“Was Stephen A. Smith Right?: The Domestic Abuse of Men” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

*New post-script at the very bottom.

Stephen A. Smith’s (pictured left in the video above) recent comments about women provoking their own domestic abuse in relationships represents men’s inability to talk about gender. In essence, men have not developed a relationship with gender discourses other than to serve as as honorary women at best, or to ignore them altogether at worst, but they have not yet developed a vocabulary for gender rooted in a critical understanding of their own experiences as males. In regard to Smith, it’s not so much that women are provoking violence against themselves, it’s that women, too, can be abusers but often aren’t held accountable as such–and it’s more prevalent than people think. This is the importance of Smith’s debacle, the opportunity to discuss men’s experiences–not as a diversion from women’s, but as a unique and disregarded space ignored by most.

When women assault men, societal and individual investments in traditional masculinity often discourage men from reporting abuse. Moreover, men know they may not be taken seriously when they do come forward. Most importantly, most don’t know what violence looks like for men (in heterosexual relationships with abusive women or in homosexual relationships with abusive male partners). You don’t need to fit some type of stereotyped visage of a physically battered person; it’s simply a matter of having been disrespected and assaulted by someone you’re close with, remembering that assault can be emotional, psychological, or physical.

Seeing men as “abused” is hard, partly because abuse of men is comical (see below). It’s funny because our starting point is that it’s viewed as unlikely, mainly because women are inherently innocent (and physically weaker) and men are inherently guilty (and physically stronger). Thus, any response to men with violence is comical or even heroic! (Think Tyler Perry’s Madea suggesting “grit-ball”–throwing hot grits on a man–and the laughter that ensues after the statement). From a pop culture angle, women have few limitations in regard to violence (from throwing hot grits to cutting off a man’s penis), but when men respond with force, even in self-defense, it’s abuse. And the wealth of disposable, bumbling, idiotic husbands and fathers is commonplace in contemporary media, as is their emotional abuse (watch Jennifer Falls or Married). This overly simplistic dynamic of problematizing men’s violence while ignoring women’s, is at it’s heart, confusing for many males.

The following ABC News clip gives an interesting perspective on how both men and women respond to male abuse…

Patriarchal Privilege, Power, and Violence

Documentary filmmaker Byron Hurt responds to Stephen A. Smith’s statement in an article in EBONY entitled, “Stephen A. Smith ‘Provokes’ Debate about Violence Against Women.” He states,

“A large number of the men I’ve talked to believe that men act violently toward women because they often say and do things that make men “lose control.”  …This belief often takes center stage during my conversations with boys and men about physical or sexual violence. No matter how often I try to change the paradigm and focus on men’s role in perpetuating gender-based violence, men continually attempt to deflect the issue and shift blame and responsibility onto girls and women.  This deflection never fails.  Men create excuses for their abusive behavior and deny women’s victimhood.  …Not having to examine our own behavior is one of the benefits that comes along with male privilege.”

Hurt’s points are well-received. Men’s choice to inflict violence is a choice that can (and should) be made differently, as in to avoid violence altogether. Here, I don’t believe that Black Masculinism is about defending misogyny or avoiding addressing power dynamics that privilege males. However, I don’t believe that avoiding a critique of women’s behavior is helpful either (or suggesting that the only reason men might critique women is to avoid responsibility for their own actions). Characterizing attempts to critique women’s behavior solely as men’s deflections or attempts to remove women’s victimization is irresponsible, and affirms men’s silence in matters of gender. Yes, there are those that attempt this, and I believe Hurt may be correct that Smith is one of these (although according to Whoopi Goldberg on The View, Smith is responding to statements by NFL player Ray Rice’s then fiancé, Janay Palmer that she started the fight with Rice by striking him first, and Rice may have responded in self-defense). Nevertheless, I contend that there is something to discuss about women’s behavior that IS worthy of dialogue, and that most men have not learned how to discuss…abuse.

Hurt suggests that gendered-violence is an extension of power, and men have it and don’t acknowledge it…hence their privilege. This too, I don’t deny, but I suggest that privilege is far from a simple binary of who has it and who doesn’t. Privilege is reflected through a prism of class, race, and gender (to say the least). So what does this mean about Hurt’s assessment of gendered-violence? It means that not all men enjoy unparalleled privilege, and not all women are oppressed objects with no access to power. It means that women may benefit from class, gender, or race dynamics, and this may go unnoticed when thinking about women as a collective.

So women, too, can abuse their power, whether as mothers of male children, intimate partners of men, employers or administrators over male underlings, or as principal-earners and heads of households; and be reinforced by structural power dynamics that are compounded by class, color, beauty, gender, race, sexuality, health, and social status. In fact, women as a collective have amassed a great deal of power in western society, so much so, that the very critique of them is considered taboo. To go one step further, to merely talk about males and men (in isolation) is now viewed as an exercise in patriarchy. Thus, framing gendered-violence solely in terms of social power dynamics often leaves those abused by women in a place of isolated confusion. Further, to ignore women’s consumer power, voting power, and educational accomplishments since the 1970s when considering the function of power in a capitalist context, is wholly oblivious and stifling if one seeks to understand contemporary gender dynamics.

So what constitutes domestic abuse/violence? One blog states that “Domestic abuse and violence against men and women have some similarities and difference. …what will hurt a man mentally and emotionally, can in some cases be very different from what hurts a woman [I’ll discuss the physical in a moment]. For some men, being called a coward, impotent or a failure can have a very different psychological impact than it would on women…statistics show that while men tend to inflict injury at higher rates, the majority of domestic violence overall is reciprocal.” I contend that the acts of violence many of us see on TV or in movies is abuse enough to warrant a critical redefining of gendered-violence. It is popular now to make sure men committing violence against women in media are either characterized as “bad guys” or don’t commit such actions altogether. Conversely, women often hit men, slap them, throw things at them, hit them with things, shoot them with guns, or throw them through walls with fancy martial arts (and yet, more often than not, the only person who can outsmart or physically beat up a woman in cinema, is another woman). The end result? Women’s violence against men is simultaneously perceived as both inspirational for women, and comedic.

Hence, whether he’s a survivor or just a guy who is defending himself, if he responds in the manner she has, he is an abuser. Jay-Z, for example, could only hold Solange at a distance. Consider, without the bodyguard in the elevator, how else might he have protected himself? Would he be a victim or an abuser if he defended himself? Was Solange identified as an abuser? Would it still be funny to people if he pushed her, kicked her, or punched her? When discussed on The View, many laughed at Jay, applauded her assumed protection of her sister, Beyoncé, framed Bey as a victim of Jay Z, and said no matter what happened, it was likely his fault for provoking her… SMDH.

Here, Smith’s comments were really targeted at this Solange-type behavior, where some women feel entitled to attack men without regard for consequences, taking advantage of the public’s assumption that female rage is harmless–Smith just didn’t know how to say it. (Here, despite research that suggests that intimate-partner-violence is strikingly close in terms of men-attacking-women and women-attacking-men, public opinion will help hyper-focus on the former while ignoring the latter. Kelly, 2003). Where he was wrong was that such behavior need not elicit a violent response from men and it should be acceptable to discuss abusive women, but where he was right was that it’s not discussed enough. Many believe that such things as cheating are justification for ANY violent female response, but the much publicized and almost universally-accepted notion of “there’s never a reason to hit a woman” seems to never apply in reverse to men. Especially with regard to cheating, because cheating…well, it only hurts women. Right?

Part of the problem is that in traditional masculinity, men have been taught to meet violence with violence to demonstrate that they’ve achieved manhood, mostly marked by them conquering fear (of a threat, a violent person, etc.), but when the violence is spawned by a woman, this technique is counter-intuitive because we have learned to see women as weak, victims, and with a presumption of innocence. In another part of Hurt’s article he uses Latrell Sprewell’s assault of his coach as an example of unequal power dynamics (he says players don’t attack abusive coaches because they lack power, as women often do), but what’s missing from his narrative is that no one felt pity for Sprewell or Coach P.J. Carlesimo. No one assumed either was inherently innocent, inherently a victim, or inherently entitled to justice. It was treated as a amusing anecdote, but if a female student attacked a male teacher, the assumption would be that he must have assaulted her some fashion. In other words, entrenched social assumptions shape how we interpret (and when applicable, litigate) people through both the legal system and the court of public opinion. This is incredibly important when it comes to assessing who’s right and who’s wrong.

Another part of the issue is that we also use a faulty definition of abuse to obscure its frequency. Physical abuse should mean unwanted physical touching, physical aggression (hitting, kicking, biting, shoving, restraining, throwing objects), or threats thereof; as well as sexual abuse; emotional abuse; controlling or domineering; intimidation; stalking; passive/covert abuse (neglect) or use of an object to hurt another. Each of these can happen to men even though men themselves don’t generally consider classifying it as abuse at all. In fact, some studies show that women are actually more likely to do this than men (see ABC News video, second from the top, above)…while more moderate reports suggest 1-in-5 men are domestically abused by women. Nevertheless, another thing that makes discussing men’s experiences with female violence difficult are the “truisms” we hold:

1) women can’t really hurt men
2) women are weaker than men
3) women can’t really abuse men
4) men who claim female abuse happens are just skating the real issue that men are the majority of abusers.
5) only men should be held accountable for their use of violence

Although one could argue that #1-4 are products of patriarchy, gender scholars critical of patriarchy will still treat them as “truths.” Such unspoken but widespread beliefs are dangerous, and must be checked. MALES OF ANY AGE CAN BE ASSAULTED, ABUSED, AND UNFAIRLY ATTACKED. Further, raising a discussion about women’s relationship to violence need not be solely framed as a re-articulation of patriarchy. Women and girls can be held accountable for their actions without it being labeled an attack on all women, and with this logic we might need to revisit some of our base assumptions about gender. For instance, men in America are raped more than women (covered on my last piece on Elliot Rodgers) and physically attacked in relationships by women more frequently than women by men. Men and women both commit domestic abuse but may have different over-arching patterns, so although both commit violence, men commit more noticeable violence, while the rates of emotional/psychological violence committed by women against men is unknown, as men are far less likely to report this (or even consider it abuse).

As long as we don’t teach people that such things can and do happen to men, it remains invisible to the larger society. The truth is that we don’t have a definition of abuse outside of the narrative of battered women. And although it took a great deal of activism (and time) for that narrative to be taken seriously, the axiom I mentioned before about rape holds true here: “Abuse of women is seldom reported, abuse of men by women almost never, and psychological/emotional abuse of men by women is laughably non-existent.” So what does an abused male look like? Uuummm well…like anyone other man you know.


Framing Abuse of Males

Domestic abuse against men is more widespread than people think. Why? It’s not only because men don’t report it, but because most of us have been acculturated to accept violence by women as humorous, and thus invisible. When a woman punches or slaps a guy because he cheated on her, or throws something at him because she’s angry (I’m watching a children’s cartoon, The Legend of Korra, and this just happened while I’m writing this!). It’s simply assumed he must’ve been at fault! Let’s be clear, this is abuse. But when men are hit by women, they themselves don’t see it as abuse…it’s just what they were raised to believe they’re supposed to endure; and if they complain about it, they’re weak “non-men.” In essence, females can do what they want, and it starts when boys are young and they’re told not to hit girls…but no one says anything when girls hit boys (something my 9-year old son has scratched his head about on multiple occasions)! To be clear, here are some ideas on what emotional, psychological, or physical abuse can look like for males:

• a woman calling a man an insulting name (publicly or privately).
• a woman stopping a man from going to work, public places, or seeing his family and friends.
• a woman being possessive and/or jealous and attempting to control the clothes he will wear, the money he will spend, or the places he can go to.
• a woman threatening a man with violence and harm, particularly when she is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
• a woman hitting, kicking, punching, slapping, shoving or choking a man, or assaulting him in his sleep.
• a woman threatening to leave a man and to take their children with her if he doesn’t do what she wants.

The article suggests that the reason men are abused by women are: 1) that she is an alcoholic, 2) she has psychological issues, or 3) she has unrealistic expectations of men. I would add a fourth possibility: that violence against men has consistently been presented in mainstream culture as acceptable, invisible, and amusing. So much so that for many women, their behavior is not abuse, just them expressing themselves.

What Stephen A. Smith needed to do was twofold: condemn NFL player Ray Rice for his violent response to his wife’s assault on his person and state clearly (for men who don’t resort to violence against women) what men fear saying: that men are afraid of the limited options available to them when attacked by a woman: not being taken seriously when reporting it or addressing it in court (and being seen as emasculated), being incarcerated for defending one’s self, or just being silent about its occurrence due to lack of viable options. Collectively, for men,  this constitutes a soul-crushing triad in an era of public condemnation of physical abuse.

I recommend that when men are assaulted by women that they avoid violence at all costs (not only to prevent from hurting anyone but also because men’s self-defense from women are more readily perceived as assaults on women!), but I would also tell them to speak up against ideas that: female violence is a joke, that women are incapable of committing such acts, that women don’t need accountability for their behavior, or that any focus on women is merely a deflection by men. There is space to discuss “invisible” violence (women attacking men) in real, meaningful ways. It doesn’t take an imposing person to use a gun, a knife, attack you in your sleep, hit you with a household item, get others to attack you, exploit you financially, traumatize you emotionally, assault you verbally, or abuse you psychologically. All it takes is someone willing to abuse the power they have to do so…

A Parting Exercise

Here are some random videos of violence toward men by women. Conduct this test for yourself, can you watch the videos below without laughing? Would you laugh if the genders were reversed? Can you name media productions that have shown acts of violence by women/girls against men/boys? Have you ever experienced anything like this or know someone who has? Did you consider yourself (or them) a victim of abuse or domestic violence? If not, why not?

*The fight over narrative (meaning the fight over how most of us imagine victims of domestic violence and rape) is not just about principle, it’s about resources. Otherwise, it would be nothing for us to admit that males, females, and transgendered persons experience violence and rape. But to concede that males experience both at the hands of both male and female aggressors begs the question, “why aren’t males supported more notably by policies, support resources, or crisis centers?” According to Linda Kelly, such issues–and the power to use key issues to shape political policy specifically for women–have a materialistic component that generally goes unsaid. She says,

“By limiting the definition of domestic violence to male violence, domestic violence advocates have been able to frame the issue in a manner narrow and sympathetic enough for it to remain high on the public agenda. Broadening the definition to include female violence risks diluting the effectiveness of domestic violence funding campaigns, as female violence as well as male violence would then have to be targeted with, presumably, the same fixed amount of money.” (Kelly 2003)

More explicitly stated,

“[i]f we acknowledge the existence of battered husbands, then the funding designated for programs to assist battered women will be cut further because monies will be directed at programs for battered men. Thus, many radical feminists have fought for years to keep battered husbands closeted so that the small amount of money that was available for wife abuse would not be jeopardized. (Murray A. Straus, “The Controversy Over Domestic Violence by Women: A Methodological, Theoretical, and Sociology of Science Analysis,” in Violence In Intimate Relationships; supra-note 14, at 188.)

Thus, stopping abuse and curbing violence against people has not been the point of abuse legislation since the 1970s, but rather the political mobilization of mostly White, middle-class women via second-wave, carceral feminism. Had it truly been about stopping wanton violence in intimate partner relationships, it shouldn’t matter who commits it and who doesn’t…should it?

The vast majority of the homeless and the incarcerated across the country are males. As laughable as this subject might be to some of you reading this, could they have been victims of domestic abuse or rape and had no place to go? Could they have been taken advantage of by courts, police officers, and public opinion who wouldn’t take male victims seriously?

Feminists were right to advocate for forgotten and abandoned women and girls…masculinists must do no less for men and boys who’ve fallen through the cracks and filled our streets and prisons… And if domestic violence policy has been shaped by feminist research focused mostly on women since the 1970s, than who performs research to advocate for these discarded men and boys when we’ve only learned to see gender from women’s perspectives? The answer is, we all must.

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