by Tom Meagher
In our rush to push away violent men as ‘other-than-us’ we are often blinded to how our actions can facilitate a culture of violence against women, which is, at times reaffirmed by how this violence is reported by the media or discussed in our wider culture. Men who abuse are not so much those who refuse to learn social norms, but those who have absorbed and internalised cultural messages of male dominance. They are a manifestation of our cultural norms rather than the reverse.
In various conversations across many venues over the last two years about gender-based violence, similar questions arise about what it is specifically in our culture or peer groups that facilitates the self-justification of perpetrators of violence. At times, voices come back claiming that violence against women is in no way tolerated by most of our society, and some claim (perhaps condescendingly) that I am a victim of my own tragic loss, that I may be more prone to see violence where there is none, because my life has been shattered by it, after the violent death of my wife. While I accept that I may be more aware of violence, the source of this awareness comes from it’s presence, rather than from my own limited imagination. It can also comes from how we often unconsciously become an unwilling ally for abusers rather than for victims or survivors by social osmosis and conditioning. In one recent discussion I was challenged to provide examples of this in everyday conversation.
Not Defining the Problem is a Problem
One of the the most immediate problems is that we often don’t define gender-based violence correctly. Naturally there is low cultural acceptance for what we imagine to be a ‘partner-abuser’, the dangerous popular myth that domestic violence is committed by vest-wearing, perennially unemployed alcoholics. The attitudes and beliefs that cause violence are ubiquitous and are not confined to geographic location, alcohol, anger-management issues, or biology, nor is it confined to physical violence. Limiting violence or abuse to punches, kicks and slaps makes it easy for us to condemn it, while simultaneously making the abusers arguments for them. The very conception that violence is confined only to the physical element allows the abuser to differentiate himself from the ‘real abusers,’ while isolating the victim even further. For the abuser, the paradigmatic image of the perpetrator of domestic violence, is an ideal model of how he can convince his partner that he’s not really an abuser, because he doesn’t do x or y. Often the victim will be convinced that she’s imagining the abuse as a result of her abusers insistence as well as this culturally limited conversation. Abuse, at it’s core, is about control and power and is often exercised by creating a dependency on the abusive partner by:
- Isolating her from her friends and family.
- Extreme jealousy & constant accusations of infidelity.
- Controlling her finances and movements.
- Gaslighting – convincing her she’s crazy.
- Forcing your partner to engage in any sexual contact against her will through physical coercion, guilt or mental torture (such as not allowing her to sleep/not allowing her to leave).
- Shoving or controlling her movement or making contact with her body to limit her movement.
- Threatening violence, or intimidating her.
- Making her believe she will be harmed, or frightening her.
- Emotionally manipulating her through domination, shame, degradation, ridicule, making unreasonable demands.
- Creating an atmosphere where you exercise power and domination over her/Giving yourself a privileged position over her.
An abuser often surrounds himself with people who reaffirm his attitudes and beliefs, so it is incumbent upon us to be conscious when we are speaking with the abuser’s voice:
When we express sexual entitlement
Sexual entitlement and control over a partner’s body is the abusers and the abusers only. If he ever accepts the denial of sex from his partner, it is also only up to a point. Since ownership of her body is ‘part of the deal’, he expects sex whenever he feels like it, regardless of her mood or her refusal. At the same time the abuser feels he has the right to deny sex whenever he wants and does not expect to be challenged. His sexual entitlement extends to the sex acts he desires, regardless of his partners reticence.
His reaction to her refusal of sex in social situations often takes the form of his own victimhood. It is in the abuser’s interest to have you agree with them on certain sexual myths. “She won’t have sex with me because I wouldn’t do x or y.” “She’s withholding sex because she’s a controlling, calculating bitch who uses sex as a weapon.” He presents her as the abusive, controlling one. His refusal to see her as an autonomous human being, independent of his desires infuriates him because it runs counter to his ingrained beliefs of possession and ownership. Moral accountability in sexual relationships is inverted whenever the abuser feels aggrieved, so that her disinterest in sex is more egregious than his insistence that she complies with his sexual desires. He’s not simply pissed off that he’s not ‘getting sex’, he’s furious at the temerity of her refusal.
It is often seen as acceptable to say to a man in a long-term relationship that he has ‘sex-on-tap,’ as if the agency and desire of the other person in the relationship is unimportant, compounding issues around consent in relationships. The abuser who looks upon his partner as ‘sex-on-tap’, is often the first to condemn rapists. He doesn’t see his scant regard for his partners consent as rape because she’s his property, but other men who rape are vile scum. Essentially, the abuser sees the right of refusal for a woman as contingent on whether or not she has said no to him in the past. As soon as she says yes once, he considers it yes for as long as he wants.
When we say: “He loses control
This absolves the abuser of any personal responsibility. The notion that he loses control implies that whatever he did, it was somehow beyond his conscious reasoning. This myth is among the most common misconceptions about domestic violence, and one that is observably untrue. Most men will not go beyond a certain point in their violent behaviour. Often they take ‘body-shots’ so that there that no observable mark is left on his victim. He makes calculated decisions at all times. The arrival of a friend, neighbour or police magically puts him back in control of his rage that he had found utterly impossible to control seconds earlier.
When we claim an abuser lost control of the situation, we are using his excuses. Rather than hold him to account, we accept that, at a certain point there is only so much a man can take, that his actions are the consequences of her behaviour, not his choice. He is not losing control, he’s consolidating his control. The abuser externalises blame for his actions. If we suggest he lost control, he can internally legitimise his actions by claiming that the provocations of his partner ‘made him’ lose control. Usually the abuser’s unwillingness to resolve conflict in a non-violent manner does not extend beyond his partner. An abuser may resolve workplace conflicts, or disagreements between friends in a controlled manner, but his belief in his ownership of ‘his’ woman means he cannot abide any loss of domination or power in that domain. Assuredness in his own moral decency, despite his behaviour rests in entitlement and the wider social insistence that females accept a portion of blame for, (or at least have the decency to be uncertain about it) the crimes of men. Resist the temptation make his excuses for him by claiming it was a momentary lapse of control, or that he was drunk or depressed and didn’t know what he was doing.
When we blame his addictions/mental illness
The abuser may indeed have addiction or a mental illness, but he’s still an abuser, and being an alcoholic, or mentally ill is not the reason for his abuse, nor is the abuse solved by him giving up alcohol. There are people I know who have addictions and have never acted in an abusive manner. Equally when we blame mental illness or addiction, we contribute to the unwanted social stigmas that surround them. Addiction and abuse are too often lumped together to feed the abuser with a socially sanctioned excuse for his behaviour. Those who become abusive when they drink can perpetuate their own self-denial. They see their abuse as part of their drinking problem and we often fortify this belief for them by evasive statements like, “he’s a really good guy, he’s just a bad drunk.”
Often the abuser freely admits his alcohol problem, but he can use it as a weapon of abuse rather than as an admission of guilt, or as a tool to refuse to make amends for his behaviour. He is always the centre of attention, and his vulnerability while attempting to deal with his addiction requires his partner to walk on eggshells. She cannot bring up the past without him acting like the victim, or making her out to be insensitive for dragging up the past. He may even threaten to drink if she brings it up again, which, by extension, is a threat of abuse in and of itself. The abuser insists on a forgiving woman, who will understand and allow for all of his flaws, his contradictions, his cruelty and his moodswings. He insists on a female reflection on his maleness by cowing to his masculine ‘impulses’ towards drunken violence and sexual exploitation with ladylike acceptance of a man’s needs. He expects that she has recognised the heroism of his sacrifice for her in curbing his outlet, and is enraged by her questioning of this grand gesture.
This forced silence is abusive behaviour. She is forced to deny her own pain, so that he can feel like he is being supported. He may try to curry favour with his friends by suggesting she’s not being supportive and keeps bringing up things he did wrong when he was drunk. She may even be advised by her own friends to back off because he’s going through a tough time, or that he’s dealing with his problems now, so she should let it go. The first problem with that is that her legitimate pain is discounted and everything is, once again, about his issues. The second problem is that he’s not dealing with his abuse problem, he’s dealing with his addiction problems. The two are not the same.
When we say: “Why doesn’t she just leave?”
This question is often repeated, but even a cursory look into dynamics and power imbalances in an abusive relationship show how careless this question can be. Firstly, ‘just leaving,’ without a plan is often unsafe for the woman and her children. His belief in his ownership of her means that in his eyes, she has no right to end the relationship. Abusers do not like to be left, and the danger of murder, revenge rape, threats to her family and children increases immeasurably when a woman decides to leave an abusive relationship. In order to keep herself and often her children, safe a plan is essential. The term ‘just leave’ ignores the complexities of the relationship and places responsibility to fix the situation at the feet of the victim, allowing the abuser to shift blame, while simultaneously returning to his favourite place – at the centre of her attention.
The abuser routinely attempts to curb any sign of independence, and emotionally batters her self-belief, so that assembling the strength to leave is exhausting. He uses guilt as a weapon and makes her believe she is always in the wrong, and that she makes him act the way he does. The abuser always has allies that remind the victim that her child deserves their father, as if growing up with an abusive father is better than growing up with a mother who is not being degraded and controlled on a consistent basis. Asking why she doesn’t ‘just leave’ is an abusers get-out of jail free card. It means that he doesn’t have to answer for his crimes, she does.
When we perpetuate gender stereotypes
Men are so often told that women exist to serve them sexually, emotionally and gastronomically that the abuser has countless cultural lies and assumptions to fall back on. The abuse of women has its roots in our attitudes across any given culture, and informs our behaviours. The abuser gets a good deal of his enablers here, where ugly sexist stereotypes are wheeled out regardless of their truth or relevance. Male ownership of women was long established in common law systems (informed by social gender constructs) and it’s legacy is alive and well. The legal problem is ingrained and circular – men are responsible for most of the violence in society, but men also define the response to that violence, through centuries of legislation that saw (and still sees) men write laws on women’s bodies and movements. Legislation or norms exist within the framework of centuries of laws and social structures made by men for men, hangovers from a time when women were the properties of men. Some specific laws have changed in that regard, but attitudes that underpinned the making of those laws still exist.
Abdication of responsibility is foremost in an abusers toolbox, and therefore gender stereotypes are both the making of him and his closest ally. The myth that women are vindictive, for example, allows the abuser to paint himself as the victim while playing into a deeply ingrained social construct that women are only out for his money, or that they want to take his kids away, or that they make up stories about rape and battery to punish him for an infidelity, or a mistake he made. He plays on men and women who have been conditioned to view women with suspicion and feeds their prejudice by reinforcing his own attitudes onto them. Engaging in these stereotypes enables an abuser and reaffirms this story back into the society that perpetuates it. Despite a lifetime of social conditioning, millions of men have managed not to abuse. We cannot allow our negative cultural characteristics as an excuse to abuse or to enable abuse, use it as an reason to transform that culture.
When we say: “He’s not the type”
The abusers public image needs to be maintained in order to preserve a veneer of blameless victim, or great husband and father. The more the abuser is able to present himself as charming and generous, the more isolated and confused his partner becomes. Her isolation and depression may be interpreted as anti-social or closed off to friends and family, while the abuser appears open and amiable. If a claim of abuse is dismissed as impossible because a man appears meek, mild mannered, kind, sweet or a self-proclaimed feminist, then you must be entirely satisfied that you have looked beyond the fact that seems like a thoroughly nice bloke, and ensured you have listened very carefully to the abused, and not fall victim to the ‘women are crazy’ stereotype that has protected violent men for time immemorial.
When we say: “What about the men?”
This one I deliberately left until the end, because:
1) It never fails to come up,
2) It is often well-meaning, but ultimately unhelpful and
3) I have continually referred to the abuser as ‘he’ throughout this article.
I do not deny that men get abused, nor am I denying a genuine male victim of abuse suffers any less than a female victim. My major objection to this counterpoint is the cynical undertone of the argument and the assumption of parity in numbers of those who suffer this violence. Yes, some men suffer from violence at the hands of women, and by writing or talking specifically about men’s violence against women, I am not axiomatically denying the possibility that some women are violent, or that men never suffer violence, nor am I trivialising the pain of those men who are victims of this violence. If I talk of men’s health in the context of male suicide, I speak of it because it is a gendered phenomenon. These issues affect men differently and in greater numbers and it is not a denial of female victims of suicide. It is a recognition that there are social factors that make men more likely to take their own lives.
Exploration into male victims is a worthy conversation to have, as long as it’s not an attempt to use these men’s pain as leverage to shoot down a conversation about men’s violence against women. When we talk of a social dismissal of male victims of rape or domestic violence, we need to talk about the patriarchal idea that men can’t be raped and women can’t rape. It is a gendered assumption of where power should belong. Male victims are our allies, not fodder to undermine the global emergency of men’s violence against women, or to deny who is perpetrating most of the violence. It helps nobody to use a male victim’s pain to falsely point out how their female counterparts are over-represented. This kind of talk about male victims is used far too often as a tool in which to deny and mimimalise, rather than to highlight the issue of male victims of domestic abuse.
Rather than drawing attention to the issue in any meaningful way, the question is often cynically used to attack those who work to dismantle the social roots of gender-based violence. The ‘what about the men-ers’ often talk of how the legal system is controlled by women, or claim that women exaggerate their stories, as well versed as abusers are in habitually blaming women for their failings. They almost always minimise non-physical abuse and place a false parity on the figures of gendered violence. When we ask this question to counteract conversations about men’s violence against women, we too often reaffirm the abusers voice, that he is the victim, or that the blame lies elsewhere. Conversely we may be inadvertently putting roadblocks in the way of the victim with further self-doubt and self-blame.en we speak with the abusers voice, we forget the humanity of his victim. When we are silent, we speak with the voice of the abuser. When we blame the victim,we speak with the voice of the abuser. When we deflect the conversation, we speak with the voice of the abuser. When we refuse to recognise our privilege we speak with the voice of the abuser.
The more we support the victims, the less isolated they will feel. The more we listen to them, rather than preaching at them, the more empowered they will feel. The more we tell them they’re not to blame, the stronger they will feel. Refuse to speak with the voice of the abuser, listen to his victim.