A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The Phenomenon of Identity-Based Violence in Liberal Spaces

On the Netflix show “The Fall,” Stella is a gritty British detective whose dry loathing of men is nearly palpable. She is tasked with catching a serial killer named Paul Spector, who has almost every aspect of privilege imaginable: white, male, straight, attractive, and upper-middle class. Aside from his troubled childhood in foster care, he’s practically impervious to large-scale systems of oppression, which makes him the perfect candidate to be a serial murderer of young, powerful white women. “The Fall,” a gripping three-season saga, reveals just how creepy and grotesque serial killers can be. But there’s something that sets this show apart from your average serial killer show.

As the scene I’m watching stiffens, Stella’s co-detective, Jim, enters the room. Jim and Stella have a history: they had an affair, and Stella eventually moved on and advanced in her career. Now, coincidentally, she and Jim are working together on a case. Stella has made her standing with Jim very clear—strictly professional—but Jim doesn’t know how to take “no” for an answer. In the previous episode, he had showed up at Stella’s door in a drunken rage and tried to coerce her into having sex. So now we’re 32 minutes into season two, episode six, and Stella and Jim are preparing to interrogate Paul, when Jim provides a stern proverb of caution to Stella. Jim says Stella is about to come “face to face with pure evil.” According to Jim, Paul Spector “is not a human being; he’s a monster.”

Stella responds, “Stop, Jim, just stop. You can choose to see the world like that, but you know that it makes no sense to me. Men like Spector are all too human, too understandable. He’s not a monster; he’s just a man.”

Jim retorts, “Well I’m a man, and I hope to God I’m nothing like him.”

Stella claps back with a feminist ass-whooping and says, “No Jim, you’re not, but you still came to my room uninvited and mounted some sort of drunken attack on me…What did you want? To fuck me, nail me, bang me, screw me?”

Jim stands there, looking pitiful, pasty, and teary-eyed, while I sit in awe, shocked that this actually happened on national television. Stella had forced Jim to recognize the link between his own masculinity and the killer’s. Stella has made a striking connection that many people are too privileged, ignorant, oblivious, or cowardly to grapple with or even acknowledge: no one is separate from the large-scale systems of oppression that silence and marginalize certain identities. To alienate yourself from this truth means you are embedding yourself deeper in complicity, blind to the fact that you are part of the problem.

In this specific context, Stella is distilling what is called the Continuum of Violence (COV). This is a concept used to illustrate how facets of rape culture contribute to systemic violence against women. The COV can also be applied to other oppressive systems regarding race, class, sexuality, religion, and ability. Now, I realize that this is a daunting concept to reconcile, which is why when Jim had his ass handed to him by Stella, you could truly see his masculinity shrivel up and retreat into his testicles. But that’s why I’m trying to parse this out. Frankly, recognizing where we fall on the COV is an emotional process, particularly for people who consider themselves liberal or progressive, because these value systems supposedly support the liberation of marginalized identities. Moreover, the COV requires us to examine the more tedious, minute, and intimate parts our lives and ourselves. When liberals look at the COV, we have to figure out ways to actually live our theoretical progressive discourse.

Toward a Better Understanding of Violence

The COV is an illustrative conceptual tool that allows us to classify and connect acts of violence in order to recognize them on a systemic level. The Continuum of Violence Against Women was the first and most widely accepted rendering of the COV, but the COV can be applied to many systems of domination and power. If you Google the Continuum of Violence, the images that appear address violence against children, women, the disabled, racial groups, and other marginalized communities.

The COV was coined by Liz Kelly in her acclaimed book “Surviving Sexual Violence,” in which she clarified that violence against women was not merely episodic behavior that arose from crimes of passion, but rather a symptom, and even a function of, an oppressive, gendered system. The COV does not create a hierarchy of severity. Rather, it shows how violence manifests in different forms: verbal, emotional, psychological, and physical acts. The continuum is meant to show how each of these forms of violence connect on both a small (daily, passive, inadvertent) and large (historical, active, purposeful) scale.

The COV describes a system of power and control that perpetuates the normativity of identity-based violence—violence that is perpetrated against a person or group due to their race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, age, nationality, or political affiliation. Figure 2 is a telling graphic created by the Washington Coalition for Sexual Assault Programs. The bubble in the middle that says “oppression” denotes the importance of recognizing intersectionality as a context for Continuums of Violence.The most important thing to understand about the COV is that often the acts of violence on the more insidious, micro-aggressive end of the scale are what allow the acts on the more overtly hellacious end of the scale to persist.

According to the COV, identity-based violence works much like a sickness. The symptoms often show up gradually, but if left untreated, even a slight cough or an occasional sniffle can turn into pneumonia. The same applies to seemingly harmless norms like catcalling. If these behaviors are left untreated, they develop into a disease like rape. Unfortunately, we are all carriers of the disease, and the symptoms are so common that we forget that they’re products of a sickness at all. This is why the COV is important for processing how mundane microaggressions can eventually accumulate, escalate, and normalize violence. To be clear, the COV does not rank acts of violence. This does not mean that more “minor” misogynistic practices are always equally traumatic as rape and murder, but that these actions are equally relevant in perpetuating identity-based violence. Moreover, disrupting misogynistic practices matters just as much as disrupting rape and murder because the permission of the former is what allows the latter to thrive. Everything on the continuum is deeply linked.

The COV serves to complicate the notion that violence is a cut-and-dried hierarchy. Let’s transport this into context. You are standing in the kitchen at a party and you make a joke about how all black women have big asses. This joke plays into the stereotype that all black women are sexually deviant and aggressive, thus reducing them to sexual objects. A bystanding man overhears this joke, laughs, and continues to the dance floor, where he spots a black woman wearing a tight dress. He grabs her ass without asking, as a joke, and no one says anything. A bystanding straight man watches this interaction, and it turns out he has a black girl fetish. He goes home that night with a black woman. When they get back to his place, she kisses him goodnight, and tries to go home, but he wants black ass. Despite her repeated attempts to say “no” to his sexual advances, he says, “I know you want it.” He forces himself on her. Don’t all black women love to have sex anyway?

This is obviously an accelerated version of the way that social norms escalate violence, but there are three lessons to glean from this scenario. First, the links between each act of violence aren’t always conscious. The man who overheard your joke may not have actively recognized that your words influenced his actions.

Second, whether you like it or not, your joke catalyzed identity-based violence. On an individual level, the joke itself does not inflict the same amount of harm as rape, but it is just as harmful in contributing to a grand scheme of violence. Lastly, your actions and inactions have consequences, and they can harm others actively and passively. Your joke about black women signaled to others that it was okay to inflict harm. I’ve heard people argue, “Well, people with violent urges to rape are always going to rape,” and that may be true, but your joke gave others a get-out-of-jail-free card—a sign that says, “You won’t be vilified for your actions.”

I’ll complicate the hierarchy notion even further by providing some personal context. I am a queer black woman who has spent most of my life in predominantly white, liberal spaces. I have experienced racism of all kinds, but the kind that has caused me the most harm has been at the hands of people who claim to be my friends, lovers, and partners. I have had conservative strangers and peers violently threaten me as they call me a “fat ass ugly nigger.” I have had men physically intimidate me while they make transphobic comments. On the other hand, I’ve also had close friends tell me I would be prettier if I had “normal” (white) hair, and I have had lovers fetishize me until I didn’t know myself anymore. While those overtly bigoted, physical altercations left me literally wounded, they didn’t leave lasting harm on my dignity in the way that my experiences with those close to me did.

One would assume that my physical altercations would outrank the seemingly non-violent moments in my life, but that’s not the case. Using a continuum, rather than a hierarchy, allows survivors of all types of violence to claim and understand their pain in the way they choose. And it forces everyone to recognize the violence within their actions, even if they aren’t rape and murder.

The Illusion of Distance

What I’ve noticed about progressive and liberal spaces is that we are often so obsessed with “moving forward” and heralding our affinity for change that we create a false moral gulf between ourselves and conservatives. In other words, by believing we are the arbiters of “progress,” we tend to think less critically about our own actions, as if only bigots, racists, sexists, homophobes, and serial killers can commit these acts. As if violence only manifests through KKK hoods and pussy grabs.However, our “high-horse” is more like a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”—toxic social norms posing as progress.

The moral confidence of liberalism reminds me of the fable of the tortoise and the hare: the liberal is the overly confident, forward-moving hare whose speed and intellect blinds him from recognizing his flaws. The COV allows us to close the false moral gulf we’ve constructed, and grasp the fact that acts of violence can occur in any space, to anyone, regardless of the moral high ground we think we have. The COV complicates hierarchies of violence and forces everyone to understand the ways that their actions contribute to identity-based violence, regardless of how much harm they are inflicting in the immediate moment. It clearly illustrates that we are all functioning as part of a system that has specific violent outcomes, and under this notion, liberals cannot claim to be separate from these problems. What’s more, we are participating in the problem just as much as anyone else.

Ask yourself this question: how is it that liberals manage to commit acts of identity-based violence against the very groups they are trying to liberate?

How is it that my white male classmate can theorize about the black feminist bell hooks, and interrupt me in the process? How is it that my black male friend can march for black lives, but call trans women deceitful? How is it that my white female co-worker can work at a non-profit for racial equity, and then say that my (black) opinions are unprofessional?

The recent sexual assault scandals including liberal public figures like Bill Cosby, Nate Parker, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, and Louis C.K. have baffled many in the progressive camp (men in particular). But I believe that the phenomenon of identity-based violence within liberal spaces has everything to do with our failure to acknowledge the importance of seemingly small acts of violence. Moreover, our failure to incorporate this notion into our politics and daily lives has given birth to a brand of morality that holds hypocrisy at its center.

Anne Thériault, a prominent Canadian feminist, wrote an article about the ways that men infiltrate feminist spaces in order to commit acts of sexual violence. She notes that their ability to commit sexual misconduct hinges upon their feminism because “they get to enjoy a special status as one of the good guys fighting the good fight, they have access to vulnerable women who think they are a safe person, and finally they have a large group of women willing to vouch for them if allegations ever do surface.”

So yes, there are people who use their liberalism to enact identity-based violence. And yes, it’s a counterintuitive notion, but it makes sense if you understand the COV. Even if you are liberal and you aren’t committing heinous acts of sexual violence in the same manner as Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey, I urge you to remember the central tenet of the COV: all scales of violence matter. There is no hierarchy. The misogyny enacted by your peers, friends, and classmates should be addressed as urgently as Bill Cosby’s 49 rape cases, not because the amount of individual harm is necessarily equal, but because all acts of identity-based violence uphold a system of oppression that inevitably lead to harm, regardless of whether or not you are the person to enact it. Acts of identity-based violence are perpetuated by sociocultural norms that we all unfortunately inherit, regardless of our political affiliation. Everything on the continuum of violence is epidemic, and none of us are immune.

This Sucks, But There’s Hope

I’m sure my previous sentence just made you feel a bit queasy about the state of society. Trust me, it gives me a sort of existential nausea too. But the goal of this article is to reflect deeply enough to shake our conscious ground, but eventually resolve with steps to move forward. So I’ll end with four main points:

First, the COV can be used as a template for understanding many systems of domination. For example, the racism scale is another conceptual representation of the COV. The COV transcends power structures, and you can use it to continuously identify violent symptoms, and unlearn them.

Second, you can try to embed the concept of the COV into your daily life. Granted, this has the potential to consume you until you start seeing tiny acts of violence everywhere, which is neither productive nor healthy. But understanding that these behaviors are happening everywhere, by everyone, is important. The COV can be empowering. Our most mundane actions and interactions have power and purpose, especially if you are someone who gains power from identity-based violence.

Third, your ability to recognize the impact of interrupting daily acts of violence holds more power than showing up to one or two protests. Identity-based violence is not episodic, but systematic. So if you can make your activism more systematic and less episodic, you have more agency for change than you think. With the ideas behind the COV in mind, you can examine power dynamics in your significant relationships and friendships. Ask the people in your life if they’ve ever felt unheard, belittled, or undignified because of their identity. You can be more critical and mindful of the images you post on social media. Do they serve to normalize violence against a certain identity group? Do you co-opt imagery and identities from people who suffer from identity-based violence? You can engage more critically in classroom settings and collaborative spaces. Are you silencing individuals who are threatened by identity-based violence?

Finally, we’re all in this together. Chances are, you are part of the problem, and so am I. While there are certainly individuals who contribute to identity-based violence more than others, we each have to continuously hold each other accountable for actions every day. We can actually get shit done if we all come together and do it consistently. Don’t just rely on the most marginalized people in your life to do it. And don’t just do it for a week after you read this. Do it all the time. Set a reminder on your phone. Write it on a sticky note and post it on your bathroom mirror. Bottom line is: do better. Don’t just say it. Do it.

*I use the terms “liberal” and “progressive” interchangeably in this piece although I know that historically and fundamentally these terms represent two different political ideologies. In this context I am using these terms for their rhetorical and socio cultural meanings rather than their strictly political ones.

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