Just before Christmas, Dr Ben Hine gave a public lecture in London entitled ‘Challenging the Gendered Discourse on domestic violence.’
The lecture is now online in two parts, totalling about 90 minutes, and if you are interested in the social psychology around domestic violence it is absolutely essential viewing. I’m a big fan of Ben & his work, we’ve collaborated in bringing together the Men and Boys Coalition and generally I think we couldn’t be much closer together on the same page, politically.
The lecture is primarily about how domestic violence is perceived, which I think is an incredibly fruitful line of inquiry if we want to understand this topic at a level deeper than headlines and slogans. Ben makes a really strong case that many of our collective shortcomings in discussing, understanding and addressing domestic abuse come down to social cognition – the human tendency to adopt heuristics and stereotypes and then adapt evidence from our lives to fit the stereotypes rather than adapt our stereotypes to fit the evidence.
Ben argues that we perceive and interpret domestic violence through gender schemas, as set out in the work of Sandra Bem. In practice this means that when we see or hear about a scenario such as a partner assault it is psychologically easy when it involves an aggressive, violent male perpetrator and a submissive, cowering female victim as both adhere to our profoundly-held gender scripts. When those gender schemas are challenged by, for instance, a female aggressor or a male victim, this causes cognitive stress which we may try to relieve by denial, dismissal, laughter or hostility.
All of which is, it seems to me, very true and well observed. If I might offer one mild criticism of the lecture, and I guess the thinking behind it, it is very focused on physical acts of violence – the punches, kicks, etc and offers virtually no analysis of the intangible cruelties of power – fear, domination, intimidation and control. This is a really common and understandable shortcoming of research into domestic violence. It is comparatively easy for the Office of National Statistics to quantify punches and kicks or to count bruises or criminal convictions, but you cannot measure terror with a ruler.
Of course the two are not entirely separate. In many violent relationships the punches and kicks (or even just the threat of them) will instil the fear and then an unbalanced, exploitative, abusive power dynamic is set in place that doesn’t necessarily need daily violence to be sustained. (As an aside, this is one reason why I am puzzled by the current push from the likes of Women’s Aid and Prof Sylvia Walby to have DV/DA measured by numbers of incidents rather than numbers of victims, but that is for another day, perhaps.)
But where this becomes really difficult and deep, I think, is that the types of heuristics and cognitive shimmies we employ to interpret and understand the violent relationships of others can also apply to our own experiences of victimisation. A couple of times in his lecture, Ben asks us to ‘gender-flip’ scenarios to understand them better. This is something I always recoil from, I think it is misleading and here is why:
Suppose one evening Mr A punches Mrs A just hard enough to leave a black eye.
Simultaneously, next door, Mrs B punches Mr B just hard enough to leave a black eye.
Now in a gender-neutral analysis (and without any background about motivation, mitigation etc) these two aggressors have perpetrated identical assaults with identical consequences.
But it so happens that Mr and Mrs A and Mr and Mrs B all subscribe to very traditional notions of gender. They all fully buy into Sandra Bem’s gender schemas if you like.
When Mrs A is punched by her husband, what does she conclude? She concludes that her husband is a typical male who having done this once will probably do it again. She understands that he is physically stronger and psychologically more aggressive than she is and that he is, therefore, capable of any levels of violence against her – he might even kill her. If she doesn’t want to immediately leave or call the police, it is likely that one single punch will leave her in perpetual fear and consequently she will live in subjugation and submission.
When Mr B is punched by Mrs B, what does he conclude? Because of his gender scripts, his wife cannot be an aggressive, violent bully. His cognitive dissonance kicks in and tells him that the punch didn’t really hurt, he’s not really injured it was a one-off, he must have deserved it, whatever. Now we can look in from the outside and say that is obviously wrong, he shouldn’t feel like that, violence is wrong, full stop. That doesn’t change how he feels, he genuinely (if wrongly) believes that the punch was no big deal.
In his lecture Ben makes the point that we (as a society or culture) perceive a man hitting a woman differently to how we perceive a woman hitting a man. I’m saying this is true, but adding that we, as individuals, male or female, perceive being hit by a woman differently to how we perceive being hit by a man – even if they both hit equally hard. The consequences of the punch are not just the black eye, but the impact upon the power dynamic between the abuser and the abused, on our sense of self and our relationship with the person who just punched us. The bruises we cannot see are often much more significant than those we can.
Of course in practice human beings are much more complicated than this and our gendered heuristics are competing with many other psychological processes. Many female victims rationalise away or even brush off the behaviour of their abuser and many male victims live in abject terror of their partners, but the point is that in a society where we all adopt gendered heuristics we cannot simply flip genders and expect the results to be meaningful.
If you follow the academic arguments between feminist theorists and family conflict theorists (after Straus et al) you’ll quickly find feminists making similar points to those above, used as an argument for why we can safely ignore findings showing women can be just as violent as men in relationships. Ah, they will say, the Conflict Tactic Scale might show lots of women use violence against men but it doesn’t explain why they use it, what the context is or what the consequences of the violence might be. While they might rarely spell it out, the clear subtext to this argument is usually that a woman assaulting a man just isn’t as serious as a man assaulting a woman, for the individuals but especially for the broader political struggle against male dominion.
In this, I think, they are right and wrong. Right to say that female violence against men is categorically and phenomenologically different to male violence against women; wrong to conclude that therefore female violence against men isn’t a serious problem. In a nutshell, female violence against men might be a different problem to male violence against women but that does not mean it is not a problem on its own terms, doesn’t mean that male victims of domestic violence don’t suffer physical injury, stress, torment and psychological trauma or that women’s violence against men shouldn’t be identified, understood and addressed.
And this is where Ben Hine and I land back four square on the same page. What is needed for male victims of domestic violence is not a gender-neutral, equalist approach which assumes they have the same issues, the same needs, the same situations as female victims. And it certainly isn’t a gender-exclusive approach which assumes all intimate violence is male violence against women and that male victims are a quirk or an anomaly that can be tacked onto a violence against women strategy. What is needed are gender-appropriate, gender-inclusive policies that meet the separate but different needs of men and women at risk.