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Expanding the Definition of Patriarchy
March 18, 2021

As we discussed last week, sex trafficking has been framed as a “women’s issue” and gender-based violence because it disproportionately affects women and girls, and men are disproportionately the perpetrators of this violence. Because this dynamic is so obvious, for many practitioners in the anti-trafficking field (though likely not all), patriarchy, or patriarchal culture, is very often taken for granted to be a main contributing factor.

Using Patriarchy as a Way to See the Structure of Violence

Patriarchy is generally understood as a structure in which the father is the head of the household, in particular, and that supports the assertion of male dominance and heterosexual masculinity in general.(1) What this means is that male figures both in the home and in major societal institutions maintain dominance. The father figure exercises control over labor and property, sexual access to his wife and the other women of his household, and maintains the power to punish (from Kathleen Brown, 1996). Being a woman or even having a female-headed household does not exempt one from upholding patriarchy, as bell hooks observes. “We are socialized into this system, females as well as males. Most of us learned patriarchal attitudes in our family of origin, and they were usually taught to us by our mothers. These attitudes were reinforced in schools and religious institutions.” (bell hooks, “Understanding Patriarchy”) A woman’s power exists only in her role as a mother, and using difference or outsider status to dismantle the system is a threat to those who see “the master’s house is her only source of support,” even if it could lead to her own emancipation. (Audre Lorde, 1984

The harmful beliefs that are widely recognized to perpetuate violence against women and girls–that women should be submissive, men are expected to exercise control and have the right to discipline, that women cannot deny their partner sex, that sexual harrassment is normal, violence against women must be their own fault, that women’s value is solely rooted in their roles as wives and mothers, and only heterosexuality is acceptable–are all rooted in patriarchal values.

And misogyny, as Kate Manne (2017) defines it, is not best understood as the hatred of women per se, but rather as the policing of adherence to these patriarchal values and standards. It’s “the system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance.” It punishes those who deviate from these norms, and rewards those who adhere to these values and perform the necessary emotional, social, domestic, sexual, and reproductive roles in a loving, caring, and enthusiastic manner.

So we can expect that violence against women and girls is, at least in part, rooted in this power dynamic: the assertion of dominance, the entitlement and expectation that women and girls exist to serve male needs, and the punishment of anyone who deviates. Those who participate in this violence are so often excused.

How Patriarchy Helps Explain Sex Trafficking

There are several points where we can see patriarchal values playing out in sex trafficking:

  • The sex industry writ large is designed to cater to men’s needs and desires – buyers of sex are most likely to see prostitution as a victimless crime, and that they’re just taking care of their needs (Source: Though we make a clear distinction between the sex industry and consensual sex work as opposed to sex trafficking, it seems reasonable to expect that the norms and beliefs on the buyer’s end are similar in both situations, especially to the extent that the lines between the two tend to blur in the real world – from a buyer’s perspective, it can be difficult to tell who is working in a fully consensual way and who has been trafficked.
  • Those most vulnerable are not the most powerful in society, but rather the least: the people most marginalized. Moreover, those in power so often abuse.
  • In the local context where we work, there is an expectation that children must work to support their families financially, and to do so is a point of duty and honor.
  • The role of “the bottom” – generally a female victim of trafficking who has been elevated to a higher role in which she engages in trafficking others: recruiting more victims, maintaining order, and meting out punishment; she is rewarded for upholding the system.
  • Boys and men who are victims of sexual violence and sex trafficking are disincentivized in coming forward and reporting the crime because 1) it’s often believed that boys and men cannot be victims of sexual crimes so they don’t even see themselves as victims or fear they won’t be believed, and 2) their masculinity is called into question if they are victims, a situation which they understand as inherently shameful.

What’s most interesting, perhaps, is the research into what’s effective at combating sexual violence. Not only does criminalizing sexual offenses show promise in curbing this kind of offense, but specifically, locally based community programs that change attitudes, norms, and behaviors show evidence of being an effective way to reduce sexual violence. This supports the notion that sexual violence is rooted in, or is at least made possible by, attitudes and beliefs about sexual violence, and that changing those attitudes and beliefs is instrumental. What’s also interesting is the evidence that suggests that while laws requiring the registration of adult sex offenders don’t reduce recidivism, the laws require the registration of juvenile sex offenders are even worse: they don’t reduce recidivism AND they increase the likelihood of suicide and that they will be approached by adults for sexual victimization–they become easy prey. Children who engage in this behavior, even serious harm, generally stop when caught, and the important thing is to emphasize that this is serious harm to victims. 

Why We Need an Expansive Definition of Patriarchy

Usually, definitions of patriarchy center on the relationship between men and women, or men versus women and girls. Occasionally it extends to men versus women and children, in which case it can include boys as well. But if we in the anti-trafficking field can think about it as a system of male dominance, and the policing of that system to reward those who uphold it and punish those who deviate, it seems that it should naturally also include policing of those who challenge patriarchal (and heterosexual) norms. It’s a hierarchical structure that expects everyone to adhere to their place within that hierarchy: men should exhibit traits expected of those at the top, and everyone else should submit accordingly. Taking this more expansive view allows more space for what we know about boy and male victims of sex trafficking and for what we know about the vulnerability of LGBTQ+ victims. 

Whether or not you buy into the “patriarchy” lens per se, it’s important to take a structural view of this problem because framing it as a “women’s issue” narrowly leads to solutions centered on fixing women: educating women and girls, or raising awareness among women and girls. It assumes that the problem lies with women and girls, and presupposes that the existence of predatory men is unavoidable and unfixable. Obviously educating and empowering women and girls is absolutely critical and necessary. But it is insufficient. We cannot neglect the role of men in perpetrating violence and the responsibility of men to stop engaging in violence. In order to uplift women and girls, we need to also reach boys and men–to educate them in what it means and looks like to have respectful and healthy relationships, to value other human beings, to believe children are not property to be bought and sold, and to reduce the entitlement they believe they have to the bodies of others and the shame they feel for not ascribing to this dominance structure. 

This education should be more inclusive and universal. Everyone should know what loving, healthy relationships are–to both protect oneself from abuse and also to be a better partner oneself. Next week, we’ll drill down into some specifics of what this more expansive view can look like for solutions in practice. Stay tuned!

(1) We don’t take the view that patriarchy means men and only men benefit. It can be harmful to men too, even as men benefit. bell hooks’ book, “The Will to Change,” is useful in talking about how patriarchy also harms men. Likewise with “toxic masculinity,” which does not mean that all masculinity is toxic. It means there are forms or expressions of masculinity (i.e. hyper aggression, etc.) that are toxic.

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