MEDIA WATCH

An orgy over whether all men are vile

The question is whether all the emotion about violence against women may not already have begun to spill over into excess

GEORGE BAIN December 23 1991
MEDIA WATCH

An orgy over whether all men are vile

The question is whether all the emotion about violence against women may not already have begun to spill over into excess

GEORGE BAIN December 23 1991

An orgy over whether all men are vile

MEDIA WATCH

The question is whether all the emotion about violence against women may not already have begun to spill over into excess

GEORGE BAIN

Men have been having a hard time of it lately. First, there was the great sexual-harassment boom that developed around the confirmation of Clarence Thomas as a justice of the United States Supreme Court. Whether or not Thomas would make a suitable appointee to the highest court in the land scarcely could have mattered less to most Canadians, the land in question being somebody else's. But suddenly, no topic of conversation existed except whether the judge had or hadn’t, and if he had, why had she taken so long to complain. Additionally, yards of print and hours of airtime were devoted to the subject—what harassment is, what it isn’t, what should be done about it—much of it to no point except that they should give it up. There is no need here, I take it, to spell out who are the perpetrators of sexual harassment.

That story (“Tainted victory,” Maclean’s, Oct. 28) had no more than been momentarily played out than the bigger violence-againstwomen story (“Women in fear,” Maclean’s, Nov. 11) replaced it. The week of the second anniversary of the massacre at the Ecole polytechnique in Montreal produced a full-blown media orgy on the theme. Dec. 6, the actual date of that occurrence, is now an official day of remembrance declared by Parliament. Some municipalities even—redundantly, it would seem, given that Parliament speaks for all Canadians—have chosen to enshrine days of remembrance of their own. The question is whether all this emotion has not already gone to excess. Even now, a madman’s killing of 14 young women has been translated into a symbol of something much larger. It would not take a long step more to turn mourning into a macabre sort of annual all-men-are-vile festival.

That is not to make light of violence against women, or the sexual abuse of children, or of sexual harassment, for that matter, although the latter clearly is a less well-defined form of assault, rarely physical. But a lot of what has been printed and broadcast has been questionable, and some could induce paranoia in a

granite statue. Here are just a few statements containing statistics, all of them clipped from newspapers and magazines or taken as notes from television and radio in the past couple of years, the largest number of recent date: “Sexual assault, statistics indicate, will happen to one woman in four during her lifetime. It can be murder.” “One in eight women reported that they had been sexually harassed at work.” “A consistent rate of about 12 per cent of females were victims of childhood sexual abuse.” “Recent surveys indicate between 80 and 90 per cent of working women have experienced sexual harassment at some time in their working lives.” “Between 80 per cent and 95 per cent of women in the federal prison at Kingston were abused as children.” “At least one woman in 10 is attacked by her partner.” (This last, taken from a TV news program, may have been intended to say that one in 10 women who are attacked will be attacked by her partner. On the other hand, it may not.) “In Canada, an act of male violence against women occurs every six minutes.” “On average, three sexual assaults are reported every hour in Canada.” “One woman in four is abused physically or sexually before age 16.” “One in 10 women have a relationship with their therapist;

there are no figures for medical doctors.” “One in six female graduate students at [a university] say they have altered their study plans to avoid sexual harassment.”

Together, are all those statistics believable? It would need a better statistician than is available here to say whether, without an improbable overlap, all these figures may be fitted into an inflexible 100 per cent of Canadian women. But where do such figures come from? In only one of the instances cited is there a firm prime source—the Elizabeth Fry Society, an organization that assists women in conflict with the law, in the statistic on childhood sex abuse in the background of women in the Kingston penitentiary. All of them, that one included, are taken here from news stories that start from a premise and use material gleaned from reports, studies, analyses, consensuses, vaguely identified, if at all, that support the premise. The Maclean’s story “Women in fear” was franker than most in referring to “the handful of official records and credible estimates that are available,” before going on to say that they “offer a sobering glimpse of the extent of the fear—and the savagery.”

That same cover story, subtitled “Experts are searching for the key to men’s reign of terror against women,” also said that “the number of women being killed—234 in Canada in 1990—has grown in recent decades roughly

in line with the population increase____What is

different is that women are vocally insisting, with great determination and growing political force, that the carnage end.” At the risk of appearing unfeeling, it is necessary to ask on a relative basis, apropos the magazine’s only actual-numbers chart of murders, “What ‘men’s reign of terror?’ ” and “What ‘carnage?’ ”

According to those figures, female homicide victims in Canada went from 208 in 1980 to 253 in 1985, and down to 234 in 1990, precisely in lockstep with the number of male homicides, for which the comparable figures were 385, 451 and 422. Those figures say two things: first, that the course of homicides in the one decade documented, not “recent decades,” has been up and then down; and second, that while we have more homicides than we can be comfortable with, the figures do not reflect a “men’s reign of terror against women” and that it is not “carnage” related to gender. What we have is a problem of violence in society as a whole.

Having said that none of this is to make light of violence against women, it is necessary to say what it is to do. It is to say three things. One, that dealing with serious problems is likely to be done better by starting from a base firmly rooted in reality. Two, that to assist in bringing that about, the media—of which this magazine has been used here as the handy example of a general failing—ought to resist playing to the most responsive element in the gallery in analysing serious problems. And three, that such headlines as “Truce more elusive than ever in war against women” and “Fear of the night,” to borrow a pair from the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, do precisely what they purport not to do—substantiate a gender war and feed fear.