bell hooks’ work has been a major influence in my own feminist politics but also in my research more generally. Today I am writing about the ways her work on loving ethic can be utilised for sexual violence prevention interventions.
I will provide an overview of hooks’ work on love primarily from the following three books “All about love new visions, Men Masculinity and Love and Feminism is for everybody”. However, this being a big part of her scholarship I have drawn from other texts as well.
For me hook’s work lends itself very readily to feminist discussions of rape prevention and I am interested in three aspects of her work on love which highlight this link:
Her contention that we need to work from a shared understanding of love and work to practice this in all of our relationships, not only romantic.
Her work addresses the complications of love for individuals who have witnessed and/or experienced abuse and provides a space to consider how we draw a boundary between love and abuse which she considers mutually exclusive. She argues that “the myth that love and domination can coexist is one of the biggest lies told to us by patriarchy”.
Her work speaks directly to the reimagining of patriarchal and hegemonic constructions of masculinity, a piece of work that is fundamental to sexual violence prevention. Effective rape prevention engages men not as potential perpetrators but as allies in eliminating gendered violence, approaching men within a framework of love gives us the opportunity to draw on what many men already do in their relationships and working towards harnessing love, empathy and compassion in order to behave safely in public and private.
Love has long been a foundational principle in anti-violence work, and is a key principle in many faith based schools of thought and in many indigenous communities. I am thinking quickly here of Martin Luther King’s speech on loving one’s enemies “hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”, of practicing loving kindness during meditation and of the principles of tika, pono and aroha in Te Ao Maori. These understandings of love are not equivalent, but rather I am using them to show that love may be a way for different groups to find shared meaning, in a way that speaking of gender, sex and sexuality (sometimes) cannot do. Indeed hooks reminds us that “all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic”.
The study of love in feminism and also queer studies has been influential in many ways. Romantic love as a social institution and a form of social control as described by Kate Millet in Sexual Politics, ‘love of the self regardless’ as described by Alice Walker and the complexities surrounding love, sex and sexuality outlined in Lynne Segal’s Straight Sex, are a small selection of a large field of theoretical work on love.
bell hooks’ conception of love argues that love acts to transform relationships of domination. Her theory of presupposes that everyone has the right to live freely and to live well. According to hooks love is a practice, love is not instinctual we choose to love but in patriarchal culture, romantic love is tied to notions of possession and submission. The idea of love catches you unawares, you fall into it and it renders you powerless. Luce Irigary speaks also of the way love is framed in language in I love to you, “I love to you means I maintain a relationship of indirection to you. I do not subjugate or consume you. I respect you (as irreducible).”
Because there is no school to teach us how to love, we do not work from a shared definition or understanding of what it means to love. And thus hooks provides us with a definition of love, care, commitment, knowledge, integrity and the will to cooperate.
Part of her work involves speaking of her own childhood abuse at the hands of her father and mother and also witnessing abuse between them, and the way she grappled with understanding what love was when she never felt as though she experienced it. I think her work on love is significant to discussions of preventing the revictimisation of people who experience abuse, as well as preventing before it happens, as witnessing abuse is a risk factor both in perpetration and victimisation. To have a clear understanding of what love is and is not, is to me a fruitful space for thinking and talking about violence prevention. An example of this is work done in Australia in a project called ‘Spreading the Love’ where one woman said:
“For us it’s almost like lump (love + hump) is the same as what anyone else would call love but because I guess my experiences have lent themselves to people saying that they love me and then doing stuff to me that I don’t want them to do then it’s kinda like twisted inside my head. So it’s almost like the creation of the word ‘lump’ gives me a way of expressing that without associating it with something that I don’t want to experience”. So love is a concept that can be used as a basis to understand one another and the way we wish to be treated, working together we can create shared meanings of love but also the behaviour we expect from others.
Finally, hooks argues that feminism has offered amazing critiques of patriarchy but few insightful ideas about alternative masculinity which, I would argue is something that is actually a primary focus of violence prevention. She argues that men are brainwashed to consider violence against women as part of male privilege and this stops them from seeing the damage that is done both to others and to themselves. She states:
“men who win on patriarchal terms lose in their substantive quality of life. They choose patriarchal manhood over loving connection, first forgoing self-love and then the love they could give and receive that would connect them to others”
Utilising her work on love, helps us to provide an alternative to violence. We can encourage people to practice new positive behaviour as Baker (2013) argues “True prevention moves beyond stopping violence to promoting healthy behaviour. This requires positive and specific words to describe what we want to do”. To make love a verb, an act of doing, is to re-frame our behaviour and actions and orient them towards more equitable and respectful relationships.