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No Safe Place: Violence Against Women
Interview: Gloria Steinem

Feminist author, founder of Ms. Magazine

Transcript of Interview

Q: How prevalent is violence against women in America?

To consider how pervasive violence is and what its impact is, is huge because I think we don't know the answer to either of those questions yet. We're just discovering how pervasive it is. For instance, it feels as if childhood sexual abuse or domestic abuse of women in the home has increased but actually if you ask women of 60 or 70 years old, the incidence is about the same. We just didn't know it. So we are just discovering the tip of the iceberg here. But it certainly is the major cause of physical and psychological injury to women. The most dangerous place for a woman statistically speaking is not in the street. It's in her own home. She's most likely to be attacked by a man with whom she lives. It's the trauma of it we're just beginning to realize. There's a wonderful book by Judith Herman in which she compares the trauma experienced by veterans in war to the veterans of domestic violence, and discovers that the veterans of domestic violence suffer far more.

Q: Who is the author and what is her book?

Judith Herman. It's called Trauma and Recovery. And you know, because if it's domestic violence, it's someone you're dependent on, supposed to love, vulnerable to you know, it's very different from being an adult in a uniform with an enemy. You have no support frequently, so the trauma is much worse, and much more long-lasting. It's a wonderful book.

Q: What do you think are the origins of male violence against women? Is it rooted in a patriarchal society? Is it biological? Sociological? A desire for power and control?

The origins of violence against women by men are not biological. If that were the case, it would exist in every culture. And it doesn't exist in every culture. There are tribal and less patriarchal cultures in which there is very little violence, or in which the violence is almost equal, you know, especially among boys and girls. But in any case, there is no organized violence. There is no frequency of rape and so on. So it can't be biological. It has to be social.

It comes in a very deep sense from teaching men to dominate. If you're going to have a male dominant system, to maintain the system, you have to teach men to dominate. So they come to believe that at a minimum, control is part of masculinity. And some men really, not through their own fault, got born into this culture too, but they get hooked on violence and control as a kind of drug, you know, so that if you talk to men who have been violent against women in their lives, they will speak about it almost like an addiction. I needed a fix, you know, I didn't feel like a real man. She was daring to not have the dinner ready on time, whatever it was that made him feel even marginally out of control, then causes him to respond with violence.

Q: How do gender roles tie into violence against women?

Well, if you consider that the gender roles are just political, then what you come to see is that the full circle of human qualities is divided up so that two-thirds are masculine and one-third is feminine. Women are missing more of their human qualities, so you'll find us on the fore-front of trying to change this. But men are missing some too. And because they are taught that some inevitable qualities of vulnerability and compassion and empathy and uncertainty, sadly, are feminine. Then they suppress them and hate them and feel shame about them in themselves.

That is a loss of self. Those things are part of yourself, so that's the deepest origin of a loss of core self esteem. When you see those qualities in other people, you may be threatened by them. You're afraid to be close to women. Because it's not masculine to be close to women. The last time you were close to a woman, you were a child. Men may feel just disempowered by intimacy, by being close to a woman, and also by feeling the tender feelings that they're ashamed of.

Q: Some say society is structured to allow men to be violent? Do we not only allow but encourage men to be violent?

Society definitely encourages and condones men's violence toward women. Not as much as it used to be when it was less visible, and there were still laws on the books that made it alright for men to beat their wives, as long as it was within certain limits, and women were chattel. During the first suffragist wave in this nation, women were possessions, like a table or a chair. So violence toward them was quite condoned. The attitude has diminished, but it's still there.

It starts with the slippery slope of the supposition that gender that sexual relations between men and women are dominant passive. That's the beginning of it. Because that's not true. So, you know, it condones domination by saying that. And then it goes all the way up the scale to beatings, torture, murder, you can hardly open a newspaper today without seeing that a woman has been killed by a man for clearly gender-related reasons.

Q: Does society also encourage women to be victims?

Yes, society certainly encourages women to be victims in every way. I mean if we want approval, we have to sing the blues, even as singers we sing the blues. It's not okay for a woman to be in control of her own body, her own reproductive system, much less of her life. There's opposition even to that. So passivity is rewarded as feminine. And when you stand up for yourself and try to be autonomous and self-determining, you're called a lot of names that we all know and that are very common. You may lose your job. You may lose custody of your child. You may be blamed for the failure of your marriage even though it was the man who couldn't tolerate an equal relationship. If you are beaten, you're said to have incited it. If you're raped, you're said to have invited it. I mean we all know these things that are very deep in the culture. They're diminishing. I don't want us to be discouraged because we have made progress. But they're still very deeply rooted.

Q: What can we do as a society to discourage violence? There are those who say it's inevitable. Is it? Can we change? How do we change?

Violence is not inevitable. I mean, the only inevitable form of violence is the kind that we understand, the only legitimate (if there can ever be legitimate violence) and that's self-defense. No other form of violence is legitimate. It is never acceptable to use violence to solve a problem. Whether personal or political. So that, added to that statement I just made would be fiercely contested by a lot of people. They would say well there's always been wars, men have always beaten women. But it isn't true in all cultures. It doesn't have to be true. And the first step is imaging.

You know, we have to imagine change before we can begin to move toward it. Then we also need to not only stand at the side of the river bend and rescue the people who are drowning, which is crucial, which is why we so badly need much more money spent on programs that aid victims of domestic violence and rape and so on. But some of us also need to go to the head of the river and see why people are falling in. You know, that has to do with boys being taught that it's masculine to be dominant and girls being taught that it's feminine to be dominated or to be passive. We've had a lot of people in this country have had the courage to raise their daughters more like their sone. Which is great because it means they're more equal, and whole women who are now standing up for themselves, is why we're having this program. But there are many fewer people who have had the courage to raise their sons more like their daughters. And that's what needs to be done.

Q: Is part of the answer gender equity?

Yes, but not just equality, because equality can sound like making a feminine equal to masculine and that's not the point. The point is because we will, if we keep on talking about masculine and feminine and following those stereotypes, then we will make women suppress and despise their so called masculine qualities and men suppress and despise their so called feminine ones, and that's where all the trouble starts. So, what we're talking about is a completing the circle of ourselves. To seeing that all people have all human qualities. Not carving up the self. You know, which is the cause of this cavernous inner, unfillable vacuum. You know that then we try to fill with violence, drugs, work, I mean all kind of addiction.

Q: In Revolution Within, you talk about self-esteem, saying that self-hatred leads to the need to dominate and be dominated. Is part of the answer to improve self-esteem in addition to challenging traditional gender roles? Is it a matter of teaching mutual respect? What specific advice would you give women? Men?

Well, I think that the advice is not different because it's challenging gender roles. But it may sound different because even though we're trying to complete the circle, we're traveling in the direction we haven't been in order to do that. So, for instance, if you think about the golden rule, which was written by men for men, and is very smart, you know, to treat other people as you would like to be treated. That's very important and very helpful. But women need to treat ourselves as well as we treat others. We need to reverse it. We also need to recognize that there are some people who will be unable to change. So we need to enforce the law. You know, there's much of a concern about crime in this country but not when it's crime against women and children.

Q: Re-education is a long-term solution. But what about he short-term? How do we dealt with the problem in the short-term? What about law enforcement and punishment?

Some people won't change, are really unable to change because the pattern is so deeply rooted in their childhoods and their upbringings and so on, so even while we're talking about long-term prevention, we also have to talk about short-term actions to protect the victims of violence. We need to enforce the laws. The laws on the books are not so bad now. But their enforcement by the police departments and by the judges is very faulty. Children who are victims of childhood sexual abuse, if the abuser sues for custody, in the average case, the custody is returned to the sexually abusing father. The courts are just horrendous in this regard. It is the one case in which the, especially with grown up women, that the victim is suppose to have invited the violence.

I would say that in addition to enforcing the existing laws, which is definitely not happening now, and funding rape crisis centers and all the things we need to help victims and changing our language. We have to stop talking about how many women are raped, and we have to talk about how many men rape. It's the, we use these passive verbs all the time as if it happened by magic. Someone did it. And we have to identify that someone. And everything we know tells us that they only begin to take it seriously when there are very serious consequences; for their acts.

We also I think need a kind of witness, what's it called when they need a kind of witness protection program for women who are fleeing domestic violence. Because the phenomenon of a man who is obsessed with controlling a particular woman and who stalks her everywhere, is very well established now. We need to be able to relocate women and children to where they are safe.

Q: Why aren't crimes against women taken as seriously? We have laws, yet they're not always enforced. Why is that?

Well, the laws are not enforced for a wide variety of reasons, but for example, we did on Long Island a study of men who were batterers and we discovered that their most frequent occupation was police officer. You know, a lot of the people who are supposed to be enforcing the crime, enforcing the law, are also criminals. They've suppressed something in their childhood and they don't want to think they themselves were sexually abused as children or they are abusing their own children and they're sitting on a bench and they either can't admit it, won't admit it, depending on how deeply buried it is. But again, it's just not taken seriously by society, a pornography justifies it. Much of what goes on television and rock lyrics and illustrations of record jackets and so on, justifies it and makes it seem alright. Sadomasochiasm -- which we know very well doesn't exist in societies that don't have child abuse -- is regarded some sort of natural sexual expression.

If you have two groups of people and you say one is inferior to the other, which is a lie, then the only way to maintain the lie is through violence or the threat of violence. So where men come to and women come together most intimately in sexuality in the home has become suffused with violence. We have to disentangle sexuality and violence. We have to say no. Rape is not sex; it's violence, which I think we know now. We have to say pornography is not erotica, porn means female slavery. It means the depiction of female slavery. Erotica means love, something very different, very mutual. These are two different things. We have, in a very deep way, to disentangle a sexuality and intimacy and violence.

Q: There's been a lot of controversy over biological differences between the sexes. What's your take on that? Can we deny the differences?

Well, you know, every time there is a step forward, there's a backlash and so now we're seeing another backlash about brains, brain differences, gender differences centered in the brain. About how suddenly we're going to behave like animals. Actually animals behave much better than we do, so I don't mean to malign animals but you know, somebody will come along and study apes in captivity and say that this applies to human beings which it doesn't. So I just think we have to use our common sense and understand that even if they were right, it doesn't have to continue to be so. I mean what makes human beings the species that has survived all this time is our adaptability. But I think there are great questions about whether it was ever right because it hasn't been true in all cultures.

Q: But aren't there inherent differences between the sexes which we can't ignore?

Well, the difference between two women or between two men or between two white people or between two black people, are greater for all purposes other than reproduction when it comes to sex or resistance to certain diseases when it comes to race. For all other purposes, the individual differences are greater than the group differences. It makes absolutely no sense to make group judgements. At a minimum, there's an overlap of 30 percent of women and 30 percent of men -- that's a lot of people. Even if they're right about the differences at either end. We can't make group judgements, we have to make individual ones.

There's an example to me of the problem with this idea of immutable brain-based gender differences are people who are multiple personalities. As we know, children who have been very sadistically abused over the long-term are able to dissociate, some of them are able to dissociate as a way of surviving and inventing someone to whom this doesn't happen. And so therefore, they invent within themselves different personalities who have life histories of their own. Many people invent an opposite gender personality as well.

Say a little boy who his being sexually abused by a man, and this is obviously unacceptable to him socially, will invent a female person to whom it is happening. Or a girl will invent a male person who embodies her anger and so on. Now what's interesting about this is when the person changes from one gender to the next, the brain pattern changes. So all the right-left brain, you know all this stuff can change in seconds, in the same person. So, you know, that tells me that it's a circle, culture changes, biology, so on but that it certainly can intervention at a cultural level can change that behavior.

Q: How do we, as you say, diminish violence, not just punish it?

Well, we need to stop raising boys to think that they need to prove their masculinity by being controlling or by not showing emotion or by not being little girls. You can ask kids and if you ask a little girl what do you want to be when you grown up, she'll tell you three things. And boys are the reverse. What do you want to be -- well they name lots of things, but if you say do you want to be, what if you were a little girl, they get very upset at the very idea they might be this inferior thing. They've already got this idea that in order to be boys they have to be superior to girls and that's the problem.

Q: You're here to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Utah Rape Recovery Center. Why are such centers necessary?

Well, this center has done such important life-saving, compassionate work for this community that everybody ought to sit down right now and write a check for ten percent of everything they make. I can't begin to thank or to support the women who have been doing this work, of rescue and compassion and empathy. I hope that we might also celebrate this 20-year anniversary by men working on other men. There are a number of groups in the country and I'm sure there are probably some here too, who regard men's work as ending male violence, not only against women and children, but also against other men. And that would be the greatest celebration if we stopped behaving as if this were a woman's problem. I mean crime is not the problem of the victim, the victim didn't create the crime. And that's true in this case as well. It is the men who are doing the raping we have to attend to in this next twenty years.

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No Safe Place: Violence Against Women is made possible in part by a grant from the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation and the Dr. Ezekiel R. and Edna Wattis Dumke Foundation. The documentary is a production of public television station KUED in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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