Statistics regarding how many men are victims of domestic violence compared to women are hotly debated. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 20% of all domestic violence victims are male, yet there are substantially less resources for male victims than female victims, even less than what would be considered proportionally appropriate. With that percent in mind, there should at least 300 battered men’s shelters for the approximate 1,500 shelters for battered women. Yet there are not, why?
Regardless at what ratio it occurs, both genders can be and are subjected to domestic violence at an unacceptable frequency. This disparity in resources for battered men, however, is emblematic of a deeper problem in how we discuss and approach domestic violence.
Why is it so uncomfortable to think that a man could be the victim of domestic violence and that a woman could be the perpetrator? Because to do so would dismantle all our preconceived notions of masculinity and femininity. A woman can be an abuser and a man can be a victim shamed into silence.
The Patriarchy Hurts both Male and Female Victims of Domestic Violence
Both male and female abusers benefit from the patriarchal ideals that society has instilled in us, albeit in different ways. Male abusers benefit because, of course, they feel emboldened by the blatant privilege that society gives their sex to act out on their “masculine” aggression.
Female abusers, on the other hand, benefit from the patriarchy because no one expects them to be the instigators of physical aggression, given how society has gendered violence and how it has gendered male and female social behavior.
Men are supposed to beat each other up, while women are supposed to back-bite and slander one another. Those are the societal scripts for how men and women are supposed to handle their negative emotions against others. The idea that a woman could cross that boundary and engage in domestic violence against a male partner is an uncomfortable thought that not everyone is ready to accept.
How Female Abusers Level the Playing Field
Again, thinking about domestic violence against men requires us to challenge our societal perceptions of violence. What keeps us closed off to the idea that a woman could be physically abusive is the stark reality that men are almost always physically stronger than their female partners. However, there are plenty of ways in which an abusive woman can level the playing field, both physically and emotionally.
Psychological weapons of isolation, belittlement, and humiliation are often used to bring down a man emotionally so that he is not in a state of mind to fend off his female abuser if the situation turns violent, even though he could physically defend himself.
Shame and humiliation are powerful tools indeed. According to an interview with John, a male survivor of domestic abuse, his ex-girlfriend Rachel would often scream in public as a means to embarrass him into submission. Once night while eating at Chipotle, after disagreeing over an intellectual matter, she stormed off and screamed at the top of her lungs across the restaurant. John felt that his self-worth had been robbed from him.
Beyond the psychological, there are also tangible ways in which a woman can take on a physically abusive role. Cathy Young highlights this important aspect of domestic violence against men in the Times
Violence by women causes less harm due to obvious differences in size and strength, but it is by no means harmless. Women may uses weapons, from knives to household objects-including highly dangerous ones such as boiling water-to neutralize their disadvantage, and men may be held back by cultural perceptions on using force towards a woman even in self-defense.
As Young points out, when it’s the man being abused, he may labor under a false perception that as the physically stronger of the two he can “contain” the toxic situation. Female abusers exploit this perception mercilessly and continue to abuse their male partners with relative confidence that the men will not strike back.
A female abuser also has an advantage that even if a man does the right thing and calls the police when a situation gets out of hand, there is no guarantee that he will be believed by law enforcement, especially if a female abuser tries to save herself by claiming the man initiated the fight and that he is the abuser. From such an incident an abusive woman may launch an entire smear campaign against her male partner in order to discredit him and paint herself the victim. Using anti-abuse rhetoric to bolster false allegations is a form of abuse, one that has left many male victims in silence.
Some female abusers are all too aware of their advantage with law enforcement and will threaten their male partners with it. When Ben tried to warn his ex-wife that he could go to the police about her physical abuse of him, she laughed and jeered at him. “I’m a woman! You’re a man! People will believe me!” This further contributed to Ben’s sense of helplessness and isolation.
Signs of an Abusive Woman
As with male abusers, female abusers carry certain characteristics that one needs to be on the lookout for.
(1) She is extremely jealous
Deep down, a female abuser knows that she is not keeping the man in her life out of love and affection, but rather out of intimidation and force. From that painful reality breeds an insecurity that causes her to become insanely jealous of any woman in the vicinity of her boyfriend/husband.
She believes (many times correctly) that he would prefer any woman over her, and thus does everything within her power to sabotage his female friendships and to control his access to other women in his life.
An interview with Henry revealed the depths of that jealousy. Henry had a book given to him by an ex-girlfriend. It wasn’t even a book of a sentimental or romantic nature, yet that physical evidence of his past love life sparked his girlfriend Leah into an unimaginable rage. She grabbed the book, placed it in a pan, and proceeded to burn it. While the book was still in flames, she shoved the pan and book into Henry’s face screaming, “This is what your bitch gave you!”
The apartment was filled with smoke in the middle of the night for two hours. No one could enter without choking. Then after they broke up, Leah tried to contact Henry’s previous ex-girlfriend in the hopes of turning that ex against him.
(2) She has double-standards
She is allowed to go out at all hours of the night, but her male partner isn’t. She must be his one and only, whereas she can call him her boy toy. The female abuser does not operate with a sense of reciprocity; she entitled to do and say whatever she wants while her male partner must follow a strict protocol that serves her own childish and primitive psychological needs.
Any mistakes she’s made should be met with immediate forgiveness, whereas her male partner’s mistakes will be used again and again as evidence of what a horrible person he is and how he should be the one making amends to her. Any attempt to hold her accountable for her poor behavior will result in World War III.
(3) She lies pathologically.
She lies constantly from a sense of entitlement that she should have full control over the image that she presents to her male partner, even if it is not a true reflection of her personality. She will tell her boyfriend/husband whatever he wants to hear, then will turn around and do the opposite if it serves her interests.
She will only ever admit to the truth when absolutely forced to by being caught red-handed. Even then she will try to either lie her way out or justify her lie due to some failing on her male partner’s part. She does not perceive truth as a component to a healthy relationship. Instead, she sees truth as shameful weakness.
Daniel thought things were going well with his girlfriend of two months, Jessica. What he didn’t know, however, was that at the beginning of their relationship Jessica was simultaneously seeing another man, Nathan.
Nathan was also seeing someone else besides Jessica, and lied to her about his whereabouts while he had another date in Chicago. From Nathan’s dismissive actions Jessica messaged Daniel, asking if he wanted to go out with her.
After going back and forth between them with Jessica preferring Nathan over Daniel, Jessica eventually settled on Daniel, the only reason being was she had discovered that Nathan was, in fact, a pedophile. She had even slept with him once more despite knowing that fact, even bragging to a friend that, “no one is like him for me.”
Daniel was absolutely horrified and disgusted by Jessica’s actions when he became aware of the true circumstances of how their relationship developed. Daniel felt as if he had become a second option, and to such a repulsive man, no less. He wanted to end the relationship with Jessica immediately, but she screamed that she would kill herself.
Jessica felt that the truth should have had no impact on Daniel’s opinion of her and that Daniel had no right to know the truth of their situation. She wanted to label her behavior as “in the past,” even though Daniel was directly affected by her playing the two men off one another.
(4) She denies her partner consent and autonomy
Only her needs and desires matter in the relationship. Any needs or desires of her male partner, especially those that directly conflict with her own, are met by tears, hysteria, threats of suicide, and violence, as we saw with Daniel and Jessica.
This makes it impossible to end a relationship with an abusive woman peacefully. Termination of the relationship is not an option since that is not what she wants. Therefore, if a man is successful in exercising his right to consent by ending an abusive relationship, the female abuser with go to great lengths to punish her ex by any means possible, sometimes for years.
Getting Away from a Female Abuser
If you are a man caught in an abusive relationship, there is no point in trying to reason with the female abuser or trying to have a “honest” conversation and break-up. You will have to plan your escape carefully, just as a female victim would. Just pack your things and disappear. Lay low for a while, as the separation period between two weeks and two months marks the most dangerous time when the reality sinks in to the abuser that they’ve lost control.
Obstacles to Awareness
Both male and female victims face challenges when picking up the pieces after an abusive relationship, but male victims have a unique set of challenges.
- Men do not have nearly as many resources at their disposal.
- Police and others find it difficult to take them seriously
- Societal and cultural notions of masculinity hinder male victims from seeking help.
- The female abuser may try to claim to be a domestic violence victim, causing social and/or legal harm to the true victim.
Fighting domestic violence should be about putting an end to abuse, regardless of whether the man or woman is perpetuating it. Unfortunately, there are some feminists who perceive the acknowledgement of domestic violence against men as a threat to their own platform and ideals. I am not one of them. I am a feminist who believe in equality for the sexes, meaning that women deserve be in possession of both the privileges and the responsibilities that men have. Therefore, a woman who engages in domestic violence should face the same consequences that a man would.
I do not believe in women having the same advantages as men and then additionally benefiting from the vestiges of benevolent sexism when it suits their self-interests. It is those types of women that have made the word “feminist” a dirty word in American culture.
In order to prevent abuse as a whole, we must view it beyond genders. A male victim of domestic violence should have just as much a voice as his female counterpart.
*All names have been changed for the sake of privacy.