Gender Norms & Violence: A Breakthrough Perspective

Gender – based discrimination and violence affects millions around the world every day, and prevents them from living with dignity, equality, and respect. While women, girls, and other minorities are disproportionately affected by this discrimination and violence, the truth is that it affects everyone, including those with gender privilege.

Gender-based discrimination and violence are the result of a patriarchal social order and a global power paradigm that emphasizes vertical power structures that reinforce inequality. Moreover, this paradigm and the resulting forms of violence and discrimination are perpetuated by and expressed through social and cultural norms and practices around gender and sexuality.

In the current global political climate, we see deep polarization, harmful legislation, acts of hate, and violence targeting traditionally marginalized groups on the grounds of gender, race, religion, ability, ethnicity, sexuality, immigration status and other identities. At the same time, there is little attention to gender among resistance movements, with the exception of reproductive justice – specifically abortion access – and the wage gap. Meanwhile, gender-based violence such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, digital abuse, and LGBTQ discrimination and violence are occurring with increased impunity and cultural acceptability. In the U.S., political leaders have openly supported or called for gender-based discrimination and violence. Yet gendered acts of violence often take place in the private sphere, and are therefore not taken as seriously as other acts of violence that are more public.

Both before and after this political moment in our global history, gender-based discrimination and violence were common. Yet now, there is increased social acceptability and less accountability – creating conditions for levels of violence to spike.

All forms of violence and discrimination are interconnected. We cannot call for gender equality without also calling for racial and economic justice, immigrant and LGBTQI rights, and so on. Similarly, we cannot adequately address racial justice, immigrant rights issues, mental health, economic justice, etc., without acknowledging and addressing gender inequality.

Only with the frame of a deeply intersectional approach can we transform the culture of violence. Examples of gender-based violence include dating violence, intimate partner violence, sexual assault and rape, stalking, sexual harassment, street harassment, digital and image-based abuse, hate-motivated assault, and humiliation, exploitation, and retaliation. When we take a closer look at these practices, it is clear that they are violent expressions of widely held gender norms.

What are gender norms?

Gender norms refer to social attitudes about what behaviors, preferences, products, professions, or knowledge are appropriate for women and men. Gender norms draw upon and reinforce gender stereotypes, which are widely held, idealized beliefs about women and men, femininities and masculinities.

Gender norms are the cultural messages we all get about the way men and women are “supposed” to be. Tropes like boys will be boys. Take it like a man. A woman’s place. Act like a lady. Sometimes these messages are indirect, implied, or invisible; others, direct, specific, and overt. These norms affect us all – consciously or otherwise.

Gender norms and behaviors are produced through social institutions (such as families, schools, workplaces, laboratories, universities, or boardrooms) and wider cultural products (such as textbooks, literature, film, memes, music, and video games).

Gender norms often constrain us, and allow us to be only some parts of our best selves. They can keep people from exploring a full range of traits, identities, and expressions – of power, sexuality, emotion, and more – along a whole gender spectrum. These norms embody and perpetuate larger systems of power, inequality, and harm. They replicate the valuing of men and the masculine, while devaluing other genders, especially those which are seen as feminine. Many harmful norms reinforce the acceptability of dominance and violence by some, and the subordination of others. This also results in a failure to produce empathy, which makes it near impossible to value and relate to one another as fully human, perpetuating inequality and enabling discrimination. It is also how they can lead to violence.

Through recognizing, disrupting, and replacing harmful norms with healthier and more inclusive norms, we can create true culture change, and prevent gender-based violence from happening. We can also ensure that when it does occur, it is treated with the urgency, gravity, and compassion that it merits.

Case Study

Let us look at common norms in the U.S. which underpin most forms of gender-based violence among youth:

  1. Gender policing

Gender policing, including proving and regulating masculinity through sex and violence, is a gender norm that perpetuates harm. This norm is antithetical to a world in which all genders are valued equally, and values such as consent, respect toward others, and empathy are celebrated, including amongst men. For this to be the case, masculinity can no longer be equated with sex and violence.

  1. Minimizing violence

This cultural norm stems from the historical denial and distrust of women’s experiences that is rooted in the dehumanization of women, or the view that they are less important than men. Delegitimizing the prevalence and effects of gender-based violence leads to a lack of accountability, less funding to address the issue, and a misunderstanding of the very real consequences of violence. New, healthier norms could instead mean that violence is taken seriously; all survivors are believed, supported, and treated with compassion; and perpetrators are held accountable.

  1. Objectification

Treating women as objects – and not people – is a cultural norm that is prevalent at all levels of society. This leads to violence as women are seen as a means to an end – be it power, sex, or violence – and not recognized for their full humanity. Instead, people of all genders ought to be valued equally, treated respectfully, have full agency and bodily autonomy, and be recognized for their full humanity.

  1. Shaming sexuality

Through shaming women’s sexuality and participation in sex culture – as well as other non-normative sexuality – we encourage behavior such as victim-blaming, and prevent survivors of violence from seeking help or justice due to shame and a justified fear of being stigmatized. We seek to replace this belief with a new norm by which consensual sexual expression is considered acceptable, healthy, and positive; sexual health and rights are respected; and individuals are treated with dignity regardless of their sexual history.

The solution? Culture change

Given that most forms of gender-based violence are enabled through social norms, it is critical that we employ tactics that allow us to dismantle the power structures that sustain these cultural attitudes. Breakthrough’s work relies on a culture change approach, and the belief that all people have the power to enact change in their communities.

Much of the work around gender-based violence focuses on responses to violence and risk reduction, as opposed to primary prevention and culture change. Breakthrough seeks to transform the cultural conditions that makes gender-based violence an inevitable part of life for people today.

We believe that in order to make gender based violence unacceptable, we need everyone to understand their personal stake in ending it. Simultaneously, we need a critical mass of people to challenge and transform the cultural norms that enable this violence.

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