Contemporary Patriarchy: Male Violence Against Children

Today patriarchy persists in promoting men’s sexual and physical domination of women and children. bell hooks writes:

Women and children all over the world want men to die so that they can live. This is the most painful truth of male domination, that men wield patriarchal power in daily life in ways that are awesomely life-threatening, that women and children cower in fear and various states of powerlessness, believing that the only way out of their suffering, their only hope is for men to die, for the patriarchal father not to come home (hooks 2004: xv).

Sadly, proof of this situation is all around us.

Violence Against Children

On March 28, 2010 my wife, April, and our then one-year-old daughter, Lucy made a pit-stop just outside of Atlanta as we were driving home from the American Men’s Studies Association’s annual Men and Masculinities conference. In the restroom I witnessed a 30-something year-old white-man pound his child who was about 4 or 5-years old. The father entered the bathroom with I think three children. He placed one of his young sons before the bathroom urinal and commanded him to pee. The boy dropped to his knees throwing a temper tantrum—non-violent resistance! Perhaps embarrassed by a dozen or so onlookers the father immediately lifted the shirt from his son’s back, cocked his arm back and slammed his large spread hand down onto the boy’s skin. Stunned by the abuse I stopped and stared in disbelief. Suddenly another black man said, “Now that’s what I like to see.” “You like that,” I asked loudly in a critical, disgusted tone? “You like to watch a grown man beat a small, defenseless child?”

A few months later I encountered yet another abusive father, this time a black father. I was shopping for an air conditioner at Brandsmart inWest Palm Beach. As I was shopping I noticed a father chastising his young daughter, perhaps 3, for refusing to comply with his instructions. Like most children this age, the girl was restless and wanted to get out of her stroller and play. Now I understand the frustration of having to work with bored children. Our kids were with us and kind of driving us crazy, too! Unfortunately, this father made it clear that threats of violence are the way he communicates with his child. The man stopped the stroller, began taking his belt off, and menacingly told the girl that she had better stop whining. In fact he began to do just that. The child’s response was frightened silence, indicating, perhaps, that this was more than an idle threat. Indeed, this is how men (and sometimes women) across the world uphold order, both with women and children. They use violence.

I was so disturbed by the child’s fear that I addressed her father. I told him that it was shameful that a grown man would threaten such a small child with the vicious violence of a belt. In response the man literally asked me what I was going to do about it, further indication of the dominant model of masculinity’s understanding of conflict resolution. I responded that I didn’t handle such problems through violence, and that he should treat his child with greater love and respect. Again, he wanted to escalate the interaction to physical violence, so I had to leave well enough alone. This is unsurprising. As author and psychiatrist James Gilligan explains in his book, Preventing Violence, patriarchal culture identifies “authentic” masculinity as requiring the capacity to enact violence:

Masculinity, in the traditional, conventional stereotypical sex-role of patriarchy, is literally defined as involving the expectation, even the requirement, of violence, under many well specified conditions: in time of war; in response to personal insult; in response to extramarital sex on the part of a female in the family; while engaging in all-male combat sports; etc. (2001: 56)

This reflexive recourse to violence, of course, is precisely what we as a society and men in particular must denounce and find ways to nonviolently combat.

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