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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

In 2017, the academic community all over the world was taken by storm upon the publishing of List of sexual harassers in academia (LoSHA). This list involved an anonymous naming of sexual harassers (in academia) by way of 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 reputations would remain intact, and would they now have to be more cautious while interacting with female students or employees?

This consideration of cautiousness was new to the men I spoke with. It alerted me to one basic difference in privilege and power that I often encounter — women have had to exercise caution 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. 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. The absence of caution in such contexts is consistent with the concepts of privilege and power — privilege can, by its nature, be invisible or unidentifiable to those who carry it. It may be granted to people simply because they are a member of a dominant group, irrespective of whether they want this benefit. It takes willingness; self-reflection without getting defensive; intentional awareness; and engagement in dialogue to begin to understand the extent of your privilege and power — as well as its impact on those at a disadvantage. The recent social media focus on the issue of sexual violence and harassment has created a space for this to be understood and talked about. This also nudges psychologists, mental health professionals, victim advocates and education professionals to revisit their understanding of what factors contribute to violence.  

Research on the circumstances within which violence occurs has expanded within the field of mental health. There has been a conscious shift to descriptions of  abuse and violence that emphasize the power-based dynamics in case of a violent act in any given relationship (such as that of husband-wife, boss-employee, professor-student or adult- child.) 

Assertion of power is often the driving force in abusive behaviors. It functions as the main motivator for repetitive acts of violence or harassment, and aids in the maintenance of such a scenario. Keeping this in mind, the term power-based personal violence has started to gain momentum. This definition recognizes power and control as key factors that lead to abusive behavior. Violence of this type 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 to facilitate these acts. Studies show that the primary motivation for rape is not sex; sex is used as the means by which to humiliate, cause pain, dominate, control and intimidate the victim.  

Risk factors

Some identified risk factors point to the higher likelihood of violence perpetration within communities. These include vast gender inequality at an individual and societal level; unequal gender socialization — 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 of these issues can be identified early to prevent further violence.

Recognizing power-based personal violence can also remind us to move beyond the assumption that violence only occurs against women and girls. We need to be more inclusive about our understanding of the reach of abuse. Abuse occurs within non-traditional and non-heterosexual relationships; as well as to young boys; males; transpersons; and non-binary persons. Violence of this nature can also happen outside of a relationship, by a stranger or acquaintance. Although even in such an instance the focus is on the assertion of power over the victim. The impact of abuse breaks down an individual’s coping systems and complicates their responses to stress. It has far-reaching emotional, psychological, and physical health implications (International Society for Traumatic Studies, ISTSS).

The harm caused to the affected person can manifest in the form of losing their sense of safety and trust; their sense of efficacy; self-worth and productivity; and they may find it difficult to form and maintain fulfilling relationships. Having experienced the abuse also makes them susceptible to developing clinical depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and/or sexually transmitted infections. In turn, these result in emotional, health-related, and financial costs, aside from the impact of the violence on the family structure and communities the individual is a part of. A pattern of daily occurrences of power-based violence is currently at a level that is unacceptable to all of us. We are constantly faced with the uphill task of making an effective intervention and reducing violence. To this end,  all members of our community need to work to bring more attention to this issue, develop more empathy for those who have suffered violence, create awareness about the scale of power-based violence and how to prevent it. 

Divya Kannan, PhD, 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.