Violence against women: the major problem with calling male violence an “epidemic”

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Lauren Geall
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A technologies and gender expert has called out the use of virus-related language to describe male violence against women, arguing that it renders perpetrators “invisible”.

In the wake of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa’s deaths and the rise in reports of domestic abuse during lockdown, the last two years have seen an increase in the number of conversations about male violence against women, both on social media and in the worldwide press.

However, while some of this awareness has led to meaningful change – at the start of January, an amendment to the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to make misogyny a hate crime was passed despite opposition – it has also highlighted some big issues, particularly when it comes to the language we use to represent the problem.

From a UN report describing male violence against women during lockdown as a “shadow pandemic” to a police watchdog framing the reality women are facing as an “epidemic of violence,” male violence has repeatedly been framed as a kind of ‘virus’ that puts all women at risk. 

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And while there’s some truth to this analogy – violence against women is a gendered crime, after all – it sends a problematic message about the nature of the issue at hand.

“We have seen, time and time again, that male violence against women is framed semantically as a perpetual risk just lingering in the external environment – a virus a woman might catch anytime,” says Trang Le, a technologies and gender expert from the Communications and Media Faculty at Melbourne’s Monash University.

“This kind of ‘virus’ language renders the perpetrators absolutely invisible. Male privilege enables these types of violence, and they’re not opportunistic crimes – they’re forms of structural domination which serve to exclude women and other minoritised groups.” 

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This, Le argues, is symptomatic of society’s misaligned focus on apps and other technologies to keep women ‘safe’ from male violence, rather than dealing with the problem at its core.

“I would like to see the debate shifting from women’s safety to male violence, or, to be more precise, onto gender-based power relations that manifest as sexual assault, violence and rape,” she adds.

While it can be tempting to frame the issue of male violence against women as some uncontrollable force to be fought and conquered, the reality is a lot more complex. Language is important – and discussing this issue in a realistic and accurate way can help us to see the full picture. 

With the support of more than 60 experts, MPs and public figures, Stylist is calling on the government to launch a long-term public campaign challenging the attitudes behind male violence against women – aimed directly at men. Find out more about our call for #AFearlessFuture

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.