When women attack

From media portrayals of women slapping up men as comedy to cops who don’t arrest the chicks, men’s-rights groups have had it with a biased view of domestic violence.

Photo By Jill Wagner

“This idea that males are physically aggressive and females are not has distinct drawbacks for both sexes. Defining men as the perpetrators of all violence is a viciously immoral judgment of an entire gender. And defining women as inherently nonviolent condemns us to the equally restrictive role of sweet, meek and weak.” —Katherine Dunn (author and feminist)

He was hurt. He was the victim. The only reason he never fought back is because he thought he could help the woman he married. That didn’t happen.

“One night, I was sleeping in bed, and she got mad,” John said. “She hit me over the head with a pan. The next day, she sent me flowers at work. I bet she sent me flowers eight times or so over the few years we were together. It’s weird being a guy and getting flowers at work. It’s even weirder when you have a black eye.”

John’s wife seems, by his accounts, to fit the profile of a batterer. She took charge of the family finances. She lied to John and other family members. She humiliated him.

“It was a nightmare from the very beginning,” said John, whose name, like those of other victims of domestic violence in this story, has been changed. “I should have learned.”

In 1997, after knowing each other for about two weeks, the two ended up in bed. John recounted the episode as the first of many such stories in which he was blamed for troubles he said his wife actually caused.

“It was the first time we made love, and afterwards, for the next 30 minutes, she cried hysterically. Now, this is not a typical reaction. I couldn’t even understand what she was saying. I tried to get her to calm down.

“Finally, she told me the problem. She told me she had a sexually transmitted disease, and that she’d had a breakout. She’d given it to me.”

The 41-year-old financial analyst from Colorado paused and took a deep breath.

“Now, who was the victim here? She gave me herpes, absolutely.”

In domestic frays, it’s hard to know who’s telling the truth. When men and women are asked by researchers and pollsters whether they’ve been abused or abusive, both say they have been victims or perpetrators—at fairly equal rates. From this, some infer that women use violence in relationships as much as men do. That’s not something you hear much about. Most calls for help come from women. Arrest records tend to show that the majority of those being arrested for domestic violence are still men.

This is one of many issues bugging some groups of men who’ve banded together to counter what they consider the unfair effects of feminism on society. Though many men don’t agree, some men’s organizations say the legal system treats men—husbands, partners and fathers—like second-class citizens.

“People hit and abuse family members because they can,” begins a paper titled “Controlling Domestic Violence Against Men,” authored this year by researchers Charles Corry, Martin Fiebert and Erin Pizzey. Though the paper is well circulated online at various men’s Web sites, it hasn’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal. One of the authors, Fiebert, is a psychology professor at California State University at Long Beach.

“In today’s society, as reflected in TV, movies and feminist doctrine, women are openly given permission to hit men,” the paper states. “For example, a woman slapping a man in the face is rarely, if ever, viewed as domestic violence. We are fighting a losing war against family violence until society withdraws permission from women to hit their intimate partners.”

Women, the paper contends, are given permission to be aggressive in a way that men never have. The authors complain of “primary aggressor” laws that usually result in the arrest of the man in spite of evidence the authors say shows 50 percent of domestic assaults are mutual-combat. The researchers cite studies showing that women admit to being more violent than men are in dating relationships—80 percent for women and 20 percent for men—and allege that women use weapons more often in assaults than men do.

“Almost every heterosexual man I know has been slapped by a woman,” said Frederic Hayward of Men’s Rights Inc. in Sacramento. He calls himself a victim of domestic violence. “I’ve been to the police bleeding, and they won’t make an arrest. … Domestic violence by women against men is so common in the media that we don’t even notice it. It’s become a staple of comedy.”

Still, arrest records tend to show that the majority—about four out of five in 2001—of those being arrested for domestic violence in Northern California are men. The majority of calls for help to Sacramento’s domestic-violence agency Women Escaping a Violent Environment are from women. When men do call WEAVE, they are often angry.

“They say, ‘I’m a victim, and there’s literally no one to help me,’ ” said Mae Terry, lead counselor for WEAVE. “For a man, there’s a lot of shame, a lot of embarrassment associated with that.”

Many of these men share their stories online at Web sites hosted by organizations like Stop Abuse For Everyone, www.safe4all.org. A chapter of the organization started in Northern California in April.

In a bulletin-board posting accessible from the SAFE site, one tall, athletic 45-year-old told of constant abuse from his 115-pound wife.

“She has punched me, kicked me, slapped me, scratched me, pushed me and thrown drinks at me,” said Mike. “I could easily make her the first German satellite, launching her into orbit! I know a few hand and wrist holds that I can usually apply to stop her long enough to run. The thought of hurting a woman makes me sick.”

One night, his wife pulled a knife on him. Mike called the police, and his wife was arrested. But he remains married to her, in part for the sake of his infant son.

“She thinks nothing of arguing, yelling and swearing with the baby in her arms. I point out that she shouldn’t do this, but it only makes it worse. I now move through the house in a state of red alert. I sleep in another room with the doors locked.”

Fiebert, one of the authors of “Controlling Domestic Violence Against Men,” has delved into battered-men studies several times in the past decade and has co-authored studies such as “Why Women Assault,” published in Psychological Reports. His interest in the topic was piqued after he was asked, several years ago, to appear on a TV talk show. It was domestic-violence week, and the show featured a panel with several women who were all victims of domestic abuse, counselors of abused women or members of the legal community.

At the time, Fiebert taught a class at CSU Long Beach called Psychology of Male Roles, and he’d found information showing that men were victims of female aggression, as well. This, of course, went over like a sack of dirty diapers.

“I went on the show and presented the information, but [the participants] doubted the validity of the studies,” Fiebert recalled. “They doubted that the findings were representative of what went on.”

He went to work to assemble studies that proved his point. In the late 1990s, he published a paper that summarized the findings of 85 studies that showed a surprising number of men view themselves as victims of female aggression. Now, the list of studies has grown to 132 articles, studies and reviews.

Frederic Hayward, of Men’s Rights Inc., believes the media encourages biased gender stereotypes.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Here are just a few recent examples from the list of smaller studies spanning the past couple of decades:

A 2000 study published in Psychological Bulletin showed evidence that women were more likely than men to use physical aggression, though “women were somewhat more likely to be injured, and analyses reveal that 62 percent of those injured were women.”

A 1999 study in Behavioral Sciences and the Law reviewed other studies that “clearly demonstrate that within the general population, women initiate and use violent behaviors against their partners at least as often as men.”

A 1998 study of verbal and physical abuse in dating relationships that was presented at a meeting of the American Psychological Association examined a survey of college students that showed “women were significantly more physically aggressive than men, particularly in the areas of pushing, slapping and punching.”

Men who feel they’ve been victimized respond positively, of course, to Fiebert’s work.

“They feel personally validated that they aren’t the only ones,” Fiebert said.

Young researchers just starting out in the field find Fiebert’s compilation of research valuable, as well. In fact, he hears few complaints.

“I think people who are not into sort of a—I don’t know—political agenda or radical feminist agenda are interested in the facts,” he said.

Sometimes, folks e-mail him suggestions for works to be added to his compendium of studies. Others tell him personal stories, many of which begin: “My girlfriend used to hit me.”

It seems that his work is being accepted now more than it was when he first began citing studies that showed equality in the numbers of male and female victims.

“[Years ago], there was a strong reaction, with some thinking that I was betraying feminism by presenting this information,” he said, “but not anymore.”

Some things, though, haven’t changed. Like the cultural taboos that look down on men’s aggressiveness toward women, he said. And that the reverse—women hitting men—is somehow seen as acceptable.

“Women being aggressive to men is seen as, ‘So what?’ So what if she throws something and hits him? There are no major sanctions. If an adult guy hits his partner, he could be thrown in jail or lose his kids.”

In the past 12 months, some 29,717 calls for services were made to WEAVE’s office in Sacramento. About 92 percent of the calls for help, or 27,340, were calls from women seeking services from WEAVE, such as emergency shelter or job-referral assistance. Only a couple thousand calls came from men.

That number probably doesn’t reflect the real number of men seeking help, said Nicolette Bautista, WEAVE’s executive director. She’s careful to point out factors that might cause men not to call WEAVE. For one, there’s a stigma attached to being a man who gets beat up by a woman. Also, some men feel angry about what they view as the scope of the agency.

“WEAVE is identified as a women’s organization,” she said. “Men call and say, ‘You’re there to serve the woman. What about me?’ … We could change the name to ‘We Help You Escape a Violent Environment.’ ”

“Who knows who’d be calling then,” added Terry, the lead counselor for WEAVE.

Bautista said services are available to victims of domestic abuse from an intimate partner regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The agency doesn’t offer a support group for men, but that’s because it has not seen a demand for such a thing.

Earlier this year, the Sacramento agency began receiving calls for help from older men, senior citizens. Because WEAVE only offers help to those in an intimate relationship, it doesn’t offer assistance to seniors who are abused by caretakers and instead refers them to other agencies. The agency can help older men who are being abused by their significant others, though.

And, as the men’s-rights groups would concur, abuse does not begin and end with physical violence in the home. The violence can extend into the legal realm, where some men’s groups say that husbands, partners and fathers can too easily become victims of non-physical female aggression that separates them from their families, challenges parental rights and forces them into making outrageous child-support payments.

“Navigating through the legal system is hard for both,” explained Stephanie Eschoo, WEAVE’s managing attorney. No matter the gender of an individual, it’s the victim who’s going to be at a disadvantage in a legal environment—almost without exception.

“Because of power and control issues, the victims are at a disadvantage because they already feel like lesser people. They are told many lies by the controlling partner. So, they feel like they can’t stand up for themselves.”

Because a perpetrator of domestic violence is a controlling person, that person often controls finances. The perpetrator can access money for an attorney, who may further intimidate the victim—and can end up “re-abusing” him or her.

The cycle of violence is the same—regardless of gender.

“The bottom line is power and control,” said Terry.

Whether it’s from a man or a woman, every call that comes into WEAVE’s hotline is screened. Workers find that only a small percentage of the men who call and are screened qualify for assistance. Workers first do a “conflict check” to make sure that the agency is not already helping the man’s intimate partner. The agency also runs a police background check on all callers.

“We will not help a perpetrator,” Bautista said, turning to ask Eschoo a question. “How did things turn out with the man who called the other day?”

“We denied him,” Eschoo said. He had two convictions and has been incarcerated twice for domestic violence. His wife has had two restraining orders in the past.”

Nicolette Bautista, executive director of Women Escaping a Violent Environment, said the majority of the calls her organization receives are from women but that WEAVE can help men, as well.

Photo By Deidre Pike

In addition to these pragmatic checks, the victim is questioned. A decision to help can be made based on the gut feeling of the person taking the call.

Still, some men make it through these checks. And help is available for them, Terry said.

“They’ll be given equitable treatment,” Bautista said. “We’ll provide all of the same services with the exception of group counseling.”

“Abuse is abuse is abuse,” Terry said.

“If two people started fighting over there,” Hayward said, gesturing across Java City Café to a half-dozen busy tables, “and I saw a knife or a gun lying nearby, the first thing I’d do is pick it up and put it away so that no one can use it.”

A longstanding domestic dispute is similar, he said. Instead of removing weapons, though, some agencies are adding them to the fray.

“Two people are fighting, and the system goes up to one—the woman,” he said, tapping his hand on the table, “and says, ‘Here are some weapons you can use. We trust you not to misuse them. And if you lie in court, we will not prosecute you for perjury.’ ”

Domestic-violence laws protect women. Shelters are created for battered women. Workers at agencies like WEAVE believe women’s stories—and not those of men, contends Hayward, who founded Men’s Rights Inc. in Sacramento in the 1970s.

Years ago, Hayward hosted a cable-access TV show called SacraMENshow. He’s appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show three times. The first time, he was kicked off for what he called “pointing out her hypocrisies on sexism and men.”

Some years ago, he learned that a local TV station was running a made-for-TV movie called Men Don’t Tell. He called the station to see if they wanted to do a local story on men who’d been abused. He asked six men to come with him to the station. At the last minute, the station changed the time. None of the male victims could make it at the new time, so Hayward was left with no sources. On a whim, he told men at a unrelated meeting about the panel and asked, “Have any of you been slapped by women?”

“Every single heterosexual man raised his hand,” Hayward recounted.

Sometimes men contend that they are in the same place that women were 40 years ago, Hayward said. He disagrees.

“I never remember domestic violence against women being a staple of comedy in sitcoms when I was growing up.”

Hayward took his newly found sources to the KXTV-10 studio. After the broadcast of the panel discussion, Hayward received about 60 calls within a few hours, he said. He started a men’s support group based on the phone calls. The movie, he said, pulled in calls of a different kind.

“The producer of the movie got a lot of heavy flack with people who did not want this to get out,” Hayward said.

These days, Hayward’s been minding his own business and enjoying shared custody of his 8-year-old son. It’s been a while since he’s been in people’s faces about unfair attitudes toward men. He said he fears retribution from the legal system for speaking his mind.

But that doesn’t keep him from being observant. Hayward, who makes his living as a videographer of weddings and special events, has been tracking male-bashing lately.

One common toast at weddings, he said, involves placing the man’s hand over the woman’s and then saying to the man, “Enjoy this. It’s the last time you’ll have the upper hand in this relationship.”

“They say things like, ‘Men are like grapes; you have to stomp on them and hope they mature into something you want to have dinner with,’” Hayward said.

People learn this kind of behavior from the media. Hayward has collected eight hours of clips from television sitcoms that show female-on-male violence. He’s only been able to find about 30 seconds of male violence toward women.

“Our society condones this, encourages it. We are horrified by violence against women, horrified by it. But when a man gets hurt, we are applauding like it’s the funniest thing in the world. … What planet do the media live on?”

Not all men’s groups complain that men aren’t getting the kind of help they need to respond to angry, irate women. There are plenty of men who are looking for someone to blame for their family problems, said Pete Giannini, director of ManAlive programs in Sacramento, Roseville and Auburn. ManAlive is a year-long counseling and accountability program for men that helps them acknowledge their role in family violence. Men need to learn to take responsibility, he said, even if they do feel like victims.

Does Giannini know any battered husbands?

“Me and every other man I’ve met,” he said. “You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a victim.”

Giannini talks a mile a minute. Once you get him going on the topic of gender equity, he’s likely good for hours. He feels traditional patriarchal attitudes that men should control and women should sit back and be controlled work fine—as long as the controlled party accepts this system.

“The problem is you’ve gotta be a second-rate citizen,” he said. And women, he acknowledged, are awfully tired of this.

Yes, ManAlive is a feminist group that acknowledges that power and control long have been in the hands of guys, who’ve been taught that they need it.

Giannini was turned on to ManAlive himself after his wife ended their 15-year marriage.

Pete Giannini, director of ManAlive programs in the Sacramento area, helps abusers to change their behavior patterns by accepting responsibility for their actions.

Photo By Jill Wagner

“My wife opened the front door and suggested I relocate,” he said. “She wasn’t mad. She just said, ‘You stop screaming at me and the kids, or you get out.’ ”

By that time, he’d tried just about everything—anger management, counseling, therapy and Al-Anon.

“I was heavy into blame. Everybody else was responsible for my behavior. I was filled with rage and straight-up bullshit blame,” he said.

He went through the ManAlive program in San Rafael. It took a year for him to break the cycle of anger and blame. It took another two years for his family to believe that he had really changed.

Now, he’s worked with “zillions of guys.” He’s taken the ManAlive program to jails in San Francisco. He’s seen changes in men who were incarcerated in San Quentin for violence.

“They say to me, ‘I’m not going back,’ and damned if they weren’t right. … Change is possible, but it’s a lot of work to change behavior patterns.”

In the program, a man progresses through various phases in which he works on specific behavior patterns. If he’s violent in any way during a phase, if he even slams a door, that buys him two months more in whatever phase he’s in.

“I clean up my physical violence—diminishing words, sarcasm, objectifying—and operate for two months without doing that stuff.”

Men have to hold themselves accountable, he said.

“I’m not giving up competitive skills; that would be stupid,” Giannini said. “I’m just learning new sets of skills and learning which skills are appropriate for which situation. … And it’s not about rolling over and becoming a victim. Some guys come in and say, ‘Now what am I supposed to do? Be led around with a ring in my nose?’ No. We believe that victims eventually persecute. When we are doing controlling behavior, we are absolutely convinced that we are the victims, until we realize that we victimize the hell out of everyone.”

Unlike Hayward, Giannini said he doesn’t see a gender bias against men in the way the system handles domestic violence. If anything, men are still protected far too often, he feels. “Unless I rip your head off, I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said. “Finally, after years, if I threaten to kill you, that’s against the law.”

He’s seen many instances of a man who’s “slapped the holy hell out of his wife” end up in front of a judge, plea-bargaining the offense down to disturbing the peace.

“If I hit a bartender, do you think I could plea-bargain down? But I own the Ford, the Chevy and the wife.”

The idea that patriarchy is still the root cause of domestic violence is outdated, said John Hamel, a licensed clinical social worker and court-approved domestic-violence treatment provider with practices in Greenbrae, Berkeley and Pleasant Hill. It’s “old-school,” he said, to contend that even today, power and control are imposed on women by men who systematically exclude women from powerful places.

“The women’s-shelter people and their advocates have made the laws so that they’re lacking,” he said. “Society has changed a lot since the 1970s. Women have more power than they used to. And, in domestic incidents, they have more power, often, than men, with the police and courts on [women’s] side. I have nothing against [battered-women’s advocates]. They are doing a great service. But they have to get with the times. … They’re still living in the ’70s and not willing to move along.”

Hamel recently worked with a male client who was referred to Hamel for an anger-management program, though he’d never touched his wife in an abusive manner. The man had supervised visits with his children. A mediator in the case had never asked the man or his wife about the wife’s behavior. When Hamel did some probing, he found that the wife had punched and kicked her husband frequently. The husband’s worst offense was yelling back at her.

Based on this yelling, which his wife called “threatening,” she received a protection order against her husband, which allowed him only supervised visits with his children. Now, with Hamel on his side, the man has appealed the decision. But the wheels of justice grind slowly.

“By the time this man goes back to court, he will have missed months and months of visits with his kids,” Hamel said. “Those are the kinds of frustrations we’re up against.”

Hamel said he doesn’t consider himself a men’s-rights advocate exactly, but he understands the cause.

“Men are getting screwed to some extent,” he said. “Society is not handling the problem in a very effective way. Men and women get in an argument, push, shove and occasionally slap each other. The kids see this and see that Dad goes to jail. When he gets out, Mom says, ‘Do it my way, or I’m going to call the cops.’ … And that arrest counts against [the man] in a divorce action. If you’ve been arrested for domestic violence, that will count against you in getting custody of your kids. Guess who’s getting the shaft when it comes to custody?”

Bob, who told his story at the SAFE Web site, is 28 years old. He’s married to a woman who enjoys violent sex and has held sharp objects to his throat whenever it turns her on.

“When I called a rape hotline, I was laughed at! I feel so worthless and feeble but mostly humiliated. Yet, I can’t bring myself to try to get out of the relationship for fear of retaliation. My wife claims that if I try to leave her, she’ll cut me ’til my blood won’t stop flowing and watch me die.”

One woman, Joannie, posted a story explaining how she became abusive in one instance: “I don’t know what happened. I suppose it all went by too fast. One moment, I was on the verge of leaving, and the next, I had lurched my arm back to slug him one in the face, causing massive bleeding at the jaw, [and] then in the chest multiple times. I didn’t stop throwing punches—and even kicked him once—until he fell back against the bed, eyes gone wide … the shock, hurt, then almost disgust, that crossed his face jarred me to the very core.”

In a response to Joannie’s post, another woman attempted to reassure the worried spouse: “You did the right thing: taught him who’s boss. Works with my husband at least. Right on, sister! Don’t feel guilty, feel proud!”

That’s the kind of attitude that smacks of unfairness to advocates like Hayward of Men’s Rights Inc.

When a battered woman tells a story of domestic abuse, feminist workers listen to her story with the assumption that she’s telling the truth, he said. Domestic-violence laws appear to be based on the assumption that women won’t abuse power.

“People need to understand that women are just as human as men,” Hayward said. “They are just as capable of abusing power as men.”

On the other hand, Giannini, with the feminist ManAlive group, holds that many of those men who complain of being victimized are merely incapable of a relationship in which control is shared.

“It’s about power and that we’ve been convinced that the only way we have it is to take it away from someone else,” he said. “[Society] peddles violence in every aspect of our lives. … But there are choices; change is absolutely possible.”