Chapter 2 - Influences Subchapter: Gender

Gender and power

Gender and power in society

Three illustrated characters: a character in a suit and another character dressed in blue holding hands, while the third character in a pink dress looks left out and worried.

 

In our society it is illegal to discriminate in any way on the basis of gender.

In formal relationships, males and females can have legitimate authority and power over each other. A male boss has legitimate power over all employees regardless of gender, as does a female boss. A police officer has legitimate power over citizens regardless of the gender of the police officer or the citizens.

But it’s the role that allows this power dynamic to exist, not the individual person, and the authority is limited and restricted to the power given by the rules that apply to the role.

The law considers all citizens to be equal, meaning one individual does not have power or authority over another, on the basis of gender or any other reason.

 

Power dynamics in intimate relationships

Personal and intimate relationships do not come with defined roles that wield legitimate authority and power.

In personal and intimate relationships, each person has the same rights, responsibilities and individual freedoms, regardless of gender.

 

Two illustrated characters, one in pink and the other in blue, hold up charters each which say 'Rights and Responsibilities'.

 

However, there are still social norms that exist around gender that “allocate” specific roles to partners in intimate relationships that are based on gender. For example, it is common to find people expressing beliefs such as:

  • men should put out the garbage
  • women should do the laundry
  • men are better at making major household decisions
  • women are better at looking after a sick child
  • women can’t control their emotions and therefore can’t be trusted to make logical decisions under pressure.

 

These outdated social norms still have an impact on many intimate relationships and need to be challenged in order to ensure that both partners have the same rights, responsibilities and individual freedoms regardless of their gender.

That doesn’t mean that power dynamics don’t exist in intimate relationships.

In intimate relationships, decisions will be made every day that are based on one partner’s wants, interests or abilities, such as:

  • one person gets home from work earlier than the other so it’s agreed they will prepare dinner and the other will do the laundry each weekend
  • one person gets paid more than the other so if that person wants to go out for dinner it’s agreed they will pay for both meals
  • one person enjoys travelling on the train so it’s agreed the other person can use the car to get to work
  • one person is terrible managing their own budget so it’s agreed the other person will make a joint savings plan for shared expenses
  • one person has a large social group, but it’s agreed they shouldn’t only do things with that person’s friends
  • one person wants children, but it’s agreed they won’t try and start a family until it’s something they both want.

 

What’s important to note about each of these decisions is that they are freely agreed by each individual and a person’s gender is not driving the decision-making.

These shared decisions are made to serve the best interests of the relationship - both partner’s wishes and preferences have been considered.

 

Two illustrated characters hold up a sign which reads, 'Shared Decisions'.

 

In a healthy and respectful intimate relationship, we rightly expect that both persons consider each other’s rights, freedoms, needs and desires before making a decision rather than basing a decision on what a gender norm or stereotype portrays as the way it should be.

 

Abuse of power

When relationships become disrespectful and abusive, it’s usually the result of abusing power within the relationship.

Abuse of power can happen in an intimate relationship, a working relationship, an online relationship, or a bullying situation.

Recognising that each of us has power, and each of us has the power to choose how our power is used, is important in understanding how to establish and maintain respectful relationships.

At times a person’s gender can be used as a source of power in a relationship.

Most people understand what constitutes sexual violence and physical violence but are less knowledgeable when it comes to other non-physical, non-violent forms of abuse of power and control.

Some people use emotional abuse to control other people. These signs can be more difficult to spot, but could include:

  • getting angry and trying to isolate you from your friends and family
  • putting you down all the time, using names like ‘frigid’ or ‘slut’ to control what you do, humiliate you and destroy your self-esteem
  • trying to control your life (telling you how to dress, who you hang out with and what you say)
  • demanding to know where you are all the time and monitoring your calls and emails
  • threatening to spread rumours about you
  • being verbally abusive or threatening towards yourself or others
  • threatening to harm themselves if you don’t comply with their demands
  • if someone is lesbian, gay, bi or transgender and not ‘out’, their partner might threaten to ‘out’ them if they don’t do what they want.

Regardless of how it occurs, all forms of abuse are wrong. One common way of understanding how these practices play out is the Power and Control Wheel…

 

The Power and Control Wheel outlines tactics and controlling behaviour such as intimidation and isolation often used in abusive relationships.

Image from The Duluth Model: https://www.theduluthmodel.org/wheels/

 

The Power and Control Wheel shows how the presence of physical or sexual violence in a relationship amplifies the potential threat of other abusive tactics like emotional abuse, coercion, intimidation, minimising, denying and blaming.

For example, one person might try to make their partner dependant on them by restricting their access to their friends or family.

And not through physically restricting them, but by making them feel guilty about not spending all their spare time with them.

‘If you loved me, you’d want to spend the day with me, not your friends.’

Or the other person might sulk or become verbally aggressive if they leave the house for a social event.

Done repeatedly this can be emotional exhausting. The victim is constantly trying to manage the other persons feelings and it can feel easier to comply and stay home, and reduce or even cut off their external social ties.

Abuse can be emotional and verbal and could escalate to physical or sexual abuse. All types are serious and they’re never OK.

In a healthy and respectful relationship, each person has individual rights and freedoms that must be recognised.