusive relationship, even the words "I love you" could be used to establish and maintain a pattern of power and control, if used manipulatively. That doesn't equate the phrase "I love you" with hitting; it merely shows the complexity of how abuse actually happens.

But the society largely only sees specific acts of violence, rather than how these acts form an abusive pattern as a whole. The expression on the shirt is trying to tell the society that, even if individual acts of verbal and emotional abuse may seem trivial because there are no hospital visits or visible scars, they should be taken just as seriously.

And before you accuse me of trying to criminalize speech as "abuse," I do not support legal system as a primary method of fighting violence against women. I believe that it should be the last resort, and that primary focus should be given in prevention efforts that fosters early intervention by friends, family members and the community.

Also, for the record I do believe that women's abuse toward men is a bigger problem than reported because so much of that abuse is hidden since they tend to be less physical than men's abuse of women. BUT that would not lead to the conclusion that "women are as abusive as men." To suggest that, you must assume that men's larger statue and greater physical strength are solely reponsible for their violence against women, and that's just plain stupid. Doesn't men's greater institutional power factor in at all?

Which raises soem interesting questions that I have never seen addressed when research on violence against women goes on: Have you ever felt obliged to make up or exaggerate things you have suffered at the hands of men?

Daphne, this isn't a new question and you know it. Yes, it does seem that sometimes incompetent therapists and others (including feminist advocates for survivors of violence) lead women to exaggerate abuse they have suffered or "remember" ones that did not take place, although most of the time the process isn't a conscious one for both the therapist and the client. However, we still don't know how widespread this problem is vs. the actual incidence of abuse, so we need to be careful not to prejudge or prejudice anyone's stories.

Do you believe all the accounts of abuse you hear about from your friends or in feminist classrooms?)

As a matter of fact, no. But I do tend to believe that whoever is telling the story believes that story to be true. Friendships and classrooms aren't the court, so nobody needs to be interrogated.

By contrast, the occasional (very rare) mentions of lesbian rape were very different in tone, e.g.:

Good observation. But come to Seattle in June when Northwest Network ( has the Clothesline display--you'll see a lot of shirts made by queer survivors, which vary in tone. It's really hard to see the variety when you see just a couple of them.

It appears from the rhetoric that it's victims of other women who have real difficulty being heard or conveying their anger.

I tend to blame homophobia in the society (as well as within feminism) rather than questioning the survivors' ability to convey their emotions.

the anger at my original posting reflects a major current habit within feminism: the tendency in dealing with the problem of violence against women to not allow any questions to be raised about feminist claims

No. The responses are due to the fact you misused the word "hate speech." It's fine if you don't believe in hate crimes law, etc. (in fact, I've been pretty outspoken about opposing hate crime legislations), but you can't just change the definition of a commonly accepted term and expect others to understand what you are trying to communicate. You angered people because of your mischaracterization of statements on the shirts as "hate speech," because calling them "hate speech," as the term is understood by the rest of the society, is extremely offensive.

and also the habit of exaggerating everything about violence against women

And you seem to have the habit of minimizing everything about violence against women and turning everything into the Vast Feminist Conspiracy. Okay, so physical abuse and verbal abuse are two different things--but why does one have to be real and the other merely some feminist plot to "bolster a monolithic view of men as predators and women as their victims"?

Emi Koyama

-- * Putting the Emi back in Feminism since 1975.