When men kill women we need to look at the cultural context as well as the individual
Details are emerging of the killings of eight people at three separate ‘massage parlours’ in Atlanta, Georgia. Seven of the dead are women*, 6 of them Asian (four Korean) and one of them white and also one white man was shot dead. At least one other person was injured. A 21-year-old white man, Robert Aaron Long, has been taken into police custody.
Eight people have been killed and there will be eight sets of grieving families and friends, we must never lose sight of this.
Questions are already being asked about Robert Long’s motivations. He is said to have described himself as a lover of guns and ‘God’. It is too early to know whether the criminal justice system will deliver the best possible justice in the name of his victims. Though it is not too early to notice that this man who is suspected of shooting dead eight people and has been apprehended alive is white, in a country where black women and men and indigenous men are significantly more likely to be killed by the police than white women or men.
Of course, it is important to ensure that law enforcement agencies and the Criminal Justice System respond properly to men’s violence against women. However, if we want to properly tackle men’s violence against women it is crucial that we move the narrative around killing beyond the motivations and pathology of the individual responsible and look at the context.
Motives and pathology encourage an individualist analysis, looking at context makes us look wider, at social and cultural contributors. Even at this very early stage, as the horrific story emerges, we can say that sex inequality, racism, male sexual entitlement, the objectification of women and gun control are critical to the context. Misogyny is important, but if we look at misogyny at the level of the individual, rather than cultural, we do not tackle the causes of and contributors to societal misogyny and we obscure the role of power imbalances.
Although details are scant, the photos from the scenes suggest that the sex industry has played a role in this case specifically. Though the sex industry and the sexual objectification of women, with its inherent dehumanisation of women and endemic racism plays a wider role in wider sex inequality too, outside this case as well as within it. It also brings poverty into the relevant contexts, prostitution depends upon women’s poverty, and minoritised women are often those with fewest alternatives. Women and men will never be equal if one sex, or sexual access to that sex, is overwhelmingly that which is sold as a commodity and the other is the consumer with the concomitant rights and status.
If we are serious about tackling men’s violence against women our actions must tackle not only the individual, expectations and norms about relationships and institutions like the police, the courts, health, education and social services, we must also look at the structural inequalities and our cultural norms, particularly those around masculinity and male entitlement to women and our bodies and their elevated status.
Femicide though, is a global issue. About 66,000 women and girls are estimated to be violently killed every year. Across the world women are at greater risk than men of intimate-partner homicides and overwhelmingly killed by males, with countries recording that between 40 and 70 % of women homicide victims are killed by male partners or ex-partners. Across everything that divides societies globally, they share in common that men’s violence against women is normalised, tolerated and justified, that sex inequality is structural and intersects with other structural inequalities, and that there is a lack of truly proactive and deeply rooted state initiatives to protect women’s right to life. The data that is available suggests that countries with the highest femicide levels perhaps unsurprisingly correspond to those with the highest rates of fatal violence. El Salvador has the highest femicide rate, followed by Jamaica, Guatemala and South Africa. Half of the countries with the top highest estimated femicide rates are in Latin America, with South Africa and Russian and Eastern European countries having disproportionately high rates. If we had data for female infanticide, sex-selective and forced abortion, countries including India and China would be contenders for inclusion in those countries with high rates.
When we look at men’s violence against women and girls, we cannot lose sight of the connections and similarities across culturally and geographically disparate countries, as well as the differences. If we want to end men’s violence against women, the scale of the problem is huge, but we must not let that petrify us into inaction.
*We do not know their names yet. As soon as we do, we will name them.