The Domestic Violence Double Standard

Domestic violence against women is certainly a big deal and our society has done a lot to address it. Most major cities offer shelters, counseling programs, and legal protection to women who are victims of men who can’t control their brutal impulses. In fact, many domestic violence programs go out of their way to protect women, sometimes even at the expense of children.

A few years ago, I was a brand new social worker who was looking for work in the Washington, DC area. When I entered an email dialogue with a staffer at a Washington, DC area domestic violence center about a position they wanted to fill, I was informed that my degree in social work knocked me out of contention for a job there. Why? Because as a social worker, I’m a mandated reporter of child abuse and the center was concerned that I would be legally bound to turn in moms who were seeking help in a domestic violence situation and also happened to be child abusers. The man who explained this policy to me made no mention of men who were being abused by their spouses. I couldn’t help but wonder what the center did when a man came to them looking for help with a domestic violence situation. At the time, the fact that the center didn’t want to hire me with my freshly minted MSW was no big deal to me since I didn’t really want to work there anyway. I had only written the center to find out why their hiring committee had expressly excluded social workers from its search for a victim’s advocate. But in retrospect, I really should have been more upset about the center’s policy. I didn’t know it at the time, but my husband had been a victim of domestic violence during his first marriage.

I first found out about the domestic violence my husband experienced on a long car ride we took from Virginia to Tennessee, when he started to talk about why his first marriage had failed. My husband, who was his ex wife’s second husband, talked about how she belittled him whenever he expressed interest in new ideas or hobbies, or even when he imagined succeeding in his career, insisting that he’d never get anywhere in life. She demanded to know where he was at all times and isolated him from his family and friends, complaining bitterly whenever he needed to spend extra time at his job. She would tell him that he had no right to his feelings or his thoughts and threatened him often. One time, she warned him that if he ever left her, he’d regret it. Another time, she threatened to turn his family, including his children, against him if he ever tried to defend himself against her. Even when he took her abuse without protest, she still told his parents that he was a violent man who hated women. My husband also told me that his ex wife had called him filthy names and occasionally struck him. One time, when she thought he was sleeping, she said in a chilling tone of voice, “I should just cut your throat.” When he was finished telling me those stories, he turned to me with tears in his eyes and asked, “My God… was I abused?”

The more I listened to my husband talk and observed his behavior, the more I became convinced that my husband was indeed abused by his ex wife. And yet, she has sole legal and physical custody of their children. She has since remarried and is now on husband number three. By the way things look, husband number three is being abused as badly or worse than my husband was. Granted, as my husband’s wife, I’m not the most objective judge of whether or not he was abused by his ex wife. But my husband thinks he was and other people who knew him when he was married before confirm it. So why didn’t he report the abuse when it was going on? Because reporting domestic violence would have insulted his pride and there’s a good chance that even if he had reported it, no one would have believed him. Or even worse, his ex wife might have made a similar claim and he might have ended up going to jail. No man wants to admit that he’s been threatened by a woman, even if she happens to draw blood. But should a man defend himself when a woman is abusive to him, it’s likely that he’s the one who will end up in trouble with the law.

After hearing my husband’s stories about life with his former wife, I started doing some research. I found information aplenty for female victims of domestic violence just by typing in the words “battered women” into a search engine. But when I typed the words “battered men”, I found a lot less information. In fact, among the top ten matches, I found articles that disputed whether or not men could be battered by women. One Web site even went so far as to call the term “battered men” a myth, claiming that men who are battered are rare, but rest assured, battered men get the same treatment as battered women do because no one deserves to be abused. Tell that to one of my husband’s former colleagues, a man who ended up getting a restraining order against his ex wife because she was abusive. When he asked for legal protection, the clerk who helped him laughed and said that men don’t need restraining orders. Where does this idea come from? Are people unaware that women are capable of using weapons and learning how to fight?

There’s no doubt in my mind that the media helps perpetuate the idea that women really are weaker than men are. Not too long ago, I was watching an old episode of 7th Heaven on TV. The character Lucy, who is played by Beverley Mitchell, had gotten the notion that slapping her boyfriend would be romantic. She had recently watched Gone With The Wind and liked Scarlett O’ Hara’s spitfire style. Anyone who has seen Beverley Mitchell knows that she’s a tiny woman who doesn’t look capable of hurting anyone. Perhaps a lot of people think it’s cute when a small woman loses her temper and strikes a man. Imagine how outraged people would be if Lucy’s boyfriend were the one fantasizing about how romantic it would be to slap Lucy? Letters would be written, phone calls would be made, advertising support would be withdrawn in short order. Why? Because in this country, it’s unacceptable for a man to hit a woman for any reason and that’s as it should be. But if a man hitting a woman is an outrage, why is it cute or funny to show a woman hitting a man? Why aren’t we as outraged when a man is shown being abused by a woman as we are when a woman is shown being abused by a man?

Even my own profession is guilty of bias. On my first day of social work training, I sat through a presentation on how important it was for social workers to be aware of sexism. We were taught that we should not use sexist language because there are two genders and they are of equal importance. One professor spelled it out for us that it was unacceptable to use masculine words to describe a group that included women. From that day on, I made sure to include feminine and masculine words in my writing. We were also taught that we should try not to buy into stereotypes and generalizations and whenever possible, we should allow other people to practice self determination. In retrospect, I think the educators were trying to impress upon us the need to recognize the importance of women in society. As a woman myself, I would certainly never dispute that women are important and valuable members of society. I would never state that women deserve to be abused. However, I would also never state that men deserve to be abused, either. And when they are abused, they should have access to the same resources that women have and they should be treated with the same level of decency and courtesy.

Just now, I took a look at the splash page for The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s Web site. That organization, whose Web site has the appearance of a legitimate organization dedicated to serving domestic violence victims, seems very biased toward helping women. Just by looking at the front page, I found three articles that specifically mention helping women who have been abused. Nowhere on that Web site did I see any help offered for a man who might need it. When I looked around at other “official” looking Web sites that address domestic violence issues, I found more of the same. Most of the sites were aimed at women. By contrast, I found only a handful of sites dedicated to battered men and they did not appear nearly as professional or well-funded as the ones directed at women.

Men who have been abused by women need encouragement to get help. The statistics on men who are abused are shadowy because so many men fail to report the abuse. Again, most men don’t want to admit that they have been victimized by a woman because women are supposedly weaker than men are. It’s true that men are often physically stronger than their female counterparts, but that’s certainly not always the case. Women also often have the law on their side. My husband, for instance, tolerated his ex wife’s abuse for years because he knew that if they split up, she’d have a much better chance of getting custody of the children. He knew that if they were ever in front of a judge, my husband’s ex wife would claim that he was abusive to her and the judge would likely take her word for it. She had already told everyone in their church that he was an abuser and they responded to him accordingly, by turning their backs on him. No one ever bothered to listen to his side of the story. My husband is in the military, where domestic violence is not tolerated. He would have likely lost his job and access to his children if his ex wife had accused him of domestic violence. What’s more, he was very ashamed of what he had endured. My husband has been divorced from his ex wife for several years and he still gets clammy hands when he talks about some of their fights. He still occasionally has nightmares, too. And, oh yeah, he’s pretty much lost contact with his two younger children. His ex wife made good on her threat to turn them against him.

Domestic violence comes in many forms. It’s not always physical, although it seems that the violence has to become physical before anyone will take it seriously. Moreover, while some sources claim that 95% of domestic violence victims are women, it seems to me that no one takes into account that men are a lot less likely to say anything when they’ve been abused. They’re even less likely to get adequate help when they do mention that they’ve been harmed by a spouse or significant other. I realize that it’s a common belief that men can’t be abused. My husband and other men like him are living proof that that common belief is, in fact, a myth. The bottom line is that there is absolutely no excuse for domestic violence, no matter who the perpetrator is. Right now, men who have been abused have too few places to go for help. The time has come to end the double standard when it comes to domestic violence.

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