Why we call it "power-based violence"
Updated: Mar 18, 2019
*Content note for discussion of different forms of interpersonal violence.*
We often see the phrase "gender-based violence" used in discussions of sexual violence, harassment, and other forms of interpersonal violence. At The Greater Us, we recognize and seek to avoid excluding certain forms of violence from narrative by seeing the issues primarily through a gendered lens.
To be clear, our intent is not to muddle the issue by implying that violence is inflicted by women on men in anything close to the numbers and severity with which it is inflicted by men on women. That would be inaccurate and deeply disingenuous.
We do however believe that we do survivors--and well-intentioned bystanders-- a disservice when look at problems exclusively through the lens of gender. Not only does this leave out same-sex violence and non-binary people, it is also not always the most salient dimension in understanding what is at the root of interpersonal violence.
Whether we are talking about harassment, rape, or domestic violence, most occurrences of interpersonal violence involve a power differential. In the vast and overwhelming majority of cases, someone with more power is targeting someone with less power. There are many reasons for this, among which are the vulnerability of the target and the knowledge that certain people will likely be taken with more skepticism-- both things which mean that a perpetrator will be less likely to be held accountable for their actions. Some of the power-vulnerability axes that we consider as we do this work include gender, age, ability, socioeconomic status, sexuality, social capital in an organization or community, and status depending on race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.
The high-profile revelations that have come in the wake of #metoo are a powerful testament to this. Many, but not all, of the stories involved harassment and assault inflicted by men on women. Nearly all of the stories have however involved people being targeted by someone who was more powerful than them. The Harvey Weinstein case was particularly outrageous, involving a complex machinery of lawyers, corporate fixers, and PR firms used to stalk, harass, and repress accounts from victims and journalists, in addition to the abuse of power involved. In the Avital Ronell case at New York University, where a female professor was found responsible for Title IX violations against a male graduate student accuser, the university community, including deans and other professors, tolerated eccentric behavior that frequently veered into the egregious and inappropriate.
It does survivors and well-intentioned bystanders a deep disservice to think about these issues in a one-dimensional way. The way that power and vulnerability operate can vary a great deal depending on the situation, complicated by factors like race, as in the case of Lena Dunham trying to discredit the account of a black woman who accused a writer for her show Girls of rape (which Dunham later apologized for).
In our approach, we understand gender to be one (albeit a very important) dimension of the power disparities that make violence and harassment more likely to occur. By opening our eyes to how power and vulnerability operate within an organization, group, or other setting, we are able to create comprehensive solutions to address the conditions that make violence more likely to occur.