Connie Woodring is a 73-year-old retired psychotherapist/educator/program developer/feminist social activist who is getting back to her true love of writing after 45 years in her real job. She has written a non-fiction book, What Power? Which People? Reflections on Power Abuse and Empowerment” which she is trying to get published. The submitted article is an excerpt from that book. She has over 20 years worth of experience working in the domestic violence movement as a therapist, women’s shelter director, developer of a court-mandated batterer program as well as teaching seminars for community workers such as the police and shelter volunteers. She has had seven of her poems published in America and England. One was nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize. She continues to try to get her novel, “Visiting Hours,” published and hopes to continue writing poetry and articles of substance for years to come.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: A GENDER WAR WE MUST ALL END
Meet Imoso and Outamba. They are chimpanzees who live in Uganda. Carole Hooven, a biological anthropologist, witnessed Isomo, a male, beat Outamba, a female, with a stick. Chimps have been known to wield sticks against prey or to threaten rivals or predators, but using a tool against a member of its own kind had never been seen before.
Human beings, of course, take domestic violence to inhumane heights. Take the case of Christopher Dowling, a police officer in Allentown, Pennsylvania, arrested for abuse and sexual assault of his partner. He put an unlit M-80 firecracker in her vagina, placed a 30-pound safe on her chest and struck her with a tire iron, allegedly because he caught her smoking a cigarette. The victim testified she would have been willing to act out fantasies in order to atone for her mistake: if a shot glass held on her head would fall off, she would be shot.
If the reader thinks this is an aberration, I can attest to many horror stories told to me by domestic violence clients over the years in my role as a therapist and women’s shelter director. A few cases stand out. (Identities disguised.) Bette was ordered by her husband to stand on the road naked. If a driver came along and saw her before she could run back into the house, she would be beaten. Meandra, whose husband owned a meat packing company, told her he would hang her by a meat hook if “she didn’t shut her mouth.” Fonita was beaten almost to death because she didn’t make mashed potatoes for dinner as she had promised. In defending his actions, she explained it wasn’t the mashed potatoes that mattered; by breaking her promise, he could no longer trust her. Marilou stated she didn’t leave her ex-husband until she was found in her room bleeding in the corner by her four-year-old son who asked her, “Are you dead, Mommy?” Unfortunately, she quickly chose another batterer to take his place, an issue which will soon be discussed.
Although Freud wanted us to believe that women are masochists who get off on being abused, the more informed reasons are as follows: having been a victim of sexual abuse at an early age, witnessing/experiencing domestic violence in her childhood, low self-esteem, a belief in traditional gender relationships (male dominant, woman subservient), non-assertiveness and being isolated from support/educational systems. There are other factors, as we shall see.
James Prescott of the National Institute of Health claims, “Violence is closely associated with deprivation of close human physical contact either in infancy or adolescence.” Out of a sample of 49 cultures, the 27 cultures that had low levels of adult violence all displayed either high levels of infant physical affection or permissive premarital sexual behavior or both. (e.g. Fore of New Guinea and the Mbuti of Zaire). 1
Contrast this with South Africa. A woman is killed every six hours by a domestic partner, the highest rate in the world, according to a 2004 study completed by the Medical Research Council, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the University of Cape Town. This is also a country who battled apartheid for years, believing that oppression and inequality were unacceptable.
Being abused or killed by a domestic partner is not just a South African problem. It occurs in most cultures. “…the Goddess of the Underworld does not merely take a consort but has Her hair pulled, is dragged from the throne and is threatened with death until She agrees to marry Her assailant, the god Nergal, who then kisses away Her tears, becomes Her husband and rules beside Her.” 2. This relates to a legend of the Goddess in Sumer in Southern Iraq (3000BC-1800BC.) It would appear that even when a woman is a Goddess, she can’t escape domestic violence!. Wife beating is rare in foraging societies such as the Mbuti pygmies. It is acceptable in such horticultural societies as the Truk of the Caroline Islands and the Yanamamo Indians of Brazil. Yanamamo women see beatings as proof of their husband’s love for them. (Unfortunately, some American women share this belief.) It is common in pastoral societies such as the Marra Baluch Arabs. Most modern capitalist countries and Sweden, a liberal welfare state, also are not immune.
When women lived in ancient matrilineal societies, they had protection from their own family (it takes a village to save a woman), but in patrilineal societies they left their families to live with their husband’s relatives, subsequently becoming more isolated and potentially vulnerable. Today many batterers try to isolate their partners from family and other community support as well, one of the reasons abused women often remain in danger.
Modern society has not been as successful in protecting women as ancient matrilineal societies. Divorce law reform was a step in the right direction, if not totally effective. In the 1850s several American states liberalized divorce laws, allowing women to file for divorce based on marital cruelty. The courts, not the victim, decided what was “cruel.” In America, wife beating has been illegal in all states since 1870. In an 1882 Maryland law, a batterer could expect to receive forty lashes at the whipping post. Today, batterers can face civil action (Protection From Abuse Orders), jail, court-mandated batterer program attendance, probation or the proverbial slap on the wrist, depending on the state.
Many myths surround this topic. Growing up in my small hometown, I assumed that only poor women were beaten up by their drunken husbands on Saturday nights. As a result of being involved in the women’s movement in the 1970s, I got a college education about one of the most heinous of gender battles. I was a board member and program director of abused women shelters, developed police training manuals, set up a court-mandated male batterer program and counseled hundreds of abused women. Everyone else has been getting an education as well. Hundreds of books and articles have been written on the issue in the last 30 years. Television shows, mental health conferences and public service announcements have brought this battle to the forefront of our consciousness. We now know that it affects all economic classes and the “causes” are many, including economics, work pressures, repeating parental patterns of abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, low self-esteem, misogyny, borderline personality disorder, patriarchy, protecting male honor, jealousy, mental illness, violence in the media, lax legal/police policies and other family problems. No longer a taboo subject, it has become big business, dramatized on many television shows and movies.
As a result of this knowledge, we all have our theories as to what will end this gender war. Although the pharmacy industry would like us to believe otherwise, drugs are not the answer to domestic violence. Working as a domestic violence grass roots advocate taught me that the “medical model” is anathema to feminists. Chemical imbalances or childhood trauma can never totally explain domestic violence. Feminists believe that historical patriarchal institutions of family, religion, education, media, government and others are the real culprits: they teach men to have power over women they hold in contempt or hate (misogyny). To solve the problem requires society to become egalitarian and anti-misogynist. However, in our quick-fix culture that concept seems far too complex and time-consuming. Instead, the drug companies are now “helping.” There are drugs for aggression, mood swings, compulsions, anxiety and impotence. Supposedly, a calm and happy man will not beat up women.
How does domestic violence affect society? Domestic violence results in lost work productivity as in the case of Carie Charlesworth who was fired from her teaching job because her abusive husband came after her at work. Such firings are legal in 44 states. (Activists call this economic abuse since astute batterers know that such tactics can cause their partners to become more dependent on them.) Increased mental and medical health care, incarceration, need for more abused women’s shelters, increased welfare spending for women who leave their spouses and subsidized legal costs all put more burden on tax payers.
Domestic violence can lead to homicide. According to FBI statistics, nearly four murders a day are committed in the United States by an intimate partner or spouse. Having a gun in the house makes a woman 7.2 times more likely to be a homicide victim, and the Justice Department indicates that domestic violence victims between the ages of 35-49 are more likely to be killed. (There are many websites to check out more recent domestic violence statistics, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence being one of the most reputable.)
Domestic violence can lead to much worse. The horrors we hear about on a much-too-regular basis of mass shootings in churches, concerts, schools and elsewhere may be the result of convicted male batterers who have bought assault weapons due to lax gun laws or incompetent government officials, as in the case of dishonorable military discharges not being forwarded to the FBI. It is becoming increasingly clear that what goes on in someone else’s house is now everybody’s business.
Listening to men can help us understand the causes of domestic violence. Consider the following quotes by batterers: “Like most black men I know, I have spent much of my life in fear. Fear of white racism, fear of the circumstances that gave birth to me...fear of black women---of their mouths, of their bodies, of their attitudes, of their hurts, of their fear of us black men.” 3 “The only way to get my point across is to be violent. One day something from my job stuck inside me, and I was arguing with my wife. She said something about my manhood, and I could feel the boiling inside. Then I put my hands on her.” 4
Although many batterers can relate to the above quotes, they don’t typically identify their feelings (if at all) of vulnerability or powerlessness. Instead, “stress” is the reason for pushing, shoving, strangling and murder. Throughout history it seems that women have been the scapegoats when environmental stress, whether it be from tribal fighting, famine or getting laid off, has affected men. One might question the efficacy of putting men in charge if they cannot handle the burdens of power. Society has historically been cautious about placing a woman in a powerful position lest her menstrual cycle make her irrational and affect her decision-making, for instance. Other rationalizations for male aggression are as follows. A male psychologist remarked to me (after overhearing a rather bellicose female client vent her rage at being physically attacked by her husband after a Halloween party): “Domestic violence is better than violence in the street.” After I completed teaching a domestic violence seminar for police officers, a trooper came up to me and snarled, “You feminists are trying to take everything away from us men. Now you don’t even want us to be aggressive. There won’t be anything left of us!”
Post traumatic stress plays its part in this picture. In the summer of 2002, two Fort Bragg soldiers killed their wives in murder-suicide, and two others were charged with murdering their wives in a period of six weeks. Three of the soldiers were in Special Operations units and had just returned from Afghanistan. The government’s answer to this problem was to re-evaluate its family counseling program. Our tax dollars might be spent more wisely if the government looked at men’s (and the government’s) propensity for violence and its effect on society rather than on “family issues.” Feminist male-batterer programs insist that men receive six months’ treatment and be violence-free during that period prior to any marital/family counseling attempts. This puts accountability squarely on the man’s shoulders.
One of the most interesting debates in male-batterer programs is the question of provocation and self-defense. For instance, a woman who verbally abuses her partner (“You are not a man, you’re a loser! I’m going out and finding me a real man!”) is just looking for a pop in the mouth according to many abusers (and others). The group exercise begins: “If you are in a bar and a patron spits on you, should you walk out, punch him in the face, ask the owner to kick him out or stab him to death?” The answers vary, depending on the person’s background, personality, religion, etc., indicating that provocation, unless one’s life is in danger, is in the eyes of the beholder. When I direct batterers to the issue of control, they wince at the suggestion that anyone who can trigger a response in them is in control, just like rats controlled by the sound of lab buzzers.
On the other hand, batterers are quite ambivalent about owning power. At home in the privacy of their kingdom, they are prone to shove their weight around in front of family members, but in the courtroom, with probation officers or therapists they typically portray themselves as victims--- berated, nagged and beaten by their female partners. Psychologically, they are often dependent on, yet contemptuous of, women. They have low self-esteem and rigid ideas of gender roles. Yet, they, on occasion, can show their vulnerable and weak side. Many a victim has stayed too long, waiting for the “good guy underneath” to emerge and died in the process.
For those who still put the blame on women who stay and wait for that unlikely day, it should be noted that if a woman listens to the well-intentioned advice, “Just leave the bastard!” she is more likely to be harmed or killed. Every day we see stories in the newspaper about an estranged spouse who kills his family and then himself. A jury in Grand Rapids, Michigan, found the husband of Judge Carol S. Irons guilty of a lower manslaughter charge for killing his estranged wife in her courtroom. His wife apparently provoked his actions by breaking up with him. What provoked such a light sentence for the murderer is anybody’s guess.
Women who choose to stay may go to jail. Tondalo Hall, a 30-year-old Oklahoma woman, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for “failing to protect” her children from her abusive partner. She is not alone. Marissa Alexander of Florida was sentenced to 60 years in jail for firing a warning shot at her abuser. (There are very few batterers who get that much time for killing their wives.) I have had women clients end up in jail or on probation for fighting back. In these cases, the abuser typically will call police and plead innocence. Our country still has too many police officers, untrained or insensitive to domestic violence dynamics, who get fooled by batterers’ manipulative behaviors.
Landlords may be insensitive to domestic victims as well. Thirty or more Pennsylvania municipalities had nuisance laws on the books that allowed landlords to evict tenants who called 911 too often, such as abused women. In 2014, Act 200 was enacted to prevent such actions and was implemented in January,2015.
Obviously, the warning signs and protective measures such as counseling, divorce or protection from abuse orders are not enough to save lives. U. S. Department of Justice figures indicate that incidents of violence occurring after separation or divorce account for 75.9 percent of assaults and 93.3 percent of the time the perpetrator is a male. Very few women kill their families, community members and themselves when their husbands leave them for that “other woman.” Why is that?
Another reason for killing is honor. Men’s “honor” has been used in many Asian and Muslim cultures as an excuse and license to kill an unfaithful or unruly wife. Do women have honor? If so, how do they fight for it? Can only men fight for women’s honor?
Women’s reasons for killing their spouses include mental illness, to collect insurance or because they are tired of being battered (or what might be called post traumatic stress disorder.) Women have been known to kill their spouses by hiring contract killers or poisoning them.
In 1987, the Committee on Domestic Violence and Incarcerated Women determined that it was “reasonable and necessary” for battered women to kill their abusive spouses in some cases. The “battered woman syndrome” explained that psychologically women become helpless, dependent and unable to leave their abusers, leaving them few options but to strike back. Many battered women I have counseled became numb to the arguing, threats and assaults and, more significantly, to the effects of such violence on their children. In addition, they usually believed no one could help them, blamed themselves, were fearful of breaking up the family or losing economic support. To kill a husband under such circumstances is an extreme act of desperation and bravery---an act for which there are too few women warrior recruits.
For those many women who choose not to stay or kill their abusers, relocating to another state, losing support of family and friends, disrupting their children’s education, gaining new identities and worrying that their family members would be threatened or killed are just a few of the common problems faced in escaping a dangerous home. In addition, seeing a feminist therapist to prevent future victimization (in all areas of her life) is recommended.
Social scientists and therapists know that men also get battered by their partners, but battered men are a sore subject for many domestic violence activists. They were in post-renaissance Europe also. A French battered husband had to ride around town riding backwards on a donkey and holding its tail, and in England such a victim was strapped to a cart and subjected to the townspeople’s mockery. (It is important to note that domestic violence is common in homosexual relationships, as well, but this is a topic for another article.)
Who is most abusive in relationships, men or women? It depends on who you ask. Some studies indicate that men and women slap, shove and kick each other at equal rates. Studies also indicate that women are more likely to use weapons or throw objects rather than using fists or sexual assault, perhaps to level the playing field. The rate of male-perpetrated homicide against a partner is nearly double the rate for female-perpetrated homicides of male partners, and it is highly unlikely that a woman will repeat a homicide, even though there are women who repeatedly get involved with abusive men. U.S. National Crime Surveys data indicates that for every man hospitalized for spousal assaults, 46 women are hospitalized.
As noted, it depends on who is looking to determine the real victims of domestic violence. Critics of the feminist movement blame it for fudging domestic violence statistics in order to get more funding for women’s shelters, but feminists point out that studies don’t always distinguish between the initiator and self-defense behaviors. In any case, men feel that they are generally not believed, are scorned if they report being abused or have no community services such as shelters. In working in women’s shelters, I can attest to the fact that the subject of women battering men was usually discussed this way: “They deserve it!” “Poor babies!” To have true gender equality, we may have to face the “battered male syndrome” in courts soon.
In the context of domestic violence, I have found in my own professional experience that sex often follows violence. Bonobo chimpanzees are very similar to us but perhaps smarter. They use sex, not aggression, to resolve conflicts and to bond with group members, regardless of gender. Batterers, albeit belatedly, often use sex to resolve conflicts/gain favor with their partners also. It seems to be useful. I had women clients (usually victims of early sexual abuse) report they picked fights just so they could get “great” sex, which in far too many cases can too easily compensate for a loving relationship.
Technology is playing its part in domestic violence. A 2009 U.S. Department of Justice report indicates that more than 31,000 American adults are stalked by GPS navigational systems, and women are almost three more times likely to be stalked by men. Women’s advocacy groups recommend women disable their cell phones, throw them out or get new passwords. The best advice? Never accept a cell phone as a gift from an abuser. Another piece of advice: Don’t use social media.
Grass roots organizations designed to prevent domestic violence have been around for many years. One could say that progress is slow. This may, in part, be due to the fact that too much emphasis has been placed on women solving the problem. However, only men can ultimately change their individual and systemic abusive behaviors. Some men’s organizations that are trying to do that doing are Emerge (a pioneering Boston-based male-batterer prevention program), Ring the Bell, Menergy, Man Up Campaign and Good Men Project. Every state has shelters for battered women and many have male-batterer programs.
As we can see, domestic violence will not be solved by women, social services, medication or government funding. It will only be eradicated when all of humanity believes in egalitarian, life-affirming and non-misogynistic values. More studies on men who do not become misogynists and women who do not become victims are necessary.