Verbal Violence Is No Joke!

Dear Kimberly,

I had many thoughts as I read your last letter about the fraternity hazing at Yale that required new pledges to march through the section of the campus where first-year women students lived, and then on to the Women’s Center.

I  also read about it in the national media.  And of course, the incident went viral on YouTube so that the world beyond Yale could hear the men chanting in unison (in the style of a “Sound off” military cadence or work song) words that were vulgar and offensive, celebrating rape.

I can see why you were appalled, Kim, and disheartened by the long delay in an official response, the refusal of many people on campus to take the incident seriously, and the fact that the concerned women who did take it seriously were accused of a theatrical show of hypersensitivity—and having no sense of humor.

Reading your post again about the outrage and dismay you felt, I find myself thinking about another recent report.   An  ABC news investigation has highlighted hushed-up and covered-over reports of high numbers of rapes of Peace Corps volunteers over the past ten years.  Many of these rape victims have come forward to report that they were not taken seriously, were offered only limited help, were told not to talk about it, and in some cases were even accused of causing (or at least of not pro-activelypreventing) the sexual assaults that happened to them.  This past week, a Congressional committee announced plans for an investigation.

In recent years, reports of the rape of women in the military have also received increasing attention.  And there have been the horrifying reports of massive rapes as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Rwanda and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, when it comes to actual physical violence against women, not only chants about it, some degree of the same disturbing attitudes that were so troubling about the Yale incident are also often present.  There may be delays in taking action and discounting the seriousness of such incidents—even dismissing them lightly with a “boys will be boys” rationalization that requires women to be responsible for their own protection from harassment and predatory advances.

Behind actions are attitudes

You wrote: “I realize how many people want to pretend that boys chanting about rape is somehow notdeeply interconnected to a greater culture of violence.” And you also pointed out that “the chant is telling us a great deal about the socialization of 18-year-old boys.”  I agree.

Even now, half a century after the second-wave of the women’s movement got underway and laws, language, and customs began moving away from gender discrimination and toward opening more opportunities for women, many disturbing attitudes about masculinity have continued to prevail.  Such attitudes show up in sports when a male coach addresses his male team members as “ladies” or “girls” if he doesn’t like the way they played. Such attitudes show up in religious books and sermons warning of the “feminization of the church” when churches stress love, compassion, and inclusiveness rather than emphasizing a militant faith of “Christian soldiers, marching as to war.”  You and I have talked about this in earlier posts.

Tony Porter, co-founder of an organization named “A Call to Men: The National Association of Men and Women Committed to Ending Violence Against Women,” has a terrific 11-minute TED talk video about the socialization of boys (which he describes as living in “the man box”).  I hope you can take time to watch it, Kimberly. It really gets to the root of the problem.

And what is that root?  It’s the disrespect and devaluation of women, so that some men learn to see women as inferior to men and as objects, not totally human persons, but objects existing for the pleasure of men and under the control of men.  Maybe not expressed so crassly as that, but that is what comes through in the fraternity chant.

Do I believe that every man who was caught up in that fraternity “herd mentality” and joined in chanting those misogynistic words actually meant what he was chanting?  Of course not.   (Although I am puzzled about why some men wanted so badly to be part of a group that insisted on such behavior and thus were willing to participate.)

How verbal violence works

Actually, I consider the chant itself to be nothing less than an act of violence—verbal violence.

Verbal violence is not something to consider lightly, as we know from the damage that bullying does to its victims. The  taunts, insults, belittling,  and name-calling that bullies carry in their verbal weapons arsenal may not be the “sticks and stones that break my bones,” but they nevertheless do great damage. “Cutting words wound and maim,” says Proverbs 15:4 in The Message Bible paraphrase. Other translations say that abusive words “break (or crush) the spirit.”

Verbal violence can take place in schools; in dating, cohabiting, and marriage relationships; in parenting; in the workplace;  and elsewhere.  Verbal abuse can be carried out in person, through online social media, email, and texting, or in other ways. And it can be extremely destructive, causing lasting damage, sometimes even driving its victims to suicide (as in a number of suicides among young gay students last year).

You and I both know this is not a joking matter, although its perpetrators often try to excuse it that way.  I think about the Scripture passage that says,  “Someone who tricks someone else and then claims that he is only joking is like a crazy person playing with a deadly weapon” (Proverbs 26: 18-19, Good News Translation).

Verbal abuse is a deadly weapon, and covering it over with claims that one was “just joking” and accusing the targeted person of being too sensitive (“you have no sense of humor; you can’t take a joke”) doesn’t minimize its seriousness.  Such cover-ups do not undo or soothe over the deep wounds it inflicts.  In many cases, verbal violence precedes or accompanies physical violence.  Verbal violence is nothing less than psychological abuse, and such abuse leaves scars, even though they don’t show up on the outside as occurs with physical abuse.

Verbal violence, like rape and other forms of physical violence, springs from a desire to intimidate, humiliate, dominate, and control.  Behind it all is a desire for power—power over another person.

The damage done by verbal abuse

In her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond (Bob Adams, Inc.,1992), Patricia Evans interviewed 40 women with verbally abusive male partners.  Evans, who has extensively worked with battered women, talks about different ways that verbal abuse operates, sometimes without the woman on the receiving end even recognizing it as abuse, in spite of the damage it is doing to her self-esteem and overall well-being.

Evans’s interviews enabled her to list (p. 43) multiple ways women were affected in their relationships with verbally abusing male partners. She found found that, among other things, verbally abused women learned to distrust their spontaneity; experienced a loss of self-confidence along with a growing sense of self-doubt and distrust of their own perceptions; developed an “internalized ‘critical’ voice’”;  felt they must be constantly on-guard, fearful of the next unpredictable verbal explosion; became worried that something was wrong with them or that they might be going crazy; grew increasingly uncertain about how they were coming across in communication; blamed themselves and engaged in constant soul searching to determine what had gone wrong to cause their partner’s outbursts over seemingly simple and innocent remarks; grew concerned that what they thought were their best qualities might be their worst qualities because of how their abuser spoke of them; experienced lowered self-esteem; and often experienced physical symptoms indicative of deep emotional distress (“a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach,” “an ache in my throat,” “a stab in my heart,” Evans, p. 57).

Of course, women can be verbally abusive, too—to men, to other women, and to children.  And habitual verbal abusiveness as a control mechanism can happen in both gay and straight relationships.  But what we are talking about here is the way traditional male socialization can be conducive to an attitude of superiority, privilege, and the right to control and have one’s own way, even if it means coercion by words or actions that deny a woman’s humanness, autonomy, and agency, as in the chant of “No means yes.”

What systems of domination and oppression have in common

In writing about the Yale fraternity incident, Kimberly, you pointed out that the chant ended with a shout that indicated an interlacing of ideologies of male domination with a mindset of nationalist domination.  You concluded:

“Thus, the work we must do as feminists is to analyze how multiple systems of domination function together—in other words, our job is to study gender ideologies as they are interconnected to ideologies about class, race, and country. Religion, of course, is one important place to study how these interconnected systems work together.”

Systems built  on ideologies that promote the rights and privileges of one group, while denying or downplaying the rights and privileges of another group, have this in common:  a failure to practice what most religions teach (but whose adherents often don’t practice themselves), namely, the admonition to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated.  The Jewish and Christian scriptures teach us to “Love our neighbor as ourselves” (Lev. 19:18; Mark 12:28-34).  That requires respect and empathy, which in my January 26, 2010 post I called an antidote to “othering.”   Respect and empathy are counter to the quest for power that promotes domination and oppression.

Closing thoughts

I realize the tone of this letter has been very serious, but I think you and are very much on the same wavelength and I couldn’t help but pick up on what you were feeling in your last letter—perhaps especially strongly because the incident happened on your own campus.

But I wanted to turn to another topic and mention one more thing because it relates so much to two of our previous posts (and maybe many more than that).  Did you happen to hear social historian Stephanie Coontz on NPR’s Fresh Air program last week when she talked about her new book, A Strange Stirring? NPR titled the episode, “Stirring Up ‘The Feminine Mystique’ 47 Years Later.” Try to listen to her interview with Terry Gross if you have a chance.  Also take a look at sociologist Christine Whelan’s piece, “Stirring up the Feminine Mystique for a New Generation,” in Psychology Today in which she discusses Coontz’s book and concludes that “The problem has been named–but not yet solved.”

All of this renewed discussion on the book was of great interest to me, as I’m sure it is to you, Kim, because you and I began this blog in 2008 with our intergenerational dialogue on The Feminist Mystique from the standpoint of one who had lived it and one who had just recently read it 45 years after it was published.  Our readers can find these posts in our archives: The “Feminine Mystique”–Then and Now, Part 1 (Letha) and The “Feminine Mystique”—Then and Now, Part 2 (Kimberly).

Another reason that I was struck by Coontz’s book (which I’m ordering and am looking forward to reading soon) is that she wrote it at the request of her editor for a series her publisher was producing on a history of books that had made some sort of impact. That was fascinating to me, not only because in thinking of biography one doesn’t often think of the history of books, but also because I had just recently started my long talked-about project of writing the story of how Nancy Hardesty and I coauthored our 1974 book, All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation. And it was that book, of course, that brought you and me together, Kim, when you were given a copy in 2008 and wrote to me about it.  So in a sense, this blog is the result of the part both books (the one by Friedan and the one by Nancy and me) played in our lives!  That just struck me as I wrote today’s post and thought you’d be interested too.

I look forward to our next phone conversation as well as our continuing correspondence.  It’s always so good to hear all that is happening in your life at Yale Divinity School and about your classes and new insights and the new writing you’re doing. I was so glad to see your piece launching the new “Feminism and Faith” series for Feministing,  Congratulations on its publication!

All for this time.



Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.