Domestic Violence Beyond the Soundbite

beyond the soundbite

I was excited to hear another Malcolm Gladwell book was out.  No matter if you read The Tipping Point, or The Outliers, or David and Goliath, or his new book, Talking to Strangers, you are bound to learn more about a subject, and see things in a different light. I always find his insights intriguing and provocative. It reminds me of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story”.  I think of this often when I listen to a domestic violence professional explain on a Facebook post or other media that domestic violence is caused by “male entitlement” or “male privilege”.  Before they have even completed the sentence, I cringe: it is a good soundbite, but the statement is missing “the rest of the story”.

While male privilege is certainly an underpinning of the social problem, it becomes problematic when a victim—male or female— has a female offender. This victim is likely to see themselves as “different”, and not understood. Additionally, if their offender is male and they don’t see the violence as caused by his “privilege”, again the victim can feel “different”, and can easily conclude that what they are experiencing must not be “real domestic violence”.  I think it was Albert Einstein who said, “Keep things simple, but not too simple”.  Portraying all domestic violence as caused by male entitlement is "too simple”.

It is understandable that the cause of domestic violence got painted with a single brush stroke of male privilege. In the history of the movement, it was incredibly hard to turn the tide from the societal view that this violence is just a “marital problem”, or a “mental health issue”, or “it takes two to tango”.  The movement had to be dedicated to shedding light on this social problem. Feminists worked overtime to teach that there is a victim and an offender—this is not to be trivialized or disguised any longer. These challenges continue today. However, in the process of shedding light on the social problem, there is pressure to adopt the soundbite and become resistant to acknowledge the deeper, more complicated nuances and individual experiences.  If we don’t cover the nuances, some victims are not heard, and their experiences are not validated.  As Paul Harvey said, “And now, for the rest of the story.”

Dorthy Stucky Halley, a leading advocate for victims of crime (and my wife ?), recognized early on in her work with those impacted by domestic violence, that victims were not always describing the same qualities of their abuser.  While virtually all victims described their partner as using domination and control, it became obvious to Dorthy, when listening to the victims, that there was a difference in “why” they were seeking domination and control.  Understanding different motivations turned out to be critical when it came to safety planning with the victim and in intervening with those who did the battering.

 It is true that many who abuse see themselves as entitled and deserving.  However, Dorthy also heard other victims describing their partners quite differently.  They described their abuser as feeling inferior, unworthy, and desperate at times of potential separation. As if their very survival was dependent on their relationship. In our groups, these individuals are easy to identify, as they have few emotional supports and see themselves as having “nothing” should their partner ever leave. Some survival-based were equally desperate upon separation, but for a different reason: they are dependent on the relationship to help support their narcissistic image.  In either case, entitlement may be present, but is not the source of the violence: desperation regarding their own demise leads to terror and rage. Those with survival-based motive are much more likely to commit homicide or homicide-suicide when faced with separation compared to those motivated solely by entitlement.

Finally, there were those few victims who described horrific torture at the hands of their abuser, simply because their abuser received pleasure from their pain. Actually, in these cases, the abuser also receives pleasure from plotting and planning the torturous acts, and great pleasure from fooling everyone else. Far from desperation, it is all a game to them. Dorthy recognized these abusers as sadistic and causing a different experience for their victims altogether. 

One of our BIP participants said, “I did a lot of cruel stuff out of entitlement, but when I was violent, it was out of my desperation.” They know.  And their victims know.  It is time that we, as professionals learn about and acknowledge these differences.  It doesn’t mean entitlement doesn’t play a big part, but the rest of the story allows us to share that in many cases, it is not the driving factor.

By painting all of those who batter with the single brush of “male privilege”, we are offering a shallow explanation for a more complex issue.  Different motives create different dangers and are likely to erupt at different times in the relationship.  If we incorporate motive, advocates become better at engaging victims that otherwise are alienated, and advocates can provide better safety planning with all victims. And BIPs? Facilitators become better at understanding those they serve. I see it happen, all the time.

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