But Men Are Abused Too? 

Rus Ervin Funk 

 Oct 29, 2020 

October, as many of you likely know, is Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month (DVAPM) in the US. It’s the month every year that we are asked to pay attention: light purple lights on our front porches, wear a purple ribbon, attend a rally, make a donation… Domestic violence continues, of course, to be a significant and consistent legal and public health issue in our communities throughout the year. But it is also a matter of social justice – and warrants not only a public health response, but also a social justice response. 

Most of the attention historically of the DVAPM has been on women’s experience of domestic violence. As the movement to end domestic violence has grown, there have been increasing attempts to reach out to men (in general and during October) both by attempting to find ways to get men to also pay attention, but also by attending to the ways that men are victimized too. While there are reasons to want to include men in the awareness and prevention efforts about domestic violence, and to attend to the ways that men are also victimized, the rhetoric and tendency has been to exaggerate the ways that men are victimized and the impact of domestic violence on men more generally.  

That being said, the data about domestic violence is strikingly and sickeningly consistent, if also somewhat confusing: one in three women and one in four men have experienced domestic violence in their lifetimes, with one in three women and one in seven men experiencing “severe” physical violence by an intimate partner; one in three teenage women and one in five teenage boys are victimized by dating violence, domestic violence is the leading cause of women’s visits to the emergency rooms and is one of the major causes of black women being killed. 

Gender Matters! These statistics paint one picture — that women and men are more or less at similar risk of being victimized by the person that they love. What is missing from these statistics is any kind real analysis (gendered and otherwise) that helps fill out this picture in ways that are more realistic. This is critical because we can only prevent that which we have an accurate picture about. We have to know what it is we’re seeking to prevent before we can take meaningful action to prevent it.  

In order to fill out this picture, we need to note some of what’s missing from these statistics. Firstly, and the most obvious, these statistics fail to acknowledge who perpetrates the violence. As listed, in the context of a heterosexual bias by the society in which we’re living, the assumption is that these statistics refer to men abusing women and women abusing men. But this is an assumption, not what is actually depicted. This data includes: women abused by their male partners, women abused by their female partners, men abused by their female partners and men abused by their male partners. Not all partners are equally likely to perpetrate violence. Men, against both male and female partners, are more likely to perpetrate both more and more severe violence than are women. Put another way, a significant portion of the men who are abused are abused by their male partners.  So yes men are abused too – but not so much by women. 

Gender Matters! 

There is also a significant gendered difference in how women and men respond to men and women’s violence (respectively).  Very consistently, women respond to men’s violence (or the threat thereof) with fear, hurt, shock, anger, shame; whereas men respond to women’s violence (or the threat thereof) with anger, humiliation, shock/disbelief, righteousness.  That fact that men do not typically experience fear in response to women’s violence combined with the fact that it is women’s first response matters!  

What this data also fails to tease out is that there is a critical difference between domestic violence and defensive violence. There is ample evidence that very consistently both partners episodically engage in acts of physical violence. But what’s also clear is that in all domestic violence dynamics, there is one partner who is engaging in a host of behaviors and tactics (including physical violence) to maintain dominance and control and a partner who is responding to these attempts – sometimes with physical violence. While they are both committing acts of violence, the intent and the impact is profoundly different when the violence is being perpetrated in a context of maintaining dominance, vs violence that is being perpetrated defensively. 

There is a well-grounded legal theory that people have the right to self-defense, even preemptive self-defense. If one feels in imminent threat, we can strike first. Consider the example of a police officer pulling a driver over for a moving violation.  If he gets out of the car the police will most likely immediately ask/order him to get back into his car. If he continues towards the police officer and say puts his hand behind his back, he won’t get very many steps before the police pulls her weapon and fires (likely a taser if he’s white, a gun if he’s black or brown). In the case of the police officer, even if the driver was pulling his wallet out of his pocket and it had gotten stuck, she would be justified for using preemptive self-defense.  

This notion of self-defense, including preemptive self-defense, also applies (or at least should) in the context of domestic violence. Several years ago, while working at a domestic violence shelter, a woman came in with the following experience. Her husband had come home late one night. She knew from experience, by the way he drove into the driveway, that he was already angry. When he came into the house, he immediately began yelling and berating her, getting into her face while screaming, and backed her against the wall. While he never raised his hands, he did make thinly veiled threats about “what happened last time” (the “last time” she had to go to the emergency room). As he continued to escalate, she slapped him scratching him across his face.  The police were called and because a) he had an injury and b) he was calm and collected when they arrived, she was arrested. While in this incident, she perpetrated the physical violence, if we review the history, we see a clear pattern of behavior indicating that he was perpetrating domestic violence to which she responded defensively. 

From a legal standpoint, she was the perpetrator in this one incident. Based on the statistics cited at the beginning of this blog, she committed the violence. Neither of these reflect the reality of what occurred in that home on that night nor on an ongoing basis. 

Domestic violence is not represented by an episode of violence, but rather by a pattern of control and dominance that may include physical violence. An “effective” batterer can maintain a very damaging pattern of control and violence using isolation, threats, intimidation, the pets or children as leverage, monitoring behaviors and others and never perpetrate violence. As someone who spent years working with men who batter, it was not at all uncommon for the men to have been able to establish a pattern of dominance with random acts of violence, along with a gesture or facial expression. His partner (female or male) learns the tone of voice, body posture, facial expression, gesture… that has been associated with the violence and responds in ways to reduce their risk of getting hit.  For example, one man I worked with was particularly brutal. According to them both he never actually engaged in physical violence. He did engage in routine and brutal name-calling and put downs, isolation (including taking the phone with him while from their rural and isolated home when he would leave), tracking her whereabout (monitoring the car’s odometer when she would use it), threats, intimidation and other tactics up to and including cleaning his gun while glaring at her.  They lived on a 100+ acre ranch. He didn’t have to hit her to maintain power and control. And the damage he perpetrated was every bit as severe as if he had engaged in actual physical violence. But the statistics I cited at the beginning of this piece do not reflect her as having experienced domestic violence. While this was an extreme case, it certainly is not unheard of. If you visit any local domestic violence shelter and ask around, you’ll no doubt here dozens of stories similar to this one. And you’ll be hard pressed to hear of the woman partner perpetrating this range of intimidation and dominance.  

Which is not to say that woman perpetrated domestic violence is unheard of, or that women perpetrating violence in their relationships is okay. It is to say that gender matters as we seek to understand and prevent domestic violence – and domestic violence is much more complex and nuanced than who hits who. 

Domestic violence is also understood to be gendered by examining domestic violence from another lens – specifically how the threat of domestic or dating violence plays out in how we prepare for dates.  It is common, perhaps universal practice for women to plan for dates with a man with some kind of “safety plan” in mind:  meet at the restaurant or club, have a plan for a friend to call and check in during the date, make sure to have an “exit strategy”, do a safety check on a potential date prior to meeting him for the first time, etc. If (and this is a huge if), men “safety” plan at all for a date with a woman, it’s to be sure he has a condom along with him. women consider ways to keep themselves safe when considering and planning to date us as men, we as men decidedly do not.   

And this matters 

Domestic violence is not perpetrated by all genders equally, does it impact on all genders equally, and we as gendered people do not respond to domestic violence  in equal ways. 

Gender matters how we respond. October is Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. This year, because of the pandemic, most DV agencies are struggling more than usual. All of us can  and all of us should do more to support your local domestic violence agency: make a donation of $25, 50 or 100; collect some necessary items along with your friends and neighbors (diapers, bus passes, gently used toys, etc.). Find out ways that you can volunteer and be of support. Host an on-line “party” to raise funds and raise support for your local agency. 

As men 

  • talk with your men friends about how you as a group can actively support the necessary services of your local Shelter 
  • Make sure your male friends know that you don’t tolerate domestic violence, and that you are someone they can turn to if and when they feel like they are needing to be more controlling and domineering in their relationships 
  • Support younger men and boys to behave more gender equitably.  

There’s so much more we can do to end domestic violence in our communities.  Now is the time to act! 

© 2020 by Rus Ervin Funk