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Violence Against Women and the Virtue of Resistance

Introduction

One year ago this month, Ashling Murphy went for a run along the Grand Canal near Tullamore in Ireland. She jogged along a well-known section of the canal, in an area normally populated by walkers, runners, and dog-lovers. At 4pm on January 12th 2022, Ashling was violently attacked and killed. She was 23 years old. Her death sparked outrage across Ireland; thousands of people held vigils in the days following, and her murder gained international media coverage. As disbelief turned to anger, people took to the streets of both Ireland and England to protest against rising levels of gender-based violence. It seemed, at least at first, that we had perhaps reached a turning point of some sort; violence against women was being spoken about in a far more public way than before, and we dared hope that Irish society had finally realized the scale of the problem and decided “enough was enough”.[1]

One year on, where are we now?

Vigils and protests are valuable ways of expressing solidarity, and can act as a mechanism for personal and/or national catharsis. But long after the protests cease and the vigil candles burn out, violence towards women remains a systemic problem in Ireland. A report by Women’s Aid issued in 2020 reveals how serious the situation is: one in five young women in Ireland have been subjected to intimate relationship abuse, and 51% of young women affected had experienced this abuse before the age of 18 years. The vast majority of these women also experienced emotional abuse. And in Ireland since 1996, 249 women have died in violent circumstances. Of these, 63% were killed in their own homes, 55% were killed by a partner or ex-partner, and almost nine in ten women knew their killer.[2]

The violence visited upon Ashling is not unique to Ireland, of course. Women across the world face danger, discrimination, and death on a daily basis. Statistics on rates of femicide globally show that 137 women are murdered daily by someone in their family. This equates to over 50,000 women dying at the hands of a family member each year. Thus, the home is often a place of violence for women.

The issue of gender-based violence has being raised by Antonio Autiero and James Keenan in December’s issue of The Furrow. In their article, Autiero and Keenan remind us of the all-too-common nature of this problem: “Gruesome life stories about many women arise because they cross paths with men who compromise their own roles as fathers, husbands, and companions. These stories arise from different eras and take place in different places and cultures, with sometimes similar, sometimes diversified variables”.[3]

In recent times, we have gained a better understanding of the underlying causes of violence, thanks in no small part to insights from the social sciences, gender studies, and studies on masculinity. These disciplines are helping us “to draw the masculine away from the toxic cravings of domination. At stake is the awareness of all the cultural weight and the multitudinous encrustations that have generated a distorted vision of the relationship between genders and of the awareness of roles based on dominance”.[4] Religions are culpable here too, often endorsing already deeply engrained gender stereotypes that emphasized the dominance of the male. Indeed, one might ask to what extent Catholic magisterial teaching on sexuality and marriage places women at risk, especially when it is misused to keep women in abusive marriages, or misinterpreted to legitimize men’s dominance of women within the home. It is vital that Church leaders take a strong, unequivocal stance against gender-based violence, and that magisterial teaching address more explicitly the daily realities of danger faced by females around the world.

Virtue, Agency, and Empowerment

Gender-based violence and sexual exploitation are complex issues, but at their heart is a failure to see women as equals, to recognize their dignity, and to acknowledge their rights.[5] Violence against women is only one manifestation of deeper societal problems concerning attitudes to sex and sexuality. To understand the sexual mores of any time, and the virtues that undergird sexual values, one must examine the social narratives that shape moral formation. As Anne Patrick explains, “Narrative … plays a key educational role by communicating and reinforcing the values and virtues esteemed by a culture. Moreover, narrative also serves to criticize views of value and virtue once their favored status in a society is seen as ambiguous. The critical role of narrative, in fact, is an important part of the dynamics of change where value and virtue are concerned”.[6]

The sexual and economic liberation of women has been a welcome development in the main, even if the economic and educational empowerment of poorer women remains an ongoing task globally. Women’s sexual agency is often hailed as something positive, but are narratives about sexual agency and sexual freedom truly liberating? Or do we need a more nuanced reflection on sexual agency, and if so, what might that mean for some sexual values that are commonly heralded as emancipating?

An excellent analysis of this is found in the work of Karen Peterson-Iyer. In her recent book, Reenvisioning Sexual Ethics,[7] she critiques the hook-up culture in the Unites States, access to pornography among young people, teen “sexting”, and the commercial sex industry. These social trends are the result – in part, at least – of what she calls “hyper-individualism”, the unqualified defense of freedom of choice, and the claims of individual agency. In particular, the hookup culture prevalent in most university settings has arisen from a conviction that college “is a time for unbridled fun, experimentation, and unequivocal self-focus”.[8] But, of course, one must recognize the broader socio-cultural attitudes and assumptions that underpin this practice, including hyper-masculinity, the objectification of women’s bodies, and a lack of regard for one’s own body or the bodies of others. Peterson-Iyer argues that this often creates damaging sexual expectations among people, especially young people. She calls for a more holistic understanding of human flourishing, one grounded in the demands of justice and concern for self-care.[9]

Moreover, we know that sexual agency and consent are often compromised by intoxication, peer pressure, fear, or gendered cultural expectations, in turn preventing women and girls from expressing real sexual agency in specific situations. Peterson-Iyer says that:  “… individual subjectivity itself always stands in dynamic tension with the broader cultural discourses that shape and form us”. She continues: “agency itself is murky and intertwined with complexities of power, desire, and individual choice”.[10] In other words, consent and sexual agency can only be properly realized in contexts of freedom, mutuality, and equality.

Moreover, we need to better appreciate how toxic narratives and malformed stories of power and dominance damage men as well as women. Studies show that hyper-masculinity, and the traits that are associated with it, contribute to high levels of depression among men, poor body image issues, substance abuse, and other mental health concerns.[11] And so, we need new narratives that support human flourishing, encourage justice, equality, and mutuality, and foster contexts that enable emotional maturity to be realized. Some ethicists like James Keenan argue for a virtue ethics approach to sexual morality, key to which is the virtue of self-care.[12] Emotional integrity is central to self-care and is constitutive of human flourishing. It suggests that all aspects of our personhood are integrated into our self, including our sexual desires and our sexual relationships. It also includes recognizing the vulnerability, the fragility of being human. Any ethic interested in fostering sexual self-care and promoting genuine sexual agency must encourage contexts conducive to mature sexual discourse and true sexual self-knowledge.[13]

The Virtue of Resistance

It is precisely here that the virtue of resistance becomes important. How might it help turn the tide of gender-based violence? Can it help dismantle destructive narratives and encourage instead better understandings of personhood, sexuality, and relationship? In contexts where women are expected to be submissive and sexually inexperienced, challenging gender norms can be both difficult and dangerous. For this reason some scholars have coined the phrase “burdened virtues”.[14] For the virtues displayed are on the one hand morally praiseworthy traits, and yet potentially damaging to the well-being of the bearer. Oppositional anger might be considered a “burdened virtue”.

Kochurani Abraham explores what a virtue of resistance might look like in the context of violence against women in India. She notes that even in cultures where modesty and submission in women is glorified, people are nevertheless daring to resist norms that limit their integrity. “Thanks to the political underpinnings of the feminist movement, women are finding ways and means to give vent to their anger at whatever is distorting their human dignity”.[15] The situation in India is exacerbated by cultural norms that prioritize “feminine virtues” such as submission, self-sacrifice, and passivity, while social narratives reinforce the notion that preservation of the family is primarily a woman’s responsibility. These stereotypes heighten female vulnerability since they reduce agency and make women feel less able to speak out for fear of familial breakup. “The price that many Indian women pay for being ‘virtuous’ comes in different measures. While for some it is utter helplessness before violence, for others it is an increasing vulnerability to exploitation within the ‘feminine space’ of the household”.[16]

But through the virtue of resistance, women can reclaim their agency, their subjectivity, and their sense of self, Abraham argues. It is through the virtue of resistance that power relations are critiqued and dismantled, and narratives of domination are revealed. Abraham believes that in order to challenge sinful attitudes and structures we must first develop “a critical consciousness”. Forming this critical consciousness would help women see that oppression, violence, and discrimination are not final, that resistance offers hope, and that current injustices can be overcome. I would argue that this critical consciousness needs to be cultivated among Church leadership also, and that magisterial teaching on the family ought to more clearly reflect the profound injustices endured by women and girls globally. Furthermore, women’s voices must be heard and their experiences taken seriously if we are to further our understanding of how best to live in right relationship with each other and with God.

Julie Hanlon Rubio has applied this idea of resistance to the empowerment of vulnerable groups, in particular to women of color in the US, when discussing the ethical implications of cooperation in wrongdoing.[17] In some cases cooperation may be the only way to survive, but women have also opted to resist oppression in various ways. “The womanist commitment to resistance is grounded in a profoundly social anthropology that differs from manualist theology … There is a strong sense of duty to act, not to avoid culpability, but to avoid cooperating with the social structures that harm vulnerable persons whose connections to me are undeniable”.[18]

Other scholars like Kristin Heyer have applied the idea of resistance to social sin. Heyer notes how Pope Francis develops a deep understanding of social sin in his documents, as evident in Laudato si’: here he “spiritually challenges readers to attend to their formation by disvalues … and the ways in which they shape loyalties, frame questions, and prevent them from even hearing the cry of the earth or the cry of the poor … When bias skews values, it becomes more difficult to choose authentic values over those that prevail in society”.[19] A sinful culture not only encourages us to act badly, it also forms us in becoming bad persons. In so doing, it often prevents us from responding adequately to the plight of those most vulnerable among us.[20] In other words, sinful cultures erode our sense of rightness and damage our ability to see the dignity of the other. For this reason, scholars like Kate Ward have examined the fragility of virtue.[21]

But what happens when the Church’s own failure to acknowledge institutional sinfulness is apparent? The sinful cultures of misogyny, sexism, and hierarchicalism[22] within the Church need to be confronted. Heyer is critical of how Pope Francis fails to seriously address the issue of women’s agency in his documents, and how he relies on romanticized ideas of womanhood.[23] As she explains, “Although he has signaled some promising developments … there remains anxiety about the weakening of sexual differences, maternal presence, and mothers’ self-sacrificial responsibilities”.[24] This is problematic for, as Abraham notes, ideals of womanhood that emphasize self-sacrifice within the home create contexts of danger for millions of women and girls globally. And what about situations in which care-giving is not a free choice but an imposition placed on women, further limiting their agency? For Abraham, feminist ethics calls us to destabilize the status quo where social narratives oppress women and deny them their voice.[25] The virtue of resistance, therefore, becomes a valuable tool in the social transformation of sinful structures, albeit often at personal cost to the bearer. 

Conclusion

Resisting destructive sexual paradigms and confronting social sin must become part of broader efforts towards gender equality, but resistance is not always easy and can come at considerable risk to the individual. It presupposes a skill in identifying destructive narratives, a skill that cannot be taken for granted and is easily lost. And it requires a commitment to challenge unjust discrimination, foster life-enhancing narratives, and imagine new horizons of possibility. For its part, magisterial teaching needs to more definitely address the realities of gender-based violence and strengthen its teaching on women’s rights. Failure to do so risks contributing to social paradigms that endanger the lives of women.

[1] For a more comprehensive treatment of this topic see Suzanne Mulligan, “Violence Against Women and the Virtue of Resistance”, The Furrow, vol.74 (1), January 2023, 1-10.

[2] https://www.womensaid.ie/about/policy/natintstats.html

[3] Antonio Autiero, James F. Keenan, “Vulnerability V. Dominance: Questions about the ‘Father’”, The Furrow, vol.73 (12), December 2022, 673.

[4] Ibid., 674.

[5] There are several aspects of this question that are beyond the scope of this article. I do not address the correlation between violence towards women and war, for example, nor deal with human trafficking for the sex industry, nor examine in depth the relationship between poverty and sexual exploitation. Instead, I wish to concentrate on the attitudes and value systems that place woman at risk of physical and sexual harm.

[6] Anne Patrick, “Narrative and the Social Dynamic of Virtue”, in Charles E. Curran, Lisa A. Fullam (eds.), Virtue, (New York: Paulist Press, 2011), 79.

[7] See Karen Peterson-Iyer, Reenvisioning Sexual Ethics: A Feminist Christian Account, (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2022), chapter 3 in particular.

[8]Ibid., 55.

[9]Ibid., 56.

[10] Ibid., 63-5.

[11] Ibid., 69.

[12] See for example James F. Keenan, “Virtue Ethics and Sexual Ethics”, in Charles E. Curran, Lisa A. Fullam (eds.), Virtue, (New York: Paulist Press, 2011), 117-136.

[13] Peterson-Iyer, Reenvisioning Sexual Ethics, 75.

[14] Daniel Daly, “Virtue”, in Tobias Winright (ed.), T&T Clark Handbook of Christian Ethics, (London: T&T Clark, 2021), 69.

[15] Kochurani Abraham, “Resistance: A Liberative Key in Feminist Ethics”, in Linda Hogan, A.E. Orobator (eds.), Feminist Catholic Theological Ethics: Conversations in the World Church, (New York: Orbis Books, 2014), 98.

[16] Ibid., 99.

[17] Julie Hanlon Rubio, “Cooperation with Evil Reconsidered: The Moral Duty of Resistance”, Theological Studies, vol.78, no.1 (2017), 96-120.

[18] Ibid., 111.

[19] Kristin E. Heyer, “Walls in the Heart: Social Sin and Fratelli tutti”, Journal of Catholic Social Thought, vol. 19, no.1 (2022), 33.

[20] Ibid., 35.

[21] On this point see Kate Ward, “Virtue and Human Fragility”, Theological Studies, vol.81 (1), 2020, 150-168.

[22] See James F. Keenan SJ, “Hierarchicalism”, Theological Studies, vol.83 (1), 2022, 84-108.

[23] Cited in Heyer, “Walls in the Heart”, 37.

[24] Ibid., 38.

[25] Abraham, “Resistance”, 106.