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A Marxist feminist approach to violence against women

In order for movements opposed to the injustice of women’s oppression to develop into a revolution, they must be underpinned by political understanding. LAURA BRIGGS explains

THOUGH the coronavirus pandemic continues to dominate public attention, rising rates of domestic abuse, rape and femicide suggest that women are experiencing a dangerous and deadly pandemic of our own: misogyny.

Men are currently far more likely to be victims of murder than women. 

However, data from the Office for National Statistics shows that while the rate of male homicide victims is on the decline, the number of female victims is still rising. 

Women are also hugely overrepresented in intimate partner deaths — making up 84 per cent of the total (United Nations office on drugs and crime, 2017). 

Murderers are overwhelmingly male, regardless of their victim’s sex.

The 2018 Femicide Census showed that 40 per cent of femicide cases feature “overkilling.” 

This refers to murders where the force and/or methods used by the perpetrator are far greater than would be required to kill the victim (excessive stab wounds, dismemberment, mutilation, repeated blunt force trauma, etc). 

In contrast, “overkilling” is not prevalent in male homicides, demonstrating that this particular phenomenon is motivated by misogyny.

Infidelity, or perceived infidelity, is a risk factor for femicide, and women are at highest risk within the first 12 months of leaving an abusive partner. 

This indicates that the notion of women as the exclusive property of her husband or partner plays an important role in femicide motivation.

Research also shows that the risk of domestic abuse and femicide increases during pregnancy. 

This is particularly true in countries where abortion is restricted, leading to men “terminating” unwanted pregnancies through femicide. 

The prevalence of female infanticide (the murder of newborn females) is further evidence that violence against women and girls has a definite sexed character. 

Though not murder, the linked practice of sex-selective abortion (where female foetuses are aborted at a much higher rate than male foetuses) also demonstrates that sex is of extreme relevance when analysing violence against women and girls (VAWG).

From this background, it is clear to see the unique nature of femicide compared with more general male-on-male violence. 

The circumstances, method and motive vary greatly between male and female victims. 

Therefore, a “sex-blind” approach to violence against women — or an approach which attempts to recategorise crime statistics according to “gender identity” — fails to understand the sexual politics of violence.

In 2012 the United Nations Human Rights Council aptly described femicide as “the end of a continuum of violence against women, set against general patterns of discrimination against women and tolerated impunity of perpetrators.” 

Femicide is the natural consequence of a misogynistic society which tolerates and encourages violence against women.

The need for a historical materialist approach

In the face of such blatant and cruel injustice, collective rage can inspire mass movements. 

However, in order for such movements to develop into a revolution, they must be underpinned by political understanding. 

We must pursue a material, Marxist analysis of women’s oppression to ensure that our response to global VAWG is not emotional or reactive; but radical, revolutionary and transformative.

Two obstacles currently plague the left’s analysis of VAWG. First, we are hindered by a refusal to acknowledge the near-universal sexed power dynamics between men and women. 

This is demonstrated by the painfully evident sex disparity in domestic labour, childcare, societal sexism etc. 

In some men, this “baseline” sexism will develop into misogyny and manifest as VAWG; in others it may not. 

However, if we insist on characterising these crimes as the random acts of violence of a few bad men, we reduce a historical pattern of male violence against women to the tragic yet anomalous behaviour of mentally unstable or morally defunct individuals. 

To treat such historical trends as a collection of unfortunate isolated incidents is antithetical to Marxism. 

We must move away from this moralistic, subjective non-analysis, and instead recognise the historical and material circumstances which create such clear patterns of misogyny and sexed violence.

Second, left-wing analysis of VAWG is impeded by a refusal to acknowledge that working-class men commit the majority of violent crime against women. 

By virtue of being “domestic” abuse — within the home, between intimate partners — it is most often perpetrated by men of the same socioeconomic class as their victim. 

Domestic abuse, sexual violence and femicide do not fit neatly into a class reductionist narrative. 

In fact, to admit the prevalence of misogyny and VAWG among working-class and left-wing men would tarnish the romanticised narrative of the honourable, principled worker — which most are unwilling to do. 

Sadly, the left’s response to these inconvenient truths has been to bury their heads in the sand.

For many women, the immediacy and severity of the threat that men pose to them outweighs their interest in the long-term political and economic goals of our movement. 

Therefore, male violence against women is a gargantuan obstacle to class unity and must be addressed as a priority. 

As long as half of the population fears battery, rape and murder at the hands of the other, talk of female liberation — and revolution more generally — remains wholly tokenistic.

Women and the mode of production 

We must place our analysis of VAWG within a historical context. The existence of women’s oppression continuously and consistently across the globe since the dawn of class society — regardless of race, class or religion of perpetrator or victim — is evidence that misogyny is a universal ideology of the ruling class. 

Women have a unique role in relation to the mode of production. Capitalism could not exist without the continual expansion of the global population through women’s sexually and socially reproductive labour.

Sexual reproduction reproduces class society in the literal sense — pregnancy and giving birth “produces” newer generations. 

We also socially reproduce. We cook, clean and care for children in the home, and we care, nurse and teach in the public sphere (sectors in which women are significantly overrepresented).

Without these processes, the worker would either: not have time to work (if they had to look after their own children and keep their own house); or else would be too poorly educated or too poor in health to work.

It is important to note, however, that female oppression is not exclusive to working-class women. 

Bourgeois women must produce and reproduce the ruling class, just as proletarian women must produce and reproduce the working class. 

Therefore, the ruling class oppresses all women in order to ensure the continued existence of class society as we know it.

VAWG — helping or hindering capitalism?

Violence against women actually presents a contradiction to the above analysis. 

Misogyny, taken to its logical conclusion, results in the rape and murder of women. 

Dead women can’t have babies. Hospitalised women can’t cook, clean, care, teach etc. 

As valuable sexually reproductive labourers, it is not in the interests of the ruling class for women to suffer debilitating physical harm. 

So how does VAWG serve capitalism?

Put simply, violence against women is the inevitable material byproduct of ideological sexism. 

A few individual battered, raped and murdered women are perfectly acceptable collateral damage. 

They are a price that the ruling class is willing to pay in order to maintain structural control over sexual and social reproduction.

Sexist ideologies permeate all levels of society and men of all classes consume women as their inferiors. 

Women are consumed both as sexual servants (through pornography and prostitution), and as domestic servants (to cook, clean, child-mind etc). 

Misogyny is often very convenient to working-class men and so they willingly reap its rewards, largely unaware that this perpetuation of divisive sexist ideologies helps to uphold the very economic system which oppresses them.

Extreme violence against women is absorbed by the masses on a daily basis — both in popular culture and through the sex/pornography industries. 

Film, television, music and readily accessible internet pornography present the ever-increasing objectification, violence, dehumanisation and degradation of women. 

These depictions are so commonplace that the public are now completely desensitised to them. 

And, thanks to liberal “choice feminism,” any challenge to this is now framed as an affront to a women’s autonomous empowering self-exploitation.

The 21st century has ushered in an age of vicious, contemptuous misogyny, quite unlike the paternalistic misogyny of the past. 

We are now experiencing an era in which the rate of rape prosecution and conviction is so low as to practically make it legal; an era where women’s murderers can claim the “rough sex” defence and receive pitifully lenient sentences; an era where women are dehumanisingly referred to as “menstruators,” “uterus-havers” and “pregnant people.” 

This social and political backdrop serves to cement the universal dominance of capitalism’s sexist ideologies and so it is no surprise that violence against women and girls is also on the rise.

Laura Briggs is women’s officer for the Manchester branch of the Communist Party of Britain and the editor of Marxist feminist blog OnTheWomanQuestion (on Facebook, Twitter and the web).

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