Why is it a given that men will attack women when in isolation? Why do we simply accept the terror of masculinity as a fact of life?
The New York Times recently reported that “over the past four years, at least 10 people in South Texas have been victims of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping or rape” at the hands of United States Border Patrol agents. The agents — including one man who went on a 12-day killing spree targeting sex workers — are described to have “suddenly and violently snapped.”
This stands in stark contrast to President Trump’s repeated racist attempts to paint immigrants from Mexico as “killers and rapists.” Indeed the subtext of the Times‘ writing is that it’s not those who cross the border who should be feared, but those tasked with enforcing inhumane immigration policies against them.
The Times also suggests the possibility that “the very nature of Border Patrol agents’ work—dealing with vulnerable, powerless people, often alone on the nation’s little-traveled frontiers,” contributes to their ability to get away with their crimes, as well their inclination to commit them in the first place. After all, many of these attacks occurred prior to Trump’s reign of terror — including under President Obama — which suggests that the way the United States approaches border control has long been deeply racist and dehumanizing.
We also know that law enforcement officers across the United States are trained to treat people inhumanely, especially Black and brown people, and this reality has also led to a well-documented epidemic of mass incarceration and violence, including sexual violence. In fact, the New York Times also reported this month that women working in the Federal Bureau of Prisons face a near constant threat of assault and harassment, often from their own co-workers.
This portrait of Border Agents could also be applied to the ever-expansive pool of mass shooters, who are also often described as having mysteriously “snapped,” although it’s well-documented that they are largely straight men — typically white — and almost always have a history of violence against women. Not so mysterious.
Every day, men throughout society are encouraged to dominate “vulnerable, powerless people,” including those traversing well-traveled areas, and they know that they are very likely to get away with their aggression — or even be rewarded for it. This is not coincidence. It’s due in part to patriarchy, a social system that not only values men over women, but the behaviors which we describe as “masculine” over those which we call “feminine.” It is — as race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw emphasizes — inherently linked to white supremacy, capitalism, and other social systems rooted in ideals of dominance.The very nature of Border Patrol agents’ work contributes to their ability to get away with their crimes, as well their inclination to commit them in the first place. Click To Tweet
And yet, none of the news reports above mentioned include the word patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, or any other reference to historically entrenched gendered oppression. Despite the array of blockbuster reports over the past two years unveiling sexual violence in various American institutions, we — especially men in power — still seem far more comfortable discussing how the specific “nature” of certain environments lend themselves to rape than we are acknowledging that the very structuring of our society is the reason that these types of environments exist in the first place.
In Vivek Shraya’s new memoir, I’m Afraid of Men, the writer and artist never shies away from that bigger picture, beginning with a painstaking account of a day in her life as a trans South Asian woman living in Canada. We follow her as she faces a near constant barrage of sexism, misogyny, transphobia, and literal threats of violence as she walks out of her apartment, logs onto the Internet, does her job, and simply survives the day. Shreya underlines the ways in which the fear of men has been reinforced and affirmed throughout her life, from childhood onward.
In the Times article “Hazing, Humiliation, Terror: Working While Female in Federal Prison,” a prison employee named Jessica recounts something similar in relation to her working conditions:
Every single day something happened, whether it was an inmate jerking off to you, whether it was an inmate pushing you, whether it was a staff member harassing you through email, on a phone, following you to your car.
Both of these accounts echo the report on Border Patrol as well, in which one of the survivors, M.G., describes the moment when she, her daughter, and another woman from the same town in Honduras were first detained by the agent who would go on to attack them all:
“When I saw him, I said, ‘Thank God,’” M.G. said.
But they slowly began to worry as they sat on metal benches in the back of the truck. M.G. thought there was something strange about the way the man was breathing. At first, she tried not to show her fear to the girls.
“I pretended,” she said. “I tried to be strong.”
The acceptance of hypermasculine brooding, anger, and intimidation in our society means people become accustomed to, adept at, suppressing their legitimate fears in order to appease those in power. Not just in prison or while risking their lives to cross into a new country, but as Shraya writes, the fear of men “governs” the choices she must make “from the beginning of my day to the end,” from the way an email is written to deciding what to wear out the door. (Particularly as a trans woman of color).None of the news reports mentioned include the word patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, or any other reference to historically entrenched gendered oppression. Click To Tweet
Ultimately, M.G. dragged herself out of the brush where she was left for dead and was able to alert another Border Patrol agent passing through. It seems to take such death-defying acts of heroism, or painfully-researched exposes in mainstream media, to even get us to face this violence. Yet, even then, there’s an avoidance of the deeper pattern.
The naming of patriarchy is largely discouraged by those in power because of patriarchy. As bell hooks has written:
Patriarchy is the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation. Yet most men do not use the word ‘patriarchy’ in everyday life. Most men never think about patriarchy—what it means, how it is created and sustained.
To name patriarchy is to name the existence of historic gendered oppression, which is to name the existence of systemic bias against what we call femininity. And that is, in turn, an attack on the legitimacy of masculinity, the gender and sex binary, and how we are fundamentally taught to conceptualize power. In other words, naming patriarchy risks dismantling it.
In an essay for The Atlantic last year, Vann R. Newkirk II addressed the backlash against the increased use of “white supremacy” in the Trump era, responding to critics who argue that its usage has become overly broad. Newkirk clarified that this systemic “definition of white supremacy has long animated black activism,” including the work of Martin Luther King Jr., and efforts to reduce its scope have always been directly linked to the ever-expansive project of sweeping racism under the rug:
The repackaging of Jim Crow into a “race neutral” set of policies didn’t just arise as a wink-and-a-nod deal in southern political backrooms a few years near the end of the civil-rights movement, but was a half-century-long project forged by thousands of lawyers and mainstream political leaders that costs millions of dollars, and was played out in every arena across the country from the Supreme Court to town hall meetings.
When we do tend to hear patriarchy these days it’s often in the form of the limiting phrase “the patriarchy” and it is similarly marginalized to “backrooms” where a certain group of powerful men apparently decide the fates of women. Indeed, some of the rebuttals to the existence of “the patriarchy” come down to the argument: but women are in those rooms too!
This diminishment and dismissal of the dominator culture in which we are swimming, happens in tandem with the avoidance of white supremacy and the fact that this society was in fact built upon white patriarchal violence. Despite the popularity of “intersectionality” as a buzzword—and the subsequent backlash to its use—we don’t often describe in detail the various systems of dominance, including capitalism and imperialism, which overlap to compound oppression.
Keeping these systems in obscurity serves a status quo in which indigenous women living in poverty, while carrying the generational trauma of genocide—on land targeted for environmental destruction—are still the most likely to be raped and assaulted (and usually by white men).
Extreme situations, like the dehumanization happening at our southern border or within our prison system, must be challenged, but isolating hypermasculine violence to particular conditions, independent of history, has also long been a tactic for avoiding cultural change. Or for dismissing unsavory problems as situational.
We’ve seen that in the way many have attempted to reduce Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement to a white Hollywood issue. Or in the way people like Trump blame terrorism on Muslims, or dismiss the epidemic of rape in the military by suggesting that it’s unavoidable in those conditions, asking incredulously, “What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?.”
The irony is that these attempts at narrowing the conversation always end up doing the opposite: If the situation is to blame, why are there so many different situations producing similar results? Why is it a given that men will attack women when in isolation? Why do we simply accept the terror of masculinity as a fact of life?
Connecting this all to patriarchy means a commitment to describing how aggression, violence, and dominance are normalized all around us. It requires our constant effort to link the idealization of masculinity to that of things like whiteness, thinness, ability, wealth, Christianity, cisnormativity, and the destruction of our environment. It demands a more complicated story.Despite the popularity of “intersectionality” as a buzzword, we don’t often describe the various systems of dominance, including capitalism and imperialism, which overlap to compound oppression. Click To Tweet
At the end of I’m Afraid of Men, Shraya laments that “any ambiguity or nonconformity, especially in relation to gender, conjures terror. This is precisely why men are afraid of me. Why women are afraid of me too.”
What she yearns for is a world free of gendered expectations altogether, one in which we follow trans and gender-nonconforming people of color toward our “sublime” possibilities. Words alone do not ensure that safer, physical reality — a society without borders or prisons or hierarchies — but naming systems does force certain realities into the light. And perhaps dares us to look for a path.