Even card-carrying feminists can fall into patterns of abusive behaviour.
One of the things that most irks me when it comes to conversations around domestic violence is that some people are seen as incapable of being abusers. Though I primarily discuss violence against women as perpetrated by men in this series, anybody of any gender can be abusive, and it is important that we remember this and are open minded when faced with the stories of victims. This is just something to bear in mind. While I will mainly focus on how men are often seen as ‘too nice’ to be abusers, women and non-binary people can be viewed as ‘too gentle’ or ‘too small’ to be abusers. All these things are fallacies.
You see, stereotypes surrounding violence or domestic abuse against women that is perpetrated by men typically cause us to view the men who perpetrate such violence as evil or unusually aggressive. We forget how common the crime of domestic abuse actually is, and convince ourselves that the perpetrators must be somehow different from the vast majority of society. But with one in three women in England and Wales aged between 16 and 59 experiencing abuse at least once in their lifetimes, we have to be prepared to accept that this is a crime perpetrated by lots of men. And these men could be our neighbours, they could be our colleagues and friends and they could be our family members.
We need to get better at acknowledging that abusers don’t just follow a particular ‘type’. They don’t just look a particular way or talk a particular way. They have a range of educational backgrounds. The man who is rude to the checkout assistant at the supermarket is no more likely to be an abuser than the one who tells her to have a nice day. Don’t believe me? Well here are a few common misconceptions that people often hold about men who perpetrate abuse…see if you recognise any of them.
Only men who are aggressive can be abusers
This misconception stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what abuse is. Abuse is not just about physical violence, and typically, abusers use emotional manipulation to break their victims down and make them easy to control.
Some studies examining abusive relationships have actually found that in long-term abusive relationships with an element of physical abuse, as men aged and time in the relationship passed, physical aggression towards the female partner tended to reduce in frequency and sometimes severity. However, the emotional abuse over that same period of time would remain just as severe.
A lack of apparent physical aggression is not a good predictor of whether a man will be abusive. What people on the outside of a relationship see is never the full picture.
Nevertheless, if a man seems aggressive outside of his relationship, or presents his relationship to others in a way that emphasises his dominance, this definitely should be seen as a warning sign. Men who subscribe to ideals of masculinity as aggressive, and see it as being important to throw their weight around in order to emphasise their status as a man are more likely to display that same aggression towards their partners. Why? Because they have bought into ideals of masculinity as being about aggression, domination and control – and such ideals can precipitate poor relationships between men and women.
But still, we should not be fooled by men who ‘seem nice’. For example, consider the case of Richard Challen, who was actually killed by his wife Sally in 2010. In 2019, Sally’s conviction for murder was overturned on the basis that Richard had subjected her to coercive and controlling behaviours throughout their marriage that ultimately drove her to desperation.
When Sally killed Richard, many of their friends and neighbours expressed their horror at the killing, and news reports featured comments from them on how Richard had been a ‘really nice chap’.
I have heard these sorts of comments time and again, and I urge people to remember that you cannot be sure of what’s actually happening in a relationship while you stand on the outside. You may be convinced that your friend is a really nice man who treats his girlfriend really well. He may well be. But if his girlfriend then comes forward to say he has been emotionally and/or physically abusive, don’t just doubt her words. She’s the one who has experienced a relationship with him – not you. Just because you think he could never hit someone, doesn’t mean he can’t. And if he seems really nice…well lots of abusers reel their victims in by being ‘nice’ – so that behaviour trait is no guarantee of anything.
Men who declare themselves to be feminists aren’t going to be abusers
Men who declare themselves to be feminists can just as easily be abusers as those who don’t. Declaring oneself to be a feminist means absolutely nothing, and there can be a huge disconnect between what people say and what they do.
Do you remember when, in 2014, lots of politicians began to wear t-shirts bearing the slogan ‘this is what a feminist looks like’?
Well, it was a PR move that backfired terribly. An investigation found that the shirts were made in a sweatshop in Mauritius by women paid just 62p an hour. Like many garment factory workers, the women endured terrible working conditions and shockingly low pay.
While none of the wearers of the shirt will have known about this at the time when they chose to don the garment, I think this exemplifies just how superficial ‘feminism’ can be. Wearing the shirt, though it makes a statement, is the easy bit. Doing the research to justify why you wear it is not so straightforward, and neither is staying true to the ideals emblazoned on your chest. All the politicians wearing the shirt proved that while symbolism is valuable, its value tends to be overstated. Those t-shirts were made in conditions that were truly detrimental to the lives of women – that’s the truth of the matter.
And while wearing the t-shirt did not make any of these politicians misogynists (especially as none of them would have worn it had they known) it did indicate that sometimes the right to declare yourself a feminist has to be earned.
There are plenty of men who may call themselves feminists, and while saying this may indicate at least a genuine acceptance of feminist causes, in truth it means very little.
Men who abuse women either have a specific social issue, or are catalysed into doing so by some particular ‘reason’.
This idea suggests that there must be some sort of cause that prompts men to be abusive – whether that is an external social issue, or something the woman has done.
To think the latter is nothing short of victim-blaming. We still associate the idea of ‘provocation’ with violence against women, and this is probably because until 2010 it was an admissible defence in murder cases. The ‘provocation’ defence essentially allowed men to say that they had killed their wife because she had been unfaithful, or because she was threatening to leave the relationship. This defence, when used successfully, would allow a charge of murder to be reduced to one of voluntary manslaughter.
Now I don’t know about you, but I have never been angry enough at someone that I have wanted to kill them. The shocking thing about the provocation law was that it supposedly only accepted the provocation defence if it was ‘such as to make a reasonable man do as the defendant did.’
So by a horrible twist of legality, killing an unfaithful spouse (read wife) could be deemed to be something a ‘reasonable man’ might do.
After the provocation defence became inadmissible, a new defence called ‘loss of control’ replaced it when senior judges ruled that adultery could be a factor that could mitigate a charge of murder. While loss of control doesn’t automatically mean that infidelity can be assumed to have tipped a killer over the edge, it does allow infidelity to once again become a mitigating factor in cases of spousal killing (read men murdering their wives).
But though our legal system has told us that killing and abuse can be caused by the behaviour of the victim, we have to remember that this is a fallacy born of misogyny. A partner’s infidelity can in no way justify their death – and if we act as though such a killing might be carried out by a ‘reasonable’ person then we desensitise the ourselves to the fact that a person has lost their life because another felt entitled to control them.
And with regards to social issues, while alcoholism and drugs can make men more abusive, they are never the cause of abuse – they only exacerbate abusive behaviours that are there anyway.