Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Domestic violence and male victims

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 ('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."


Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with you on this one, although I think the distinction that is being made is between abuse, physical and other (bad and, sadly, common), from which the abused can walk away, and the level of abuse that is so terrorizing and extreme that it is difficult or even impossible to escape. It is this level of abuse that men are far more capable of inflicting on women, and adults upon children. Of course, this kind of abuse between adults rarely starts up right away; usually the victim's will to resist is first slowly eroded through emotional abuse and psychological manupulation. I've been there, and I have to say that it was actually an enormous relief when the abuse became physical because then I knew I had the right to fight back and get out.

No abuse should be tolerated, no matter who does it. But people who have been abused as children really have to struggle not to pass it on, and they don't always succeed in overcoming it. Most abusers are frightened, damaged children, not big hairy monsters. To what degree should we make allowances for this? How much patience and understanding should we have? I've thought about this for years, and I still don't know. The best I've come up with is to forgive but to keep my distance, and not to try to save them or protect them from the real consequences of their behavior.

Anonymous said...


You're right about the kids--they're trapped and vulnerable to all kinds of destruction unless a responsible adult steps in. They must come first. And far too often they'll pass on to their own kids what was done to them. The abuser in my life was abused by his mother, who was in turn abused (physically and sexually) by her father. She was a wonderful person nonetheless, who worked hard to overcome her programming, but unfortunatly did so too late for my poor boyfriend (also wonderful much of the time), who I think really couldn't help himself when the rage and pain and paranoia took over his psyche. What a mess. I'm far more sorry for them than I'll ever be for myself. I'm out; they probably will never be.

Anonymous said...

To me it doesn't matter if the abuser in a heterosexual relationship is a male or female. It is abuse and it shouldn't happen despite all the reasons and excuses that people use to explain the reasons fot it occuring!

Anonymous said...

Isn't there an important difference between a single incident of violence and an ongoing pattern? The Salon girlfriend isn't (necessarily) participating in a cycle of abuse, either of her own partners or her upbringing.

The leap to see these things as inevitable predictors of future behavior is common - it seems no one "gets drunk" anymore, they "abuse alcohol" and participate in an "epidemic of binge drinking". It's hogwash.

Salon-girlfriend could use some counseling to get over blaming her boyfriend for her own loss of control, but there's just not enough information to paint the couple as doomed to repeat the incident.

Cathy Young said...

Anonymous: the letter-writer says that this has happened "three times in the two years we've been together." That suggests a pattern.

Lori Heine said...

I have one question, and I ask it not to be argumentative but because I genuinely don't know the answer. Who conducts these studies that show a third of domestic violence victims as being male? I don't know enough, very frankly, to dispute that claim, but I am curious.

Okay, and here's another question. Do these studies differentiate between a woman who throws the first punch and one who lands her blows while fighting back? I have no desire to cast any aspersions on the folks who conduct such studies, but it does occur to me that those with a particular axe to grind might just conveniently lump together all women who -- for whatever reason -- happen to hit their boyfriends or husbands.

One third just seems a trifle high to me, that's all. If that statistic is true, then women in our society have a lot to answer for. It illustrates a very alarming trend.

Anonymous said...


In this case, the study Cathy cited aggrigated a whole bunch of other surveys which used a survey instrument called the "Conflict Tactics Scale," or CTS. The CTS is very controversial; some people say it's an accurate measure of overall violence, while others (including Murray Straus, who co-created the CTS) have suggested that large, representative-sample CTS studies measure a lot of "common couple violence," in which men and women are about equally violent but women are more likely to get injured; but these same studies may overlook the most extreme cases of ongoing, repetitive, severe abuse, in which the victims tend to be women.

So the CTS studies tell us a lot about the most common kinds of violence between couples; but they don't tell us anything about the victims who are in such extremes that they need to move into a shelter.

I've posted a more in-depth discussion of the CTS here on my blog.

Revenant said...

Something I've always been curious about is *emotional* abuse within marriages and relationships, and whether one gender is more likely that the other to resort to it.

Obviously physical abuse is the more serious of the two, of course. But it does seem to me that women are, on average, more willing to be socially aggressive in much the same way than men are more willing to be physically aggressive. And certainly it is a cultural cliche that cattiness and nagging are more commonly exhibited by women than men. Personal perceptions and stereotypes only go so far, though -- have any studies ever been done along these lines?

I can see how a knack for manipulating relationships would be more strongly-selected-for in women than in men, simply because men had the edge in independence (they don't have to bear/feed the kids) size/strength.

Lori Heine said...

Thank you, Ampersand. That's a very thought-provoking post and a highly intelligent blog. I'll be back to visit often.

I certainly think that mens' rights ought to be seen as equally important as womens'. But it almost seems as if these mens' rights groups are simply trying to get back at women. The general impression I get of guys like this is that they're angry at women and/or just don't like us very much.

Feminism has made some real mistakes, and though I agree with feminists on a lot of things, the very word "feminist" makes me uncomfortable. It implies that gains for women must inevitably come at mens' expense. If a lot of men perceive feminists as being hostile toward them, this may very well be why.

I think we all need to step back and take a fresh look at issues like these. We derive our rights from the humanity we share in common -- not from the things that differentiate us. And violence is always wrong, no matter who initiates it. I'm sure we all know of people on both sides of the "who's more violent" argument who'd do well to remember that.

Cathy Young said...

A couple of quick comments.

1. Archer's meta-analysis includes not only CTS-based studies. In fact, he addresses the critique of the CTS, and compares CTS- and non-CTS-based studies (the latter were just as likely to find comparable levels of male and female violence).

2. The CTS does distinguish between self-defense and aggression; people who report mutual violence are asked who struck the first blow.

3. CTS-based national surveys typically find that in approximately 1/4 of the couples experiencing DV, the male is the sole perpetrator (and in another 1/4, the female is). So I don't think this survey instrument is less likely to uncover severe and ongoing battering.

to jw: I think you're wrong; I don't know of any hospital study showing that 1/3 of patients with domestic violence injuries are male.

jw: are there really any battered women's advocates who "think a child is better off being tortured by mommy than raised by daddy"? I very seriously doubt it, and I have been pretty critical of the battered women's movement. I think a lot of these activists are likely to undersestimate the danger abusive mothers pose to children; but that's not quite the same.

Anonymous said...

I'll say this much:

I had to deal with this problem. I was engaged to a woman who became quite violent. She was also addicted to a large number of drugs and had psychological issues (her being "sick" is why I didn't leave her long before I did), but it doesn't alleviate what I dealt with on a daily basis.

Now, simple question: What does a man DO in that situation? Woman starts attacking a man --- what can the man do in defense?

We can't hit the woman back. That is not a doable option. In fact, the day I finally left her, I had to withstand a 20-minute attack, never once slowing down, including being blind-sided by a telephone that busted me open quite nicely.

Why did I take all of that? Because I figured the police might have to get involved and that if there was so much as a single mark on her, I'd be going to jail. So, I had to take it. Couldn't grab her wrists (they'd bruise), couldn't push her back (she'd bruise her back), etc.

When men are the victims, there isn't a heck of a lot we can do because if we hit back, we become persona non grata almost anywhere we go. Who wants to be around a guy who beats women? Nobody ever once asks WHY he did it (the reasons are usually not justified --- but there are legitimate times where a woman gets hit and likely warranted the response).

Even worse, I had a rather nasty split with ALL of our mutual "friends" as they hated me for sending her to jail, assuming I simply "over-reacted" to a "spat".

Lori Heine said...

Why don't we spend our time simply protecting the children from abuse instead of dithering over the gender of the people abusing them?

The modern family is a battle-zone for kids. We know that -- we see the lacerations, the broken bones, the terror in their eyes. If we as a society have gone so totally selfish and narcissistic that we no longer care about anything but squabbling over statistics about whether daddy is worse than mommy or vice versa, then we have sunk so morally low that there's no hope for us.

I don't have any difficulty believing that the number of women initiating violence against men is increasing. We're a sick society, and women are in no way immune from the disease. How many women are doing the abusing, in comparison to the number of men, will -- I still maintain -- differ, depending upon the views of those collecting the data and how that data is analyzed.

We're going to be seeing oodles and scads of studies about this in the years to come. Our willingness to argue about the numbers may very well be a reflection of why we're so anxious to trade punches in the first place. It doesn't present a very flattering picture of us. But at the very least, we might be decent enough to quit picking on our kids.

If a father beats up his son, how do the fathers' rights groups interpret that? That mommy made him do it? (A little bird tells me it's a distinct possibility.) What about if a gay man half-kills his partner?

The entire discussion of domestic violence is skewed by the selfishness and narcissism of the straight people to whom gay couples are invisible -- and even more so by that of adults so busy fighting with each other that they forget about the children, cowering in the corner.

Anonymous said...

While attending Northeastern University during the 80's one of my co-op jobs was with a software firm. I was in a support position and dealt mainly with internal people. I got along great with pretty much everyone except for one young woman (mid-20's - a few years older than me at the time) who, in my humble opinion, had a bit of a chip on her shoulder. She had a habit of coming down to my department and trying to "get over" on the co-op (me!) in order to "cut the line" and have her projects given priority over other's needs. So far... normal stuff, right? All organizations have these type. All organizations have folks who just rub each other the wrong way!

Well... one day she comes down looking for someone (guess who!) to rush one of her jobs. When I told her she'd have to wait her turn she got snotty. Well... I got snotty back. The next thing you know... WHAMMO... she slapped me right across the face!!! I swear to figg'n God!!!

Well... long story short... I told my supervisor, he went through channels, and within a couple days we're all sitting before the corporate VP of Human Resources... who happened to be... (yeah... not a hard guess) a woman.

The VP read us both the riot act and that was that. We both got repremands in our jackets and were told any further problems would result in both our terminations.

Imagine if *I* - the male - had been the one to start a verbal duel with a female colleague and upon the colleague responding in kind I had smacked her across the face!!! I mean... just frigg'n imagine!!! Not only would I have no doubt been fired immediately, but chance are management would have called the cops and I'd be posting this message as a convicted felon!

Anyway... just a personal anedote.


Cathy Young said...


I think that is the effect of the studies done. To get the numbers given, you must have 1/3 of injuries being male.

Actually what I mean is that the 1/3 estimate comes from interview with people reporting domestic violence in various samples, not from reports by doctors in hospitals.

Mike: Sorry to hear about your experience! It's interesting (and sadly, not surprising) that people were critical of you for sending a violent woman to jail.

And Lori: well said.

mythago said...

Imagine if *I* - the male - had been the one to start a verbal duel with a female colleague and upon the colleague responding in kind I had smacked her across the face!!!

Sounds like you would have gotten the same treatment--from a VP who was less interested in dealing with a problem employee than in smoothing things over and not troubling herself.

anonymous, not in any way to minimize your experiences, but YMMV. "Not allowed to hit back", for many batterers, means "unless you hit first" (even if it's in self-defense)--and then all bets are off.

Anonymous said...

anonymous, not in any way to minimize your experiences, but YMMV. "Not allowed to hit back", for many batterers, means "unless you hit first" (even if it's in self-defense)--and then all bets are off.

And what about in MY case?

I never hit her. Hell, I don't even yell. The worst I'd ever do would be to tie up her arms and hold her on the bed until she stopped attacking. As gently as humanly possible. And I couldn't even do THAT the last time due to a realization that the cops will have to eventually get involved and I'm not going to jail over her.

I sat back and dealt with increasing violence. It got worse and worse over time.

What do I do? Just accept the beating? Sit there and take it? What does a man do when the woman attacks?

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