Saturday, November 25, 2006

'Mutually Abusive'

There's a fallacy that abuse about individual acts, and that you can measure the abusiveness of a relationship by tallying what people did to each other.

This ignores a basic truth about abuse, which is that you can't abuse someone unless you have power over them.

The academic version of this fallacy has been doing the rounds in New Zealand. It's being promoted by men who are terribly upset that there's even one day a year where men are expectedto take a stand against Violence Against Women. This coverage from the New Zealand Herald is fairly typical:

Professor David Fergusson and Associate Professor Richie Poulton said their respective long-term studies of people born in Christchurch and Dunedin in the 1970s showed that most domestic violence was mutual.

"In a high proportion of these couples, we are seeing mutual fighting. It's brawling," said Professor Fergusson.

In contrast, the commission is backing White Ribbon Day on November 25, which asks men to wear a white ribbon to show that they do not condone "men's violence towards women".

These men's views of domestic violence and abuse are limited by the tool they used to measure it. Both studies used the Conflict Tactic Scale (CTS), a scale that measures individual 'hits', and the people who designed the scale have specifically rejected its use to compare men's and women's violence. I'm not going to argue the academics of the CTS Ampersand did a very good job of this and Trish Wilson has a page of links. I want to make my point in a more basic way and I'm going to start with a really obvious example.

One of the questions the interviewees are asked is if a partner had ever: "Called you fat, ugly, or unattractive." They seem to believe that statement is ungendered - it is equally abusive if a man says it to a woman as it would be if a woman said it to a man. To me, that is so unrealistic to be almost surreal.

I have known several couples where a woman does make comments about her male partner's size (usually in the context of them both getting more exercise or eating differently). I have a problem with those conversations, and would rather not be around them, but the women are not being abusive, psychologically agressive, or exercising any form of power (in fact it's usually tied to the idea that women are responsible for their partner's health). Whereas, I was at a pub six years ago with a couple I didn't really know, and I can still work up rage at the man for telling his partner not to eat particular fries, because they were 'fat sticks'.

Women are not set up to be the judge of men's appearance, and their self-worth, so most women who comment about their male partner's appearance are usually not exercising power. Whereas, men are given that power, and so such comments are far more likely to be abusive.

Obviously, there are many factors that could change this dynamic and non-heteroseuxal relationships would obviously have a completely different dynamic. But that doesn't stop that question being a really useless way of measuring psychological agression.

I'd go further, I'd say other acts on the CTS list take different meaning depending on the power within the relationship. Let's imagine a couple in a heterosexual relationship who are having an argument and in the course of this argument the man hits the woman. He doesn't hurt her, but he's stronger than her. This could be an assertion of power: "I could have hurt you, but I didn't. No-one would believe that I hit you, no one would care if they did. Everyone knows that it's wrong to hit your girlfriend, but I can hit you."

Now let us reverse the situation this time the woman hits the man. In this context hitting him could be a statement of powerlessness: "I can't stop you, I can't hurt you, I can't do anything to make this stop."

I'm not saying that everytime a man hits a woman it means something similar to my first example, and every time a woman hits a man it means something similar to my second example. What I am saying is that the meaning (and abusiveness) of individual actions is found within the power dynamic of that relationship, and in our society power dynamics within heterosexual relationships are going to be gendered.

Unfortunately it's not just researchers who believe that you measure abuse by examining individual actions. I've found the idea all too common about people who are confronted with abusive relationships among their friends. Rather than looking at the power dynamic involved in an abusive relationship, I've seen people too easily slip into the classification of 'mutually abusive relationship' or 'fucked-up situation'.

Power within a relationship isn't a zero sum game - both parties can have, and misuse, lots of power against each other. I'm not arguing that mutually abusive relationships don't exist, but that no-one should come to the conclusion that an individual relationship is mutually abusive without thinking about the power involved first.

'Mutually abusive relationship' as the default setting creates the idea of a perfect victim. If anyone who fights back is in a 'mutually abusive relationship, then the only way you are entitled to support is if you don't fight back. But if you react to the abuse, physically defend yourself, act jealous or fucked up by what's happened to you, then you don't deserve support, and people around can wash their hands and walks away from what they term a mutually abusive relationship.

As a feminist, as a human being, it is my duty and my desire, to support the powerless against the powerful, and to not wash my hands of women who fight back.


  1. Thanks for this Maia.

    Some time ago a friend of mine, who I usually pay some respect to, got very upset because the girlfriend of another friend had thrown some shoes at her boyfriend. He thought this woman had acted beyond the pale, and that as she had crossed the line into physical abuse she was worthless.

    I felt differently. I knew that the girlfriend had a high level of frustration with her boyfriend who I felt was at times emotionally abusive and manipulative. I can understand well the frustration that drove her to throw those shoes. I can also see that there was no risk of her hurting him.

    Yes she shouldn't have done it. But to say that because she did she is a violent abuser who must be ex-communicated is not really the answer.

  2. Every violent action has some sort of frustration or reason behind it and we ex-communicate those we don't understand and comfort those we do.

    I guess that is one of the problems you observe from the male side.

  3. Anonymous11:17 am

    I sincerely think that there is such a thing as "mutually abusive". This is usually born from mutual mistrust or jealousy. However, I personally was just in an emotionally abusive which I felt powerless and isolated....So, I tolerated and tried to express my concerns several times and the was faced with hipocrisy by the individual (ie: he was commiting the same "relationship crimes" that he was accusing me of.) I felt emotionally backed into a corner, and did what any animal would have done. I fought back.