March 19,1998

The only prerequisite is to keep an open mind
New course addresses the roots of violence against women

by Susan Hirshorn

Male students wondering whether it's safe to register for Professor Stanley French's new undergraduate course on Violence Against Women need not worry.

"This isn't a forum for male-bashing, verbal or otherwise," French joked. "But we do take a close look at the politics and social mythology surrounding gender and interpersonal violence. The only prerequisite is to keep an open mind."

Introduced this semester, the course is a collaboration between the Department of Philosophy and the Women's Studies program.

One myth, French said, is that men who commit rape and other forms of violence against women are mentally ill. "This comes from Western society's tendency to make social problems seem like medical ones," he said. "Men who assault women usually aren't sick, but they do tend to see women and children as inferior, or even as property. "A case in point is a true story about a man and woman who were living common-law for several years in relative harmony. When they decided to get married, he beat her up on their wedding night. In court, he told the judge, 'Now that she's my wife I can do what I want with her.'"

French, who was Dean of Graduate Studies from 1971 to 1986, is no newcomer to women's studies. A former Fellow at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, his interest in gender and interpersonal violence spans 20 years. His Biomedical Ethics course at the Philosophy Department devotes at least one lecture to this topic.

The new course draws upon material from his two anthologies, Interpersonal Violence, Health and Gender Politics (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1998) and Violence Against Women: Philosophical Perspectives (Cornell University Press, 1998).

The course covers medical violence against women. "Feminists speak of two kinds of medical violence. One is the more theoretical question about forcing reproductive technology on women. However, our focus is on the body of research which suggests that 10 per cent of male physicians are having sex with female patients or sexually harassing them."

The concept of rape as an instrument of war is also examined. "One example is the mass raping of Islamic women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. While soldiers in all countries throughout history have raped and plundered, the Serbian soldiers in Bosnia-Herzegovina were actually ordered to rape women as a form of ethnic cleansing or genocide. What saddens me is that so many nations stood idly by while this was happening."

Turning a blind eye, or denying the roots of violence against women, are what French hopes the course will help to change. "We've got to stop justifying violent behavior with such excuses as, Well, he was just fired, or, he was drunk, or - possibly the worst one - he's sick. Masking a societal problem behind a pseudo-diagnosis of mental illness won't make the problem go away."

Copyright 1998 Thursday Report
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