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Contemporary Sociology: The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by the Russian State

The recent poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, allegedly by the Russian State, is relevant to many areas of the A-level sociology specification.

Details of the poisoning 

On 4th March 2018 Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33 were poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok. The pair were found collapsed on a bench in Salisbury in the late afternoon, following what seems to have been a pretty ordinary ‘afternoon of leisure’ involving a trip to a pub and lunch in Zizzi’s. Four weeks later, they remain in a critical condition. 

Sergie Skripal.png
Sergie and Yulia Skripal

Much of the news has focused on just how deadly the nerve agent ‘Novichok’ is – basically a tiny, practically invisible amount was sufficient to render two people seriously ill, and even the police officer who first attended Sergei and Yulia Skripal was taken seriously ill just from secondary contact with what must have been trace elements of the nerve agent.

Pretty much everywhere the pair had visited that afternoon was shut down, and any vehicles that they had been in contact with were quarantined while they were cleared of any trace of the nerve agent and total of 250 counter-terrorism officers are at work investigating the case.

Theresa May has accused the Russian State as being complicit in this attempted murder, which seems plausible as Colonel Sergie Skripal is a retired Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. He was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006. In July 2010, he was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian spies arrested by the FBI. He was later flown to the UK. It seems that the poisoning is the Russian State passing its ‘final sentence’ on this poor guy.

HOWEVER, Russia strongly denies these allegations, so this might just be a hypothetical state-crime!

The international reaction to the poisoning has also been dramatic: to date 26 countries have expelled Russian diplomats, and Russia, which of course denies any involvement in the poisoning, has done the same as a counter-response.

Links to the A-level sociology specification

sociological perspectives russia.png

Probably the most obvious link to the A-level sociology specification is that this is a primary example of a state crime – it seems extremely likely that the poisoning was carried out by an agent of the Russian state – The UK condemned Russia at the United Nations Human Rights Council as being in breach of international law and the UK’s national sovereignty.

Secondly, this case study reminds of us that nation states are still among the most powerful actors in the world – nation states are the only institutions which can ‘legitimately’ manufacture chemical weapons such as Novichock.

Thirdly, you could use this as an example of how ‘consensus’ and ‘conflict’ exist side by side. he existence of global values allows various nations to show ‘solidarity’ against Russia and express ‘value consensus’ but it also reminds us that there are conflicting interests in the world.

Fourthly, media coverage aside, it’s hardly a post-modern event is it! Having said that, we don’t know for certain who did the poisoning, so all of this could be a good example of ‘hypperreality’.

There’s lots of other links you could make across various modules – for example, the way the media has dealt with the event (it’s very news worthy!) and the ‘panic’ surrounding it, it fits with our ‘risk conscious society’ very nicely!

Sources 

Spy poisoning: Highest amount of nerve agent was on door (BBC News)

UK slam Russia over spy poisoning (Washington Post)

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AQA A-level sociology specification content at a glance

I think it’s useful to have the specification laid out in one easy to access to place – so here you go:

With Families and Households and Global Development as the ‘options’ on paper 2

AQA sociology specification content at a glance

Please click here for a PDF Version of the above (probably better for both viewing and printing!): AQA sociology specification content at a glanceI

Text Version of the above:

Core themes (run through all exam papers)

  • socialisation, culture and identity
  • social differentiation, power and stratification.
  • the significance of conflict and consensus, social structure and social action, and the role of values.
  • the focus of study should be on UK society today, within its globalised context.

Education (paper 1)

  • the role and functions of the education system, including its relationship to the economy and to class structure
  • differential educational achievement of social groups by social class, gender and ethnicity
  • relationships and processes within schools: teacher/pupil relationships,
    pupil identities and subcultures, the hidden curriculum, and the organisation of teaching and learning
  • the significance of educational policies, including policies of selection, marketisation and privatisation, and policies to achieve greater equality of opportunity or outcome, for an understanding of the structure, role, impact and experience of and access to education; the impact of globalisation on educational policy.
  • Methods in Context – students must be able to apply sociological research methods to the study of education.

Theory and Methods (papers 1 and 3)

  • quantitative and qualitative methods of research; research design
  • sources of data, including questionnaires, interviews, participant and non-participant observation, experiments, documents and official statistics
  • the distinction between primary and secondary data, and between quantitative and qualitative data
  • the relationship between positivism, interpretivism and sociological methods; the nature of ‘social facts’
  • the theoretical, practical and ethical considerations influencing choice of topic, choice of method(s) and the conduct of research
  • consensus, conflict, structural and social action theories
  • the concepts of modernity and post-modernity in relation to sociological theory
  • the nature of science and the extent to which Sociology can be regarded as scientific
  • the relationship between theory and methods
  • debates about subjectivity, objectivity and value freedom
  • the relationship between Sociology and social policy

Families and Households (option on paper 2, section A)

  • the relationship of the family to the social structure and social change, with particular reference to the economy and to state policies
  • changing patterns of marriage, cohabitation, separation, divorce, childbearing and the life course, including the sociology of personal life, and the diversity of contemporary family and household structures
  • gender roles, domestic labour and power relationships within the family in contemporary society
  • the nature of childhood, and changes in the status of children in the family and society
  • demographic trends in the United Kingdom since 1900: birth rates, death rates, family size, life expectancy, ageing population, and migration and globalisation.

Global Development (option on paper 2, section B)

  • development, underdevelopment and global inequality
  • globalisation and its influence on the cultural, political and economic relationships between societies
  • the role of transnational corporations, non-governmental organisations and international agencies in local and global strategies for development
  • development in relation to aid and trade, industrialisation, urbanisation, the environment, and war and conflict
  • employment, education, health, demographic change and gender as aspects of development.

Beliefs in Society (option on paper 2, section B)

  • ideology, science and religion, including both Christian and non-Christian religious traditions
  • the relationship between social change and social stability, and religious beliefs, practices and organisations
  • religious organisations, including cults, sects, denominations, churches and New Age movements, and their relationship to religious and spiritual belief and practice
  • the relationship between different social groups and religious/spiritual organisations and movements, beliefs and practices
  • the significance of religion and religiosity in the contemporary world, including the nature and extent of secularisation in a global context, and globalisation and the spread of religions.

The Media (option on paper 2, section B)

  • the new media and their significance for an understanding of the role of the media in contemporary
    society
  • the relationship between ownership and control of the media
  • the media, globalisation and popular culture
  • the processes of selection and presentation of the content of the news
  • media representations of age, social class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability
  • the relationship between the media, their content and presentation, and audiences.

Crime and Deviance (paper 3)

  • crime, deviance, social order and social control
  • the social distribution of crime and deviance by ethnicity, gender and social class, including recent patterns and trends in crime
  • globalisation and crime in contemporary society; the media and crime; green crime; human rights and state crimes
  • crime control, surveillance, prevention and punishment, victims, and the role of the criminal justice system and other agencies.

Sources:

Modified from the AQA’s A-level Sociology Specification from 2015 onwards (7191-2) – which can be accessed in all its glory here:

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Russia’s ‘Managed’ Democracy

Pre-script… I wrote this before the Russian elections, time-released it and then put it back so it ended up being published after the elections…which was maybe an effort on my part! Anyway, it is what it is, sort of a testament to postmodernity, sort of… Putin won of course!

Russian elections are coming up in March, and given that Russia is one of the BRIC nations, and thus relevant to the A-level sociology module on global development, I thought it worth doing a quick post…..

Technically Russia is a democracy, and has been since 1993, because presidential elections are held every 6 years, and there’s an elected parliament and an ‘independent’ judiciary.

However, in reality it’s more of a ‘managed democracy’: those in power rely heavily on the Oligarchs who control Russian business and the media to pre-determine election results. This happened initially with the first elected President, Boris Yeltsin, and even more so with his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, who has been in power since the year 2000. If he wins this year’s presidential election, he’ll remain there until 2024.

Putin has been very successful in managing democracy – through media manipulation he remains very popular, with policies which are strong on cutting down on ‘gangsta capitalism’ and an aggressive foreign policy – however, he also uses ‘blatant corruption’ tactics to stay in power, as when he bused supporters to different polling stations to stuff ballot boxes in the 2011-12 elections, which led to protests, to which he responded by banning protests, unless you get a permit, which are often refused.

Is there any chance Putin will lose the next election in March?

His main opposition is from a guy called Alexi Navanly – a nationalist with an anti-immigration stance, his main problem being that less than half of Russians seem to know who he is due to Putin’s control of the mainstream media.

However, there is a possibility that Putin’s inability to allow any genuine alternatives in opposition could be his downfall as more and more young people turn to the online sources for their information about politics in Russia.

Sources:

The Week, 2nd Sept 2017

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How equal are men and women in relationships these days? Student survey results

Women who do the lioness’s share of the housework, but men and women seem to have equal control over the finances, at least according to two surveys conduct by my A Level sociology students last week.

This acts as a useful update to the topic of power and equality within relationships, especially the ‘domestic division of labour’ aspect.

I actually did two surveys this week with the students this week, both on Socrative.

For the first survey, I simply asked students via Socrative, who did most of the domestic work when they were a child (mostly mother or mostly father – full range of possible responses are in the results below), with ‘domestic work’ broken down into tasks such as cleaning, laundry, DIY etc…

For the second Survey, I got students to write down possible survey questions on post it notes, then I selected 7 of them to make a brief questionnaire which they then used as a basis for interviewing three couples about who did the housework.

Selected results from the initial student survey on parents’ housework

These results were based on students’ memory!

Housework survey 2018

Housework survey 2018 DIY

Selected results from the second survey

based on student interviews with couples

Domestic labour questionnaire 2018

men women finances survey 2018

Discussion of the validity of the results…..

These two surveys on the domestic division of labour (and other things) provided a useful way into a discussion of the strengths and limitations of social surveys more generally….we touched on the following, among other things:

  • memory may limit validity in survey one
  • lack of possible options limits validity in survey two, also serves as an illustration of the imposition problem.
  • asking couples should act as a check on validity, because men can’t exaggerate if they are with their partner.
  • there are a few ethical problems with the ‘him’ and ‘her’ categories, which could be improved upon.

Postcript – on using student surveys to teach A-level sociology

All in all this is a great activity to do with students. It brings the research up to date, it gets them thinking about questionnaire design and, if you time it right, it even gets them out of the class room for half an hour, so you can just put yer feet up and chillax!

If you want to use the same surveys the links, which will allow you to modify as you see fit, are here:

  • Quiz one – https://b.socrative.com/teacher/#import-quiz/16728393
  • Quiz two – https://b.socrative.com/teacher/#import-quiz/33508597

 

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The Condition of Postmodernity, Chapter 1 Summary

Condition postmodernity chapter 2 summaryA summary of David Harvey’s (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity’: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change.

This is a summary of the introductory chapter of part one of this book, in which Harvey introduces us to some basic definitions of modernity and postmodernity.

Part 1 – The Passage from Modernity to Postmodernity in Contemporary Culture

Starts with a quote by Max Weber…

‘the general views of life and the universe can never be the products of increasing empirical knowledge, and that the highest ideals, which move us most forcefully, are always formed only in the struggle with other ideals.’

1. Introduction

Condition PostmodernityJonathan Raban’s Soft City – a highly personalised account of London in the 1970s written in 1974 was written at the cusp in intellectual and cultural history when something called postmodernism emerged as a cultural aesthetic in its own right (developing into something more than just being anti-modern).

Raban rejected the thesis of a city tightly stratified by occupation and class, depicting instead the spread of individualism and entrepreneurialism, where social distinction was broadly conferred by possessions and appearance – the city was an emporium of styles, and primarily about the production of signs and images – something not rationally planned and rigid, but more like a theatre in which people acted out a multiplicity of roles. Rather than a place of lost-community, the city was a labyrinth, a honeycomb, consisting of diverse networks.

Harvey recognises that this is just one view of the city, but his purpose is not to judge its accuracy, but to ask why this particular view was so well received at that time.

Raban’s vision of the city was one which could not be disciplined by rational planning, one where imagination and fact fused together – his vision appealed to ‘subjective individualism’ – casting it as a place where people were relatively free to act and where personal identity was fluid. – (it’s sort of in the title ‘soft city’…..

‘The city invites you to remake it into a shape you can live in…. cities, unlike villages and small towns are plastic by nature. We mould then in our images: they, in turn, shape us by the resistances they offer.”

Raban also recognised the downsides of urban living – too many people lost their way in the labyrinth and it was too easy for us to lose each other as well as ourselves; there was a lot of violence beneath the surface, and although we were free to play with images, ‘creative entrepreneurialism’ had the potential to impose an ‘imperialism of taste’ which could create a new hierarchy of values….

‘the very plastic qualities which make the great city the liberator of human identity also cause it to be especially vulnerable to to psychosis and totalitarian nightmare’.’

Raban was influenced by Roland Barthes, and Le Corbusier’s modernist style of architecture is the bête noire for Raban, however the text is more than simply anti-modern, and the tension between the two mark this text out as a sign that postmodernism has arrived.

Harvey now points to Cindy Sherman as one of the major figures of the postmodern movement.

Sherman’s work parallels the theme of the plasticity of the city in Raban’s work – All Sherman does is take photographs of herself in different walks of life (and somehow convinces people to pay her enough to earn a living doing it?!) – emphasising the ‘malleability of appearances and surfaces and self-referential positioning of the authors as subjects’.

So what is this postmodernism of which many now speak?

No one agrees as to what is meant by the term except that ‘postmodernism’ represents some kind of reaction to or departure from ‘modernism’. Since the meaning of modernism is also very confused, the reaction or departure known as postmodernism is doubly so.

Terry Eagleton (a literary critic) defined postmodernism thus in 1987:

The typical postmodernist artefact is playful, self-ironizing and even schizoid; and that it reacts to the austere autonomy of high modernism by impudently embracing the language of commerce and the commodity. Its stance towards cultural tradition is one of irreverent pastiche, and its contrived depthlessness undermines all metaphysical solemnities, sometimes by a brutal aesthetics of squalor and shock.’

The editors of the architectural journal PRECIS (1987) see postmodernism as a legitimate reaction to the monotony of universal modernism’s vision of the world.

‘Generally perceived as positivistic, technocentric, and rationalistic, being about linear progress, absolute truths, rational planning of ideal social orders and the standardisation of knowledge and production. Postmodernism by way of contrast privileges heterogeneity and differences as liberative force in the redefinition of cultural discourse. Fragmentation, indeterminacy and intense distrust of all universal or totalising discourses are the hallmark of postmodernist thought.’

 Examples of postmodernism include:

– The rediscovery of pragmatism in philosophy – Rorty (1979)

– New ideas about the philosophy of science – Kuhn (1962) and Feyerbrand (1975)

– Foucault’s focus on polymorphous correlations in place of simple or complex causality in history.

– New developments in maths emphasising indeterminacy – chaos theory a fractal geometry.

– the concern for ‘the other’ in anthropology and politics.

What all of the above have in common is the a rejection of metanarratives (large scale theoretical interpretations purportedly of universal application.

Eagleton’s full description of postmodernism…

‘Post-modernism signals the death of such ‘metanarratives’ whose secretly terroristic function was to ground and legitimate the illusion of a ‘universal’ human history. We are now in the process of wakening from the nightmare of modernity, with it manipulative reason and fetish of the totality, into the laid-back pluralism of the post-modern, that heterogeneous rnage of life-styles and language games which has renounced the nostalgic urge to totalise and legitimate itself… Science and philosophy must jettison their grandiose metaphysical claims and view themselves more modestly as just another set of narratives’.

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Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment

In this famously notorious experiment college students volunteered to take on the role of either prison guards or prisoners and spend time in an artificial prison. The Stanford Prison Experiment was meant to last 14 days, it had to be stopped after just six because the ‘guards’ became abusive and the ‘prisoners’ began to show signs of extreme stress and anxiety.

In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set out to create an experiment that looked at the impact of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The researchers set up a mock prison in the basement of Standford University’s psychology building, and then selected 24 undergraduate students to play the roles of both prisoners and guards.

The simulated prison included three six by nine foot prison cells. Each cell held three prisoners and included three cots. Other rooms across from the cells were utilized for the prison guards and warden. One very small space was designated as the solitary confinement room, and yet another small room served as the prison yard.

The 24 volunteers were then randomly assigned to either the prisoner group or the guard group. Prisoners were to remain in the mock prison 24-hours a day for the duration of the study. Guards, on the other hand, were assigned to work in three-man teams for eight-hour shifts. After each shift, guards were allowed to return to their homes until their next shift. Researchers were able to observe the behavior of the prisoners and guards using hidden cameras and microphones.

While the prisoners and guards were allowed to interact in any way they wanted, the interactions were generally hostile or even dehumanizing. The guards began to behave in ways that were aggressive and abusive toward the prisoners, while the prisoners became passive and depressed. Five of the prisoners began to experience such severe negative emotions, including crying and acute anxiety, that they had to be released from the study early.

The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates the powerful role that the situation can play in human behaviour. Because the guards were placed in a position of power, they began to behave in ways they would not normally act in their everyday lives or in other situations. The prisoners, placed in a situation where they had no real control, became passive and depressed.

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How Drones are changing Africa

Inventors and entrepreneurs across Africa are using Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to tackle some of the ‘development problems’ which the continent faces.

Combating poaching, tracking illegal shipping activities, monitoring oil spills and adding value to Safaris.

In Nigeria, archaeologists are using drones to map traces of the ancient Yoruba civilization

In Sudan, they are being used to fight desertification: by monitoring signs of drought and to plant Acacia trees which prevent social erosion.

In Rwanda, drones deliver blood to 50% of the country’s blood transfusion centres: centres in remote areas can now receive emergency supplies within 30 minutes by drone-parachute, simply by sending a text message.

(Al Jazera)

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Good resources for researching the nature and extent of Domestic Abuse

The topic of domestic abuse is relevant to the families and households and crime and deviance modules within A-level sociology, as well as providing some of the strongest supporting evidence for the continued relevance of Feminism more generally in contemporary society.

It’s also one of those topics that’s good to teach (sensitively) for more ‘humanistic reasons’ – raising awareness of the nature and extent, and underlying dynamics of domestic abuse could play a role in helping prevent today’s teenagers being victims (or even perpetrators!) of this crime.

Below I provide some ‘starting point’ resources which students can use to research the nature and extent of domestic abuse in England and Wales.

Office for National Statistics: Domestic Abuse in England and Wales (to year ending March 2017) – This ONS summary of CSEW and Police Recorded Crime data focuses on extent of domestic abuse, broken down over time, by gender, age and different types : the ‘headline stats’ are included in the infographic below:

Domestic Abuse Statistics 2018.png

Victim SupportVictim Support is an independent charity which supports victims of crime. Their section on domestic abuse is a a very accessible guide to the basic definition and different types of domestic abuse, as well as containing information about how to get support if your a Victim, or you think someone else is.

Women’s Aidmost of their research publications focus on the state of domestic abuse services (e.g. refuges) provided by the state and what happens to the survivors of domestic abuse. 

The NSPCC –  focusing on children and domestic abuse (which the ONS stats above do not cover). 1 in 5 children have been exposed to domestic abuse – either as victims themselves, or witnessing it.

The Femicide Census – profiles of women killed by men – 113 women were killed by men in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2016 – 69% of them by their intimate partners, and only 8% by strangers. This 2017 publication by Women’s Aid outlines some of the grim facts of this crime. 

A very useful website from the U.S. is The Recovery Village –  It contains information on how to leave an abusive relationship, how to help a victim of domestic violence, and more. One of its key aims to empower victims of domestic abuse and their loved ones.

The above are really just some useful ‘starting point’ links…. Further Sources to Follow!

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Explaining South Korea’s Economic and Social Development #2

South Korea is one of the real success stories of development post world war two, but what policies led to it rapid economic and social development?

NB – you might like to read part one of ‘Explaining South Korea’s Development‘ first!

During the early phases of its economic development, there were few vested interests In South Korea to oppose Import Substitution Industrialization: there was no landlord class (like in South America) and no foreign ownership of industry (like in much of Africa), so there were no vested ‘extractive’ interests to block the consumption of imports which was required to boost manufacturing.

During the 1980s South Korea also benefited from global political and economic trends: it gained an ally in America who wanted a stronghold in Asia to prove that a free-market economy was a viable alternative to communism; it was also able to benefit from the increasing global demand for cars and other industrial products – cheaper labour in South Korea meant it was eventually able to build a very successful automobile industry, spruing on the decline of manufacturing in places like Detroit.

The Hyundai factory in Ulsan is now the biggest automobile factory in the World, an honor which used to belong to the River Rouge Ford Factory in Detroit.

By the 1990s South Korea was being categorized as a Newly Industrialized Economy…however, the idea that this success was because of neoliberal policies is a myth. Rather, the strong economic growth post WW2 was because the authoritarian government (not beholden to either of the vested interests above) was able to protect industries, much in the same way as Britain and America did during their strong phases of economic growth.

In short, South Korea’s economic success is because the state played a highly interventionist role in steering, stimulating and constraining the market.

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Analyse two reasons why men might commit more crime than women (10)

This is a possible ’10 mark with item question’ question which might come up on the AQA’s A level sociology crime and deviance with theory and methods paper (7192/3).

I’ve just got this intuitive feeling that IF a 10 mark question comes up on gender, it will ask candidates to focus on masculinity and male crime rather than female crime.

Below I include a question, with item and a suggested model answer…

10 Mark ‘with item’ Question

Read Item A, then answer the question below.

Item A

‘Normative masculinity’ is the socially approved ideal of what a ‘real man’ is. This involves being successful in terms of money and sexual conquests, being in control/exercising power. Messerschmitt argues that high levels of male crime are simply down to men trying to prove they are ‘real men’.

This goes some way to explaining white collar crime (mainly male) – it’s about status and competition. It might also also explain domestic violence and working class street violence – these are the means men with low status use to act out their masculinity when they lack power in mainstream society.

Using material from Item A, analyse two reasons why men might commit more crime than women (10)

Hints and Tips

  • Being successful: money, sex, in control, excercising power
  • normative (traditional) masculinity
  • Elite (white collar) crime
  • Low status crimes (WC street violence)
  • Also DV!

Suggested Model Answer

Firstly

  • Men might commit more crime than women because they believe that they need to be financially successful to prove they are a ‘real man’. The most obvious way a man can ‘act out’ this ‘traditional breadwinner’ aspect of his masculinity is to get a well-paid job.
  • However, according to Merton’s Strain Theory, not all men can achieve this goal through the legitimate means of getting a high paid job, as there are relatively few of these available, and as a result some will turn to crime in order ‘show they are successful’.
  • For some men this may ‘simply’ mean earning money by criminal means – by dealing drugs or doing ‘moped thefts’ for example – all of which seem to be mainly male pursuits.
  • Other men who lack the opportunity or ‘smartness’ to do utilitarian crime may just get frustrated and seek to prove their status and toughness through violence, as Winlow found with mainly working class men in Newcastle.
  • However, it isn’t just working class men who turn to crime to prove status: within companies some highly paid men turn to fraud to make even more money than their male peers.

Secondly…

  • Men might commit more crime than women to ‘prove they are in control of women’.
  • From a radical feminist perspective this is largely what explains domestic violence which happens across all class groups.
  • Heidensohn suggests DV is just one criminal way men express control in in private – it also happens in public through ‘harrassment’ on the streets
  • This is further perpetuated by ‘the male gaze’ and the objectification of women in the media, especially porn, all of which are interwoven in a network of patriarchal control over women.
  • However, men don’t necessarily just use sexual violence to control women, they also use it to control other men – male rape has been used against captured combatants in the DRC for example, and it can also be used in prisons where ‘situational homosexuality’ can be used as a means some men use to express their power over others.