Following up on my VAWA post: there has been a lot of heated debate about the issue of men as victims of abuse in heterosexual relationships. I don’t think that domestic violence is a 50/50 problem, as some men’s activists have claimed. Men are bigger and stronger than women, though I think that their advantage in size and muscle is often neutralized by the societal taboo against using violence toward women. British psychologist John Archer’s meta-analysis shows that more than more than a third of people sustaining injuries from domestic violence are men. Whether the ratio of abused men to abused women is 3:2, 2:1, or even 4:1 for that matter, the bottom line is that the problem is serious enough to warrant attention (as is female aggression in mutually violent couples). And it’s not just an issue of concern for male victims (or children). It’s an issue of respect for women as adult human beings fully accountable for their actions.
For an interesting example of both female-to-male violence and societal attitudes toward it, see yesterday’s advice column by Cary Tennis in Salon.com. (‘fraid you’ll have to watch an ad, first.) The letter-writer said that while he was sulking after an argument and refusing to talk to his fiancee about what had happened, his fiancee physically attacked him.
Now here’s the thing: I’m a man who stands well in excess of 6 feet, and I outweigh my fiancée by 100 pounds. It’s unlikely she could injure me. She was punching me as hard as she could, but even so, it only took me a few seconds to get hold of her wrists to stop her from hitting.
Once so restrained, she kicked me a couple of times in the shins and tried to knee me in the groin, but I was also able to easily parry that, and only had to hold on to her tightly for a minute until she calmed down. But still, it bothers me a lot that she resorted to violence, even if it was ultimately not injurious.
When we talked about it later, she was sorry. She was emotionally abused as a child and this has left its scars, including apparently this tendency to lose control and hit. But in the end she basically blamed it on me. She told me that if I hadn’t been stubborn, she wouldn’t have been driven to the point of loss of control. Now, I’ve been taught since childhood that resorting to violence against another, and particularly against your significant other, is NEVER justified. I know that were the genders reversed, many would advise me to get out of the relationship. But I love this woman. She is so good for me in so many ways. This has happened only three times in the two years we’ve been together, and as I said, she can’t actually hurt me. Is this a deal breaker?
In response, Cary Tennis basically advises the man to learn to communicate better and stop avoiding emotional confrontations. He does say that the girlfriend also needs to learn to express herself non-violently, but he clearly sympathizes with the girlfriend’s plight:
You shut her out, and she feels herself cease to exist, so she leaps over and tries to punch through the jail of your ribs; she tries to make a dent in you; she tries to prove to you that she is there.
If, in writing of a male batterer, I were to entertain notions of what legitimate emotional needs he might be meeting by battering his wife, if I were to suggest any objective other than the satisfaction of his rage and her subjection to his will, if I were to even hint that it might also be, for him, a form of connection, I would be scorned, and perhaps rightly so, because the idea is fundamentally abhorrent.
It is abhorrent to the extent that it serves to exonerate the batterer. And yet in the case of this woman, though we edge perilously close to the taboo, might we ask this: Is she expressing certain needs in this way — needs that, if she could learn to articulate them without violence, might be met to the great satisfaction of you both? That is, it is possible that she is seeking not so much to kill you or injure you but to force you to feel her presence?
To their credit, a lot of the readers at Salon (including women) have lambasted Cary Tennis for his double standard. His attitude, though, is a fairly typical one. And it makes very little sense. Most male batterers don’t seek to “kill or injure,” either. As for the notion that a woman cannot cause any real damage to a bigger and stronger man, it is substantially inaccurate. In one well-documented case which I discuss in my book Ceasefire, and which has also been featured on ABC News’ 20/20, a man built like a football player ended up sustaining several injuries requiring medical intervention at the hands of his rather petite wife. On one occasion, she slammed the door of a hot stove on his arm while he was getting something out of the oven; on another, she tripped him on the stairs and pushed him down, breaking his arm; and, when their divorce was already complete and he was taking away some of his possessions, she hit him in the face with a framed picture and broke his nose. (The judge who heard the divorce case decided that domestic violence should not be used as a factor against the wife in determining custody because the husband’s “psychological abuse” — such as joking in front of the children about the wife”acting crazy” — was just as bad.)
I think that men are inclined to minimize and deny the harm a woman’s violence can pose to them because, well, it’s not very masculine to admit that a woman could hurt you. A lot of these dismissals exhibit a kind of macho condescension toward the “little woman” that feminists, of all people, should not be supporting.
And there is another risk factor that is ignored by both Cary Tennis and his letter-writer. His fiancee’s violence could put him at risk of arrest and prosecution for fending off her attacks. I am familiar with several cases in which men were prosecuted for assault for restraining their wives or girlfriends a little too forcefully while being attacked (and no, I’m not talking about a “she slaps his face and he breaks her arm” scenario but cases in which the woman may have been slightly bruised).
Overall, in general, domestic violence by women toward men is not as dangerous as the reverse. But that doesn’t mean it should be neglected or dismissed, or that discussions of domestic violence should be based on assumption of male wickedness and female innocence.
“There is no excuse for domestic violence” should not be qualified by, “… unless you’re a woman.”