The Pandora’s box
that hardly anyone
wants to open

Marta Bernardi
Current events

The expression “gender-based violence” is a victim of confusion too, as it is often used to discuss topics like sexual violence and violence against women, even though these phrases are not synonyms.


Tackling themes like gender, identity, and sexual orientation is becoming harder day by day. Those who decide to undertake these issues find themselves walking on eggshells, trying to advance as fast as they can, while always maintaining extreme caution. The speed in the advancement is sorely needed, since it is about time that societies finally recognise all of their inhabitants’ identities and lives. Caution, however, is also extremely important; in fact, in addressing the abovementioned themes, it is awfully easy to misspeak and misunderstand, taking things for granted when there is nothing granted at all.

All of this tiptoeing is understandable first and foremost for the matter of gender-based violence (GBV). The same terminology used to describe the issue is multifaceted and often confused, to the point that it became some sort of minefield, where – surely – one cannot leisurely stroll with ease (unless, of course, a horrible death is what you are looking for). This mix-up starts by the very word gender, which is often used as a more elegant substitute for the word sex. Unfortunately, however, the two words have different meanings. In fact, if the term sex generally refers to biological and sexual traits of the individual, gender is more connected to the personal and social aspects of a person’s identity. However, the misunderstandings do not end with these two terms alone. The expression “gender-based violence” is a victim of confusion too, as it is often used to discuss topics like sexual violence and violence against women, even though these phrases are not synonyms.

The expression gender-based violence indicates all of the actions that physically, economically or psychologically damage individuals on the basis of their sex, gender or gender role, a role that is set by the social norms within which persons recognise themselves and are recognised by others. In literary, considering the term “gender-based”, GBV regards all genders, meaning that it strikes both men, women and all those who do not conform to a binary gender system. Then, sexual violence, which indicates violent acts that comprise a sexual element, becomes a part of GBV and not an unfortunately large category of its own. On the other hand, the expression violence against women focuses on a part of the overall phenomenon, concentrating on a given type of victims, made precisely by women and girls. All these clarifications may seem like the result of an excess of fussiness. Nevertheless, words have weight: placing terms out of their intended context results in the watering down of the words’ significance. It means misinterpreting their meaning and therefore lessening their capacity of impacting reality and people alike. This is extremely pertinent when debating issues as thorny as the ones mentioned above.

Another issue that should be addressed is the fact that the three aforementioned typologies of violence are generated by societies’ specific preconceptions on individuals’ sex, gender and/or gender role. Hence, if GBV is directed towards an individual on the bases of stereotyped concepts, it also denotes that some types of violence specifically target a gender in a precise way. Thus, for instance, socially assigned – and stereotyped – gender roles render men more likely to be targets of gun-related violence while women are more prone to be targets of domestic violence. Clearly, this does not mean that women cannot be victim of gun violence and men of domestic violence: merely, the number of cases is smaller.

Bearing this in mind, a very important implication arises. In fact, whenever a violent and gendered event that goes beyond these pre-made “boxes” happens, it hardly emerges or gets reported. In fact, when society is confronted with an episode pf GBV, the expected scenery is the one with a woman – the victim – that has been abused by a man – the perpetrator. This of course derives both from the incredibly high number of similar cases reported globally and from the fact that feminists’ struggles during the decades opened the possibility of their discussion. Estimates on the matter are enough to make someone’s skin crawl: globally, 738 million women (almost a woman in three) suffered from physical or sexual violence, often at the hands of their own partners. Within the European Union, a woman in ten reports of being victim, from the age of 15, of cyber harassment. Furthermore, the awareness that this is only the tip of the iceberg – only 14% of women report this kind of violence – horrifies even more.

The most discussed GBV victims are women also because the data on men and those who do not conform to a binary gender system are – to say the least – scarce. The latter are hardly recognised for what they are, and they generally end up in other categories. The former, instead, report their experiences of violence in even lesser percentage than women’s. Such behaviour is related to long-standing stereotypes about male strength, which make it particularly difficult for men to come forward, report a GBV episode and still feel – and often be perceived by others as – “masculine enough”. This is what in the field of GBV is referred to as femininization, the phenomenon in which a victim of GBV is bestowed with feminine qualities, an occurrence that derives from the association, typical of patriarchal societies like ours, of femininity with weakness and vulnerability.

Of course, what was said above does not imply or tries to deny the fact that the overall number of GBV victims is mostly female. Still, behaving like only the pair man-perpetrator/woman-victim exists does more harm than good. On the one hand, it makes it even harder for victims who do not fit this paradigm to come forward and report the violence, being it sexual or not. On the other hand, the man-perpetrator/woman-victim pair perpetuates a very stereotyped vision of society, in which females are presented only as victims, objects that have to be protected, devoid of any kind of agency, while males are depicted as always strong and invincible beings. Neither vision corresponds to reality. Females are not always dominated or defenceless. Males can be victims too and not only oppressors. If a more comprehensive approach to the GBV issue is to be pursued, then there is the need to consider the matter in all of its complexity, losing the one-sided vision that often characterises the GBV discourse. In fact, this sort of tunnel vision when treating issues like GBV results in a counterproductive effect of reinforcing that toxic culture which sustains and thrives in patriarchal and unequal societies. It strengthens those beliefs that generate observations like “boys will be boys” and “well, she did wait too long to report”, which firstly contribute to a culture that legitimises violence and microaggressions.

[1] CONNELL, R. W., & MESSERSCHMIDT, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept. Gender and Society. 19, 829-859.

[2] FÉRON, E. (2018). Wartime sexual violence against men: masculinities and power in conflict zones.

[3] RISMAN, B. J. (2004). Gender as a social structure: theory wrestling with activism. Gender and Society. 429-450.

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