Patriarchy Meets Neoliberalism: Tackling domestic abuse in the twenty-first century

Professor Liz Yardley explores why it's important that society starts to look at domestic abuse differently

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Earlier this week, my research on technology and domestic abuse was published in the journal Violence Against Women. I wrote this theoretical paper because the way we look at and think about domestic abuse needs to change. For too long, we have been failing to see the bigger picture in which it occurs.

There is a fantastic collection of research documenting women’s experience of the technology of domestic abuse. This has revealed the multiple, malicious ways in which abusers draw on tech to monitor, control and abuse women. New technologies are being used to perpetrate old harms. Some of the examples I’ve come across in the literature include the man who installed CCTV cameras around the house and texted his partner to ask “What are you watching on TV?”[i] and the man who saturated his ex-partner’s Facebook page with claims she had given him a sexually transmitted infection, which was seen by many of her friends and family[ii]. There were also numerous cases of abusers demanding instant responses to texts and WhatsApps, planting GPS trackers on women’s vehicles, installing spyware on their phones and buying tablets or other devices for children, which were then used to monitor ex-partners.

Its easy to get caught up in the horror of this and the minutiae of the tech itself. However, we can’t afford to take our eye off the bigger picture. Abusers are re-purposing technology for their own ends because they feel entitled to behave in this way and because they can. We need to look at where this behaviour comes from and how it’s enabled. What are some of the values, attitudes and beliefs which justify infringing upon the liberty of another individual in this way?  

Patriarchy is part of the explanation. The sense in which some men feel that women are their property. Women are not there to be loved, treated as equals and respected. They are subservient, lesser beings, who should fulfil ‘traditional’ gendered expectations of the caregiver and the nurturer in their intimate relationships. Some men have very rigid and fixed ideas as to who women are and how they should behave. There is a need to control, to dominate and to know exactly what she’s up to all of the time because women, well, they can’t be trusted and they’re irrational, hysterical and dangerous aren’t they?

Patriarchy has been with us since time immemorial. But in the twenty-first century, we have a new variant of it – neoliberal patriarchy.

Neoliberalism is a political philosophy which markets itself on the so-called freedoms it enables. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of the market. Big government is bad government. Leave people to crack on with their lives and they will become independent and personally responsible for their choices and behaviours.

In theory, this sounds good, but in practice, it’s a disaster – particularly for women experiencing domestic abuse. Neoliberalism assumes that life is a level playing field. Everyone is on the same starting line with the same access to resources and opportunities to make good choices and live a decent life. “Why doesn’t she just leave?”, “Why doesn’t she just ignore his calls?”, “Why doesn’t she just block him?”. When it comes to personal responsibility in domestic abuse, neoliberalism places the blame solely in the lap of the victim. It doesn’t ask “Why is he behaving in this way?”, “Why does he think this is okay?”, “Why can’t he just stop abusing her?”. The one area where the neoliberal trope of personal responsibility does not apply is men’s violence against women. Neoliberalism is not part of the solution to domestic abuse. It’s part of the problem.

The playing field is anything but level, the odds are stacked against female victims of men’s violence. Neoliberalism and the so-called ‘freedoms’ it advocates are not equally accessible to all. It is inherently patriarchal, built on the same misogynistic ideologies and values that have been with us for centuries. It masquerades as a force for ‘freedoms’ but it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In neoliberal political-economy, abuser’s freedoms to do harm outweigh women’s rights to be protected from harm.

Nowhere is this more relevant than when we look at the big tech firms whose products are re-purposed for abuse. There is the assumption that the owners and users of online accounts are one and the same, that mutuality and trust exist between people sharing a residence, that end users don’t intend to use their tech to do harm and that the main ‘risks’ around technology come from outside of the home from hackers, fraudsters and identity thieves. The fact that women are in more danger from those inside than outside of their homes has not registered with big tech.

In addition, social media platforms refuse to remove vile and defamatory content posted by abusers because to do so would infringe their ‘freedom of speech’. Companies selling spyware products used in domestic abuse market them as ‘legitimate’ through claiming they are for child safety or employee monitoring. Some are so blatant as to explicitly target abusive men, using lines like ‘Catch your cheating wife’ in their publicity materials[iii].

Calling for more legislation and policy change is not going to work. Our neoliberal state is saturated with misogyny. For too long we have allowed identity politics to distract us – we are so fixated on difference and individualism that we’ve come to ignore structural forces that oppress all of us: misogyny, racism, classism. Neoliberalism adores identity politics - it’s much easier to nod along to demands for recognition than demands for redistribution. The state may throw us the odd crumb here and there like the criminalization of coercive control or a heavily diluted Domestic Abuse Bill. However, this will not result in the systemic change that we need to tackle violence against women. The fundamental structural inequalities that law and policy tries to cover up are still there. Pieces of paper will not lead to changes in the values, norms, beliefs and behaviours of domestic abuse.

Domestic abuse – with or without the assistance of technology - is built on misogynistic foundations. It is these ideologies that we need to challenge. We cannot do this through criminal justice or the policy process, it must be a grassroots activist movement. We need to call out the sexism and misogyny we see around us. We need to stop premising women’s value largely on the success (or failure) of their relationships with men. We need to teach children and young people about equality, respect and mutuality. We need to dismantle the entrenched ideas of ‘traditional’ ways in which men and women should behave. Only then will we tackle the root causes of domestic abuse.

[i] Douglas, Harris and Dragiewicz (2019) Technology-facilitated Domestic and Family Violence: Women’s Experiences, British Journal of Criminology, 59(3): 551-570.

[ii] Woodlock, D. (2017). The Abuse of Technology in Domestic Violence and Stalking, Violence Against Women, 23(5): 584-602.

[iii] Harkin, D., Molnar, A., & Vowles, E. (2020). The commodification of mobile phone surveillance: An analysis of the consumer spyware industry. Crime, media, culture, 16(1): 33-60.