On Torture and Male Pattern Violence

In this essay I argue that male pattern violence, and the patriarchal system it serves to uphold, cause severe pain and suffering to vast numbers of women and children and that this takes place within plain view of the state. And I argue that therefore male pattern violence is a form of state sanctioned torture of women and children. I also critique the analysis of the Persons Against Non-State Torture organisation.

I refer to male violence against women and children as male pattern violence in an attempt to depersonalise it and sidestep all the circular objections that inevitably arise when women attempt to name male violence, such as Not All Men Are Like That and Some Women Are Violent Too.


Torture happens within a context of power imbalance. State torture typically aims to cause the submission of the person being tortured in order to prop up and maintain the power of the state.

So, for example, intelligence officers or other agents of the state capture dissidents and torture them into submission – so that they reveal the names of their comrades, the details of their plans, etc.

When victims submit like this, they give up all that is important to themselves. This is what they hold out against, often with great courage, and this is what breaks them when they succumb, not the physical suffering. It is the submission that leads to the psychological annihilation that ultimately devastates them and from which they may never recover.

When agents of the state torture an individual like this, it not only affects the individual, it also sends out a powerful message to everyone else in that society. Because one way or another people get to hear about it. The message is: this is what happens to those who do not submit, who do not conform.

Usually the state backs this message up with propaganda and portrays the individuals tortured as terrorists/ insurgents/ anarchists/ thugs/ guerrillas/ enemy combatants, etc. Thus the state redefines legitimate resistance to its illegitimate power so that what is illegitimate becomes legitimate and what is legitimate becomes illegitimate. A massive head fuck, in other words.

Thus the state bullies, seduces, and confuses the population into conformity and acquiescence.

A legitimate state, one that governs through the will of its people, has no need to torture its citizens or fuck with their heads. When a state resorts to torturing its citizens, it no longer has legitimacy.

Some, perhaps most, of the agents who carry out the torture on behalf of the state are sadistic individuals who enjoy inflicting suffering on their hapless victims. However, this is not the purpose of the torture. His enjoyment is irrelevant to the state’s purpose of enforcing submission. His enjoyment merely serves to make the torture easier. It therefore suits the state’s purpose to condone or encourage factors that condition individuals to sadism – factors like the use of corporal punishment in childhood, blood sports, gonzo porn, scapegoating of minorities, etc.

Male Pattern Violence

I have written elsewhere about my experience of male pattern violence and how within the one-to-one scenario it can be summed up like this:

“The deal is this: I must submit to his will or I risk him unleashing actual physical violence on me. Perhaps even rape.”

So within the personal relationship between a man and a woman, the man uses violence and the threat of violence to get his own way, to force her submission to his superior power, to maintain his power over her. Its aim is her submission.

She can’t win. If she submits, she gives up something of herself, something of her intrinsic humanity, just as surely as the dissident in the state’s torture chamber does when he cracks. And if she refuses to submit, she risks him unleashing violence against her.

Male pattern violence therefore has many parallels with what happens when an illegitimate state tortures its dissident citizens, not least because it takes place within a huge structural imbalance of power.

Capitalism has always relied on male supremacy as a means of social control and of dividing-and-ruling the population. Men are bought off by the power they are given over “their” women and children. Women are bought off by the promise of protection and patronage, or they accept the status quo through lack of alternatives, or through the hope that their children, at least, will have a better life.

Male pattern violence is one of the key ways that male supremacy is maintained.

The power imbalance between the sexes

During the 20th century, women succeeded in entering many of the great male bastions of power. But when women reach the upper echelons within those institutions, they are invariably greatly outnumbered by men. This means they are isolated, and everywhere they are judged more harshly than their male colleagues.

So women are not present on their own terms but are under various degrees of psychological siege and in practice men continue to control all the great bastions of power: the government, the culture, the economy, the media, film and music industries, banking, technology, the military, the social and health care systems, the curriculum in schools and universities, etc. And men use their control of all these institutions to maintain male collective power; to erase knowledge and resources that would help women understand the truth and to resist; and to present women who argue for equality as feminazis or rabid or TERFs or SWERFs or unhinged in some way.

During the development of capitalism, the work that women do in having and raising children, maintaining (and often also making) the family’s clothing and home environment, growing, gathering or purchasing the family’s food and preparing it, etc. was defined as non-work. What men did was defined as work and was remunerated. Because what women did was redefined as non-work, they were not remunerated. And remunerated work moved out of the home and into the factory and office, unsuitable environments for small children.

During the same period, responsibility for raising children moved from the collective (the memory of which is seen in old sayings like “it takes a village to raise a child”) onto the shoulders of mothers alone. Mothers are generally still held responsible for the well being of their children and when anything goes wrong, she is inevitably blamed.

So mothers were at the same time held responsible for the well being of their children while being systematically deprived of independent material means of supporting them.

Even though many (perhaps most) mothers now participate in paid labour outside the home, this has not really changed because the chances are high that she is paid much less than a man doing work of equivalent value and all or most of her wages must go towards paying for the care of her children.

Thus mothers are driven into financial dependence on men. And this is still a key way in which mothers keep a roof over their children’s heads and food on the table, shoes on their feet, etc.

Men know this. And so do governments.

And each individual man knows that if he walks away from the relationship, the odds are slim that he will be required to pay more than a peppercorn towards the upkeep of his children and the mother who cares for them, and that the odds of being held accountable if anything goes wrong are even slimmer.

In the current climate of austerity and withdrawal of the safety net, he also knows that if she were to leave, she may face poverty and hardship, or even destitution and the ultimate fallback of all mothers, prostitution. A different kind of dependency on men. One that extracts an even greater physical and psychological annihilation of the self.

And then there is the imbalance in physical strength between men and women. Men, on average, are 10% taller and 20% heavier than women and have a much higher ratio of muscle to body mass. Moreover, boys are encouraged to develop their strength and physical prowess in ways that girls are not. Girls are usually not even taught how to physically defend themselves from attack.

All of this creates a huge imbalance of power within heterosexual relationships. This is the context for most male pattern violence within the family home.


But not all women have children and some women who do have children resist dependence on men. So the mass harassment and rape of women and girls, by men in the street and more generally in the public sphere and online, serve to drive women and girls into dependency on a man – because this behaviour seldom happens when she is on the arm of man. (As an illustration of online harassment, the graphic on the right shows the sexist slurs unleashed on Twitter in one 24-hour period at a female US TV presenter.)

Our very culture has been pornified so that girls and women are taught that their only value is as a sex object and men and boys are trained to think of women as not fully human, as commodities.

And online, porn rules. Violent, cruel, misogynistic porn, which conditions men and boys to be aroused by cruelty towards women and girls; to build their masculine identities on power over others; to believe that women and girls get off on this too; that women and girls deserve their own pain and suffering. Not to mention the damage it does to the bodies, minds and spirits of the actual girls and young women involved in the making of it. Gail Dines describes pornography as “terrorism against all women.”


And then there’s the prostitution industry, which welcomes men to act out all they have learnt about cruelty on the actual real bodies of women and girls, which serves to bolster his narcissism and which inevitably leads to him acting his contempt out on the other women and girls he encounters.

All of these forces work together to maintain men’s illegitimate power over women and girls and to make women’s submission hard, if not impossible, to escape. Together with male pattern violence they uphold male supremacy and reduce women’s and girls’ options so that they are caught like flies in a spider’s web.

Male pattern violence is never merely an individual act. Just as when the state tortures its dissidents, male pattern violence sends out a message to those nearby: This is what happens to women and girls who do not submit. It therefore serves to uphold the power of other men and of men as a class.

When individual acts of male pattern violence are looked at outside of this context, it is not possible to understand them. We see this in the frequent reports in the mainstream media of incidents of male pattern violence where the police say they cannot find a motive.

Male Rights Activists (MRAs) often say that women are also violent to men. Which is undoubtedly true. But it is also a red herring. Because when women are violent to men they act alone. They do not have the whole culture behind them justifying and exonerating them. They do not even have comparable physical size and strength. And very few women have sufficient power over men to use their violence to demand their submission. No doubt it happens. But it is rare. A statistical anomaly. Women do, however, often have power over their children.

Adult power over children

Human beings are unique among mammals in having an extended childhood and this is fundamental to our humanity. The corollary of this is that raising children is also fundamental to our humanity.

We are mammals. We reproduce sexually. It is women who gestate the foetus in their womb for nine months. It is women who give birth to live infants. And it is women who breastfeed those infants. Traditionally breastfeeding continued for several years and women did the majority of the childcare, especially in the labour-intensive early years. And women cooperated together in this endeavour, the older women helping the younger women, particularly during the perinatal period. This is surely the most convincing explanation for women’s significant longevity compared to men. The human race owes its existence to the hard work of generations of grandmothers. (This fact is generally unrecognised in our male controlled world because women’s work does not exist – it’s non-work, right? And women’s only use is as sex objects, and who the fuck wants to have sex with a grandmother?)

With each step in the development of patriarchy, capitalism and neoliberalism, women’s independent means have been under attack and with them their children.

Under neoliberalism, the community disengagement with child raising has extended ever further so that now children are considered commodities. If you are selfish enough to want one, it’s your responsibility to maintain it and pay for it. As if a child is a car! You can now even buy one. Under neoliberalism, society no longer exists, as Margaret Thatcher so memorably put it.

Thus neoliberal governments justify starving mothers and children of resources. So the structural imbalance of power between men and women, adults and children is increased ever further, making women and children easy targets of male pattern violence.

So it should not surprise us that child abuse and neglect of all forms are now epidemic and most, but not all, of the perpetrators of the worst forms are male.

But our children are no longer at risk simply from individual perpetrators. Now, in the neoliberal climate that exalts greed as the highest value, our entire culture has been sexualised so what 50 years ago would have been considered pornography is now mainstream culture. And just below the surface, just a click or a swipe or two away is a whole world of violent misogynistic gonzo porn that eroticises male sexual cruelty to women and girls. Many, perhaps most, children are exposed to this, often from before the onset of puberty, and many boys are addicted to it by the age of 12 (you read that right, twelve).

This is a form of child abuse. And like any form of child abuse, the effects can be lifelong. Many will require a lifelong effort to undo its damage and many will struggle to form long term loving relationships. And girls and young women are groomed by it into acceptance of a life of objectification and submission and many more will suffer when men and boys act out its violence on their bodies and souls.

And all of this leads girls to hate themselves and feel they have no control and this is expressed in huge rates of eating disorders and self harm among teenaged girls.

And neoliberal governments look the other way. Because a fractured population suits its purposes of siphoning off the common wealth to the elite (the 1%).

Neoliberal governments allocate inadequate resources to dealing with the broken children that are the predictable fallout of their policies. When anything goes seriously wrong (a child not only dies but this comes to the attention of the media) inevitably a young, inadequately supported social worker is blamed. And our under-resourced schools are blamed for not turning needy and often hungry children into well-adjusted scientists and technicians. As if.

What does the UN say about torture?

Article 1 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment defines torture as:

“… any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

Male pattern violence inflicts severe pain and suffering. In the UK more than 2 women are killed by it a week and for every woman killed, there are many thousands who survive, hurt and traumatised. Each week. And many children are killed by it too.

Male pattern violence is intentional and its purpose is submission to individual and collective male supremacy, which is a kind of discrimination and illegitimate power. The pervasiveness of male pattern violence is a predictable result of the structural inequality between men and women.

Male pattern violence takes place in plain sight of public officials who acquiesce in the face of it and condone it.

We saw this clearly in the official response to the mass sexual assaults on women by men in Germany on New Year’s Eve: A code of conduct for women and a curfew for women.

We see it in the persistent official reluctance to address the pay gap between men and women, the appalling rape conviction rate, the harassment of women and girls on the street and online, the flooding of the culture with violent misogynistic porn, the withdrawal of funding from women’s organisations that are trying to address these things and support the female victims, the condoning of lapdancing, pimping and prostitution, the sexist representation of women and girls in the media, and so on. We see it in the official reluctance to address the structures that support and condone male pattern violence.

It seems to me that together male pattern violence and the systematic and structural oppression of women and children fall within the UN definition of torture.

The work of Persons Against Non-State Torture

The Canadian organisation Persons Against Non-State Torture was started by Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald, two nurses who through their work with victims of what they term “relationally violent experiences” encountered women who had suffered extreme abuse since earliest childhood, including “electric shocking, prolonged hours of being hung, cut, burnt, whipped, beaten, limbs dislocated, starved, caged, water tortured, drugged, bestiality, pseudo-necrophilic and torture-rapes, forced impregnations and abortions”. They came to see that this mirrors what they term “classic torture” – the type of torture states carry out on dissidents.

Jeanne and Linda have done important and painstaking work supporting survivors of these types of ordeals, of building networks of feminists working on these issues, and of raising the issue of torture by non-state actors at national and UN levels.

However, I have some reservations about their analysis and concerns about potential unintended consequences of their approach. I attempted to discuss some of my reservations with them but, alas, I met a brick wall.

My reservations fall into three main categories:

  1. The lack of an overarching feminist analysis
  2. The creation of a hierarchy of suffering
  3. The dangers of a narrow definition

I discuss these under separate subheadings.

The lack of an overarching feminist analysis

The Persons Against Non-State Torture website is a higgledy pickledy mass of information, mostly in many separate PDFs. On ploughing my way through them I was struck by the lack of an overarching feminist analysis of the context of the violence that was being described.

There were a few feminist terms thrown in. For example, under the heading “Why they do what they do?” in the Sexualized Torture & Human Trafficking leaflet, the third bullet point says:

“Because of misogynistic discrimination as women and girls are the predominate victims of sexualized victimization.”

Which is a circular statement that falls several light years short of analysis.

I do not understand how the violence they are describing can be understood without locating it within the structural power imbalance between the sexes, between generations, and within patriarchal neoliberal capitalism.

In addition, they use gender neutral terms (e.g. persons, relational violence) which obscure the dynamics even further. When questioned about this, they said they use gender neutral terms because their experience is that women are perpetrators too, although most perpetrators are male. I do not doubt that this is true. However, using gender neutral terms obscures the reality and the fact that male violence occurs in a very different context to female violence.

The creation of a hierarchy of suffering

As far as I can understand it, one of the aims of the Persons Against Non-State Torture organisation is to include “non-state torture” as an explicit offence within national criminal codes to cover extreme forms of physical violence that are similar to the violence inflicted during state torture, such as burning, electric shocking, water torture, serial rapes, sleep and food deprivation, forced drugging, being hung up, etc.

They refer to a continuum of “relational violence” as shown in the following diagrams which are taken from their materials:

NST NST-continuum

One concern I have is that this defines neglect and abuse as not torture and it suggests that the violence escalates through the various stages when we know that this is not true. Children die of neglect and abuse. That sounds like torture to me.

While the concept of a continuum of male violence has its uses, in that it can help us understand that male harassment of women and girls in the street and in the workplace is part of the same pattern that results in men killing women and children. However, male violence is not a series of discrete categories of increasing seriousness. I prefer to think of it as a pattern of violence because the dynamics invariably are the same: “The deal is this: I must submit to his will or I risk him unleashing actual physical violence on me. Perhaps even rape.” It is this pattern that is so terrifying because at any moment, he can kill you.

The concept of a continuum of “relational violence”, however, obscures the differences between male pattern violence and female violence and obscures the power dynamics involved.

The context of male pattern violence is a huge structural and physical imbalance of power. Women and children get trapped by the interaction of those forces, and those forces work together to limit choice and to immobilise the woman or child within dangerous and intolerable situations, resulting in severe pain and suffering, regardless whether they were subjected to electric shocks and water torture, etc.

One of the dangers, therefore, of defining only specific types of violence as torture, is that the vast majority of male pattern violence and the context that allows it to happen will fall outside its scope. And this will make it even harder for people to understand how the forces work together.

This is not in any way meant to underplay the unbearable suffering of those who have been subjected to the appalling violence that does fall within that definition. Nor is it to suggest that such violence should not be very firmly dealt with under the criminal code.

Another risk of this approach is of women feeling that their suffering does not matter if it does not fall under the scope of the definition. This is particularly tragic given that women invariably underestimate and underplay the awfulness of their situations. I fear it may also sometimes lead to pressure on women to exaggerate aspects of what has happened to them in an effort to get it taken seriously – when it is already beyond what anyone should have to put with.

I fear that this will lead to a hierarchy of victims, which will become yet another way that women will be divided against each other.

The dangers of a narrow definition

I had the opportunity to meet Jeanne and Linda when they were in London for Feminism in London 2015. I had looked at their website beforehand and was struggling to understand how they understood non-state torture. I asked them to explain, saying, “I was abused as a child. Was that non-state torture?”

Jeanne responded* saying no, without a pause or a question about the nature of the abuse I suffered, and immediately launched into a list of physical tortures, such as burning, electric shocking, water torture, serial rapes, sleep and food deprivation, forced drugging, being hung up, etc. She then told me at some length about the first client who came to them with a history of being subjected to such treatment and how this led them to see the parallels with the types of torture typically inflicted by states.

Here is a diagram from their recent materials that illustrates this approach. The aim is to get the same physical acts that are used by state torturers to be defined as non-state torture when they are used in the private sphere. This definition will inevitably exclude the vast majority of male pattern violence, and I fear it distracts from the fact that male pattern violence is in practice sanctioned by the state and is made possible by the structural inequality between women and men.


In her powerful essay, Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality, Catharine MacKinnon says:

“No one defends trafficking. There is no pro-sex-trafficking position any more than there is a public pro-slavery position for labor these days. The only issue is defining these terms so nothing anyone wants to defend is covered. It is hard to find overt defenders of inequality either, even as its legal definition is also largely shaped by existing practices the powerful want to keep.”

As I explain in Sex Trafficking, the internationally agreed definition of sex trafficking makes it clear that the key factor is not movement of the woman or girl from place to place, but third party exploitation of her prostitution. In other words pimping. But this does not stop sex industry advocates and apologists from insisting that trafficking is only about how a few unfortunate women from impoverished countries come to enter the sex trade and what happens after that is their choice.

When feminists accept this latter definition, they are doing the pimps a service and are throwing away a key legal argument that could and should be used to close down the sex industry.

Just as with trafficking, no-one is pro-torture. But there are many vested interests who would like the definition to be so narrow that very few cases will fall into it and even fewer will succeed in proving it in a criminal court.

So my concern is that Jeanne and Linda’s narrow definition will be another gift to all those who benefit from male supremacy. Except that, if they are successful, it will become enshrined in international definitions – unlike the pimp’s definition of trafficking. And we will have wasted an opportunity to start to dismantle the patriarchal system which provides the context, motivation and impunity for male pattern violence.

Instead I would argue that we should insist that the UN and national governments open their eyes to the state sanctioned mass torture of women and children that is taking place in plain sight right in front of their noses and that they deal with it and the structural and systematic inequality between the sexes that provide the context for that violence.

* Jeanne later said she had no recollection of my saying I had been abused as a child. However, she was jet lagged and exhausted. I had been framing my question in my mind over a number of days and have no doubt that is what I said.

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