by Joshua Piercey
There’s a video that’s been popping up on my social media, a symptom of the simultaneously sophisticated and asinine algorithms that control our content. Facebook knows I enjoy NFL and knows I’m interested in feminism… and so it shows me an act of shocking violence, perpetrated on a woman by a college footballer. Great catch, Facebook, just what I wanted for Christmas.
The video makes for uncomfortable viewing; I will describe it instead if you would rather not watch it. To do so might seem oxymoronic – why offer to protect you from distressing material only to force it on you via another medium – but it’s important because both the way the violence makes you feel and the way you subsequently assess it are important.
In the video a young woman and young man are arguing. The woman is speaking loudly and apparently aggressively to the man. After a second or two of footage she shoves the man in the chest. The woman is slim and perhaps a foot shorter than the man, but the shove is enough to make him take a step back. He lunges towards her but she doesn’t back away, instead she slaps him. From my reading of the footage the slap is not particularly powerful, if only because the woman is off-balance. The man retaliates with a brutally fast punch, hooking his arm around to punch downwards into the woman’s face. The man is tall and obviously muscular, though not particularly broad – a sprinter’s build. The punch looks very powerful, and the woman is absolutely floored: clubbed to the ground. The man immediately turns and walks quickly out of shot.
The footage is from 2014, and the man is Joe Mixon, a then running back for the University of Oklahoma. The woman is Amelia Molitor; four bones were broken in her face and she had to have her jaw wired shut. Mixon was suspended for the 2014 college football season but is back playing ball: the footage was released by his attorneys in 2016 (Molitor filed suit in federal court in the summer of last year).
I read the Facebook comments on the video for the same reason most of us do: the wound demands prodding, the tooth demands wiggling, no matter the pain nor noxious discharge that may result.
Like many comment streams an initial argument derailed the overall discussion; all subsequent conversation related to two points. In short: did Molitor partially deserve what happened to her, and more broadly, is violence against women ever ‘justified’?
The last part of that sentence makes me immediately uneasy, but I think it’s worth exploring for reasons which hopefully will become apparent. I should make it clear at this point that neither the mainstream media nor the NCAA shared these views: both condemned Mixon’s behaviour.
Whether you watched the video or not, I hope you agree that Mixon’s assault on Molitor was without any kind of justification. The shove and slap delivered by Molitor caused no physical injury, and the retaliation was in an entirely different league. One might have stung – the other shattered bones.
The commenters who maintained that Molitor ‘had it coming’ or ‘not to start shit if you can’t handle what happens’ are entitled to their personal views, but the law is clear on who was at fault. Any attempt by Mixon to claim self-defence would be rendered moot by the sheer level of force involved. An attack using the same level of force on another man would have been equally vicious, equally unacceptable, equally open to prosecution and punishment.
The use of the word ‘equal’ is problematic, and this was picked up by the commentators. Many of them identified a disparity of feeling and used it to move to an often-used argument that is tricky to work through: that it is hypocritical (and therefore sexist) to reserve greater judgement on male-on-female violence over female-on male or male-on-male violence.
This argument makes a basic sort of sense, especially as an unsophisticated argument against feminism. If women want to be treated equally, then a woman hitting a man should be treated as seriously as a man hitting a woman. The legal consequences should be the same. And since, a secondary thread of the argument often runs, a man hitting a man might reasonably expect to be hit back, a woman hitting a man should accept any subsequent violence as either self-defence or a consequence of her own actions.
This line of reasoning is touted with triumph by anti-feminists because it appears to use feminism’s core tenet – a simple plea for equal treatment – against it. You want equal treatment? Fine, and don’t come crying to us when equal treatment hurts. To quote a commenter: “She put herself in man (sic) position. So she got treated like a man.” This argument is, unfortunately, utter horseshit – for several reasons.
But there are two key (and deliberate) misunderstandings at its heart.
The first is that with equal treatment must come an end to nuance or circumstance. Mixon is several inches taller, several stone heavier and many times more powerful than Molitor. The law in most western nations is surprisingly refined in this area: it takes differences like this into account. The law cares only a little for who starts the fight, and less for who ‘deserved’ what. It’s not specifically to protect women in most cases (although this is an inescapable effect), it’s to protect the weak when they are abused by the strong. And this leads us to the next flaw in the argument: the false equivalency between equal treatment and identical personhood.
Women do not want to be treated “like” men, they wish their treatment to be equal in social status and opportunity. Woman are normally shorter, lighter and not as physically powerful as men. Fine. To confuse this very specific set of physical differences with the differences in social treatment is to – deliberately or not – denigrate or obscure the issue.
Male-on-female violence is not reprehensible because of some chivalric distinction between the sexes, or some implicit demand from women for special treatment – not wanting to get beaten up does not count as special treatment, even if you want it extra, extra bad – it’s reprehensible because it is almost always the powerful abusing the less powerful.
Feminism extends beyond women to equal treatment for all (something that should be obvious from the word ‘equal’ but seems to need constant repeating). To state that it is hypocritical to want equal positive treatment but leave behind the negative is both despairing for our progress as a species and some pretty wack logic.
Equal treatment means only positives: why would we preserve the negatives at all? If we could extend our society’s inbuilt unease about violence against women to everyone, would men not benefit most?
Women do not ‘deserve’ special treatment when it comes to combatting violence. Everyone ‘deserves’ special treatment, but until those who cry hypocrisy can truly admit that (and believe it, without dismissing the giving and receiving of violent acts as a part of the male experience), not everyone is going to get it.