Are women and girls vulnerable?

Violent men do not attack girls or women because they are 'vulnerable', argues Jennifer Drew, and it deflects attention from the perpetrators to pretend otherwise

Jennifer Drew, 19 May 2008

There is a buzzword circulating the legal, media and societal systems, and it is being used to deflect attention away from male accountability and responsibility for men's violence against women and girls.

What is this word? Why 'vulnerability', and we increasingly hear this word being used by judges when sentencing men convicted of raping or murdering women and girls. Prosecution council too depicts female victims of male violence as 'vulnerable' creatures. The media, politicians and society in general are all claiming acts of male violence are ones perpetrated upon vulnerable women or girls. But rarely have I heard or read male victims of male portrayed as vulnerable victims. I wonder why?

Now, before anyone berates me for claiming women subjected to male violence are being turned into powerless victims, I am not in fact rendering women survivors of male violence 'powerless victims'. I leave that to the ones who use the word 'vulnerable'. Rather, women survivors of male violence are victims of the crimes these misogynist males commit. Therein lies the difference - not powerless victims but victims of crimes men commit against them.

Taylor murdered Beagley when it was dark and his murderous attack would have been less noticeable than if it were daylight. I see no vulnerability here, but rather clever, careful planning on Taylor's part, plus his misogynistic hatred of women

So, now that is clarified I will return to the word vulnerability. Take, for example, a court case which recently ended with the conviction of Karl Taylor who deliberately murdered Kate Beagley. Judge Giles Forrester, when passing sentence on Taylor, told him: "You took advantage of the vulnerability of that girl [girl? Beagley was an adult woman] for your own ends." No, Judge Forrester, Karl Taylor did not take advantage of Beagley's supposed vulnerability. What Taylor did was to deliberately plan his attack and manipulate the situation in order to get Beagley away from the eyes of passers-by. Taylor murdered Beagley as they sat on a park bench late one evening. Note: Taylor murdered Beagley when it was dark and his murderous attack would have been less noticeable than if it were daylight. I see no vulnerability here, but rather clever, careful planning on Taylor's part, plus his misogynistic hatred of women.

Jason King was recently convicted of raping and sexually abusing young girls, yet the prosecution council told the court King had manipulated the girls for his own sexual gratification and was a "predatory male who set out to ensnare young and vulnerable children" [my emphasis]. Jason King did not target children, because no boys were raped or sexually abused by Jason. King deliberately targeted, raped and sexually abused young girls, so these girls' gender was the primary factor not 'female vulnerability'. (Men do sexually abuse boys, but this case was in respect of King raping and abusing young girls since no boys were targetted by King. Yet the language used was deliberately gender neutral and therefore grossly misleading because, as already stated King did not sexually abuse boys. I recognise boys too are subject to sexual abuse and the abusers are overwhelmingly male in 95% of cases. Seven to 30% of girls and 3-13% of boys are abused. Boys are more likely to be sexually abused by male strangers whereas girls are predominantly sexually abused by male family members, according to Rape Crisis Scotland and the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit).

But why does the media and legal system persist in portraying women and girls as being 'vulnerable'. Could it be a deliberate tactic to deflect attention away from the actions of male abusers, rapists and murderers? Or a calculated attempt to portray systematic male violence against women as isolated incidents, which occur because the male perpetrator(s) commit such acts due to their uncontrollable emotions. King was portrayed as a "man who would stop at nothing to have his own way regardless of their feelings". Or is 'female vulnerability' partially responsible for causing men to commit violence against women? The answer is no, it is not 'vulnerability', but the gender of the victim which is the real reason for the deliberate violence perpetrated by these men and boys.

Women are taught to follow certain rules to protect against male sexual or physical violence; women, not men, are constantly exhorted not to venture out alone after dark or consume alcohol in a public space

In a recent court case, a male defendant was alleged to have raped and sexually abused a much younger man. Yet at no stage during this trial was any reference made to the 'vulnerability' of the young man who alleged he had been raped by another adult male. But this young man was considerably more inexperienced than the older alleged male defendant. I wonder why? Why does not the media refer to 'male vulnerability' when males are victims of male violence. Why only female 'vulnerability' which apparently causes some women to be the targets of men's violence. Could this be a deliberate strategy designed to invisibles male violence and focus on violence in general?

Defining women and girls who are victims of male violence as 'vulnerable' not only pathologises them, but presumes only 'vulnerable' women and girls will be subjected to male sexual and physical violence. This also feeds into the 'just world belief' which many women and men subscribe to. In essence, if a woman adheres to certain rules she is supposedly guaranteed never to be subjected to male sexual or physical violence. Women, not men, are constantly exhorted not to venture out alone after dark or consume alcohol in a public space. Women are told not to wear what men define as provocative clothing because this supposedly causes men to become uncontrollably sexually aroused and if a man subsequently rapes and/or sexually abuses a woman she is responsible for his behaviour and actions. Other rules for women are: never engage in conversation with male strangers, always believe male colleagues, male acquaintances and male family members are completely trustworthy.

But in reality there is no 'just world', since irrespective of what precautions a woman or girl takes with regard to her personal safety, this never guarantees she will escape male sexual and/or physical violence. But this is where the term 'vulnerable' plays a vital role, because it effectively states a woman's or girl's supposed vulnerability is responsible for her being subjected to male sexual and/or physical violence. The men and boys who commit violence against women and girls we are led to believe they do so because they supposedly see a 'vulnerable woman/girl'. Clever, is it not? Because then we can dismiss the fact men and boys who commit these crimes do so because they hold women and girls in contempt, believe women and girls are sub-human, or simply hate females. Because this is what our patriarchal society teaches men and boys, that females are innately inferior to males and any positive human traits are always male assigned whereas negative traits are 'naturally' female or feminine. Therefore, from the male-centered view females can never achieve full human status since they are either sub-human or dehumanised beings.

By portraying female victims of male violence as 'vulnerable', we ignore how patriarchal society teaches men as a group they are innately superior to women, and therefore it is natural for men to dominate and control women

But this perception is considered too radical, too feminist, too male-blaming, so another reason has to be found. What is that reason? Why, this vulnerability supposedly acts like a beacon to the male perpetrator so he cannot resist committing acts of violence against a woman or girl.

Very clever is it not? Once again the focus is put on the actions of the female victims, deflecting attention and accountability away from systematic male violence against women. Yes, individual men do commit violence against women, but portraying these males as individual deviants who are attracted to the 'vulnerability of women and girls' serves another purpose. By portraying female victims of male violence as 'vulnerable' we can ignore how patriarchal society teaches men as a group their biological maleness supposedly makes them innately superior to women and therefore it is natural for men to dominate and control women. We can ignore how patriarchal society routinely denigrates women, portrays them as inferior to men and claims their only reason for existence is as men's sexual commodities or to produce men's children.

No need to consider how girls and boys are socialised into narrow definitions of feminine and masculine behaviour. We need not consider how patriarchal society systematically condones, justifies and excuses male violence against women. No, no those men who are punished when they commit acts of violence against women are defined as aberrant, abnormal or mad. But these men are in fact enacting an extreme continuum of how masculinity continues to be constructed and defined.

Male violence against women occurs not because some women and girls are 'vulnerable', but because our patriarchal system has accorded men and boys more power and privilege than women and girls.

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