Thursday, July 15, 2010

*Aggression, gender and the negation of the other*

Domestic violence is an overt (i.e. physical) or subtle (psychological,
economic, or any form of threatening) means of controlling the other.
Certain cultures condone the patriarchal order, and the one in power sets
the rules. Under these conditions the letter of the law and the system of
punishment grant green light to domestic violence.

Multiple factors are involved in the developing of domestic violence.
Psychosocial, cultural, and sociological considerations are among the most
significant ones. Gender roles and expectations also contribute greatly to
patterns of violence in the home. From a psychosocial perspective, domestic
violence ?like sexual abuse? may be transmitted from generation to
generation. Children who witness violence while growing up may become
desensitized to it and accept that mode of relating as normal. In other
terms, violence gets normalized.

Emigrating from one country to another creates dissonance.
Acculturalization to a society that aims to protect women and children in a
big-brother manner, may not be an easy process for individuals who come from
countries where those protective laws do not exist or are not enforced.

Violence against women and children is related to failures of mentalization
(Fonagy), that is to say, a difficulty in thinking about mental states of
self or others. Not being able to think, the enraged male may be prone to
identify self-expression with aggression. This type of aggression, or ?pure
aggression,? is not to be identified with sadism. What predominates in
sadism is a wish to inflict pain on others for the purpose of obtaining
instinctual gratification or erotic thrills. The other is recognized in the
act of making him or her suffer. On the contrary, ?pure aggression? or
aggression without sadistic aim implies the lack of recognition of other as
a subject that thinks or feels. The sadist imagines the other?s mental state
and enjoys the idea of the other suffering. The ?pure aggressor? is getting
rid of something he can?t tolerate within himself. The one that suffers may
or may not go along with the sadistic acts by submitting to the will of the
other or refusing to engage; the target or victim of the ?pure aggressor?
has no escape.

Men?s ?pure aggression? against women is an attempt to defend a threatened
self. By attacking the body of the woman, intolerable envy, resentment,
feeling of humiliation and emasculation are being warded off.

The woman is the toilet where the disruptive affects are evacuated. The
wifebeater tends to experience those mental states as concrete, physical
experiences. By abusing the woman or child, the man is internally cleansing

Some believe that violence against women is evidence to the fact that men
are more aggressive that women. Others may argue that socio-cultural
stereotypes of masculinity and femininity such as active-passive oppositions
are more ideological or political creations than by-products of biological
The most striking of these stereotypes are the ones that dichotomize
masculinity and femininity in terms of activity vs. passivity.
Well-established institutions and modes of relating between the sexes resist
change despite recognized advances promoted by feminism and the higher
visibility of women in the work force.

The tension between the sexes seems to find a temporary solution, or gets
broken down by the crystallization of a pattern of domination and
submission. The end product of dominating the other i.e. a man attempting
to control a woman, or a child so that the other (person) does not recognize
as the other, as one with rights, subjectivity, voice, and so on.

Males try to hold on to the illusion that they are strong and
self-sufficient, perhaps resenting the old dependence on their mothers.
Passivity is then projected onto the female.

Jessica Benjamin believes that passivity is a male?s creation to escape from
his own fears, related to an early over-stimulation by the parental object.
The male must contain his passivity by finding a container for it: the
female becomes that container through projection. Thus an attack on the
woman by a man may be driven by an impulse to destroy something the man
cannot tolerate inside himself.

Violence against women is thus excess derived from over-stimulation. It is
an act of dumping anxiety. To contain violence, for many men, is like
becoming a woman since men tend to regard women as containing something they
can?t see (i.e. genitalia, female orgasm, mystery of femininity).

Men need to get to a point where they can enjoy passivity without the threat
of losing their sense of masculine self. According to Young-Bhrul, the
former implies a work of mourning, with the acceptance of the breakdown of
the illusion of masculinity defined as phallic power.

A typical Scenario

A male is feeling threatened by his wife?s advances in her professional
career. She begins to make more money than him, at times socializing with
co-workers. He wants her home with the kids and insists on being the sole

This situation gets aggravated when one or both members of the couple is or
are new immigrants. They may come from a culture where the woman moves from
her paternal household to her husband?s. She has left her family in order
to join her husband in the new country. She may be homesick for the support
she lost, while he wants her to remain connected to the old traditions that
may discourage work outside of the home. But she happens to be intelligent
and ambitious, seizing the opportunity of the new land for her to join the
work force.

The couple begins to suffer from maladjustments. Roles are challenged by the
new order, and the woman may be the main breadwinner. The male loses status
and begins to drink or act out his resentment by beating his wife or abusing
the children. The tension increases and she is forced to flee the house with
the children. But where does she go for help and support when her family of
origin has remained in the old country?

Under the best circumstances she is able to separate, live temporarily in a
women?s shelter until she gets her own place. Often women may have no other
recourse than to suffer a mental breakdown and get hospitalized. There she
is prone to obtain advice about how to deal with abuse. An order of
protection may be suggested, or if she wants to save the marriage, marital
counseling may be arranged. A trained clinician acts as mediator with a
psycho- educational approach related to the difficulties encountered by
couple in the process of acculturation.

A more severe scenario involves a third person, a caring and protective male
who begins to date a woman who is trying to separate from her abusive
husband. The husband is unable to tolerate a third person becoming
significant to his wife and children. He may begin to stalk his wife, or
take the children for long rides and not returning them on time. Anxiety
mounts, and an encounter is sooner or later the cause of a major argument
with physical tones. The two men are at each other, the woman feels
threatened and fears for her children. Orders of protection ? as you may
know from so many cases reported in the news- often fail to protect the
female. Women are killed at work, in their homes, or at the beauty parlor.
Some women know that the only way out is to move away and start all over.
Packing a few belongings, taking the children, and moving overnight to an
undisclosed location are more common than one tends to think.

*Clinical Associate Professor New York University, Post-doctoral Programme
in Psychotherapy.

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Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.