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Book Forum: Gender Issues   |    
Violence and Gender Reexamined
GAIL ERLICK ROBINSON, M.D., F.R.C.P.C.
Am J Psychiatry 2003;160:1711-1712. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.160.9.1711
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By Richard B. Felson, Ph.D. Washington, D.C., American Psychological Association, 2002, 274 pp., $39.95.

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Richard Felson does not like feminists. This professor of crime, law, justice, and sociology lumps all feminists into one extreme group who believe that all violence against women is attributable to sexism and misogyny and all men are potential rapists. Felson is an extremist in the opposite direction. He argues that sexism plays no role in male violence against women; there is no epidemic of male violence against women; violence is not used by men to control women or demonstrate their power; and patriarchal societies do not blame the victims.

Even though Felson admits that men are dominant and have higher status in the public sphere and that control is a major motivation for aggression in general, he denies that this plays any role in men’s violence toward women. He sees relationships between couples as being equal because, even though men may have more financial power, women can control men by such means as refusing to have sex. It would seem that he has never heard of the concept of marital rape. According to Felson, conflict occurs naturally in close relationships. Women in couple relationships experience more violence only because men are biologically programmed to be more physically aggressive in response to conflict. He accuses feminists of refusing to acknowledge the role of women in provoking and precipitating violence from men. He does admit that the woman’s "offensive behavior may not seem offensive to the observer and it may be trivial by any objective standard but it is the offender’s perspective that counts." Therefore, if the male feels that somehow he has been offended by the victim’s behavior, it does not matter how innocent her actions were; any ensuing violence is her fault for provoking him.

His chapter on coercive sexual behavior is particularly alarming. He states that sexual coercion is based mainly on differences in sexuality between women and men. Since men are biologically more sexually driven than women, they sometimes have to use coercion in order to satisfy their natural urges. Again, he blames the victim, asking how a man is to know that he is being coercive when "sometimes women resist when they are actually interested in sexual activity" and "victims may change their minds during the incident and participate fully once resistance becomes futile." This brings to mind the question, "What part of NO do you not understand?" Felson even asserts that systematic rape during wartime represents isolated actions of a large group of sexually deprived men encountering women from a hated group rather than part of a design to humiliate and subjugate women and demean their partners. He claims that occupied countries emphasize the victimization of females in their "propaganda" only to encourage resistance or persuade sympathetic third parties to intervene.

Lest my judgment of Felson’s book be dismissed as the result of my feminism preventing me from seeing truth in his proclamations, let me comment not just on his conclusions but on his methodology. He uses many of his own studies as a basis for his theories but does not give detailed methodology, so it is impossible to critically assess their value. He quotes many contradictory studies but tends to dismiss those which disagree with his theories. His desire to prove a point leads him to contradict himself at times in this book. For example, he says that women often phone the police and, therefore, there is no underreporting of violence; later, however, he states that sexual violence is very underreported. He disagrees with the theory that women avoid making a rape charge because of the stigma attached to having been raped. He feels that making a such a charge provides an excuse for poor performance, increases the level of credit for achievements, elicits sympathy and respect, and allows a woman to attain a "heroine’s status." Perhaps he has never spoken to a victim of rape. He quotes figures from the National Crime Victims Survey that one out of every 270 women in the United States experiences an incident of attempted or completed rape and yet concludes that there is no epidemic of rape in the United States. He claims that feminist researchers have grossly exaggerated these figures for political reasons and to promote their careers.

Felson would have us believe that he is writing an objective overview about violence to provide a broader context in the light of the real facts in an effort to move away from politically motivated theories. In fact, however, his frightening message seems to be that men are not overly violent toward women and that men never use violence to control or dominate women. Rather, nagging wives or ambivalent women who feel they have to put up token resistance to sexual advances provoke men into displaying their natural aggressiveness or sexual urges.

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