A Better Conversation About Domestic Violence

[Content note: domestic violence and abuse]

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about how journalists and pundits can do a better job of covering stories about domestic violence.

Until I read Michael Powell’s recent New York Times column about suspended Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice, I had no idea that domestic violence could possibly be delivered in a “professional” manner. Powell cleared that up:

Say this for Ray Rice: His left cross was of professional quality, a short, explosive punch. And his fiancée’s head snapped back as if she’d been shot.

You watch that video and you get the national freakout.

Meanwhile, Fox & Friends’ Brian Kilmeade had some unsolicited advice for Janay Rice: “The message is, take the stairs.” (He has sinceapologized.)

Domestic violence is a difficult subject to talk about sensitively. Humor, blame, unsolicited advice, speculation—these are all ways in which people try to ease the discomfort of confronting such a serious thing head-on. But they don’t necessarily lead to a productive or respectful discussion.

In honor of Michael Powell, Brian Kilmeade, and every other journalist and pundit who can’t seem to cover this issue appropriately, here are some guidelines to keep in mind when you write about or discuss domestic violence.

1) Extend the benefit of the doubt to the survivor.

When someone is accused of domestic violence or sexual assault, we are always asked by that person’s fans and defenders to “give them the benefit of the doubt.” Generally, this means, “Assume the survivor is lying or very confused” or “Assume the accused had a good reason to do what they did.”

How about giving the benefit of the doubt to the survivor?

Believe the survivor. Assume they are telling the truth unless there’s actually good evidence that they aren’t, because the vast majority of these types of accusations are not false. Assume that they are speaking out because they want safety and justice, not just because they want to “ruin” their abuser’s life or career.

Assume the survivor stayed with their abuser for as long as they did because abusers deliberately make it difficult or even impossible to leave, not because the survivor is somehow weak, stupid, or incompetent.

Assume the survivor was quite aware of the danger that they (and possibly their children) were in and doesn’t need to be patronizingly informed that staying with an abuser can be dangerous. So can trying to leave.

Assume the survivor is the best authority on their own experience.

2) Avoid speculation.

Whenever there’s a high-profile domestic abuse case, journalists and commenters alike love to speculate. Why did the abuser abuse? Why didn’t the survivor leave? What happened to either of them in their childhood that could’ve led to this? Why didn’t the survivor’s family help? Why would the survivor have been attracted to their abuser in the first place?

This amateur psychoanalysis is not useful. At best, it’s a distraction from the important questions: How do we help the survivor? How do we make sure this never happens again? At worst, it spreads misinformation and stereotypes. People especially enjoy speculating about what the survivor might have done to “provoke” the abuse. Did they cheat? Dress “inappropriately?” Say something mean?

Abuse cannot be “provoked.” Abusers know what they’re doing, and they do it intentionally. They may wait for something to happen that they can then attribute the abuse to, but that’s not the same as being “provoked.”

Read the rest here.

About That “Laughing at Male Victims of Violence” Video

[Content note: domestic/intimate partner violence]

In response to the Rodger shooting, which I wrote about in my previous post, some people have been sharing this video, which I’ve seen captioned as “Watch what happens when a man abuses a woman in public and vice versa.”

The video is a sort of public experiment. A hidden camera records what happens when a man starts getting abusive towards a woman he is with, grabbing and shoving her as she tells him to get his hands off of her. Bystanders confront the man and call the police. But when the genders are flipped and the woman is the one threatening the man and pushing him around, people either laugh or ignore it.

I won’t get into how exquisitely gauche it is to post this link, usually without commentary as though it presumably speaks for itself, in response to a post where people are attempting to discuss misogyny and how it caused the murders of six people and the injury of seven more*. (While I am sometimes able to convince people that their arguments are bad, I’m not sure I am able to teach them the sort of basic empathy that most people master in grade school.)

First of all, men who post this link in response to discussions of misogyny (I haven’t personally seen a non-man do this) prove nothing but the fact that they are so uncomfortable with discussions about violence against women that they need to turn them all into discussions about violence against men. As I have noted before, it is sometimes a good idea to learn how to tolerate a moderate amount of discomfort so you can understand where it’s coming from. This is one of those times.

Second, the idea that this video could possibly be a rebuttal to a claim like “normative masculinity is harmful and leads to the oppression of women and to tragedies like the UCSB shooting” is so simplistic and flawed that it really goes to show how little these folks have bothered to engage with critiques of gender roles and with feminism as a whole.

When I see that video, I don’t see any evidence against my opinions about gender. I see evidence in support of them.

We do not have a culture that encourages women to commit violence against men, but we do have a culture that treats female violence against men, when it does happen, as a joke. Why? Gendered norms. Our descriptive norms say that men are stronger than women and can never be physically harmed by them, and our prescriptive norms say that men should be stronger than women and should never allow themselves to be physically harmed by them.

For reference: descriptive norms are culturally dominant beliefs about how the world is and what people do. Prescriptive norms are culturally dominant beliefs about how the world should be and what people should do. Both types of norms are prevalent in sexist thinking, and they are taught and articulated both implicitly and explicitly to children from birth.

The distinction between the two is important. Our descriptive norms about male strength are partially correct, but only in the sense that, on average, people categorized as male are physically stronger in their upper bodies than people categorized as women. And there are plenty of exceptions, and violence can still be committed by a physically weaker person against a physically stronger one.

But prescriptive norms, as I mentioned, are not about objective reality (insofar as such a thing exists, of course) but rather about dominant beliefs about how things should be, whether they necessarily are that way or not. (But people do tend to believe that their prescriptive norms reflect reality, and most people do seem to not recognize the difference between these two types of norms.) Prescriptive norms are values. People may justify them in various ways, but they will not usually be able to present “evidence” for them, because they are not based on evidence. For example, some people tell me that I shouldn’t lift weights because then I’ll become stronger than many men, and men will not be attracted to a woman who’s stronger than them, and being attractive to men is presumably something I care about. Of course, I already am stronger than many men, and some of those men are even attracted to me, and some of those men are even attracted to me partially because of my physical strength. In this way, many prescriptive gender norms fall apart under the slightest scrutiny.

Let’s take the analysis back up one level and see how it applies to men who are assaulted by women. Descriptive norms say that men are stronger than women and are able to defend themselves against them, which is why a common reaction to male victims is disbelief and dismissal. These descriptive norms are incompatible with the idea of a man being hurt by a woman, so believing him when he says he has would require revising or rejecting those beliefs. But it’s difficult for many people to revise or reject their deep-seeded beliefs, and gendered norms tend to be especially deep-seeded because they are so prevalent, so casual, and taught at such a young age. So, neglecting to seriously interrogate their beliefs about gender, many people disbelieve or dismiss male victims.

Prescriptive norms, meanwhile, are responsible for two other horrible reactions that male victims sometimes face: blame and ridicule. If men ought to be stronger than women and able to defend themselves against assault by them, and this particular man failed to do so, then the assault was his fault. If the mere idea of men being unable to defend themselves against women is ridiculous, then male victims will be ridiculed. Together, descriptive and prescriptive norms about masculinity and strength prevent men who are assaulted by women from being taken seriously and helped.

Back up another level. Why do some people think that the treatment of male survivors of violence is some sort of “counterpoint” to feminist initiatives to prevent violence against women? Because a key component of sexism is oppositional thinking. Namely: men are women are opposites. Men and women play a “game” in which men “win” by “getting” sex and women “lose” by “giving” sex. Anything that’s “good” for women is “bad” for men and vice versa. Giving women more rights–the same rights that men already have–somehow entails “taking” rights or freedoms away from men. Sexism is a zero-sum game.

To people who think this way, it is inconceivable that feminists who are fighting to stop violence against women still care about violence against men and do not want to condone or encourage it. To them, there is no other reason someone would focus on violence against women–not because that’s what they best know how to combat, not because they have personal experience and therefore a personal stake in fixing the problem, not because women are overwhelmingly more likely to be raped, seriously injured, or murdered by men than vice versa. No. The only possible reason must be because they want men to be hurt by women. That’s why they’re trying to stop women from being hurt by men.

This is oppositional thinking exemplified.

In fact, those who fight against the gender roles that perpetuate male violence against women are also helping to stop the mistreatment of male survivors of violence, because these problems stem from the exact same faulty thinking. As I’ve shown, male victims are disbelieved, dismissed, blamed, and ridiculed because men are expected to be strong, stoic, basically invincible. Some people may be more interested in working with non-male survivors and others may be more interested in working with male survivors, but everyone who understands the problem accurately is fighting descriptive and prescriptive norms about gender.

Feminism, by the way, combats both types of norms. The feminist movement has been instrumental in challenging many presumptions about how the world actually works (i.e. women are more emotional than men, women are bad at math, men are “naturally” more interested in sex than women, “virginity” is a thing that exists, etc.) and many presumptions about how the world should work (i.e. women should be “virgins” until marriage, men should not cry or express negative emotions besides anger, women should not have casual sex, etc.).

This, then, is the irony of posting links like this video as some sort of annoying “Checkmate, feminists!” gotcha thing. You may not realize it, but we’re actually fighting the same battle. You’re just so inept that you keep hitting me with friendly fire.

While norms about male strength are addressed and discussed by many feminists of all genders, more men need to recognize these norms as inaccurate and harmful, and challenge them. I see very few of the men who are most concerned about male victims of female violence doing this, probably because they’re not ultimately interested in losing their male privilege. I see no “men’s rights” activism around this issue. All I really see right now is a lot of men*** trying to get in the way of the people who are working to help all survivors of violence, and all human beings.

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*This may end up requiring another post to explain since there’s been so much pushback, but I am continuing to call the Rodger shooting an example of misogynistic violence even though men were also killed. His misogyny precipitated the attack. He intended (and tried) to get into a sorority house and kill the women there. Because they were in his way or because he was so full of fury and violence or for whatever other reason we’ll never know, he also killed some men. Their deaths are as much a tragedy as anyone else’s, and no, it does not in any way diminish that tragedy to accurately identify the motivation for Rodger’s attack.

**Many women who attack men are actually acting in self-defense–a fact which is often ignored when the women are non-white, trans, and especially both. Examples include Yakiri Rubi RubioCeCe McDonald, and Marissa Alexander. The Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project details the problem here. While men who are truly the victims of violence by women deserve justice, the intersections of racism and transphobia unjustly criminalize many women who were actually acting in self-defense, many of whom were already survivors of sexual assault and/or domestic violence. Many advocates for male victims conveniently ignore this fact.

***But, of course, Not All Men. Just so we’re clear. I just wanted to make sure I included that in this post somewhere. For the sake of clarity.

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