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Battering is not “losing your head”

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Let me state up front that if Elin Nordegren did in fact assault Tiger Woods in an altercation over infidelity, then that is 100% wrong. 100%. Not one whit less. There is never an excuse to hit, never. Infidelity is a breach of contract, but hitting is violence and 100% unacceptable. It’s disturbing to me that infidelity is being taken more seriously than domestic violence in this case. (Which is why I agree with Jessica that the SNL skit about the Tiger situation was less mocking victims of domestic violence and more using satire to expose how fucked up it is that people aren’t taking this seriously.) Unfortunately, as soon as this story came out, I knew immediately that it would function as a way to minimize the realities of domestic violence on many levels. And that is exactly what’s happened:

1) People are minimizing the severity of Nordegren is accused of doing, implying that it’s a reasonable response to infidelity.

2) People are equating domestic violence and infidelity, which minimizes the seriousness of domestic violence while overstating the severity of infidelity. Glenn Beck, in a show of racism that was shocking even for him, actually equated cheating on your wife with murdering your wife. Beck’s belief that women’s lives have very little value was laid bare there. Apparently, being a wife is more important than being alive for women, in his book. If your husband can’t be a good husband, you might as well be dead for all the value you have in his eyes.

Look, I have no love for cheaters. But a relationship can often survive an indiscretion if both people in the relationship don’t really take it that seriously. And if you do take it seriously, it’s a lot easier to walk away from an infidelity than it is to get out of a battering situation, as I’ll soon discuss. And, I would argue, it’s probably easier to walk away from an infidelity than it is to walk away from a one-off act of violence in response to an infidelity, because our culture is so sex-phobic that the cheater probably is easy to convince they deserve being violently assaulted.

3) People invested in maintaining male dominance are using this case to obscure the gendered reality of domestic violence. This happens in two ways. There’s the silly “women do it too!” crap that is easy to shoot down with statistics. And then there’s something more insidious, because it can sneak past feminists. And that’s the conflation of hot-headed domestic violence with the more serious problem of battering. Many feminists don’t know the difference, in part because domestic violence prevention is about making sure that women realize that the first time he raises his fist should be the last. No one should fool themselves into thinking that it’s “just this once”. And maybe, I thought as I saw people conflate the two, the difference doesn’t matter. Violence is 100% wrong, so who cares what’s motivating it?

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And then I saw this piece at Jezebel and I realized I had to write something. Someone is wrong on the internet!

Most of the post was merely annoying, in that the guy was blowing a few errant and wrong-headed comments from some thoughtless women at Jezebel into some sort of feminist conspiracy to claim that men aren’t as precious as women blah blah blah. The guy is a goober, but for the mostly no big deal reason that his male privilege has blinded him to the fact that you really can’t control the idiocy of some people out there, and he’s taking wrong-headedness as malevolence. (The comments he pulls out mostly seemed to me to be from women trying to articulate why male-on-female violence stirs a deeper ickiness inside us than male-on-male or even female-on-male, and instead of simply suggesting that it’s because it shines a light on a form of hierarchy-reinforcing that usually takes place in the dark so that it can be denied, they try to suggest that men hitting women is inherently worse than other forms of violence. It’s not, of course. But it it occupies a different cultural space, because it so often is about reinforcing one group’s dominance over the other.) But then he made a major error that functions to minimize the reality of domestic violence.

At the thought of this—a man being domestically abused by his wife—one clearly skeptical Jezebel commenter wrote, “Are we labeling every semi-physical interaction between couples as domestic abuse nowadays?” Presumably, the idea here is that violent women (like Elin Nordegren) lose their heads, while violent men (like Chris Brown) are monsters.

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Okay, that woman was in the wrong. Yes, every violent “interaction” between couples is domestic violence. Every single one. There is no “get out of jail free” card to chase your cheating husband down with a golf club. But that doesn’t make Cord Jefferson’s little sleight of hand on the Chris Brown question acceptable. The scoffing implied obscures a very real reality that needs to be understood, and that is that batterers—(mostly) men who wear down and beat their partner repeatedly over time in order to gain dominance over them—do not “lose their heads”. They act very deliberately. They may front like they’ve simply lost their heads to their partners, often seizing on some small thing and claiming to be deeply offended by it in order to “lose their heads”, but in fact they act with deliberation. OJ Simpson didn’t just go off the handle and kill his wife in the heat of the moment. He plotted to kill her, stalked her, and tried to hide the evidence.

From what I understand, this was far from the first time that Brown had laid a hand on Rihanna. Which fits the M.O. of a batterer. Batterers work by boundary-testing. They figure out how far they can push it and go just a little over, getting their victims used to that amount of abuse, and then they go a little further next time. Violence tends to escalate because of this—what starts off as a slap here or a shove there can turn into full-blown beatings over time. Batterers often “gaslight” their victims, too, reducing their self-esteem and isolating them from the larger community that the batterer himself will stay a part of. This makes it harder for a woman to leave, because sadly, the community often sides with the man that they like more because they see him more. Stereotypes of how women are “crazy” help batterers, because it makes it easier to discredit and dislike a victim, and it makes it easier for a victim to question herself. Batterers usually work under cover; they don’t hit in front of other people very often. They are in control of their emotions, and they act specifically to gain control over their victim’s entire being.

I think the reason that battering is a mostly male behavior, and the victims are mostly female (and male victims are often gay, a fact MRAs try to conceal) is that male dominance and ownership of women is normalized in a patriarchy, pure and simple. Batterers feel entitled to dominate their partners because they see it as part of their manhood. I’m sure some are insecure bullies who are trying to pump themselves up by putting down women, and some are totally secure sadists who enjoy exerting control over women. And on very rare occasions, I’m sure there’s outlier women who are so full of themselves that they batter. But by and large, battering is a male behavior because it fits in with our social expectations of masculinity, if taken to an extreme. But the most important thing to understand about battering is that it’s constant. Even the “good” times are part of the cycle that a batterer uses to control his victim. That’s also why it’s so hard to leave a batterer—he’s so intent on controlling you that leaving only escalate the violence as he tries to regain control. That’s why murder is so often the result of leaving—it’s the ultimate way for a batterer to demonstrate total ownership over his victim.

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Is Elin Nordegren a batterer? I’m not really sure it’s exactly the same kind of domestic violence, if she did attack Tiger Woods in response to his infidelities. I would argue that assaulting a cheater is motivated by the belief that you own them sexually. This is unfortunately how a lot of people—the majority even—think of monogamy in our culture, which is why I think there’s a deplorable lack of taking the allegations of domestic violence seriously. It just goes to show that the belief that someone “belongs” to you is the cause of abuse in all sorts of situations. Because of this, feminists should demand more than the end of the male privilege to cheat while expecting female fidelity. Feminists should demand the end of the monogamous mindset, the belief that a vow of fidelity equals ownership over another person’s sexual behavior. Ironically, I think the belief that monogamy equals ownership encourages cheating, because if you feel owned, cheating is a way to reassert your independence. But if you view monogamy as a choice, then you don’t have a reason to rebel.

But I’m highly skeptical of the idea that Nordegren is a classic batterer, like I suspect Chris Brown was. I doubt she isolates Tiger Woods from friends and family and controls his movements. I doubt she’s invested in her image of herself as a masculine dominator or thinks that Woods is her inferior that should cower and obey. I doubt she worked up to this beating by softening him up with a constant barrage of put-downs interlaced with chivalric displays of charm in order to cause him to question his own sanity and ruin his self esteem. I’m not excusing her behavior in any way. If she beat him, she should face the criminal justice system and an end to her marriage, like any other abuser. But it’s important to see the distinction between incidents like this and the epidemic of battering that so many women face.

Why? Because if we refuse to see these distinctions, we won’t know how to fight violence, because you can only fight violence if you understand root causes. Violence like Nordegren’s alleged behavior can’t be addressed in the same way as more typical batterer-style violence. Freaking out over infidelity can be slowed by fighting the idea that monogamy gives you ownership rights to your spouse. But battering needs to be fought by putting rest to the idea that women exist to serve men’s desires and needs and that men are better than women. Battering can only be fought culturally by rewriting our scripts for masculinity so that dominance and power over others don’t define the man. Different causes require different approaches. I realize that these distinctions are pretty complicated, and that can cause people to want to paper over them. But simply condemning all violence isn’t doing enough to stop it. We need to ask why people mentally justify violence to themselves, and that is going to be a more complicated process.


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