When Headlines Reveal the Purpose of Violence

4 min read

As a trauma psychologist, I often get questions about the causes of violence and abuse. Of course, psychological research and theory point to a range of contributing factors—from economic uncertainty to rigid views of gender. Sometimes overlooked, though, is the degree to which violence and abuse are perpetrated as a means of social control.

Every now and then, though, news headlines amplify the ways that violence and abuse are tied to social control. That was the case this month when threats of violence and abuse emerged in the race for the U.S. Speaker of the House. Let’s take a look.

“You Will Not Be Left Alone”

As reported by CNN, the wife of a GOP lawmaker received a long-winded, threatening voicemail earlier this month. Among other things, the person leaving the message stated, “We’re going to follow your ass. Every appointment you have. Everything you f*cking do.” The caller went on to declare, “You’re going to keep getting calls and emails. I’m putting all your information over the internet now. And you will not be left alone…You’re going to be f*cking molested like you can’t ever imagine.”

The caller was clear about why he was making these threats: He wanted the woman’s lawmaker husband to support Representative Jim Jordan in his bid to become House Speaker.

While the circumstance of voting for a House Speaker is unique, the use of violence and abuse (including threats of violence and stalking) to control people is not.

The use of violence and abuse to control people can be seen in intimate relationships, where an abusive partner might use abusive tactics to control a dating partner or spouse. Sometimes abusive partners exert control through acts of physical or sexual violence, but not always. Psychological abuse is also commonly used against survivors. This can include things such as belittling or insulting survivors, chipping away at their self-esteem and confidence in ways that affect many aspects of their well-being.

Looking further, we find evidence that violence is used for social control in terms of research on who is likely to be victimized. Consider that, relative to peers, LGBTQ people are more likely to be sexually assaulted and victimized in intimate relationships, and trans people to be murdered. Violence is even more likely to be perpetrated against people who hold multiple marginalized identities, as illustrated by the murder rate of trans women of color relative to other trans people, for example. Such data point to the ways that interpersonal violence is used to target people based on their gender, sexual, and ethnic identities.

Of course, violence as a means of social control is not new. Instead, there is a long history in the United States and around the world of physical and sexual violence being used to control people and communities. For example, Professor Sarah Deer has described the use of sexual violence to tear at the fabric of Native American communities in her book The Beginning and End of Rape Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America. Dr. Danielle McGuire has detailed the use of sexual violence against Black women as a means of social control during the Jim Crow era in her book At the Dark End of the Street—Black Women, Rape, and Resistance: A New History of the Civil Rights Movement, From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.

Taking Action to Stop Violence and Abuse

While violence and abuse have long been used to exert control over individuals and communities, we are not fated to this pattern. Indeed, psychological research can also be used to guide strategies that communities can take to prevent and respond effectively to violence and abuse—a message that is at the core of my book Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence Against Women and explored in other posts on this blog. Consider, for example, steps that we can take to respond to sexual assault disclosures or attacks on LGBTQ youth as well as work to prevent dating violence.

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