All violence, sexual and otherwise, is motivated by power

Assertion of power is often the driving force in abusive behaviors and the primary motivator for violence or harassment

Divya Kannan

The academic community across the world was taken by storm by the anonymous calling out of names of sexual harassers (in academia), in a crowdsourced list anchored by a US-based Indian student. Several men in my social circle - professors, lawyers, working professionals and fathers - began asking if their repuations would remain intact and if they would now have to be more cautious while interacting with female students or employees.

This consideration of cautiousness, new to the men I spoke with, alerted me to one basic difference in privilege and power that I frequently encounter. Women have had to be careful and cautious nearly every day from a young age, be it walking home from school, how they dress, or how they interact with the opposite sex. This caution, or the very idea of it, was a new experience  for my male friends and colleagues, especially when it came to their interactions with women. They did not feel the need to be as deliberate or careful in their interactions with the opposite sex, as women traditionally have had to be. Growing up, they had never been told by parents, teachers, or elders to be more cautious, particularly when they shouldered the responsibility of powerful leadership positions or positions that could impact those who were more vulnerable or disadvantaged in society. This is consistent with the concepts of privilege and power, in which privilege can be characteristically invisible or unidentifiable to those who carry it. In fact, privilege may be granted to people simply because they are a member of a dominant group, whether they want those privileges or not.

It takes willing and non-defensive self-reflection, intentional awareness, and an engagement in dialogue to begin to understand the extent of one’s own privilege and power and how that can impact those with less power and privilege. The recent social media focus on the issue of sexual violence and harassment, has certainly created a space for this thought and conversation to develop. It also nudges psychologists, mental health professionals, victim advocates and education professionals to revisit their understanding of the factors that promote violence. Research on the circumstances under which violence occurs has expanded within the field of mental health, and there has been a concerted effort to move towards descriptions of abuse and violence that more fully convey the power-based dynamics when violence or the threat of violence is present within any given relationship (husband-wife, boss-employee, professor-student, adult- child).

Assertion of power is often the driving force in abusive behaviors and the primary motivator for violence or harassment to occur repeatedly and to be maintained. It is with this lens, that the term power-based personal violence has started to gain momentum for its recognition of power and control as key factors in the implementation of abuse. Power-based personal violence is an all-encompassing term, which includes domestic and intimate partner violence, stalking, emotional abuse, sexual harassment, elder abuse, sexual trafficking, isolating the victim from family and friends and grooming behaviors that intend to intimidate and control. Drugs and alcohol may often be used as facilitative agents to commit these acts of violence. Studies show that the primary motivation for rape is not sex, but rather sex is used as the means to inflict humiliation or pain, to dominate, or control and intimidate the victim.

Risk factors

There are some identified risk factors that point to the higher likelihood of the perpetration of violence within communities. These factors include vast gender inequality at an individual and societal level, unequal gender socialization and differing social norms for men and women/boys and girls, exposure to violence as a child and its subsequent impact on development, high levels of family conflict, lack of skills to cope with stress non-violently, and socioeconomic stressors. Most these issues can be identified early with a goal of preventing further violence.

The term power-based personal violence can also remind us to move beyond an assumption that violence only occurs against women and girls. We need to be more inclusive about our understanding of the reach of abuse, which occurs within non-traditional and non-heterosexual relationships as well as to young boys, males, transgender, and non-binary identified individuals. Power-based personal violence also extends to violence that can occur outside of a relationship, by a stranger or acquaintance, yet still is carried out through an assertion of power over another individual.

The impact of abuse breaks down an individual’s coping systems, complicates their responses to stress, and has far-reaching emotional, psychological, and physical health implications (International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, ISTSS). The psychological impact of victimization can lead an individual to lose their sense of safety and trust in others, their sense of efficacy, self-worth, and productivity. Often they  find it difficult to form and maintain fulfilling relationships, and can develop clinical levels of depression, anxiety, and PTSD ( Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), sexually transmitted infections,  all of which have associated emotional, health-related, and financial costs. Additionally, the effects of power-based personal violence also impacts the family structure and systems and communities that the individual is a part of.  

Daily occurences of power-based violence are at levels unacceptable to all of us, and we are constantly faced with the overwhelming challenge of effectively intervening and reducing violence – all members of our community need to work to bring more attention to this issue, develop more empathy for those who have suffered violence, and educate ourselves and others on the epidemic of power-based violence and ways to prevent it.

Divya Kannan, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist recently relocated to Bangalore from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA, where she has spent the last several years working with adult survivors of violence. She is currently a practicing clinician in Bangalore.