Patriarchy does not protect abusers. It protects men – even men who are abusive – from becoming “abusers”. That is not the same thing, even if it looks the same from the outside.
But patriarchy does not say, for example, that rapists should not be punished. Once a patriarchal institution agrees to say that someone is a rapist, it usually has no problem with violence directed towards them. On the contrary, patriarchy says that rapists are subhuman monsters who should be killed without remorse. There are whole masculine cultural genres dedicated to fantasize about extreme acts of violence rightfully perpetrated on subjected rapists. Macho men love to brag about how they would do it themselves if given the occasion to do so. What patriarchy does is preventing men from being identified as rapists, even when they raped. It says, then, that what they did is not actual rape, just a terrible misunderstanding, or a moment of weakness, or a stupid thing they did when they were young… Patriarchy says rapists are monsters. Thus, men who are not monsters cannot be rapists. Thus, what they did cannot truly be rape.
More exactly, and since patriarchy is always intertwined with other systems of oppression, it protects some men from becoming rapists: those in power, the privileged, the white hetero valid cisgender males, especially when they’re rich and/or famous… The closer you are from power, the more you are protected from infamy.
On the other hand, oppressed and underprivileged males are routinely framed as potential abusers by default. They don’t need to do anything to deserve the title: it is attached to their condition. Marginalized and oppressed male identities are always, at least a little bit, associated with the stigmatized identity of “abuser”. The suspicion of being borderline rapists weighs on BIPOC males, especially if they are poor and/or undocumented, on the men who live with mental illness, are homeless or addicted, on those who are Muslim or Jewish, or gay, bisexual and/or queer… (And, of course, on trans women).
This framing of marginalized maleness as intrinsically abusive is a key component of a lot of modern oppressions.
Patriarchy does not side with the abusers. It sides with those in power. I guess you remember this white woman who walked her dog in Central Park, in 2020, and called the police against a black bird-watcher because he had the nerve to ask her to abide by the rules and leash her pet. With a mainstream understanding of oppression and privilege, the power relationship between them must be divided through racial and sexual lines, with patriarchy siding with him, and white supremacy siding with her. But such a framework would not account at all for what happened. Amy called White cops against Christian, but he had no male cops to call against her. The cops are both male and White, and they are on her side. For Amy, calling the cops was not only calling white supremacy to back her; but also calling patriarchy at her rescue.
“I’m calling the cops… I’m gonna tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life”. Notice that Amy Cooper does not explicitly threaten to call the cops to enforce white supremacy. Granted, she is obviously doing that, but it is implicit nonetheless. She did not say “I’m gonna call the cops and tell them there’s an African American treating a White person like someone of equal status”. It would not work out in a State that’s not explicitly endorsing racial segregation. What she explicitly called the cops for was protection against abuse. She asked them to protect her, the victim, against a perpetrator, by way of violence. During her phone call, she pretended, voice shaking, to fear for her life. Such a behavior would have made no sense if she expected the cops to “side with the abuser”. She knew that, in this case at least, they would not. We all share this understanding – we all know it would have ended very badly for Christian Cooper, had he not recorded the encounter in full. Hence the force of the story.
We might account better for what happened that day by understanding patriarchy, not as a system enforcing and regulating two-ways power relationships between men and women, and therefore giving men the right to oppress women, but as a system enforcing and regulating triangular relationships between Saviors, Perpetrators and Victims, in such a way that the Victim status is imposed on women, while men are bound to navigate between those of Savior and Persecutor. Such a structure is ready to be piggybacked by other systems of oppression, who regulates the distribution of Saviors and Persecutors amongst men. White supremacy and patriarchy are not two structurally similar systems of oppression, who compete with each other when a White woman meets a Black man, and intersect when a White man meets a Black woman. They are a several-centuries-old system in mutualistic symbiosis with a several-millenaries-old one. What happened in Central Park that day was White supremacy borrowing (or at least, attempting to borrow) patriarchy’s legitimacy in terms of righteous men-on-men violence.
Patriarchy does not promote abuse. It promotes virility. Patriarchy’s discourse about abuse is that it is a product of maleness, when unregulated by a sane masculinity. Patriarchy says that rapists are defective males who failed at fully becoming men: beast-like males, not civilized enough to control their impulses; emasculated males, who abuse women as an outlet for a frustration caused by their lack of virility; and effeminate males, attracted by perverted and decadent behavior, seemingly for the thrill of it.
And patriarchy says that those men – the bad men – should be oppressed (kept at bay, submitted or destroyed) by the good ones, the achieved men, who keep their maleness in check and are supposed to save the women from the bad guys. Patriarchy knows that it asks men to walk on a thin line – to be male enough to fend off the bad guys, but to stay in control of the maleness nonetheless. They are supposed to tap into the masculine powers of strength, violence and domination to protect widows and orphans, without letting themselves be corrupted by it. Patriarchy warns that even the good men might fail at such a paradoxical task – but still insists that there are differences between good men and bad men. One, of course, is that our men are good and their men are bad. The other is that bad men abuse when we let them be strong, while good men abuse when they let themselves be weak.
This is why, from a patriarchal standpoint, the idea that contemporary feminism is to blame for rape makes perfect sense, since it tends to oppose the full development of “sane masculinity” – masculinity as patriarchy intends it to be. Worse, with the rest of the left, feminism tends to empower exactly the wrong kind of men. What right-wingers see is women (i.e. victims) rejecting and impeding those who should be their saviors and embracing their future persecutors. There is no need to share this vision to understand how seeing things that way might be painful and maddening.
Patriarchy does not support abuse. It presents itself as the solution against abuse. Patriarchy might look like it supports abuse (say, spousal rape), but that’s not how patriarchy sees itself. Patriarchy just intends to protect women from abuse on its own terms (protect women from what it calls abuse by who it calls abusers) and at its own conditions (say, at the condition that married women make an effort to perform their duties). Of course, from a feminist viewpoint (meaning, from a perspective where abuse is defined by the women, the children and the weak, and not by the currently powerful men), what patriarchy does is quite the same thing as supporting abuse. But in patriarchy’s utopia, there is no abuse: the men are real men, the women are real women, and nobody gets hurt. The whole legitimacy of the rule of the fathers relies on protecting women from themselves and, first and foremost, from the other men.
Thus, the dehumanization of abusers in the mainstream feminist discourse is not new: it comes from patriarchy. What is new (as we will see) is that it is not directed towards the same targets. Nonetheless, it relies on the idea that abuser is a legitimate human trait, characterizing a member of a subhuman class of people corrupted by an unchecked maleness and subsequently prone to damage women. This idea is a core feature of patriarchy, and of most current oppressive systems, from racism to transphobia. Any oppressor can, and will, legitimize their position by claiming the people they oppress belong to this class or, at the very least, is a step further towards it.
It would be dubious, though, to call patriarchist the many feminist movements that reproduced and instrumentalized the patriarchal dehumanization of abusers in their fight against abuse, rape and/or battering. In a large majority, they at least intend to fight patriarchy. However, we can find in feminist discourses different levels of conflation between fighting patriarchy and fighting maleness – this evil-but-powerful force purported to animate male bodies in patriarchy’s propaganda. For example, the word “toxic masculinity” is sometimes used by feminists in its original, academic sense, and then means “the way in which patriarchal stereotypes and expectations are detrimental to the very men their are placed upon”. Some other times, “toxic masculinity” is just the masculinity of “toxic men”, becoming just another way to refer to this unchecked maleness that turns the men it corrupts into abusers. Most of the time, what definition of “toxic masculinity” is being used is not clear from the context, allowing a gathering of very different ideas and attitudes behind the same labels (“Against toxic masculinity”).
At one far end of this spectrum of feminist discourses, patriarchy and maleness are totally conflated. This is where we are the more likely to find this kind of puritan feminist activism that seems to be the most directly influenced by traumatic experiences of men’s violence, the most visibly angry and in pain, the most directed against male sexuality in itself, the most obsessed by the male genitalia as the enemy, and in which the status of victim is the most sacralized. Those movements usually: (1) start as reactions against the most terrible manifestations of men’s violence and abuse; (2) call the State or the institutions to intervene more violently and severely against the abusers; (3) theorize at the same time that the State and the institutions will not, in fact, intervene, and will side with the abusers since they are, indeed, patriarchist; and (4) from there, starts to spiral out into rage, despair, obsession and nihilism.
While these movements are not patriarchist in nature and may actually do some good work in the steps (1-3) of their development, and while most of them do not degenerate into step (4), it has to be said that those who do tend to be anti-patriarchist in a way that actually reinforces patriarchy and other systems of oppression. For example, by directing their anger and zeal towards the more marginalized of male-assimilated people (TERFism, islamophobic feminism) or against other marginalized women, either considered as brainwashed victims or accused of being traitors to their gender and responsible for patriarchy’s abusive nature (SWERFism).
It must be recognized that modern mainstream feminism challenges patriarchy when it claims that it is not, in fact, the marginalized expressions of maleness that are to blame for abuse, but its dominating forms. While patriarchy says that real men do not abuse, and that BIPOC maleness, queer maleness, etc., are to blame, mainstream feminism claims the reverse: that abusive behavior is actually a derivative product of social domination, and a prominent feature of white-western-heterosexual-cisgender maleness. Reflecting the suspicion of being “essentially abusers” back to the oppressors both challenges and perpetuates patriarchy. However, when the calls for more severe legislations and security measures against abuse are answered by the State, it usually ends up affecting primarily marginalized males nonetheless (which should make sense even from the mainstream feminist viewpoint, since State institutions are run by the rich, white, hetero-cis male class they intend to target).
Patriarchy does not protect abusers. It protects the fiction in which it protects women and children from abusers. One way to fight it is to reveal the truth, and to show how this fiction is, actually, a lie (or, at least, is only true as long as women and children are barred from defining what is, or is not, abuse, and who are, or are not, abusers).
But, lost in our anger at the deceptive nature of patriarchy’s claims, we might forget to ask ourselves if we would actually want them to be true. Do we want patriarchy to actually do the job it claims to do? Do we want children, women and weak men to be protected against abuse by the State, the Church, the Party, the Asylum or the Mob by way of violence against the evil “abusers”? This is not a rhetorical question, not even an easy one. It should not be assumed that the answer is obviously “no” for everyone, all the time, even in the feminist/anarchist scene. One can guess that the TERFs and SWERFs who end up in alliances with fascists or right-wingers are, consciously or not, answering “yes” to this question.
There is a legitimate anger to be directed at patriarchy for not being what it claims to be. For not protecting the victims like it said it would. For not acting against the bad guys like it is supposed to. I guess a woman can be both – angry at the patriarchy because it says she’s essentially a victim, and also because it doesn’t treat her properly as such. There is a feminism where the rule of the fathers is oppressive, and a feminism where it is negligent. “Patriarchy protects abusers” is the kind of sentences that can express both of these feelings at the same time. In some occurrences, it can mean that patriarchy empowered some men so much that they have been able to continue harming people despite several attempts to stop them – that they have been able to avoid accountability by violently retaliating, from a position of power secured by patriarchy, against those who exposed their behavior. In other occurrences, it can mean that some men have not yet been punished, or not been punished enough, by the patriarchal institutions that have been called to do so by the victims, or in their name. Sometimes, it means both.
In other words, one can use it to express that “protecting abusers” is an essential property of patriarchy, a built-in feature that cannot be reformed, like one would say “oxygen burns”. One can use it with a very different attitude, to denounce that patriarchy is failing at his job. Patriarchy “protecting abusers”, then, is scandalous because it is supposed to do exactly the opposite. Most of the time, those two meanings are not really distinguished. And enmeshment that, in its final form, cannot result but in a dooming, nihilistic worldview, where both our need for patriarchy’s protection and the certainty of it betraying us are sealed fates, set in stone.
And when despair hit you, fascism awaits. Trying to reach out. To give you hope. There is a path out of this, you know. Patriarchy is not so bad, it is only corrupted. Far-right propaganda always leveraged anti-elitism and accusations about “men in power” being abusers, rapists or pedophiles. It always conveyed a vision of democratic/bureaucratic institutions as corrupted and siding with the criminals. Fascism presents itself as wanting to “protect the victims” and “punish the abusers”. It just needs to get rid of all regulatory institutions to do so: court of laws, due processes, legislative assemblies… all that boring stuff prevents it to fight the bad guys. It just needs good guys in charge, with guns and no supervision, and the bad guys will be dealt with, ma’am. It is no surprise, then, that the flavor of feminism we talked about (even if, and I can’t stress it enough, it should not be reduced to that) sometimes serve as a pipeline towards far-right extremism.
What might render far-right’s discourse appealing to some feminists goes beyond bigotry or racism: it is the promise of a land where patriarchy would actually work the way it was supposed to. A land where women would actually be protected from abuse because the abusers would not be indulged, nor tolerated, nor defended. Where bad guys – and we know who they are – would not be given the benefit of the doubt.
This is not to say that asking from institutions to actually act against abuse, rape and harassment is, in itself, a form of fascism. This is not to say that it shouldn’t be done, or to condemn this form of activism, or this way of dealing with men’s violence or abuse. This is only to say that there is a slope which starts at “patriarchy should not protect abusers” and ends at “we should make patriarchy great again”. And understanding how this slopes works is important if we want to tap into the powers of patriarchal institutions, representations and discourse without being corrupted by them.
Patriarchy does not protect abusers. It abuses them. This article is not mere quibbling. As someone who has been branded “abuser”, an important part of my experience is knowing that my safety in a patriarchal space depends on whether I’m actually considered as such or not. Patriarchy is as dehumanizing towards those it labels abusers as feminism can be. What differs is the conditions required for this stigma to be placed upon me – the performance I am supposed to show to avoid being called such a name.
What it means for me is that I am way more vulnerable than the feminist discourse says I am. It means that I can count on patriarchy’s protection as long as I deny any wrongdoing, or minimize their extend, or distance myself from them – the exact opposite of what feminism claims it want me to perform. Then, just as in feminist spaces, I’ll be accepted as much, and as long, as the people with power in the room will agree to spare me from the stigma. It means that fully owning what I’ve done is almost impossibly risky.
It means that, as an abuser (and even if I put aside my queerness and my values, which I both, theoretically, could suppress), patriarchy is not my home. My ostracization from queer, leftist and feminist spaces was justified, at least in part, by the idea that I would not be homeless then – that I would just return to the patriarchist world, where, as a toxic male-identified abuser, I’m supposed to belong. I’ve heard that my harassers enrage when they hear about me still cruising in those scenes, as if I should have understood by now that my place isn’t there. In a way, they’re right. My place isn’t there anymore. But patriarchy is not my home either. I have nowhere to stay, and nowhere to go back to.
The place I will call my home is one in which I will be protected from stigmatization and dehumanization; not because I would not be seen as “one of the abusers” there – but because being capable, and guilty, of abuse would not be seen as incompatible with being human. This place, I will have to make for myself.