by Susan Rosenthal
When you hear the phrase "domestic violence" or "spouse abuse," you probably picture a man assaulting a woman. During the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement drew needed attention to domestic violence. However, the feminist wing of the movement attributed the problem to "male power." As a result, violence perpetrated by women is typically dismissed as self-defense and the fact that women are more likely to maltreat and abuse children is swept under the carpet.
While there is more awareness of female-perpetrated violence today, it continues to be under-estimated. Women are more likely to report spousal violence than men who are ashamed to admit they were assaulted by women. The belief that males are naturally more violent has caused most research to examine male perpetrators and female victims. Most studies do not distinguish between minor assaults, perpetrated by both men and women, and serious assaults that are more commonly perpetrated by men. These factors combine to give the mistaken impression that domestic violence is always serious, if not life-threatening, and that women attack men only in self-defense.
In reality, domestic violence does not result from any "battle of the sexes" because same-sex relationships are equally afflicted. Men in relationships with men are battered as often as women in relationships with men. And between 17 and 45 percent of lesbians report being the victim of at least one act of physical violence perpetrated by a female partner.
I have provided medical treatment for battered women, abused men, and adults of both sexes who were maltreated in childhood by mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. It doesn’t help to argue whether men or women are more responsible for domestic violence. All victims deserve support, and all perpetrators need treatment. The overriding need is to eliminate the social roots of family violence.
Stress and shame drive interpersonal violence. Stress escalates when people feel trapped in relationships they would rather leave. Women’s low pay keeps them financially dependent on men, especially when they have children. The State insists that men support women and children regardless of their ability to do so. People who feel trapped are more likely to attack one another. Not surprisingly, domestic violence increases as income levels fall.
Shame is the intensely painful feeling of believing one’s self to be unworthy or unacceptable, a loser. The primary source of shame is the social hierarchy that divides people into a few winners and many more losers. The lower down the pyramid you stand, the harder it is to feel good about yourself.
Intolerable shame transforms into rage that can be directed at one’s self or someone else. Rage and shame can re-enforce each other in a downward spiral of violence.
Those most likely to injure their partners are not the ones who feel most powerful, but the ones who feel most powerless. Abusive men are more likely to feel like failures, to be unemployed or intermittently employed and to have less than high-school education. Their desire for complete control over the partner is directly related to their sense of unworthiness and fear of loss.
On the surface, wife-battering looks like a display of male power. In reality, most men who batter feel extremely dependent and deeply ashamed of their dependence. Female batterers experience the same inner conflict.
A "battering cycle" can result when shame at feeling unworthy builds to an explosion of rage that drives the partner away. The terror of being abandoned leads to acts of contrition to draw the partner back. The return of the partner revives the fear of being rejected, and anger builds again. These people are at their partners’ throats one minute and at their knees the next.
Men are most likely to murder their partners when they feel least powerful, when the partner leaves or threatens to leave. Those who kill their partners often kill themselves at the same time. Such tragedies do not result from male power but from powerless rage.
Capitalism creates an impossible bind for both sexes. Because meeting human needs would cut into profits, people are deprived of what they need and then shamed for feeling needy. The more difficult life becomes, the more we expect love to compensate us. Of course, it cannot. As needs go unmet, resentment builds, and we punish our loved ones for failing us, as fail they must.
By putting profits before people, capitalism transforms our most intimate relationships into a battleground. We must stop fighting each other and start pulling together to demand what we all need and deserve.
For more on this subject, read POWER and Powerlessness, Chapter 7, "Burden the Family." Available at www.powerandpowerlessness.com
Information on the sexual abuse of males can be found at http://www.canadiancrc.com/female_sexual_predators_awareness.htm