When it comes to domestic violence, we ask the wrong question: “Why does she stay?”
We ought to ask: “Why does he hit?”
In media coverage of domestic violence, in social media conversations about intimate partner violence, and when we as individuals try to think through why tragedies like the Nov. 24 Schladetzky familicide in Minneapolis occur, the focus too frequently turns to what part the victim played in attracting violence. Our conversations rarely ask why men abuse women.
In an attempt to be helpful, we offer information about how women can leave abusive men or where the local shelters are located. But there are no messages for men about how to handle rage or cope nonviolently with life, and that absence is a telling one.
Socially and culturally, we hold women responsible for the violence that men do, asking why she chose a violent man, why she didn’t see the signs and why didn’t she quit her job, uproot her family, change her name and move to another state. We do not query men in the same manner, asking him: “When did you notice yourself first feeling violent?” and “When you thought of harming your family, why didn’t you take yourself out of the house and protect them?”
We say “abused women” and “violence against women.” We name the victim, but we avoid looking the perpetrator straight in the eye. We are afraid of naming men.
Socially, we gender the problem, making it a women’s issue, nothing men need to worry about. Then we avoid gender when we consider solutions, although statistically, most domestic violence and almost all domestic murders are perpetrated by men, so clearly, gender is a critical factor. This wise observation was made by Drake University scholar Nancy Bern who also argues that focusing on the victim means we sidestep dealing with the abuser.
Socially, we individualize the problem — it’s one misguided woman who married unwisely. This way, we can let our cultural values off the hook, pretending that patriarchal attitudes, male privilege, long-standing media practices of objectifying women and rampant misogyny in the workplace have nothing to do with why women get killed at home.
I’ve studied domestic violence media coverage in scores of publications and hundreds of articles. Here’s what I can tell you about the messages we tell ourselves. Women’s media headlines are terrifying and lurid (“Murdered by the Man of Her Dreams” and “When Love Turns Deadly” in Cosmopolitan, for example); men’s media rarely mention domestic violence and when they do, joke about it (“When Your Honeybee Gets Buzzin’ ” and “Girls Gone Postal” in Men’s Health).
Women are expected to “Spot a Guy Who is Apt to Get Unhinged” and “Talk Your Way Out of Date Rape.” Men’s anger is rarely addressed; in one 10-year-study I did of leading men’s magazines, I could find only one article about it.
Our public conversations about domestic violence are about how the victim is to blame and what potential victims might do to avoid being battered. Messages for men about how to not hit her, how to stop yourself before you kill her and why you feel you have the right to take her life are rarely included.
After years in this field, I have come to the conclusion that men abusing and killing women will likely not stop until three things happen. One, men need to discipline other men and make it a condition of alpha masculinity to admire and respect women. Two, culturally we must stop separating boys from their emotions, their connections to other humans and their own humility. We need to bury the fiction that men are automatically braver, tougher, stronger and smarter than women, because they aren’t necessarily and they know it. Thinking they have to be makes men doubt their masculinity — and then all hell breaks loose.
And three, we need to shift the conversation from her to him.
A man who congratulates himself for not hitting women might be sobered to consider that tantrums, verbal abuse, bullying and emotional withholding are all on the spectrum of the male abuse of women. Studies now point to the long-term, significant damage done to children and women by men who recklessly inflict rage on their families and feel entitled to do so.
A man who is confident, strong and fair might bravely conduct a self-audit of his own micro-aggressions against the women in his life. He might shift his thinking, alter his actions and even speak up to other men.
Our lives depend upon it.
Pamela Hill Nettleton, Ph.D., studies gender in media and teaches media studies and communication at the University of St. Thomas.