When *She* Is The Batterer: Male Victims of DV

This is the fifth part in a series on domestic violence in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. You may also want to read Parts I, II, III, and IV.

We often think of victims of domestic violence as being exclusively women and perpetrators being exclusively men. And while it’s true that the majority of abuse in heterosexual relationships is perpetrated from male to female, it is possible for men to be battered by their female partner. Not only is it possible, but it happens more often than we think. It’s estimated that 37.5% of victims of domestic violence each year are male. It’s something that isn’t often talked about, which makes it hard to know exactly how prevalent female-to-male abuse is. However, it is being talked about more, and in the short time that I’ve worked at my DV center, we’ve seen a drastic increase in the number of male victims registering for services. In fact, we’ve just begun offering support groups for male victims. The Tyra Banks Show recently did an episode on female batterers, and while it was sensationalized (as her show tends to be), it’s good to see female-to-male abuse being recognized and talked about.
In most ways, male and female violence, and the effects of that violence on the victim, are the same. Abuse is *always* about power and control, no matter who the perpetrator is. The power and control tactics that I discussed in part one of this series apply to female abusers as well. Yelling and arguing are all parts of normal relationships, and at some point in a relationship, most people, male or female, will call their partner a name or behave selfishly or insensitively. These things are not all abusive; it becomes abuse when a) it becomes a consistent pattern of abusive behavior and/or b) one partner is using these tactics as a way to gain power or control over the other.
However, there are some differences in both the kind of abuse that women perpetrate and in the way that society perceives male victims of DV. Male victims often suffer society’s stigma for not protecting themselves. They may become depressed in their isolation, feel suicidal and sometimes take their own lives without ever disclosing the abuse they suffered to anyone. They are oftentimes victimized or ridiculed because they fail to conform to the “Macho man” stereotype that is so prevalent in our society. Male victims are often perceived as wimps and are disbelieved because they are men. They’re often refused the status of victim.

Some studies have found that abuse perpetrated by women towards men is more likely to be verbal, emotional, or psychological (using tactics such as manipulation, put-downs, possessiveness/jealousy, and coercion) than physical. When women do get physical, they are more likely to throw or break objects then to attack their partner directly (this is most likely due to the size differential that often exists between women and men). They are also more likely to threaten use of or actually use a knife, while male batterers are more likely to threaten use of or actually use a gun. Studies have shown that younger women in their 20s were significantly more likely to aggress physically than women who were 30 years and above. Female batterers that were surveyed stated that they expressed aggression toward their male partners because they wished to engage their partner’s attention, particularly emotionally. Also, assaultive women did not believe that their male victims would be seriously injured or would retaliate.

Most men react by staying silent. Often this silence is encouraged by factors such as fear of ridicule and, the realization that it is unlikely his partner will be evicted from the home or will lose custody of the children. Even when a man has proved he is the victim (which is not always easy) it seems his only course of action is to leave the home. He is then separated from his children and often experiences difficulty in obtaining realistic and regular contact with them. He is in fact treated as the perpetrator rather than the victim. However, it’s a tricky line to walk, because many abusers *will* claim that they were the one being abused. Oftentimes, abusive men will claim that their previous partner was abusive, or falsely accused him of being abusive. They may even be the ones to call the police after a violent incident, after they’ve cut or injured themselves so that they can claim that the female did it when the police arrive. Be cautious when you hear a man claim to be a victim of DV; chances are that *he* is the abusive one, not his partner.

Also, many victims will fight back at one point or another. Violence is never okay, but sometimes, resorting to violence in times of self-defense is necessary. If a woman slaps the man in the face (probably because he had pushed her and pushed her and pushed her), and then the man retaliates by punching her and giving her a black eye and claims self-defense, the woman is NOT the abuser in this situation. Self-defense means using the *minimal* amount of force needed to protect oneself. What he did was not self-defense, it was payback, and it was many times more injurious and intimidating what what she did to him. *He* is therefore the abusive one, even though she may have struck the first physical blow.

So how can you tell if the man really was victimized by a former partner? You can fairly easily hear the difference between a man expressing anger toward an ex-partner (which is normal and not worrisome in itself), and disrespect or contempt (which should raise red flags). If you hear him speaking in degrading or superior ways about her, or making everything that went wrong her fault, it is likely that he was the abusive one. You should also ask him about his own conduct in the relationship, especially around the time of the breakup. If he blames his own behavior on her, that’s another bad sign. Be especially wary of a man who claims to have been the victim of physical violence by a female partner; the great majority of men who make these claims are physical abusers themselves. And finally, listen to how he talks and thinks about abused women in general. A genuine male victim tends to feel sympathy for abused women and support their cause.
And while the majority of physically violent batterers are male, that is not to say that female batterers can’t be just as violent and just as dangerous, especially around the time of a breakup or if their partner leaves them. Just like male batterers, the woman will do whatever she can to get her partner back, including harassing him, stalking him, threatening him, destroying his property, and physically assaulting him. I read in a book recently that “men typically experience women’s shoves or slaps as annoying and infuriating rather than intimidating, so the long-term emotional effects are less damaging. It is rare to find a man who has gradually lost his freedom or self-esteem due to a woman’s aggressiveness.” I COMPLETELY disagree with this statement. The males that come into our center as just as frightened as the females. I’ve seen men whose partners had stabbed them. One man had a partner that stabbed him in his sleep. I’ve seen a man whose partner ran him off the road. One that was so afraid of his partner that not only did he have a restraining order, but he had given her picture to all his neighbors, the security in his apartment complex, the front desk at his work, his boss, our center, and anyone else he could think of. He legitimately and wholeheartedly feared that she would kill him (as she had threatened to do), and he most likely had every reason to believe her and be afraid.
Male victims of DV face all of the same psychological effects as female victims, such as anger and guilt, PTSD, and depression, yet with an added element of intense shame and embarrassment. In our culture, men are expected to be the dominant sex and there is a very “macho” and masculine image of what a “man” should be. And this image does not include things seen as weakness, especially when someone of the female sex is the one causing the “weakness.” These men are seen as “pussies,” “wimps,” and “fags.” Many male victims feel such intense shame that they either a) don’t leave the relationship or b) never tell anyone of the abuse they suffered, thus keeping it locked inside to torment and eat away at them. DV causes intense psychological distress for all of it’s victims, due to the intense manipulation, confusion, fear, and misery that they live with day in and day out. But for men, the psychological effects of an abusive partner can be extremely distressing and shame-filled.
The most important thing that you can do when a man tells you he has been abused by his female partner is to believe him and support him. If you are a man that is being or has been abused by a female partner, just know that you are not alone. If you are unsure if you’re being abused, read the power and control tactics again, and remember that if you feel scared or unsafe around your partner, then you are most likely being abused. Abuse is used to intimidate and scare victims into submission. Many men stay in abusive situations for fear of leaving their children alone with an abusive parent, or fear that if they leave, the mother will end up with custody. Legal battles are harder to fight for male victims (not that they are easy for female victims, either) and there are not as many support systems and advocates in place to help male victims of DV. After a victim has left, many abusers begin to use the legal system as a weapon to batter, and many of the laws in place make it very easy for a woman to use the system against her male partner. The system becomes another way for her to control and torment her victim.
It’s important to remember that abuse can affect anyone. Anyone can be a perpetrator: men, women, children (usually to other children), gay, straight, trans. And anyone can be a victim, as well.
This book is one of the few available on male victims of DV. There’s also the Domestic Abuse Hotline for Men and Women, and Stop Abuse for Everyone (which is particularly focused on straight male and lesbian women victims of DV).
Photo source.
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  1. Another Suburban Mom
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    Thank you for such thoughtful discussion on this topic.

  2. Advizor
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Very thoughtful, thanks. I've had friends in this situation in dating relationships and it's hard for them to admit it (the guys). Thanks for ideas on how to deal with it.

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