Husband abuse

Posted: Mar 19, 2002 12:00 AM
Last week, I began my column by observing that "one woman is battered every 15 seconds." What I neglected to mention was that the same study found that "one man is battered every 14 seconds." In fact, most studies reveal that men are attacked, clawed, beaten, shot and generally abused at equal - if not slightly greater - rates than women. This rousing omission was not lost on my readers. Shortly after the commentary ran, letters streamed - poured - into our office documenting acts of domestic violence committed against men. The accounts were tied together by a common theme: the reluctance of men to come forward, for fear of being emasculated. One reader recalled how police snickered at him when he reached out to them for help. "Go home and put your woman in place," snorted one officer. Brutal little laughs ensued, leaving the victim feeling like his masculinity had been scooped out. Similar fears prevent 90 percent of battered men from reporting their victimization to the police. Instead, they opt to twist their pain inward. So why did I neglect to mention husband abuse in my previous column on domestic violence? In part, because a commentary allows for a limited amount of space. But also because I was influenced by longstanding cultural myths that portray men as being genetically programmed to hunt and mate and women as delicate vessels. Countless cultural rituals have nourished these gender roles, so necessary to the maintenance of patriarchal society. In 18th-century France, for example, battered husbands were forced to don garish outfits and ride backward on a donkey through the center of town. Even today, these gender myths continue to float around the zeitgeist. PMS, battered wife syndrome and postpartum depression are all ways that society continues to explain away a woman's aggressive impulses. Indeed, it is telling that Sen. Joseph Biden's 1991 domestic violence legislation bore the title, "Violence Against Women Act." Implicit, was the assumption that domestic abuse is largely a response to male aggression. Ironically, many feminist groups nurture those cultural myths that portray women as victims. Criminologist Coramae Mann conducted a study in six states analyzing the case records of females imprisoned for murder. Her findings suggested that many of these women acted out of aggression, not self-defense. For this, feminist groups roundly criticized her. "They [feminists] would raise the question, 'Well you have these poor battered women.' I said these weren't poor battered women. Many already had violent criminal records. They weren't weak or dependent. They were angry." When Dr. Suzanne Steinmetz had the audacity to publish "The Battered Husband Syndrome" in 1978, a study that found that more women then men initiated domestic violence, feminist groups were on her like an animal. Steinmetz recalls receiving anonymous phone calls from feminist groups threatening to harm her family. At least one implication is that political groups that have resolved to empower battered women have hijacked our understanding of domestic abuse by any means possible - even if that means nourishing those cultural myths that portray women as forever victims. Meanwhile, society's perception of a very serious problem ebbs ever further from reality.