First of all, if you’re reading this and you are a daily survivor of domestic violence, please find an advocate. If you can, please borrow a phone, get to a pay phone, or have a friend call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 | 1-800-787-3224, or reach out to someone who can be mindful of your safety.
It’s been blasted all over popular news and cultural criticism sites for nearly a week: MMA fighter Jon Koppenhaver brutally attacked his ex-girlfriend Christy Mack and another person who was in her apartment, and Koppenhaver wonders why he’s the villain, stating “I only wish that man hadn’t been there and that Christy and i would be happily engaged,” since he was reportedly bearing an engagement ring to propose. Online journalism sites are all abuzz with this story and the added detail of Dog, the reality TV bounty hunter, committing to catching Koppenhaver. Comment threads on Gawker, for example, expose a sickening trivialization of this incident. When Gawker, a media company I follow daily, announced Dog’s threat of pursuit, the comment thread became a long line of jokes and snark about Dog and the woman standing with him in the featured image. One person even wrote simply, “Needed a laugh. Thank you.”
Another reader snidely commented on an earlier article on Gawker about Koppenhaver and Mack, “Surely there’s some famous saying about dating a braindead psychopath cage fighter that we can use here. I think the saying goes, “don’t do that.” And another: “I mean, you fall in love with a porn star, and she behaves like a sex addict. You fall in love with a MMA fighter, and he behaves like a psychopath. Who knew?” Someone felt it relevant to bring up the fact that Mack, who was no longer dating Koppenhaver, was possibly seeing someone else, and accused her of “cheating,” as if that makes abuse okay. And further still, when one reader posted a thoughtful comment suggesting that Koppenhaver is expressing actions congruent with hegemonic “brutish” masculinity or past abuse, they were attacked with replies like, “Are you done manstruating yet, bruh?” and, “Whatever. Dude, you make Chaz Bono look like. I dunno. A guy.” And on Global News’s blog, reporting Koppenhaver’s arrest warrant, one reader commented, “Hopefully he will get raped over and over in jail. LOL GOOF,” while others gave the MMA fighter tips on reducing his sentence time or blamed steroid use.
Think those are the attitudes held only by Internet trolls? Think again. Other mild-mannered real life people respond similarly.
“[This Company] takes domestic violence very seriously. If we hear about any abuse reports, you’re out. So don’t beat your wife. Don’t beat your girlfriend, or your boyfriend, or your husband. Just don’t do it.”
Those words were spoken during security officer training with a national security company. And as I listened to the instructor, his statement did make me feel secure. Of course, a security company has to protect their relationship with the Department of Public Safety, but I like that this company says up front that if you are abusive, you can’t work for us, no matter what. I was discouraged, however, when I heard a couple of the men in the room snicker when the instructor said not to abuse one’s male partner.
We need to talk about this. Because nothing about this is okay.
I think we all know that domestic violence is bad. I think we all know that violence against women is still astronomically more common than violence against men, making it an institution in addition to a personal threat. And with staggering statistics, we have come to expect abuse to happen and have resources available to its survivors. But we can’t ever accept it. We can’t categorize Christy Mack’s abuse as entertainment news, or think that abuse of a male partner is somehow a less severe issue. Here are some statistics I found from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:
One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.
85% of domestic violence victims are women.
Historically, females have been most often victimized by someone they knew.
Females who are 20-24 years of age are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence.
Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police.
With statistics like these, we have come to expect domestic violence to happen. Because it does. A lot. But with attitudes like those expressed by the men who scoff at male abuse and assholes like Koppenhaver who justify their violence by saying they wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for someone infringing on their relational bliss, we are seem to have, at some social level, accepted it. And that’s got to stop. Right now.
I know that eradicating the world of these abuse-perpretuating ideals and behaviors is not simple, and I admit that I am neither a psychologist nor a social worker. I studied gender theory in the context of literature and popular media, so I can’t offer the types of solutions I wish I could. But, the fact that I am a person who has gender, like everyone else, and who is a vigilant consumer and critic of contemporary culture, I can say this.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IS A SIGN THAT MANY THINGS HAVE BROKEN. IT IS NOT A LAUGHING MATTER.
“Real Men” Discourse Needs a Swift Exit
I know that means we’ll also have to give up hashtags like #realmentakeoutthegarbage or ideas about “real men” being good financial providers and protectors. And even Justin Timberlake holding a sign that reads, “Real Men don’t buy girls.” But that doesn’t mean men have to stop doing or supporting these things. It does mean we need desperately to reassess the origins of our expectations. When I have had male housemates, I have really appreciated when they take the trash out. But I also have taken my fair share of trips out to the apartment complex’s dumpster, because it just needs to get done. It’s a human need and there is no reason why my roommate was more able to take out the trash than I was. And if I were ever in need of my partner to provide for me financially, then that would be an important factor in our relationship for as long as that was a need–whether temporary or permanent–but not because I am a woman and he is a man. Sometimes in relationships that’s what commitment looks like.
The more I research partner abuse, the more I learn that the same mindset that makes men laugh at the thought of men being the recipients of abuse feeds a cultural environment that does lead to the abuse of more women than men, in addition to increasing the abuse of men. I made a new friend the other day, a PhD. candidate studying developmental psychology in male youth. She suggests that the constant messages boys hear to “toughen up,” be “real men,” “never let anyone push them around” are forms of abuse in their own right, which can lead men to abuse those they perceive to threaten their masculinity and, essentially, their personal validity. It’s all connected, a tragic network of violence and shame. Likewise, Firestone writes in an article for Psychology Today:
Expectations that men should be strong, masculine, and more powerful than women can be very destructive to a man at risk for becoming violent. The shame triggered by the idea that they are appearing weak or unmanly can trigger some men to become enraged or to act on violent impulses. (2012)
There’s a trend trying to undo violence against women by countering with taglines like “Real Men don’t hit women,” or “Real Men respect women,” “Real Men don’t buy girls,” etc. And I think, okay, that’s encouraging men not to do bad things. But it’s still based on a fear that they won’t be complete Men if they don’t follow whatever the current Real Man requirements are. And what if that changes? What if we focus Real Manliness on something else? We can’t depend on that to make things better. People need to feel secure in their identity apart from vacillating gender ideals, and apart from their partner’s ability to live up to those ideals.
Let’s Call a Spade a Spade
Domestic violence is the ultimate betrayal of trust. When a person abuses his or her partner, they are hurting a person whom (I assume) they have committed to care for. Abuse isn’t funny, not even when famous people do it. Not even EVEN when those famous people are a porn actor and an MMA fighter pursued by a television bounty hunter with a mullet. Not even when a grown woman hits a man twice her size. Not even when it’s “just” the undermining of a person’s sense of self-worth. Abuse isn’t a springboard issue for us to blame things like steroids usage or the pornography industry either.
Media journalists such as Gawker and Global News are not responsible for the attitudes of their readers. Their readers are responsible for their own attitudes. And that’s us, right? We have a lot of work to do. So, I challenge myself and all of you, be aware and observant. Push hard against the detrimental ideals with which we live, but be gentle and respectful of people who might come to you for advocacy. And let’s be honest. I don’t know how to “save” someone from violence, but I can listen to them and seek help without trivializing their situation or their choices. Because whoever is involved, abuse is still the infliction of harm on one human being by another human being.