TOWARD AN UNDERSTANDING OF MALE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
One man's violence against one woman may seem to result from his individual psychological problems, sexual frustration, unbearable life pressures, or some innate urge toward aggression. Though each of these "reasons" has been used to explain and even justify male violence, they oversimplify a complex reality: men have been taught to relate to the world in terms of dominance and control, and they have been taught that violence is an acceptable method of maintaining control, resolving conflicts, and expressing anger. When a boss sexually harasses an employee, he exerts his power to restrict her freedom to work and improve her position. When a battering husband uses beatings to confine his wife to the home and to prevent her from seeing friends and family or from pursuing outside work, he exerts dominance and control. When men rape women, they act out of a wish to dominate or punish.
Whether or not an individual man who commits an act of violence views it as an expression of power is not the point. The fact that so many individual men feel entitled to express their frustration or anger by being violent to so many individual women shows how deeply these lessons of dominance and violence have been learned.
Countless daily acts of violence create a climate of fear and powerlessness that limits women's freedom of action and controls many of the movements of our lives. The threat of male violence continues to keep us from stepping out from behind the traditional roles that we, as women, have been taught. Violence and the threat of violence keep us "in our place."
Now that I am on my own and living free of my abuser, I can see how my life was altered when I was being battered. Little by little, he isolated me from my friends, he convinced me to quit working, he complained about how I kept the house, he kept track of the mileage on the car to make sure that I wasn't going anywhere. Eventually, when the beatings were regular and severe, I had no one to turn to and I felt completely alone.
On the surface, it seems that men benefit from sexism--from this system of male dominance, control, and violence. On a deeper level, we know that sexism harms men as well as women. Sexism, and more specifically violence against women, harms men because it harms the women and girls in their lives and because it keeps them from having positive and loving relationships with women. In recent years, some men have begun to recognize and acknowledge the ways in which relating violently toward women (and other men) harms them. Groups like "Real Men" and "Men to End Sexism" have been working to raise consciousness among other men and to teach men how to be allies of women in the effort to bring an end to violence against women.
Battering, often referred to as domestic violence, is one of the most common and least reported crimes in the world. Battering happens to women of every age, race, class, and nationality. It is done by the men we marry or date who beat us; by our sons and nephews who bully us and slap us around; and by male relatives who verbally harass and degrade us.
Battering takes many forms and includes a range of threatening and harmful behavior. It may take the form of verbal and emotional abuse, with the direct or implied threat of violence. Battering may include control of finances and one's physical freedom. It includes the destruction of objects and harm to pets. Battering may involve severe and frequent beatings or may happen occasionally. It may include slapping, punching, choking, kicking, or hitting with objects. Stalking can be a part of battering, especially if the woman has left the relationship. Battering may escalate to sexual assault and can ultimately end in murder. Battering can happen in new relationships at the dating stage and may continue into our elder years. As time passes, battering tends to increase in frequency and severity.
I have had glasses thrown at me. I have been kicked in the abdomen, kicked off the bed, and hit while lying on the floor—while I was pregnant. I have been whipped, kicked and thrown, picked up and thrown down again.
I have been slapped for saying something about politics, having a different view about religion, for swearing, for crying, for wanting to have intercourse.
I have been threatened when I wouldn't do something I was told to do.
I have been threatened when he's had a bad day—when he's had a good day.
Bringing an end to domestic violence is especially difficult because the men who batter us are also the men with whom we have been close or intimate, perhaps the fathers of our children. We may still be bound by strong feelings of love and loyalty. We may remain at home not only because the men physically stop us from leaving but also because we hope that the violent behavior will change.
Before I left I used to say, "Yeah, he punched and kicked me, but I'd said something to make him mad." Or "He only hits me when I argue." Now I see that everyone has a right to get angry - it's natural—but he had no right to express his anger so violently, to hurt me.
An all-too-common question asked about women who are battered is "Why do they stay?" This question itself takes the focus off of the real question, which is "Why does he beat her?" Battered women do not remain in the relationship because we enjoy the battering. We may feel trapped and unable to leave. Battering often escalates at the point of separation, and we may actually feel safer staying. If we have children, we may feel that we won't be able to support ourselves and our children if we leave. People whom we turn to for support--clergy, police, friends, family--may be uninformed about battering and may not take the situation seriously. We may know about the existence of shelters for battered women but may feel that moving to a shelter in a new neighborhood or city will cause too much upheaval for us or for our children (who may have to change schools while we take shelter). We may be afraid to leave if we believe our immigration status is dependent on the "good will" of the batterer. If we have been living with abuse for a long time we may be so worn down emotionally that we simply can't imagine a way out.
I went early in our marriage to a clergyman, who after a few visits told me that my husband meant no real harm, he was just confused and felt insecure. Things continued. I turned this time to a doctor. I was given little pills to relax me and told to take things easier. I was "just too nervous." I turned to a friend, and when her husband found out, he accused me of either making things up or exaggerating the situation. She was told to stay away from me.
Many battered women have had similar experiences of being challenged, patronized, or told that our problems are insignificant. In the face of such inexcusable treatment we must remember that NO WOMAN DESERVES TO BE BEATEN OR VERBALLY ABUSED. EVERY WOMAN DESERVES TO HAVE HER STORY TAKEN SERIOUSLY.
Children who do not see their mothers abused but who hear her screams and crying, the abuser's threats, sounds of the impact of fists hitting flesh, glass breaking, wood splintering, or cursing and degrading language do witness the abuse.12
The effects of growing up in the midst of domestic violence can be devastating for children. Children of battered women are very likely to be battered themselves. They live in constant fear and are often torn physically and emotionally between their adult caretakers: they may develop severe physical and emotional responses to the violence, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Children of domestic violence learn that violence is an appropriate way to resolve conflicts, and they are likely to live out their childhood experiences of violence in their adult relationships and in their relationships with their own children.13
My very upper-middle-class, WASP father hit my mother drunkenly on an occasional Saturday night. Sunday morning she would explain away her bruises. I lived my whole childhood under this shadow--the possibility of violence, the sounds in the night, and the toll it took on me that she put up with it.
Many battered adult women heard verbal abuse or witnessed battering beginning in their early childhood. Some were physically or sexually abused by the same person who battered their mothers. Under these circumstances, it is easy to understand how we might come to believe the degrading and harmful messages we have received about ourselves. It is easy to understand how we might find ourselves in relationships with men who abuse us verbally and physically.
Most men began to learn violence at an early age. Many men who batter grew up witnessing their fathers abusing their mothers; they may well have been physically or sexually abused as children. They often came of age in families where male dominance was never questioned and where physical punishment "in the name of love" was accepted. When our families teach us to accept male dominance and violence as a way to relate to one another, this message is difficult to defy.
Efforts are beginning in many communities to break the intergenerational cycle of violence that exists in so many families. Often, these begin with community-based programs designed to intervene on behalf of children whose mothers are being beaten. Innovative programs that teach nonviolence and conflict resolution skills to preschoolers are being developed and duplicated in child care centers in diverse communities. Workshops on teen dating violence are being offered to middle- and high-school-age children. All of these efforts aim to teach girls and young women that we have a right to be free from violence and the fear of violence and to teach boys and young men a different way to relate to girls and women and to the world.
Just as young children are especially vulnerable to violence from within our families, so too are older women at particular risk of being exploited and battered. In recent years, awareness has grown of the special problems facing older battered women, and this has resulted in special laws protecting elders from abuse in all fifty states.
Women who are battered in old age face many of the same problems as younger adult women struggling with abuse. In addition, we may be physically frail and dependent on the batterer for daily care. The nearest shelter for battered women may not be set up to accommodate our physical abilities.* We may well be fearful that if we seek help to end the abuse we will find ourselves forced into a nursing home. If the batterer is a spouse with whom we have lived for many years, it may be especially difficult to contemplate separation or ending the relationship. If the batterer is our adult child, calling for help from a social service agency or the police may simply be unimaginable.
Battered women's activists are becoming increasingly concerned about our ability to respond to older battered women. In addition to the challenge of making sure that our shelter services are physically accessible, there are conflicting mandates for those who serve older battered women. Most elder abuse laws are similar to child abuse laws in that they require service providers to report instances of abuse to public health authorities or social service agencies. This approach to domestic violence against older women may conflict with the deep commitment of the battered women's movement to empowering victims of violence and protecting their right to privacy and confidentiality. Just as the battered women's movement has, from its earliest days, turned to battered women themselves in learning how to respond to domestic violence, so will activists and elder service providers want to listen to older battered women in working out how to meet the challenge of ending violence against elders.
If you are in a violent relationship right now, there are things you can do that may help you to be safer, to assure the safety of your children, and to work toward ending the relationship if that is what you want to do. There are no right answers for every battered woman. The woman who is being battered knows best whether her actions may work to de-escalate the violence or incite further violence. Overall, your safety can increase the more you become aware, inform others, find support, and implement a safety plan.
During an attack, here are some things you can do to take care of yourself:
- Stay as calm as you possibly can.
- Try to shield yourself, especially your head and stomach.
- If you are able, and if it won't put you at greater risk, call 911 and get emergency assistance.
- Do the best you can to end the attack with the least amount of injury.
Even if you are still in the situation and see no immediate way out, there are things you can do to plan for your safety:
- Become familiar with your state's laws and legal policies pertaining to domestic violence.
- Find out about restraining orders: how to get them and where to get an advocate if needed.
- Build a support network. Get connected with your local battered women's service, join a support group, and develop your network of friends.
- Learn and watch for warning signs of your partner's abusive behavior/attitude.
- Teach your children how to call for emergency assistance.
- Think through a safety plan and write it down. Let others know your plans when appropriate.
- If your abuser is drinking or drugging and you can get to Al-Anon meetings (see chapter 3, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Mood-Altering Drugs), you may find support and strength to make a change.
Making a safety plan while you are still struggling with a violent partner can help in two ways: First, it can give you a sense of hope in what so often feels like a hopeless situation. Second, it can actually bring you a bit closer to leaving a dangerous situation. There are battered women's service organizations in many communities. Most of these organizations help battered women develop safety plans. Safety plans include steps you can take to increase your own safety and the safety of your children.
There are alternatives to staying in a battering situation. More and more women are leaving men who batter, and they are finding help in making a new life despite economic hardships. Women everywhere have been organizing to help battered women leave abusive situations, to provide shelter and a more responsive legal system. Women have found the courage to tell their stories publicly. WE ARE NOT HELPLESS AND WE ARE NOT ALONE
Increasing Safety While in the Relationship
- Carry important phone numbers for yourself and your children (police, hospital, friends, battered women's program) and a cellular phone or beeper if you can afford one.
- Find someone to tell about the abuse and develop a signal for distress. Ask neighbors to call the police if they hear noise of a violent episode.
- Think of four places where you can go if you leave in a hurry.
- Get specific items ready to take if you leave.
- Keep change for phone calls, open your own bank account, rehearse an escape route.
- Periodically review your safety plan and update it.
Blaming the Victim
The most common emotional responses to sexual harassment, battering, and rape are guilt, fear, powerlessness, shame, betrayal, anger, and denial. Guilt is often the first and deepest response. Anger may arise only later; this is not surprising, because as women we often have no sense of a right to be free from these kinds of violence.
We may feel guilty about violence done to us because we are taught that our job is to make men happy, and if they aren't, we--not they--are to blame. Many of us heard from our parents, "Boys will be boys, so girls must take care"--the message being that we can avoid unwanted male attention if only we are careful enough. If anything goes wrong, it must be our fault. Blaming the victim releases the man who commits violence from the responsibility for what he has done. Friends or family may blame the victim in order to feel safe themselves: "She got raped because she walked alone after midnight. I'd never do that, so rape won't happen to me."
WOMEN ARE NOT GUILTY FOR VIOLENCE COMMITTED BY MEN ON OUR BODY, MIND, AND SPIRIT. THIS VIOLENCE HAPPENS BECAUSE OF MEN'S GREATER POWER AND THEIR MISUSE OF THAT POWER
Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual attention a woman experiences. It includes leering, pinching, patting, repeated comments, subtle suggestions of a sexual nature, and pressure for dates. Sexual harassment can occur in any situation where men have power over women: welfare workers with clients, doctors with patients, police officers with women members of a police force, or teachers with students. In the workplace, the harasser may be an employer, a supervisor, a co-worker, a client, or a customer. Sexual harassment can escalate; women who are being sexually harassed are at risk of being physically abused or raped
One 16-year-old girl described her experience:
It came to the point where I was skipping almost all of my classes, therefore getting me kicked out of the honors program. I dreaded school each morning, I started to wear clothes that wouldn't flatter my figure, and I kept to myself. I'd cry every night when I got home, and I thought I was a loser....Sometimes the teachers were right there when it was going on. They did nothing....I felt very angry that these arrogant, narrow-minded people never took the time to see who really was inside.11
Sexual harassment is a powerful way for men to undermine and control us. Attitudes of race and class superiority can result in a feeling by white men that they are entitled to sexually harass women of color or employees from a "lower" class or different background. There is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that our refusal to comply with the harasser's demands will lead to work-related reprisals. These can include escalation of harassment; poor work assignments; sabotaging of projects; denial of raises, benefits, or promotion; and sometimes the loss of the job with only a poor reference to show for it. Harassment can drive women out of a particular job or out of the workplace altogether.
Socializing at work too often includes flirting or joking about sex. Although it may be a pleasant relief from routine or a way to communicate with someone we are interested in, this banter can become insulting or demeaning. It becomes sexual harassment when it creates a hostile, intimidating, or pressured working environment
Why should men care about sexual violence?
1. Men rape
The great majority of all sexually violent crimes are committed by males. Even when men are sexually victimized, other men are most often the perpetrators.
2. Men ARE raped
We don't like to think about it, and we don't like to talk about it, but the fact is that men can also be sexually victimized. Studies show that a staggering 10-20% of all males are sexually violated at some point in their lifetimes. Men are not immune to the epidemic of sexual violence, nor are male survivors safe from the stigma that society attaches to victims of rape. Male survivors are often disbelieved, accused of being gay, or blamed for their own victimization when they report an incident of sexual assault. Frequently, they respond, as do many female survivors, by remaining silent and suffering alone.
3. Rape confines men
When some men rape, and when 80% of those who are raped know the man who attacked them, it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish men who are safe from men who are dangerous, men who can be trusted from men who can't, men who will rape from men who won't. The result is a society with its guard up, where relationships with men are approached with fear and mistrust, where intimacy is limited by the constant threat of violence, and where all men are labeled "potential rapists."
4. Men know survivors
At some point in every man's life, someone close to him will likely disclose that they are a survivor of sexual violence and ask for help. Men must be prepared to respond with care, sensitivity, compassion, and understanding. Ignorance on the part of men about the situation of rape and its impact can only hinder the healing process and may even contribute to the survivor's feeling further victimized. A supportive male presence during a survivor's recovery, however, can be invaluable.
5. Men can stop rape
Rape is a choice men make to use sex as a weapon for power and control. For rape to stop, men who are violent must be empowered to make different choices. All men can play a vital role in this process by challenging rape supporting attitudes and behaviors and raising awareness about the damaging impact of sexual violence. Every time a man's voice joins those of women in speaking out against rape, the world becomes safer for us all.