Gender-Based Violence (from Start to Finish)

(Cover of Edurne Portela’s 2017 novel, Mejor la ausencia)

I recently finished reading Edurne Portela’s gripping novel, Mejor la ausencia (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2017), which features a young protagonist, Amaia, whose life is marked by the violence present in 1980s and 90s Basque Spain and by the very real violence of the life inside her own home.  Amaia’s mother, grandmother, and three brothers constantly wonder if the father will come back into their lives at any moment, bringing with him a relentless brutality exercised upon his own family.  Five-year-old Amaia at the beginning of the novel takes refuge from her father’s violence, especially as manifested on her mother’s body, in her eldest brother Aníbal and her stuffed animal named Buni.  The surrender of Aníbal to heroin addiction and death, accompanied by Amaia’s frustrated destruction of Buni, demonstrates that the protagonist will have no people to count on and that, even as she develops into a strong young woman, she will surprise even herself with her own enactment of violence.

The title tells the reader that absence from “loved ones” can be safer and better than presence with them.  The violence that rips (not ripples) through the novel is mostly exercised by men—on other men in the spheres of politics and business, and on women in the domestic sphere.  In this sense, the novel communicates gender-based violence in its genesis (toxic masculinity) and its reception (men as business “partners”; women as domestic “partners”).  Amaia’s attack on her mother suggests that the protagonist scorns the weakness she perceives in her mother and that she has learned how to use the physicality of her own body to both defend and attack.  The novel moves quickly enough that the reader has to slow down to absorb how the protagonist has evolved according to the public and private contexts in which she lives.

While Portela’s El eco de los disparos (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2016) examines portrayals of late 20th-century Basque violence in literature and film, Mejor la ausencia offers a fictional first-person narration that drives home each of the astute observations of Portela’s abundant non-fiction corpus. I read the novel because its author is a friend and talented writer, not because I read violence well.  I finished the novel because Portela approached the topic in an honest, unflinching, compelling manner that made me grapple with the theme in bigger ways.

I have a privileged enough life that I can choose to protect myself from witnessing violence.  When I studied history as a child and young adult, I despised that it was basically always a history of violence of men against men, women, and individuals who did not identify as part of the gender binary.  History just seemed to move us from one war to the next, one aggression to the next, one genocide to the next, one dead person to the next. I strongly believed that we could unlearn this narration of violence and examine histories of peace, celebration of others’ accomplishments, and selfless leadership.  As an adult, I have had to temper this reticence in the face of harsh realities, but I have still consistently chosen in my private life not to watch television and film portrayals of violence, not to read works of fiction that celebrate violent modes, and not to allow my children to play violent video games.  (Full disclosure: I do teach an upper-level Spanish seminar course on the Spanish Civil War.  I get it.)  I know that I am naïve.  I have never been able to articulate clearly my lack of understanding of people’s desire to inflict violence on other people or animals.  I just don’t get it.  (Of course, I do understand how people can become violent and/or fans of violence.  As an adult, I just don’t get how all of this must feel.)

As I finished up Portela’s novel, I read these headlines in the Spanish newspaper El País: “Un hombre denunciado seis veces por maltratar a dos mujeres mata a su actual pareja” (“A Man Reported Six Times for Abuse of Two Women Kills His Current Partner”; 2-14-18),  “Cómo descubrir a un agresor reincidente” (“How to Uncover Recidivist Aggressors”; 2-14-18) and “Maltratadas mucho antes de cumplir los 18” (“Abused Long Before They Turn 18”; 2-18-18).  Despite all we know about gender-based discrimination and violence—via the international work done by  the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), now under the aegis of the United Nations, multiple police reports from country to country, data collection (e.g. in Spain and the United States), academic studies from a variety of disciplines—, newspaper headlines reveal that we still do not pay attention to all of the real acts and the warning signals that place people in danger.  We still seem to want to buy into the rhetoric of “he’s a good guy,” or “he’s a real professional,” or “it can’t be that bad.”  We know that ignoring early signs of violent tendencies is never good, and we do it all the time.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post about how violence is usually not hidden.)

This all brings me back to the man Donald Trump, Orrin Hatch, and a host of others protected through reports of gender-based violence, Rob Porter.  In this CNN piece (2-18-18), Orrin Hatch issues an apology to Porter’s two ex-wives for having jumped to Porter’s defense; Hatch is reported to have said, “It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man.”  Even when Hatch walked back the defense and issued the apology, he had to maintain that his interactions with Porter were “professional” and “respectful.”  Hatch, CNN, and everyone else seem to forget that of course Porter knows to respect his higher-ups, who have infinitely more power than he does.  It is his treatment of those with less power than him that we have to worry about.  The fact that Hatch maintains, even in his apology, a half-defense of Porter as a good man tells us a lot about our boys-will-be-boys culture, our constant propping up of mediocre politicians and violent men, and our constant willingness to kind of, sort of not believe the victims.

Just as Edurne Portela reveals in Mejor la ausencia and in El eco de los disparos, the signs of violence are there, from start to finish, in public and in private.


The United States loves its guns.  The country loves its guns so much that it is willing to sacrifice seven children and teens on an average day, 96 United States citizens a day, and 13,000 lives a year. (*See this Everytown site for more statistics, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  See this 2016 article from The New York Times.  See also this site for up-to-the-minute reporting on gun deaths in the U.S.).  The data tell us, too, that 50 women a month are shot to death by intimate partners and that black men are 13 times more likely to be killed by gun violence than white men.

Is gun violence a disease?  Which other organizations are tasked with stemming the tide of violent crime, and especially violent crime committed in our schools?  Why do we now think it is normal or acceptable for our children and their school teachers and staff to experience violence in schools and to have to prepare themselves for violence through repeated lockdown drills?  What the hell is wrong with us?  Why are we such cannibals? (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post, especially Act 5, about the shame of it all.)

None of what I am writing today is news.  We all know it, and we all know it to be true.  We are catering every day to the hypermasculinist NRA lobby, which has infiltrated every level of government and affected the safety and/or sense of safety in every one of our schools.  We know it.

I was going to write this week’s post about gender-based violence on the national and international stages, and I still am.  This is because what is becoming a type of gun genocide in the United States stems from an ever-more-dangerous toxic masculinity fomented through our government representatives, television shows and movies, commercials, and video games.  This inculcation of violence influences mass shootings and supposedly behind-closed-doors incidents of domestic violence.  It tells men to reject all attributes and feelings coded as “feminine” and to embrace ultra-power and dominance.  (*See this 2013 summary of an article about print images in advertisements that promote hyper-masculinity.)  Time Magazine in 2014 reported that 98% of mass murderers are male, attributing the statistics to many phenomena along the age-old gender binary: cultivation of men as hunters and warriors; men’s protection of their status in a group; influence of violent media; etcetera.  It is no accident that we use the metaphor of “guns” for highly developed muscles.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) adds to this toxic mix by encouraging gun sales, discouraging anything that impedes gun sales, and thereby openly motivating gun violence.  I was reluctant to visit the NRA website and give it any more traffic than it already gets, but it behooves us to know what this billion-dollar lobbying organization is up to.  The website informs us that NRA-TV is alive and well, promoting television shows about guns and gun violence.  Trending on its blog right now is the proud announcement that the AR-15 is the most popular gun being sold right now.  Remember that this is the gun purchased and used to kill dozens of people in recent mass shootings in the United States.  The website also lets you know (to me, menacingly) that, “The NRA is closer than you think,” as it provides maps and directions to local stores and shooting ranges.  It features the story of an “armed citizen [who] protects his family,” making me wonder if the armed citizen’s children ever go to school and if they are protected there.  A photograph of two beautiful lions invites “American hunters” to shoot them.  And don’t miss the pitch to young people: “The NRA has been actively involved in promoting the shooting sports to youth since 1903. We wish to ensure the future of the shooting sports by providing proper tools and resources to America’s young people.”  In other words, “we hope to promote gun sales to kids as young as five or six who can accidentally shoot each other.  If they survive that, then they can shoot others when they get a little older.  Don’t miss out!”

I just visited the NRA online store and am feeling more than sick to my stomach.  It’s all about “protecting freedoms,” “not being tread on,” and weapons, weapons, weapons.  What is this war?  It is Wayne Lapierre’s fear of himself, of not being enough.  It is Wayne Lapierre’s followers agreeing that not being enough can be compensated by owning a gun.  It is the United States afraid to confront its own deeply-rooted, ever-growing pornographic affair with its guns.  You don’t have to be a literary critic to understand what the gun compensates for, and you don’t have to dig too deep to worry about how we cater to this.

Guns have no other purpose than to kill.  Let’s remember that. shares information about NRA contributions to candidates, elected officials, and party committees. (*Here are the statistics from 2016.)  As far as I can tell from the list, all of these candidates, government officials, and political parties are Republican.  Every last one.  This is not at all surprising, but it should allow us to become more draconian in our condemnation of the GOP.  For those of us living in Virginia, let’s remember that Ben Cline, who has declared his intention to run for Bob Goodlatte’s House of Representatives seat for the 6th District, has an A+ rating from the NRA.  Ben declares this proudly on his “pro-life” website.  (*See Gender Shrapnel Blog posts on Ben Cline here and here.)  As Voluble blogger Robin Alperstein has said, GOP candidates want to get re-elected and therefore respond to vociferous voters, many of whom promote the gun lobby.  The best way to defeat them is to increase contact with our representatives to encourage smart gun regulations.  Gabby Giffords’ Law Center is an excellent place to get information for this kind of massive effort, so necessary for 2018 midterm elections.

I promised I would talk about gender-based violence, and I already have, in part.  Gun violence is gender-based violence from the start.  Gun violence requires that we understand toxic masculinity and reverse it, just as it requires deep change in public policy surrounding the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments. (*See related Gender Shrapnel blog posts here [free speech], here [Charlottesville], and here [stop-and-frisk].)

The GOP’s massive and perverse power has placed our own country at war with itself.  This civil war relates in no small part to our Groping Old President, whose decades-long anti-women actions and comments extend to his support for other violent misogynists who wield great power.  Let us not forget that the White House delayed a full week in condemning multiple reports of Rob Porter’s violent acts against not one, but two, wives.  (*See Dana Milbank’s take-down in The Washington Post of the all-too-conveniently evolving White House stance on domestic violence.)  The Groping Old President (assaulter-in-chief) also “boasts of a great relationship” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose most recent recommendation to shut down female rebels was to “shoot them in the vagina.”

State-imposed misogyny and state-indulged gun violence are not news.  None of this is.  We have got to get on this now, yesterday, 30 years ago.