How Not To Talk About Domestic Violence Towards Men
|Content warning: As well as domestic violence, brief discussion of suicide. |
Help for men victims of domestic violence can be found at Mankind and Men's Advice Line who explicitly offer support for gay and bisexual men as well as straight men.
Men victims of domestic abuse are almost invisible and that is a problem for everyone.
Whenever I've written about domestic abuse in the abstract, I've tried to use gender-neutral language, partly because of fairness and partly because gender is such a big problem in abuse. Presenting victims as necessarily feminine - usually young, straight, white, non-disabled middle-class archetypes - alienates a lot of women, as well as excluding people of other genders. Presenting all perpetrators as men makes men's violence seem natural, something good men must actively resist as opposed to something anyone, of any gender, may choose to do or not. It makes violence committed by women seem aberrant and trivial.
As I've said before, hearing stories of abuse from male friends and family was a huge help in recognising my own situation for what it was. Whenever I read or heard stories about women victims, I found reasons that I was not that kind of woman (i.e. one much more vulnerable and typically feminine than myself). All the stories matter. All domestic violence is connected - abuser's behaviour is often so similar, regardless of gender, sexuality, class or cultural background. As a society, we should be ensuring that we support all victims and do what we can to prevent all kinds of domestic violence.
But whenever I read about domestic violence on-line, on newspaper sites or blogs, there's a great deal of commentary that amounts to "What about the men?" These comments are almost always problematic. There's the standard misogynist nonsense, of course, but the comments that disturb me most are by folks - apparently men and women - who seem to genuinely care about the problems of men victims being ignored and side-lined, but seem to believe that attention on violence against women detracts from their cause.
It is because I believe that there is no way to tackle domestic violence unless we tackle all of it that I find these comments so deeply infuriating and wanted to address the ones I see time and time again:
1. It's especially hard for men who are abused because they have been taught never to hit a woman.
I'm sure there is a particular humiliation in being beaten by someone who is smaller or physically weaker than you - or is regarded by society as gentler, softer and more physically vulnerable than you - but there is no problem in the idea that you shouldn't hit a woman. You shouldn't hit people. Of course, there are circumstances where I concur with the law that it is okay to hit any person, if it is necessary to prevent a rape, serious physical injury, a kidnapping or violent death. But hitting a person because they are shouting at you, or because they hit you first? Never okay.
People who are abused by men may also consider retaliation and resist the temptation because they've been brought up not to be violent at all (as is the case with many women), or because they don't want to hurt their abuser, or because they are afraid of their own strength or capacity to inflict damage, or because they feel sure that if they hit back, they're only going to prolong the attack and get hurt all the more seriously themselves. All these things passed through my mind during abuse, but the greatest of these was quite noble; I felt it was fundamentally wrong to hurt someone - anyone - unless somebody's life depended on it. The one time I was truly afraid for my life and tried to find a way to defend myself, the prospect of causing the necessary harm was almost as scary as what might happen to me.
Whenever the comment is made about men being taught not to hit women, it suggests that intimate violence is sometimes the answer and men victims are disadvantaged by believing otherwise. Or maybe that a society in which women fear the violence of their partners would be a better place? Whether it is against your nature or your conditioning to hit your loved ones, that is something which helps you not to be an abuser (and gives you the prospect of happy and healthy mutually-loving relationships). It does not make you any more vulnerable to abuse.
I imagine that some abuse victims do sometimes hit back in circumstances that fall short of immediate self-defense, but I guarantee that this will not have made their situation any better. Relationships where both parties are violent towards each other can only end in disaster.
On a similar theme...
2. Stories of abuse which include the sentence "I never hit her once."
I think I understand why some men say this; because they feel defensive. Discussion of domestic violence which focuses on the dynamic where men abuse women seems to make some men feel as if they have been personally cast in the role of abuser just by being a man. No serious or sensible person believes this to be the case. Many women survivors of abuse by men gain a more positive attitude towards men in general after they have escaped and realised that their experiences were exceptional and abhorrent, as opposed to the way men are.
However, whenever someone says "I never hit her once" it strongly suggests that hitting one's partner would be a normal response. The idea that it would be somehow natural for men to hit women who mistreat them lies at the heart of many of our problems with domestic violence; the idea that violence is simply more difficult to resist for men and a natural consequence for women who (deliberately or not) make life difficult for them. It says men abusers can't help themselves, and the violence of other abusers must be trivial, if not entirely fabricated.
You never hit her once? Of course you didn't. I never hit my abuser either. If I write about my experiences of poverty, I don't have to state that I never took money from my Granny's purse.
3. Domestic Violence is not a gender issue because men are victims too.
This is partly a linguistic problem, but one that really matters. Gender does not mean, about women, or the sole concern of women or indeed, something men do to women. Men have a gender too! There are other genders!
Gender usually plays a massive role in domestic violence. Almost whenever men who have been abused by women tell there stories, the abuse is heavily laden with gendered language and ideas about what it is to be a man; their natural inadequacies as men or their inability to live up to some ideal of manhood. The same applies to people abused within same-gender relationships and even non-romantic ones. Abusive parents tell their sons to man up or their daughters to be more ladylike or else they criticise they sons as insensitive men and their daughters as over-emotional bitches. All of that and much much more.
Domestic violence is not exclusively a women's issue (even if only women were abused, it should still concern us all). But talking about gender in domestic abuse is not the same as saying it is all about women or that it is something that men and only men are responsible for - an accusation repeatedly made towards anyone who writes about domestic abuse, regardless of the language they have used.
4. Women abusers make false accusations and everyone believes them.
This is a circular argument. All abuse victims will be disbelieved by someone, either specifically or, as such comments demonstrate so well, generally. Marginalised people are routinely disbelieved when they describe their own experiences. It's particularly offensive to see mention of false accusations under the harrowing personal accounts of abuse victims who have been brave enough to describe their experiences, as the implication seems to be that any woman who speaks up about abuse may be covering for her own abusive behaviour. All abusers lie, but it is extraordinarily unlikely that a lie should be taken this far.
All abusers blame their victims, lie about their crimes and try to present themselves as the victim of at least something; abuse itself, other mistreatment, cheating, lies, disloyalty etc.. Women abusers are almost certainly more likely than men to threaten to make false accusations of violence, but male abusers have their own arsenal of effective dismissing and discrediting strategies.
Anyone who has children with an abuser has reason to fear a custody battle, because those people see children as a legitimate weapon, and our family courts are a bit of a mess. There is a bias towards women as primary caregivers, but mothers still sometimes lose their children to abusive men who are able to manipulate the system (especially if they are in any position of authority - a police officer or a doctor, for example).
Custody battles aside, abusers are extremely unlikely to take false accusations very far, for exactly the same reasons that victims are unlikely to talk openly about or pursue justice for the crimes against them; identifying oneself as a victim has a massive social and psychological cost.
Part of that cost is the doubt of others. Part of that cost is paid if you ever write about or speak about your experiences of abuse in a public sphere, only to be told that people like you are motivated to lie in order to keep the house and children you never had, or to cover up the abuse that you never committed.
5. More men are killed by domestic violence if you count suicide.
This is in response to the indisputable fact that women are much more likely to be raped, hospitalised or killed by their partners or former partners - two women a week in the UK. This doesn't mean that men cannot be raped, hopsitalised or killed by domestic violence - a man is killed by a partner or former partner once a fortnight. The naive idea that men's experiences of domestic violence is necessarily minor and cannot sharply escalate is deadly dangerous.
Domestic abuse is a common, massively underestimated cause of mental ill health. Abuse victims do sometimes kill themselves, sometimes long after the relationship has ended. However (a) suicide is absolutely not the same as murder, (b) casual discussion of suicide as a direct consequence of certain experiences can be very dangerous for survivors of those experiences and (c) threats of suicide are common weapons abusers use, especially as control over a victim begins to slip away. We should always take care when talking about suicide.
Suicide threats* are probably extremely common during messy break-ups and terrible rows even between otherwise reasonable people, when one party feels their world is falling apart and will say anything to try to persuade the other to stay. This is always a very bad thing to do, but fortunately, it is rarely meant or taken seriously. There are significant differences for abuse victims because
Honestly, with hindsight, I do not know whether the threats were all bullshit or not. But I'm describing behaviour that took place when I was at the strongest I had been in my whole adult life, and even then, there's no way I can pretend to have been indifferent to the idea that my behaviour could be even a contributing factor in someone's violent death. I had lived through the guilt of having a close friend attempt suicide years earlier. The threats would have been quite enough to regain control over someone with only a little less going for them. (Our culture tends to romanticise scary obsessive self-destructive behaviour by rejected men.)
Threats of suicide are a major red flag in violent relationships; someone who threatens suicide as a weapon of control is more likely to take someone else's life. Meanwhile, there are all kinds of other things we need to concentrate on if we wish to prevent suicide (like ditching this casual pop psych cause and effect model of suicide) and take care of the mental health of all people who have been abused. Using suicide to have an argument about the relative damage caused to men and women? Pointless, crass and dangerous.
6. Women receive all this support and men receive none because people keep talking about violence towards women.
Provision for victims of domestic abuse is poor. Provision for victims who aren't women is appalling. This is definitely not the fault of women victims. It's not the fault of people who advocate for women victims or talk about violence against women. Domestic violence is simply not spoken about enough in our culture. Anyone who speaks up about it is making the world a slightly better place.
Same with cancer. Research into various cancers gets far more funding than any other medical condition, including those which are more common, or more commonly deadly or disabling. Dementia, for example, costs the economy much more and is, often though not always, a much more unpleasant condition for both the person with it and their family. But dementia receives a fraction of the funding and attention that cancer receives. Are people who work or raise money for cancer charities and cancer research facilities to blame for the limited research into dementia? Would it ever be worth having an argument about which group of very sick and dying people are more deserving of attention and help? Would it ever be less than odious to respond to an account of someone's life with cancer by saying, "It's okay for you with your fashionable disease..."?
There are loads of reasons why provision for victims who are not women are so very poor. Some of these are to do with numbers; typically, women are more likely to be in danger of their lives and less likely to have the financial and practical means of effective escape. Some of this is to do with accidents around how and when refuges and charities have been set up (disabled and queer women can also find themselves shut out).
However, most of this is cultural and we're all part of this culture. We have an almost adversarial model of heterosexual relationships, where men and women are having to fight or deceive one another for their mutually exclusive needs. Men and women are not supposed to get on. People ask explorers who are in love with one another how they manage to be alone together for months together without killing each other. There is more mainstream humour around violence towards men**. My straight women friends and family are much more likely to joke about slapping or hitting their partners if they misbehave (although others do sometimes make those jokes).
But perhaps most of all, as a culture, we struggle with the idea that men can be hurt in these ways. We treat violence (along with verbal aggression and other controlling behaviour) as something that belongs to boys and men; that boys and men will both be violent and cope with violence. In movies, men are beaten, stabbed and shot and are seen to survive all manner of violence without trauma. The idea that an intimate partner can take control of a man's life through verbal aggression, humiliation, criticism and a level of violence which might not even leave a bruise, doesn't quite fit.
Anyone who talks about domestic abuse as some kind of battle of the sexes issue, where they make generalisations about men's or women's attitudes and behaviour, where they paint a picture of the world divided into warring heterosexual couples, when they suggest that members of one gender cannot be trusted on their accounts, then they're making the whole situation worse. They are perpetuating the myth of a natural conflict between men and women - a myth that is a gift to all abusers. They are silencing victims who are already taking big risks to speak out. They are shutting down these discussions.
7. It's all the fault of feminists that male victims of domestic violence are ignored.
In my corner of the world, the only people I see talking about domestic violence towards men are feminists or people who share the values of feminism. There's no point making a blanket defense of feminism and claiming that feminists have never said or done spectacularly stupid and harmful things on this and many other issues (ha!). But people who cause a fuss about violence against women are not the enemy when it comes to tackling violence against people of other genders.
In fact, if you want to borrow my stolen Tardis and head back before Second Wave feminism, to a time where little short of murder going on within a household was a private family matter, men victims of domestic violence had even less hope of escape, support or justice. Increasing attention on and discussion of domestic violence as experienced by women - together with increasing attention on sexual abuse and violence - has made room for, rather than stifling, discussion of intimate violence experienced by people of other genders.
Yes, people still imagine a woman (a certain kind of woman) when they think of a victim of sexual or domestic violence. But at least folks now have some consciousness that these things aren't confined to newspaper stories or soap plots, that these things happen all around us. Feminist discussion allows us to define abuse far more broadly that physical domination through brute strength. All this benefits everyone.
More needs to be done, but it is everyone's responsibility. It is not up to people whose focus is violence against women to shift their focus. It is up to all of us to talk about all the problems society has and see about ways we can change it for the better.
* I hope it is very obvious, but just in case, a suicide threat is not the same thing as someone reaching out and confessing to suicidal thoughts in order to seek help, comfort and support. This doesn't mean a threat is always framed "If you do X, I will kill myself." In my experience it is often "Fine, you do X as you want to and I will kill myself." or "Now you have done X, all that's left for me is to kill myself."
**Although when it does crop up, humour around violence towards women tends to be more serious, e.g. rape jokes, as opposed to "I'll give him a slap." jokes. Only this weekend, there's been another issue with t-shirts with "humourous" slogans about violence towards women.