Why is it So Hard To Recognize Abuse OF Men BY Women as a Problem?
People recognize that a man behaving in an abusive way toward his wife or girlfriend is a bad thing. Male-to-female partner abuse is rightfully condemned.
But flip the genders and that same controlling, demeaning, or punishing behavior is far too often ignored, condoned, supported, or laughed at.
Why is that?
Why is it so hard for people to label controlling, demeaning, or punishing behavior as abusive when a woman is doing it to a man.
A Story to Illustrate The One-Sided View of Partner Abuse
I was at a housewarming party and struck up a conversation with a middle-aged woman who was a friend of my friend. In response to her asking what I do, I mentioned that one of my specialties is the abuse of men by women. She said, “Oh, yeah. I was really abused by my ex-husband.” She backed her statement up by describing some major manipulative moves her husband used against her.
After hearing her out, I said, “Actually, my specialty is abuse of men by women.” Her shocked response: “Does that happen?”
Our conversation continued with me explaining some of the ways women abuse men. When I mentioned that one of the ways is purposefully trapping a man with an “unplanned” pregnancy, she said, “That happened to my son!”
She explained, “My son was planning to break up with his girlfriend but came to me crying, saying that she had just told him that she was pregnant. He said he had to do the honorable thing and marry her.”
Luckily for this woman’s son, his mom was savvy enough to ask if he was sure she was pregnant, and had he gone to any of her doctor’s appointments. Her questions instigated her son to question his girlfriend and press that he be allowed to attend her prenatal appointments.
Eventually, the girlfriend revealed that she wasn’t really pregnant at all.
This woman had labeled her ex-husband’s manipulations as abusive, but had not been able to see the malicious manipulations of her son’s girlfriend as abuse until our conversation.
Research Shows People Don't Recognize Abuse When It's Female to Male
UK researchers presented over 200 subjects with gendered scenarios of Intimate Partner Abuse (IPV).
Their conclusion: Intimate Partner Abuse was "less likely to be identified toward male victims and considered more acceptable compared to when the victim was female. Moreover, individuals reported feeling more capable and likely to intervene in an act of IPV when the victim was female compared to male, were more likely to report such an incident, and anticipated greater outcomes." (What about the Male Victims? Exploring the Impact of Gender Stereotyping on Implicit Attitudes and Behavioural Intentions Associated with Intimate Partner Violence, 2018.)
This gender bias isn't just from people in the general public. It's also found in helping professionals. American psychologists were asked to assess the degree of abusiveness they would assign to partners in over 100 conflict scenarios. In one survey, the aggressive behaviors were by a husband to a wife. In the other, they were from a wife to a husband. “Psychologists . . . were more likely to consider actions of a husband toward his wife to be abusive than when a wife engaged in the same behaviors toward her husband.” (Psychologists' judgments of psychologically aggressive actions when perpetrated by a husband versus a wife. 2004, p. 447).
Men and women experience DV at similar rates.
8 Reasons People Don't Recognize Abuse When a Woman is Abusing Her Husband or Boyfriend
Here are 8 reasons that I came up with to explain why people have a difficult time recognizing abuse when an woman is the source of the harmful behavior and a man is her target:
Good/Bad Polarized Thinking
Fear That It Undermines Helping Abused Women
The Pendulum Has Swung Too Far
Attachment to Patriarchy as the Reason for DV
Belief That A Woman Can’t Hurt a Man
He Must Deserve It
Normalization of Women Abusing Men
1. Good/Bad Polarized Thinking
Culturally, we tend to look at things from a polarized, either-or, view. This dichotomous (“di” means two) way of looking at things results in some distorting beliefs.
Polarized thinking leads us to believe that women are one way and men are the opposite:
woman/good ----------------------------------- man/bad
woman/truthful ------------------------------- man/dishonest
woman/weak ---------------------------------- man/strong
woman/innocent ----------------------------- man/guilty
woman/needs help --------------------------- man/doesn’t need help
A man or woman can fit any of these descriptions. They can also be somewhere on a continuum in between the 2 polar opposites.
Groups of people are not entirely good or bad, entirely truthful or dishonest, always weak or strong, always innocent or guilty, always in need of help or never in need of help . . . . Individuals usually fall somewhere between the polar opposites.
2. Fear That It Undermines Helping Abused Women
Some people actively quash discussion about abuse by women as if recognition of abuse by women undermines recognition of abuse of women. (Either-or polarized thinking probably comes into play with this imaginary binary choice.)
The reality is that both can be true.
Men can and do sometimes abuse women and that matters. Women can and do sometimes abuse men and that also matters. (And sometimes abuse is mutual: both partners are abusive. And that matters.)
Acknowledging one in no way undercuts the other.
As one frustrated abused man put it: “Recognition doesn’t hurt anything.”
3. The Pendulum Has Swung Too Far
The women’s movement has done a good job of exposing the destruction caused by men abusing women. It has taken the abuse of women by their male partners from being culturally sanctioned and ignored to being widely abhorred. That is as it should be.
But the same has not been done for the abuse of men. In fact, some women treat it as payback.
“Have you heard about the woman who stabbed her husband thirty-seven times? I admire her restraint.”
When I talk to women about the abuse of men by women, sometimes their reaction is: “The pendulum just has to swing against men because men have abused women!”
The fact that more than once I have heard this comment when talking to other counselors is an unfortunate testament to how widespread and entrenched this attitude is.
Just because some women have been, and are, treated badly by male partners does not mean that it should be open season on men.
The pendulum does not have to swing freely until it happens to settle into a balanced position. We are human beings with brains and free will. We can create balance if we choose to.
A healthy society doesn’t condone the abuse of anyone: man, woman, or child.
4. Attachment to Patriarchy as the Reason for DV
The Domestic Violence (DV) treatment and advocacy system is entrenched with the idea that DV is caused by male patriarchy. The Duluth Model broadly used in domestic violence treatment is based on the idea that partner abuse is caused by patriarchy.
If that were true, then the only reason for DV is a man welding power over a woman because he has the cultural sanction to do that. There is no room in this paradigm for a woman to be an abuser.
People abuse their partners for many reasons.
The motivating goals of partner abuse are to control, demean, or punish.
Patriarchy could be one reason a person thinks they can do any or all of those things, but there are many other possible reasons someone abusively controls, demeans, or punishes their partner. (I have created a list of over 70 reasons why men abuse women or why women abuse men.)
5. Belief That A Woman Can’t Hurt a Man
Many people assume that because women are generally smaller than men that must mean that women can’t really hurt men. But there are lots of reasons that this argument doesn’t hold up.
There are 7 forms of partner abuse (physical, verbal, psychological/emotional, sexual, financial, legal, and spiritual). Only some forms of physical and sexual abuse have the possibility of being impacted by physical size.
Women who physically abuse their husbands and boyfriends can overcome any size disadvantage in a number of ways:
- surprise attacks,
- the use of objects either as direct weapons or projectiles,
- striking when their prey is in a vulnerable position (driving, asleep, drunk, has his back turned . . .),
- counting on their partner to not strike back, or
- soliciting the help of others to attack him.
It is common for a man to prevent himself from striking back because of training or desire to not hurt a woman, his non-violent nature, or concern that he will get in legal trouble. Even when his partner is whaling on him, a man may restrain himself from countering the attack.
Click here for links to some of the interviews that I've done about abused husbands and boyfriends.
6. He Must Deserve It
We tend to blame men for their bad acts.
Conversely, we tend to excuse women’s bad acts.
We assume men do “bad” things because they are “bad.”
We assume a woman must have had a good reason for doing a “bad” thing. If there is a man even remotely involved, the woman’s good reason often loops back to something he did “wrong.”
It’s a double bind for men: the guy is responsible for his actions, and the guy is responsible for her actions. If a woman does something wrong, it must be a guy’s fault.
In his article “The Gender Paradigm and the Architecture of Antiscience,” Dr. Donald Dutton recounts that:
“In March of 2008, ABC News ran a staged sequence in which a man harangued a woman on a public park bench (screamed at her and slapped her). People intervened immediately. When the genders were reversed, no one intervened, and one woman cheered on the female perpetrator because she ‘knew he must have done something—cheated or something.’
The Zeitgeist of intimate abuse is thus complete—the abuse is attributed to ‘something a man must have done.’”
Men and women are both capable of instigating abuse in a relationship, both are equally responsible for noticing when they are doing something harmful to someone else, figure out why they are doing it, and make positive changes.
7. Normalization of Women Abusing Men
The abuse of men by women is being presented in movies and television (and depictions like the one above) as not only acceptable but amusing and even hysterically funny.
Men are often portrayed in the media as bumbling idiots that wouldn’t know how to tie their shoes if it weren’t for a woman standing over them giving them instruction. And it’s perfectly acceptable that the instruction be given in a condescending way.
In the romantic comedy Fool’s Gold, Kate Hudson’s character hauls off and whacks her ex-husband, played by Matthew McConaughey, in the head with a golf club. This highly abusive act that could easily kill someone is seen as funny. It stimulates laughter. I can’t imagine it currently being considered an appropriate story line for a romantic comedy if the genders were reversed.
In a Super Bowl commercial for a low-calorie soda, a woman who appears to be the wife of a man admiring a pie comes up behind the man and abruptly pushes his head into the pie.
In the next scene, she pulls back the shower curtain to expose him hiding, attempting to eat a burger. She grabs the burger out of his mouth and pushes in a bar of soap.
The scene cuts to her sitting down beside him on a park bench. He’s drinking the low-calorie soda being promoted in the commercial. She looks at him approvingly, as she is drinking the same beverage herself.
A pretty woman sits down on the next bench. When the man looks at the woman with appreciation, his wife hurls her soda can at him. He ducks and the can hits the pretty woman instead of him. It hits her in the head hard enough to knock her over.
The wife looks shocked and worried, portraying that she realizes that she could get in trouble for hitting the other woman. The husband and wife run away from the park together.
The wife is worried about getting into trouble for hitting the other woman, but it doesn’t seem like she was worried about negative repercussions if she hit her husband with the soda can.
This woman is controlling, demanding, humiliating, overly jealous, and physically abusive to her husband, yet the beverage company obviously thought it would attract people to buy their product.
If we think something would be abusive if a man did it to a woman, it is most likely also abusive if a woman does it to a man.
We shouldn’t condone, support, encourage, or minimize abuse against anyone.
8. Man Law
Men and women both participate in teaching boys the rules of how they are expected to be. The rules are reinforced throughout adulthood. There is a price to pay if you step out of bounds.
Male training teaches men that they should be in control and fix problems. Man Law also dictates that men don’t need help and they shouldn’t talk about personal matters (especially if there are emotions involved).
These blinding and binding rules undermine men’s ability to:
- see the signs that they are being abused by their wife or girlfriend,
- admit to others that they are being abused, or
- reach out for support.
Terrance Real's book "I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression" does a great job of describing the rules imposed on men, how we teach them what's acceptable, and the negative consequences of living by the male gender role rules.
Men are sometimes abused by their wives and girlfriends. It does not make them any less of a man.
The Be in Control, Fix All the Problems, Don’t Need Help, and Don’t Talk man laws hurt guys in all kinds of ways.
I believe that besides the blinding and binding effects that I mentioned above, these rules contribute to the disproportionate number of males that commit suicide.
Book: Abuse OF Men BY Women
Education is the key to change. Read my book to learn more:
- Ann Silvers