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Renée Römkens: “The Netherlands has a distorted self-image when it comes to emancipation”

Sija van den Beukel,
26 mei 2023 - 10:13

Women are still unabatedly and disproportionately often victims of violence by men, points out extraordinary professor of gender-related violence Renée Römkens (70). With the book Beyond the Bewilderment, published this month, she provides an impetus to think further. “I would like to see men also call each other to account for violent behavior.”

Each new public revelation of (sexual) violence against women is followed by a wave of bewilderment. Use of violence can be met with strong moral disapproval, one of the milestones that emeritus professor of gender-related violence Renée Römkens (70) helped make possible through her research.

“While the nature and extent of violence against women worldwide are becoming increasingly clear, the notion of violence as gender-related is under pressure”

Römkens put violence against women on the map in the late 1980s. Her cum laude doctoral research showed that one in five women is abused by her (ex)-partner during her lifetime. Against that background, femicide, or deadly violence against women, also received more attention. In the Netherlands, 30 to 40 women are murdered annually by a partner or family member.


“A tainted topic”

A shocking fact. Yet there were few academics who encouraged Römkens to explore the topic of violence against women, which lies largely in the private sphere. For example, a fellow German professor once argued that violence against women within relationships had little scientific merit, calling it “ein Schmuddelthema,” a tainted topic.


Yet Römkens continued to do research, first as a professor of interpersonal violence at Tilburg University and later as an endowed professor at the University of Amsterdam and director of Atria, a knowledge institute for emancipation and women's history, and finally, after her retirement in 2020.


“While the nature and extent of violence against women worldwide are becoming increasingly clear, the notion of violence as gender-related is under pressure,” Römkens stated two weeks ago in her farewell speech at the UvA, “A hot potato,” that had been delayed by the COVID pandemic.


That fact inspired the anthology Beyond Bewilderment, published in May, compiled with feminist of the first hour Anja Meulenbelt, writer Tessel ten Zweege, and 24 contributing journalists, scientists, politicians, and artists.

CV Renée Römkens

1971 - 1979 Masters degree in criminology at Radboud University

1988 - 1992 PhD in psychology at the UvA

1990 - 2005 Lecturer in gender studies at Utrecht University

2008 - 2012 Professor of Interpersonal Violence at Tilburg University

2012 - 2019 Director of Atria, knowledge institute emancipation and women's history

2016 - 2020 Associate professor of gender-related violence at the University of Amsterdam

2020 - Currently Emeritus professor and researcher of sociology at the UvA

What is the state of violence against women in the Netherlands in 2023?

“Moderate to bad. In fact, violence against women is very common. With every technological innovation, new forms of violence and intimidation against women enter the world: from dick pics to slut shaming.”


In your farewell lecture “A hot potato, on gender-based violence and science,” you mention the historical turnaround of the past 50 years. What did this turnaround consist of?

“The main shifts since the 1970s have been, first, to name the problem, not as an individual problem but as a social problem, purely because of the scale and the diverse forms it takes. Second, the behavior is increasingly considered morally unacceptable. And third, it has also been translated into policy and regulation from the government.”

At the same time, violence against women has not diminished over the past 50 years. Many writers in the book speak of little progress. So is there a change in society? Or have we made little progress since the 1970s? 

“The problem is more complex than the dichotomy this question suggests. We are dealing with a paradoxical process that goes in waves. I think there have been great gains on balance because the issue is on the social agenda. Change can be seen in attitudes, morality, and the government’s role. But behavior is still far behind. Changing deeply rooted relationships between the sexes in a society evokes resistance. On top of that, the behavior takes place in the private sphere, largely between partners and ex-partners. Those are complex relationships where all kinds of issues can come into play. It's a complex story that sounds like a cliché, but unfortunately, it's not.”


How do you conduct good research on such a complex topic?

“To show how a phenomenon develops requires trend research, the same type of research you repeat regularly. But even then it remains difficult because the willingness to report changes. MeToo is the strongest example of that. Worldwide, women dared to speak out only after a long time. You see the same thing now with the latest report on transgressive behavior in the dance world. That results in a higher reporting of sexual transgressive behavior because 10 years ago people could not, dared not, or did not want to speak out. For reasons that are well known, people are afraid it will hurt their career, have physical repercussions, are ashamed, or think they are the only ones. All these reasons contribute to that culture of silence. That culture of silence is now changing. So it may be quite some time before you can reliably measure that shift in magnitude.”

“Change can be seen in attitudes, morality, and the government’s role. But behavior is still far behind”

What exactly is the hot potato that you named your farewell lecture after?

“The violence in relationships, which we don't know how to deal with. What keeps recurring in the discussion is the strong moral disapproval of the use of violence within relationships. At the same time, it occurs in at least one out of every three to four relationships. As a result, moral disapproval takes on a paradoxical effect. It only increases the shame of those in relationships where it does occur. The ease with which we condemn violence is at odds with practice. From a nationally representative survey I did in 2018 from Atria, I outlined examples of situations in which violence can occur. Suppose there has been a very hefty argument, you are very angry, and you lose self-control and strike one or more blows. Then what do you think? It turns out that 29 percent of those surveyed find physical violence against a partner acceptable under certain circumstances. Then people start to change. That's what I mean by the hot potato. Violence occurs, but we don't know how to deal with it because it's too painful. The potato is too hot to swallow or eat. And so we shove it in front of us.”


What does it take for that potato to “cool down”?

“It takes paying attention to the issue, talking to each other about it, and repeating the message. We also need to recognize that the solution requires effort. Then I look at parenting and education. Teaching respect for being different: woman, man, gay, straight, white, black, you name it. It's about respecting differences, without putting them in a hierarchical context.”

On the back cover of Beyond the Bewilderment, presenter Tim Hofman writes: “Men, don't be afraid to read!” Should men be encouraged to read the book? 

“Awareness of the problem is indeed greater among women than men. I would welcome it if more men felt addressed as well. Behavioral change is also largely related to what is considered acceptable in social circles. I would like to see men also hold each other accountable for violent behavior. Take the Andrew Tates of this world who are followed by millions of men on social media. We, and especially men, may well start thinking about what it is that appeals to them in the message of raping a woman when she doesn't do what the man wants. Research shows that a large portion of them are young men who are insecure about their own identity, especially in relation to women. Sensitivity to texts like this indicates that there is something wrong with how we see masculinity.”


Since Harvey Weinstein's trial, men have been held accountable for their actions. Is there also a danger in highlighting the man only as a perpetrator? Isn't the man himself a victim of the culture in which he grew up?

“Men ending up in the dock is something you hear about more often. It has to do mostly with the insecurity that apparently seizes some men the moment they have to think about being in a privileged position. The homework you then have to do is essentially no different than the homework white people have to do about their part in perpetuating a racist culture. Personally and in my work, I have never put men as a category in the position of potential perpetrators. Recognizing that women are disproportionately victimized by male violence is a fact. But I do signal that there is a structural dynamic related to favoring the masculine, not men as individuals.”

Foto: Walburg Pers
The Dutch version of the book, Voorbij de verbijstering

In academia, there are fierce debates about which perspective partner violence is now best studied from. Some, like Renée Römkens, argue for the gender perspective and interpret violence against women in a social, historical, and political context of structural gender inequality and power differentials that favor men and masculinity.


Others argue for a “symmetry view.” That view assumes that men and women behave in a similar fashion and that there is mutual violence in many relationships. The symmetry view focuses only on relational and individual factors.

You describe in the book how, since the 1990s, the Dutch government has increasingly adopted the gender-neutral "symmetry view" in investigating violence against women rather than the gender perspective (see box). This gender neutralization is more prevalent in the Netherlands than in other countries. Can you explain that?

“In many ways, the Netherlands has a distorted self-image when it comes to how emancipated and progressive we are. The Netherlands regularly sets itself above the law in human rights policy and in emancipation. Women in the Netherlands are at the bottom in Europe when it comes to participation in the labor market, the financial ability to support themselves, and the number of professorships at universities. At the same time, the Netherlands has its public relations policy well in order: prostitution regulation and euthanasia, in particular, create an image that we are progressive.

This lag in emancipation has to do with the major role religion has played. After World War II, a lot of decisions were made along the lines of segregation. The Netherlands introduced a breadwinner principle in the 1950s, deeming that men's income should be relatively high so that women would not have to work, partly because of that. This allowed the country to develop a cult of motherhood that is much stronger than in other countries in Europe. It is still a sign of prosperity if a woman does not have to work outside the home, and she is still expected to raise the children and do the housework. That division of labor has a specific history in the Netherlands and is very definitely influential in thinking about emancipation.”


Renée Römkens, Anja Meulenbelt, and Tessel ten Zweege. Beyond the Bewilderment. On gender and violence. (Walburg Pers, 2023), ISBN 9789462499980 Price: € 22.50


On Thursday evening, May 25, the authors will discuss the book in Pakhuis De Zwijger at 8:00 p.m. On Monday evening, June 12, a debate evening will follow in Spui25 at 8:00 pm.

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