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'Real' and 'unreal' violence

Here Nancy Lombard discusses how young people in her research understood and made sense of violence in relation to gender.

In my research I found that young people understood and made sense of violence in a way that was always framed by gender. They tended to naturalise violence as an integral part of ‘male’ identity and they justified men's violence using expectations of inequality. in gender roles. Violence that occurred among peers and siblings was normalized and therefore not labeled as violent.

For an act to be considered ‘violent’ by the young people, it typically had to fulfill certain criteria. For the majority of them, violence was something that happened in a public place, between adult men who were physically fighting. Crucially these acts would normally result in a visible injury, ending with police intervention and a consequence, such as an arrest. That is, the men's behaviour was stopped, they were told they were wrong and they suffered the consequences (such as jail). This same sequence was replicated at school. Boys would physically fight in public, they would be told by teachers or playground assistants that their behavior was wrong and they would be chastised for it. Both boys and girls termed this ‘real violence’.

However, the young people saw a difference between violence perpetrated and experienced by adults and violence among young people. They felt that adult legal consequences identified violence between adults as more serious and therefore ‘real’. The young people anticipated and accepted the role of adult authority in defining ‘real’ violence for them, creating an assumption among young people that ‘real violence’ is rarely committed or experienced by them personally. This is because the acts are not always witnessed, labeled or condemned by authority. Whilst the young people were most likely to label adult actions as real violence, actions that took place at school between boys were often defined in the same way because they followed the same sequence of events as their experience of adult violence. Incidents often involved two or more boys, fighting physically, in the yard or in an area of the school that was not (or very rarely the classroom) teachers or playground staff broke up the violence and boys were chastised. It was this intervention by authority that was the key to acts being labeled ‘real violence’.

Girls in particular told me about a multitude of experiences of being pushed, shoved, kicked, followed and called sexualized names by their male peers. To them, these examples did not fit the standardized constellation structure of real violence – age (adult); gender (man); space (public); action (physical) and crucially, they were generally without official reaction or consequence. Time and time again when they approached teachers or those in authority, the girls were dismissed for telling tales; ignored because of the so called trivial nature of their complaint or relayed that old adage ‘he's only doing it because he likes you’. Thus their experiences were minimized and the behaviours normalized. This results in girls being unable to access a framework by which to make sense of their own experiences and it serves to invalidate and minimize many of their experiences of violence and violent behavior. This is then replicated in their adult lives, where much violent behaviour is seen as the ‘everyday interactions’ between men and women.

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