Tools and patriarchs: The re-normalizing of domestic abuse

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, February 3, 2009 16:51 EDT
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I’m currently reading Kathryn Joyce’s book Quiverfull, which is scheduled to come out next month, and I’ve been enjoying the articles she’s been publishing to promote the book. She’s got one up at Alternet today about one of the worst aspects of the Christian patriarchy movement—if you tell women to submit, even if you deny that it’s true, you’re encouraging wife battering. The dirty little secret of evangelical tolerance of wife battering is that it’s not a problem for just a slim minority of super crazies, but is in fact part of the mainstream evangelical movement, basically any church or belief system that’s invested in male dominance and bleats about “family values”. Yes, that includes Rick Warren, who teaches that battered women have no right to divorce their abusers.

After years of pressure from anti-feminist forces, we as a culture have gotten into the habit of pretending that domestic violence—while wrong—is an individual problem instead of the logical result of a patriarchal culture. At best, I think most people believe that most abusive partners are men because we slip into essentialist thinking about how men are just more violent. At worst, there’s the percentage of people who just deny that there’s a real problem, and pretend that abuse is about equally powerful people tussling with each other. However we see it, we refuse to see how much domestic violence is directly linked to male dominance—abusers are often (usually?) men who, on one level or another, buy into the idea that they are superior to women and feel entitled when they hit or otherwise force submission. When you see domestic violence in the more individualized way, though, I think it’s easier to lull yourself into believing that couples that are torn up about it can fix their relationships up with therapy. This sort of thinking dominates the evangelical movement, for instance. Saddleback “allows” abuse victims to sleep elsewhere when their husbands are in a beating mood, but demand that the women return as soon as things have cooled down, to try to make it work.

Saddleback’s position is “typical evangelical fare on the subject of domestic abuse and domestic violence,” responds Andersen. Typical because, like other well-known and extremely influential evangelical leaders, Saddleback is pushing a message of “leave while the heat is on,” but only with the intention of returning to the marriage when the violence has cooled. This is the message that Andersen tracks from Christian leaders as prominent as megachurch pastor John MacArthur, Focus on the Family head James Dobson, and established Christian radio psychologists Minirth and Meier on the far-reaching Moody Media empire. “Everyone with a lick of sense knows that, in a violent marriage, the heat is never really off,” Andersen tells me. “Everything can be fine one minute, and the next minute you’re dead.”

Damn skippy. I fail to see how this isn’t just encouraging the cyclical nature of domestic violence, which has three well-known stages.

All they’re doing is encouraging the false belief that the honeymoon phase can be counted on, when in fact it’s just a prelude to more violence. But we can’t expect the believers in the submission doctrine to be able to really oppose domestic violence in a substantive way, because they sympathize with the abuser’s objectification of his spouse. For all that believers tell men that they must love their wives, the larger truth is they’re told to objectify their wives, see them as objects created by god specifically to serve them, much like you feel about your car. Ideologically incapable of realistically understanding domestic violence, conservative evangelicals are pretty much stuck with supporting abuse, both by legitimizing the cycle, and in some cases, encouraging victims to blame themselves by not being submissive enough.

But hey, for once I have to spread some blame around for this, because it’s not just the growing fundie movement that’s putting women in danger by encouraging the incorrect belief that standing by your man is an effective response to abuse. On this week’s podcast, I cover the criminally irresponsible VH1 show “Tool Academy”, which promotes the same idea that foul and likely abusive relationships are there for working on, instead of ending as soon as you can do so safely. I’m sure they did some cursory screening for domestic violence to cover their asses on this show, but it couldn’t have been too much, because we actually see the men engage in vicious levels of emotional abuse of their girlfriends, as well as violent acting out such as throwing things. One of the tools actually brags that he’s “trained” his girlfriend into submission, which is indistinguishable from the motivations of many men who beat women regularly. Many of the men are, if not hitting their girlfriends in private already, flashing big warning signs of being potential abusers, and the only thing their girlfriends need to do is get out as soon as it’s safe.

Instead, as I document on the podcast, the producers promote the idea that working on the relationship is not only a legitimate tactic, but the preferable one. And even if every single woman on the show is actually safe from flying fists, which I have trouble believing, there are absolutely women in the audience watching this who are being beaten and are seeking validation of their erroneous belief that hanging in and “working” on the relationship will stop the abuse. It’s been well-documented that abuse victims go through a long phase early in the relationship of telling themselves that he means well, that if they try harder it can get better, etc., and this show, by reinforcing that message to women who are desperate to believe it, is violating even the lower standards of moral codes that reality shows observe.

Worse, and I don’t cover this in the podcast, one of the phony exercises they do seems indistinguishable to me from the evangelical advice to abuse victims to learn to submit with more grace to manipulate the man into not abusing. One of their exercises is to learn to do the tango, and the instructor makes a big deal out of how the women need to learn to be more vulnerable and let the men lead. Since these men are, to the last one, massive assholes and most are liars who are happy to pretend to be remorseful if it lulls their girlfriends into sticking by them. the last thing these women need is to be told to follow them or trust them. Trust isn’t just some endlessly wonderful virtue. It’s a major flaw if you keep giving your trust to men who don’t deserve it.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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