Sex and Violence: the Depth of Patriarchy

If my last two posts were substantially correct, then physical violence is, firstly, something that society by its nature has to control, and in controlling to exclude from substantial areas of life. Secondly, violence is not only disruptive in practice, but also latently objectifying in concept.

Now observe that both of these things also apply to sex. Sex is, in at least the great majority of known societies, excluded from public life to a greater or lesser degree. You don’t do it in public, and you don’t even talk about it too much in many parts of public space. And, fairly obvious, sex is latently (i.e. not automatically but potentially) objectifying, in that it focuses attention on the details of a person’s body in a particular way.

This presumably is why we have the phrase “sex and violence”, despite the considerable differences between the two. And in both cases there’s the same contradiction: society needs it to happen (whether to suppress rival violence, to make babies, or because enough people want it to) but still has to keep it to some extent ‘outside’ normal society. The result is that the conditions under which you can ‘go outside the social realm’ are themselves a central issue of dispute within the social realm. They are society’s way of saying who owns the social realm, who is able to both move within it and step outside it, and who is instead, like a child, who we seek to ‘protect’ from even knowing about sex and violence, entirely contained within it.


Since there are so many parallels, maybe it will be useful to compare the ways that society excludes-while-permitting each of the two. The first thing to notice is of course that often the exact same institutions and roles give both kinds of rights: for instance, historically marriage and slavery gave some participants rights to use force as well as rights to compel sex. Nowadays this is less true: the social regulation of sex and the social regulation of force operate largely separately.


Or at least, the overt regulations do. Because the second thing to note is that in the social regulation of sexuality, there is a major distinction to be drawn between what we might call ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ regulations, or ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ roles. A ‘shallow’ role might be, for instance, ‘wife of X’ – it defines the conditions under which you can have ‘normal, legitimate’ sex, but nevertheless the individual can see themselves as distinct from the role, can change whether they occupy it over time, can recognise it as in some sense a role, a position one does or does not occupy.

But sexuality is more profoundly regulated by ‘deep’ roles, in the sense of roles that are not recognised as such – roles that individuals are so identified with that they cannot separate the role from themselves, or imagine changing it. The chief examples of course are ‘man’ and ‘woman’, roles so deep that they usually appear as natural, biological conditions. And perhaps they are biological conditions, though for reasons outlined here I think they are not, though their application tends to correlate with a large set of biological factors.


Deep roles determine (with greater or lesser strictness) the shallow roles one has access to. Sometimes this works in a symmetrical way: e.g. in many societies being a man is a barrier to being a man’s boyfriend, and being a woman is a barrier to being a woman’s girlfriend. In other cases the roles are not symmetrical: to a great extent, a woman can be a slut but can’t be a rapist, while a man can be a rapist but not a slut.

As the last two examples show, deep roles do not only determine the ‘approved’ roles one can take, but even exert an influence over the way in which one can be ‘normal deviant’, someone who breaks the rules but in an expected, normal way.

It seems we can say that the function of shallow roles is to ensure flexibility, while the deep roles serve as a more robust, long-lasting guarantee of control and stability. It would make sense to think that for regulating something which is constitutively ‘outside of society’, intimate and raw and physical, control can be secured only by social roles that are in this way ‘deep’, perceived by the individual as a natural, intrinsic feature of themselves, and not as social roles.


So with sexuality we can see both shallow roles and deep roles. With violence, though, there appear to be only shallow roles: judge, police officer, soldier, legislator, prison guard, etc. Are there no deep roles here?

But consider those shallow roles: each one is dominated by men, and has been throughout known history, more or less fully. And if we look at the ‘normal deviant’ counterpart to legal violence, i.e. illegal violence, we find that reliably, men commit 85%, 90%, and up of violent crimes. In short, violence is overwhelmingly masculine. And recall the point made earlier, that for most of history, the very same roles have often conveyed both the right to use force and the right to have sex.

This suggests the following hypothesis: that all the ‘shallow roles’ associated with violence are tied to the ‘deep role’ of manhood. Insofar as violence is of foundational significance for political power, this suggests that politics as we know it is ‘a man’s game’ in a deeper sense than simply that most people in it happen to be men: that is, the whole psychological and institutional structure of society may be skewed by a fundamental gender bias, even when gender is not overtly visible.

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