Public heaps scorn on male victims of abusive women

Public heaps scorn on male victims of abusive women
Linda G. Mills

Linda G. Mills is a New York University professor of social work, an affiliated professor of law and author of Insult to Injury: Rethinking Our Responses to Intimate Abuse.

There has been much public snickering about David Gest's $10-million lawsuit against his estranged wife, Liza Minnelli, in which he claims she beat him. Whether the suit is rooted in truth or in greed, its existence opens the door for a public discussion about our society's disquieting and pervasive problem of abusive women.

Most people's first reaction to the term "abusive women" is disbelief. Who would believe the so-called weaker sex can be as guilty of abuse as men can be? But consider these facts: In a 1975 national survey, researchers Richard Gelles and Murray Straus found that nearly equal numbers of husbands and wives committed violent acts against each other. These findings were confirmed 10 years later and in more than 100 additional studies. So, women have a long-established record as abusers.

What clearly emerges from these studies is that abusive women get away with their sins. Abused husbands either refuse to admit they are abused — and why should they, considering the scorn heaped upon Gest? — or, in a chronic state of fear or denial, refuse to recognize or even understand that they are being abused.

A striking feature of women's violence is that it can be both physical and emotional. Suzanne Steinmetz, now a sociology professor at Indiana University, called "husband beating" the most unreported crime in the United States. According to a 1997 study of New Zealand young adults, women admitted committing severe physical aggression at three times the rate of men. Kicking and hitting with an object were typical examples of severe physical violence inflicted by women.

Emotional antagonism

Violence researcher Victoria Burbank found that women also are guilty of emotional abuse, such as locking a partner out of the house or belittling him. Those who are quick to minimize emotional abuse should know that these tactics have been found to predict physical aggression in marriage. In other words, a woman's emotional abuse can be a catalyst for a physical reaction from her partner.

The fact is that taking Gest's accusations seriously challenges our core assumption that women always are victims. In another recent high profile case, actor Christian Slater received several stitches to the back of his head after being struck with a drinking glass. According to news reports, Slater initially told the police that his wife threw the glass at him. Later, after learning about Nevada's strict domestic violence laws, he changed his story and said the glass accidentally slipped out of her hand while they were joking around.

Not as simple as it may look

The picture of a violent couple is always complicated. Although it is important to note that men tend to harm women at greater rates, what's most often occurring is a nuanced, even imperceptible dynamic between a man and woman in which they provoke each other. Minnelli's divorce papers, which were filed one day after Gest's lawsuit, claimed "cruel and unusual treatment." Five years ago, Christian Slater served 90 days in jail for slugging a girlfriend.

Sorting out exactly who is doing what to whom is a matter for a Solomon to decide. But until the American public recognizes and begins to grapple with this interwoven dynamic, the true causes of intimate abuse never will be understood nor its sad consequences adequately addressed.

Beliefs about men's and women's violence are so sacred and arouse such strong feelings that the thought of questioning them can sometimes evoke violence. After Steinmetz published her groundbreaking book, The Battered Husband Syndrome, in 1978, she was not only derided and denounced, but her children's lives also were threatened.
We must begin to revise our views on men's and women's violence, especially as it relates to the insights that a great body of research already reveals. Failing to do so will compromise all victims, men and women alike, in their efforts to gain the peace and justice that they deserve.

And lastly, perhaps it is time to stop snickering over David Gest's dilemma and begin to appreciate the sadness and complexities of his situation.

Linda G. Mills is a New York University professor of social work, an affiliated professor of law and author of Insult to Injury: Rethinking Our Responses to Intimate Abuse.

Smack My Bitch Up

The other aggressor in domestic violence

Cathy Young - December 2, 2003

Allegations of domestic violence involving celebrities are nothing new, but two such stories in the news in the past couple of months have had a relatively unusual twist: The accused perpetrators were women and the alleged victims were men.

First, there was the lawsuit against Liza Minelli by her estranged husband, David Gest, claiming that the singer-actress had subjected him to repeated physical abuse. Then actor Christian Slater's wife, Ryan Haddon, was arrested on charges of battery after smashing a glass on her husband's head and causing a cut that required stitches. Yet despite such incidents, the public perception of domestic abuse as something that horrid men do to helpless women persists. People who have challenged this stereotype (myself included) have been called everything from anti-feminists to backlash peddlers to apologists for abusive men.

Well, now someone with strong feminist credentials challenges much of the conventional wisdom on domestic violence and ways to combat it, and confirms many of the things we dissenters have been saying for years. That someone is Linda G. Mills of New York University, a professor of law and social work and author of the new book, Insult to Injury: Rethinking Our Responses to Intimate Abuse. Mills, 45, is a feminist who has spent a decade working on behalf of battered women. Moreover, as she reveals in her book, she herself, 20 years ago, was a battered woman—though she would prefer the more neutral term, "woman in an abusive relationship."

Drawing both on research and on her own experience in the field, Mills concludes that the conventional feminist paradigm of domestic violence as a form of patriarchal oppression is woefully inadequate. It is manifestly irrelevant for abused lesbians and gay men; it also has little meaning for women of color, who do not see the men in their community as powerful oppressors. Even for white heterosexual women, it is a vast oversimplification of a complex reality. "Years of research, which mainstream feminism has glossed over or ignored, shows that when it comes to intimate abuse, women are far from powerless and seldom, if ever, just victims," Mills writes. "Like men, women are frequently aggressive in intimate settings."

Insult to Injury is full of such heresies. Thus, Mills asserts that women who stay in abusive relationships often do so not just because of "women's socialization within a patriarchal system" but for complicated emotional, familiar, and cultural reasons. In many cases, she says, this decision has to be respected. She claims that policies of mandatory arrest and prosecution in domestic violence cases not only disempower women—who aren't given any say in the handling of the case—but actually endanger them, since an arrest may trigger an escalation of further violence. She suggests that mothers' physical violence toward children, particularly male children, plays a key part in perpetuating the cycle of abuse.

Mills does not deny (and neither does anyone else) that male violence toward women is more likely to result in physical injuries than the reverse, and that women in abusive relationships are more likely than men to be in danger. But she argues that this is no reason to disregard female violence, which needs to be acknowledged not only out of fairness to male victims but out of concern for female victims as well: A woman who starts a physical confrontation with her male partner may well find herself severely battered. To understand and prevent male violence, Mills concludes, we must understand female violence as well, whether it's physical assault or psychological aggression.

Where do we go from here? Mills is critical of the current "lock 'em up" dogma; instead, she would like to see a practice of "Intimate Abuse Circles" in which the spouses could discuss the abuse in the presence of other family members, relatives and friends. While she stresses that batterers must be held fully accountable for their actions, she also wants to see more emphasis on healing rather than punishment.

Currently, Mills's plea for reform is unlikely to have much effect. The ideology that views men as wolves and women as lambs is too deeply entrenched, and despite some feminists' claim that the media are eager to leap on any "antifeminist" bandwagon, Mills' thought-provoking book has received little coverage. Her message needs to be heard by politicians, judges, prosecutors and many others. It took the "mainstream" feminists about 30 years to establish their monopoly on the public debate about domestic violence. Mills's book may be the first step in dismantling that monopoly.

Cathy Young is a Reason contributing editor. This column appeared in the Boston Globe on December 1, 2003.