With domestic and sexual violence, context is everything

There have been some recent videos/media stories about domestic and sexual violence and how many men are impacted by it. The question of how many men are impacted by partner abuse is nothing new. Domestic violence as a cause took off in the 70s but over time, people began to question whether or not this issue impacted primarily women. Now we are aware that our country, and much of the world are built on patriarchy and so it makes sense that intimate partner violence traditionally impacts women more. But still. It’s a fair enough question to at least ask if men are impacted too and by how much. I mean we know how hard it is for women to come forward about their own personal experiences of abuse, so could it possibly be harder for men, since sexual and domestic violence isn’t supposed to happen to them? And unfortunately and of course, some men are abused by a partner who exerts power and control over them, whether that partner is male or otherwise. And so this question has circulated for some time now but these stories caught my attention because of how much circulation they’re getting and because one of them presents information about men being raped often by women, a crime that has not yet had a high reported prevalence rate, even with all this focus on the how many men are impacted by what has traditionally been seen as violence against women.

I am going to change gears for a moment here and say that, truth be told, I tend to be more upset by stories of men being raped. Not that I am not upset by violence against women, if you read this blog at all, you’ll know that I am. And not that I think this is necessarily how it “should” be. I think all sexual assaults should elicit similar/equal societal and personal responses. But the reality is that when I’ve heard reports of men being raped, I feel more devastated and disturbed than when I hear about this violence being perpetrated against a woman. While every rape and assault is legitimately awful, I am sure that my reaction to sexual violence against men is at least somewhat a byproduct of growing up in a culture that views perpetrators as men and victims as women (while ignoring the fact that any other gender may exist). Before I entered the domestic violence field, I didn’t really understood the power and control inherent in DV and the historical context of that. So I was very curious about how many men were impacted by this terrible violence and if more men were impacted by it than our society believes and if that were the case, I was ready to single-handedly change the societal discourse. I still would not be surprised if men, heterosexual or not, are impacted at higher rates than we, on a societal level, believe. But when I started working in the DV field, I came to understand the misogynistic historical context out of which this violence emerged and that while misogyny is perhaps not as rampant as it once was, it is still pretty damn rampant and that this violence continues to occur within a world that is still very anti-woman.

Let me be clear before I go any further: I believe that making room for male and genderqueer victims is immensely important, especially in the context of non-heterosexual relationships. I also think it is important to recognize the historical context within which domestic and sexual violence occur and that these types of violence are gender-based or at least stemming from a violence that is gender-based.

So all this is to preface my thought that the rates of male victims of domestic violence by a female partner may not be as high as reports of the past decade or two have indicated. I don’t mean that the men who reported being assaulted by a female are lying (though since batterers often lie and say they’ve been abused, undoubtedly some of the info reported in these studies is based on some lies). But the thing is, and this may sound strange, there are different types of abuse that occur in intimate partner relationships. And by that I mean not all types of abuse committed by a partner are part of a pattern of power and coercive control. These types of violence/abuse are the following and emerged from the work of Michael P. Johnson

Intimate terrorism – This is a type of violence/abuse that occurs in a relationship in which one partner engages in abuse to establish and maintain power and control over the other partner

Violent resistance – This violence occurs in an intimate terrorism relationship but is carried out by the victim in an attempt to resist or defend against the coercive control
Situational Couple Violence – Abuse, including violence, occur in these relationships but neither partner is attempting to establish or maintain power and control over the other.
Mutual violent control – Abuse in this context happens when both partners are trying to control the other.
*There is not evidence that this is a common occurrence, because, I think if both people are controlling, chances are the relationship will not last long due to an endless power battle. Also none of these are the exact definitions that Michael P. Flood put out, I’m pulling them out from the best of my memory.

A lot of studies that yield gender equal rates of partner abuse do not differentiate between these types of violence. Intimate terrorism is the definition of partner abuse/domestic violence that the DV field uses. The DV field is designed to serve and support people who are being coercively controlled and live in fear of their partners. Studies have been done on the research that purports that men experience as much partner abuse as women. These studies find that the majority of men who report name-calling and violence by a female partner typically don’t feel terrified of nor controlled by their partners. Often it is likely that they have experienced either situational couple violence or violent resistance. Note – sometimes batterers do report they feel controlled by their partners, but if you peel the layers back, this “control” typically means their partner wants a respectful relationship based on equality and compromise and is trying to set boundaries with an abuser who will do anything to get their way. Because of the long history of misogyny in this country and its relation to intimate relationships, women tend to be the ones who experience coercive control and are made to feel afraid in an abusive, heterosexual relationship. While men may experience violence and verbal abuse by a female partner, they usually don’t feel that their female partner terrifies and controls them.
No violence or abuse is okay and all violence is illegal. And context is everything when it comes to domestic and sexual violence. These types of violence are some of the few types of violence that occur primarily behind closed doors. This leaves room for a lot of “he said, she said” dynamics to arise, which creates significant confusion about who’s being honest. So when you’re listening to someone’s experience or reading news articles or research studies, you have to really listen to what’s being said. Or not being said. To truly understand who the victim is, listen for whose experience is indicative of being controlled. If context is left out of a wide sweeping study, we must ask questions.
And that’s exactly what I’m doing now after seeing a video and an article really making the internet rounds. The first example I’ve seen recently is this video by The Mankind Initiative. The video claims to “change the way you see domestic violence” and shows public response to both a female victim by a male perpetrator and vice-versa. The video in and of itself is fine and potentially brings up a good point. It’s that stat at the end that says 40% of DV survivors in the UK are men that left me peeved. Because like I said above and like I’ve said before, those stats usually come from studies that do not explore context and that do not ask questions that determine power and control dynamics in the relationship. Once someone has disclosed that their partner has abused them there are questions that help determine the context of the abuse. Questions like “what are arguments usually about?” “How are decisions made?” “Have the police or courts been involved and if so, what was going on then?” “How is your life different or not than before the relationship?” Those questions help understand control because if someone feels like their partner makes the decisions and that their life is significantly smaller than before the relationship (i.e., fewer friends, no job) while their partner’s life is basically the same then they are more likely the victim.
I also came across this article on Slate. It discusses the rising number of men reporting sexual assault and by female assailants. It certainly could shed light on a very under reported issue. But it was also confusing to me. Knowing what I know about rape, which is typically a gender-based violence, I was perturbed by the lack of inclusion of context. As I read this, I wondered when men reported a female assailant, were men involved in these assaults, too? For instance, I unfortunately happen to have a personal connection to a horrifying event in which a heterosexual couple was kidnapped and both were gang raped and murdered. The assailants were a group that included several men and one woman. I know that the woman who was attacked and killed had a past relationship with one of the assailants. I also know that the female assailant was currently dating one of the men involved. This story, to me, reeks of domestic violence and it illuminates how domestic violence most often impacts men, i.e. a man is attacked and/or murdered because he’s now dating an abuser’s ex or physically with her when she is assaulted. For me, knowledge of this event was horrifying and I felt nauseous over the horrific violence that was committed against this couple. But my guess is that more often than not, this is the kind of situation where women become involved in the perpetration of a rape. I say this not to absolve the woman. But if my gut is correct in this instance and at least one of the men involved was/is a batterer and if this female assailant is now dating someone who controls her, that does change the context of her involvement (note – I am not close enough to this situation to know if the female assailant was dating the man who dated the female victim but if she is then that is telling and if she isn’t, I would still question the dynamics of the relationship with another assailant). Again this is not to say she is necessarily absolved of guilt. But some good questions to ask are, could she have safely prevented or backed out of this situation? Is it possible she was coerced or forced into participation herself? And would she, or most women, be caught up in this awful violence if she weren’t involved with a misogynistic batterer, as she likely was in this incident? And my gut tells me that more often than not, this is when female assailants pop up. I am absolutely not saying that no woman has ever independently raped a man. Unfortunately that probably has happened and probably more often than we’d think. But I also want to put out there that it is highly plausible that the majority of cases involving a female assailant also involve coercive control by a man, whether directly or otherwise.
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4 Responses to With domestic and sexual violence, context is everything

  1. Alex says:

    I would not be surprised if most (certainly not all) cases of Female on Male rape come from coercive circumstances, as illustrated by epidemic of women school teachers sleeping with teenage boys. Interestingly enough, it still has (not the same, but) a similar power aspect as male on female rape; the woman is in a place of power and dominance in the relationship; as the adult, she is in control. It’s also an inversion of the archetype of the male mentor-figure grooming the younger female to be his ideal (an archetype best illustrated in the Medieval Japanese novel, the Tale of Genji). Of course these incidents are never treated as part of a larger problem with a possibly similar underlying cause, in no small part because of the brutish attitude that some people hold that all boys want to have sex with older women and “By, golly, I’da banged my teacher if I had the chance, hur hur!” Even if the desire is there in boys, it’s certainly being taken advantage of in greater numbers than we might imagine by older women in that position of power. Even if it is not a physically abusive relationship, it is certainly a duplicitous and manipulative relationship, and there seems to be no real push to examine why.

    • izzy82 says:

      Yes no doubt that all rape, regardless of the abuser’s gender, is about power and control. I also read a blog post by a community-based rape crisis center in which the blogger said she re-watched a Dawson’s Creek episode recently in which one of the male characters “sleeps” with his teacher and the blogger realized how wrong/creepy this was, as it was rape and even more disturbing since society thinks it’s NBD.
      PS Hope you weren’t planning to watch Dawson’s Creek and I just ruined that episode for you. HAHA. jk.

      • Alex says:

        lol, no, no plans to watch it. But i’ve noticed that almost all TV portrayals of teacher/student relationships are still Male-teacher/Female student. But that probably has to do with the fact that practically every ABC Family show is based on some book series or other written by the same lady. (Man, ABC Family loves some teenage sex! D:)

  2. Pingback: The reality of being female | Izzy In a Tizzy

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