Hypocrisy: When Women Abuse Men
Should we do more to address emotional and physical abuse of men by women? One has to ask themselves is it psychological abuse for a woman to tell her male partner to “man up”, or refer to him as a coward, pussy, or failure? Is it emotional abuse for a woman to tell her male partner he is unmanly, or weak in areas that men have come to define their masculinity or worth as lovers? Is it abuse (sexual or otherwise) for a woman to intentionally withhold sex with an intimate male partner to control his behavior? Are shopping sprees by women which leave no money left for necessities spousal abuse? Is it fair to say that some female domestic violence victims are actually the instigators of violence against them? Has our culture put in place a double standard that has incorrectly defined domestic abuse as a issue where only women can be victims?
While men might pose more of a physical threat than women in general, abuse can and does go both ways. On ABC’s What Would You Do, a social experiment was set up in a park to observe how bystanders who witnessed verbal and physical abuse by a man on a woman would react. In the segment, there were two actors, a male and a female. The segment started off with the male physically and verbally abusing the female on a park bench. As expected, people who passed by frequently stopped what they were doing to come to the aid of the female. However, when the actors reversed their roles and the abuser was the woman and the victim was the man, interesting implications and insights into the mindsets of our culture emerged. The woman verbally and physically abused her boyfriend. He was slapped in the face, punched, pulled by the hair, and verbally assaulted. Not one of the 163 people who witnessed the aggressive female abusing her male partner did anything to intervene. In fact, some people who were interviewed after witnessing the incident commented “Good for her. You go girl!” or assumed the man “had it coming to him…because he cheated or something like that.” Others commented that “he looked guilty” or “probably deserved it.” Some even seen the female abuser as a “role model” for other women. One of the bystanders interviewed was a police officer. When asked why he did nothing to intervene and acknowledged there was a double standard in play. That if the abuser was a man he would have probably stepped in.
Now imagine if we change up the scenario a bit. Let’s go back to the initial setup where the man was abusing his female partner. What if the quotes afterwords were “Good for him!” or “She had it coming.”? Would you accept that as a reasonable defense for assaulting a female? Probably not, but ironically it is an acceptable defense if the victim is a male. So I pose a question: Should it matter when someone (anyone) needs help or should it only matter when the abuser is a man and the victim a woman?
Often we assume that a woman cannot do any physical harm to a man so we do not give them additional layers of protection. Research has consistently demonstrated that men create more damage during domestic violence disputes but it also shows that women actually hit more often than men do. Phillip Cook, author of Abused Men: The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence, asserts that “male victims of domestic violence are numerous and represent a major social problem that has, in general, been ignored, disbelieved, or dismissed” (McNeely, Cook, & Torres, 2001.) In his first chapter, Cook presents data that shows men experience abuse at almost the same level (or higher) than women but largely such research has been ignored or suppressed. In cases were the data was reported scholars questioned its validity while at the same time accepted the validity on female victims from those same studies. Policy makers ignored the data on male victims out of fear that programs aimed to protect women from abuse would lose funding. The criminal justice system (police and courts) has taken the position that men should be able to take care of themselves and that “real men” would not be abused. Essentially we blame male victims for becoming victims.
Feminists typically argue that intimate partner violence (IPV) is committed only by men against women. That since men are socially, politically, and economically dominate over women that women must be provided with additional protections from abuse (Hines, Brown, & Dunning, 2007.) Feminists often claim that any violence by a woman against a man is done out of self-defense. Henning and Feder (2004) concluded that female abusers were less likely to warrant concern over their male counterparts because the risks of recidivism and criminogenic tendencies is much lower in females than in males. Henning and Feder’s research claims that female attacks on males are primary due to the necessity to engage in defensive tactics. Critics however argue that not all violence by women is done for reasons of self-defense and that violence in intimate partner relationships should be addressed as a human problem, not a gendered problem.
In October 2000, the first ever helpline in the United States for male victims of IPV opened. The Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men (DAHM) was founded to specifically assist the needs of male victims of IPV that were not being met by other social service agencies. In data analyzed by 190 callers to the hotline, researchers discovered the following (Hines, Brown, & Dunning, 2007):
[Men] … were primarily calling because their wives were physically abusive towards them, and 52.4% of males who were currently in an abusive relationship indicated that they were fearful that their female partners would cause a serious injury if she found out that they had called the helpline. The most frequently cited physically aggressive behavior was being slapped or hit, which was reported by 43.7% of the men. In addition, a large minority of men were pushed (41.8%), kicked (39.2%), grabbed (31.0%), and punched (24.7%). According to qualitative accounts, several physical attacks were reported to have occurred to the groin area … [and] severe and life threatening physical attacks, such as being choked and being stabbed were also reported by these men. What follows is a sampling of various calls received by DAHM:
“G reports that his estranged wife frequently targeted his testicles in her attacks, which included head butting and choking. Police were called to his home six times; one call resulted in the wife’s arrest.”
“I was writhing, crying in the corner . . . I couldn’t get up for two hours . . . she kicked me in the groin at least 12 times.”
“She held a knife to my balls and threatened to cut them off.”
“She drove her car through her dad’s car and the garage into the main living room . . . . She has also physically attacked me and made me black and blue.”
“My wife has ripped the phone off the wall and she hits on me all the time . . . She is a prominent person in the community . . . . Who would believe me if I told?”
“She has pulled knives on me and she lashes out and blames me for everything.”
“I tried to call the cops but she wouldn’t let me . . .She beat me up, punched me . . . . She raped me with a dildo . . . I tried to fight her off, but she was too strong . . . . I was bleeding and she wouldn’t let me got to the doctor.”
“She has been arrested two times before and I asked that she not be arrested this time [after she broke both of my eardrums], but she gave the cops a hard time so they took her anyway. My daughter told the police, ‘Daddy never hits; Mommy hits on Daddy.’”
“She spit at me, pushed me, and when she couldn’t get a reaction, she hit me in the head with a cutting board.”
“She scratched my face badly; it bled for two hours.”
“She has jumped on my back, clawed and scraped me, and I have gotten the shit beat out of me several times. I can never please her.”
“I don’t know our phone number here because she changed it and it’s unlisted. I have tried to get it but I haven’t been able to . . . . She checks the caller ID to see who has called when she comes home from work and she locks up my sneakers in the daytime.”
“She convinces me that I am wrong all the time. She came at me flailing her arms hitting me and I went outside to get away from her and she locked me out. I was in my pajamas and slippers . . . but she wouldn’t let me back in.”
“She doesn’t want me to have any friends.”
“She has spent all our savings without telling me.”
“Yelling, screaming at me that if I don’t shut up, I won’t live to see tomorrow.”
“She calls my mother and father and threatens to take me out.”
“I started the car and she stood behind the car with the baby . . . Then she put the baby on the ground behind the car where I couldn’t see her so I wouldn’t leave.”
“I called eleven different numbers for battered women and got no help.”
“She stabbed me with a knife, and I didn’t even defend myself, and after I got out of the hospital two weeks later, the court tells me to go to a group they say is for victims. It turns out to be for batterers and I am expected to admit to being an abuser and talk about what I did to deserve getting stabbed.”
“E has not seen his child for three days. During an attack by his wife he called the police, who made a dual DV arrest . . . E’s wife was admitted to a battered womens’ shelter which is supporting her in preventing his contact with his child. E is concerned for the child’s welfare, given his wife’s instability (two involuntary hospitalizations) and propensity for using weapons in the course of violent rage.”
McNeely, Cook, & Torres (2001) argue that “Domestic violence, like all violence, is a human issue. It is not merely a gender issue. Classifying spousal and partner violence as a women’s issue, rather than a human issue, is erroneous.” Their research found that women are just as likely as men to engage in domestic violence. They argue that scholars and the media have “[imbedded] into the national consciousness a false and inaccurate view of the problem.” They present evidence that the popular view of only men being abusers has contributed to “men’s increasing legal and social defenselessness” and has lead to “social policies that obstruct efforts to address the problem of domestic violence successfully.” Even major incidents that have captured the media’s attention (such as the severing of John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis with a knife by his wife Lorena1) have failed to address violence by wives or against males as a social problem to be concerned with. Instead we justify it with remarks such as ‘he deserved it.’
1 In court Lorena Bobbitt claimed she was raped by her husband and “snapped” however during her arrest she was quoted as saying “He always have orgasm [sic], and he doesn’t wait for me to have orgasm. He’s selfish.” Court testimony revealed details of violence instigated by both parties.
The overwhelming evidence supports the conclusion that intimate partner violence is a complex and intricate social problem that affects both sexes. As a society we often discount, or dismiss completely, the idea of partner abuse against men. We can no longer sit back and accept the ideology that abused men don’t exist, or that if they are abused then they must have asked for it. In doing so, we are ignoring half the problem and we are neglecting the needs of male victims. We must admit to ourselves that females are abusers who need help too. That being abused by someone you love is degrading, harmful, and creates a cycle of violence that has no gender preference. Academics must accomplish what they have failed to do so for the last half century – present the case of abused men as a real social problem. As researchers we must bring to life our statistics so that we can cut through political rhetoric and shed insight into the systemic problem of family violence in all its forms. It is time to identify intimate partner violence as a human issue instead of a gendered issue so that both sexes have equal access to resources that can help them.
Additional reading: Can There be Abusive Women in Abusive Relationships?
Henning, K., & Feder, L. (2004). A Comparison of Men and Women Arrested for Domestic Violence: Who Presents the Greater Threat?. Journal of Family Violence, 19(2), 69-80. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Hines, D., Brown, J., & Dunning, E. (2007). Characteristics of Callers to the Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men. Journal of Family Violence, 22(2), 63-72. doi:10.1007/s10896-006-9052-0
Horne, A. M. (1998). Abused Men: The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence (Book). Journal of Marriage & Family, 60(4), 1039. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
McNeely, R. L., Cook, P. W., & Torres, J. B. (2001). Is Domestic Violence a Gender Issue, or a Human Issue?. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 4(4), 227. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.