A new study has been released on the views held by men who have been known to commit intimate partner violence (IPV). While the full study is behind a pay wall, what the abstract and this report on the study (note: the accompanying image at the article may be triggering) tell us is incredibly interesting:
The research looked at 124 men who were enrolled in a larger treatment intervention study for domestic violence. The men, all of whom had participated in violence against a partner in the previous 90 days, were asked to estimate the percentage of men who had ever engaged in seven forms of abuse.
These included throwing something at a partner that could hurt; pushing, grabbing, or shoving a partner; slapping or hitting; choking; beating up a partner; threatening a partner with a gun; and forcing a partner have sex when they did not want to.
In every case the men vastly overestimated the actual instances of abuse. For example, the participants on average thought 27.6 percent of men had thrown something with the intent of hurting a partner while the actual number is 11.9 percent. Similarly, they believed 23.6 percent of men had forced their partner to have sex involuntary compared to 7.9 percent in reality.
A couple of the authors of the study comment further on their findings:
“We don’t know why men make these overestimations, but there are a couple of likely reasons,” says Clayton Neighbors, an affiliate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington and a professor of psychology at the University of Houston.
“Men who engage in violent behavior justify it in their mind by thinking it is more common and saying, ‘Most guys slap their women around so it is okay to engage in it.’ Or it could be that misperceptions about violence cause the behavior.”
“Social norms theory suggests that people act in a way that they believe is consistent with what the average person does,” adds Denise Walker, research professor of social work and co-director of the Innovative Programs Research Group.
“With sexual assault the more a man thought it was prevalent the more likely he was to engage in such behavior. If we can correct misperceptions about the prevalence of intimate partner violence, we have a chance to change men’s behavior. If you give them factual information it is harder for them to justify their behavior,” Neighbors says
The study is only preliminary, and more research is needed. The sample size was small, and there was no control group to test non-abusive men’s perceptions on rates of abuse. But this study is the first of its kind, and is thus rather groundbreaking. And what information it does give us is vital.
First of all, while currently unknown, it’s entirely possible that abusive men’s disproportionate likelihood of having grown up abused and/or living in an abusive home is related to their likelihood to overestimate the general rate of IPV. For this reason, it’s incredibly important to improve our ability to identify children who are being abused and/or exposed to abuse, and to provide them with support, resources, education, and counseling. We need not first know conclusively whether or not exposure to abuse is connected to one’s views on the normalcy of abuse in order to do this work; regardless of its effect on one’s propensity to go onto commit abuse oneself, these services are simply the only right way to treat any human being, potential abuser or not.
Secondly, while the study’s authors note that it’s currently unknown whether correcting abusers’ perceptions on the rate at which other men abuse will alter their own behavior, it is known that this misperception allows abusers to help justify their own actions. While entirely possible that abusers would then find another method of justification, the fact is simple: there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to allow this particular justification to go unchallenged.
Challenging the false justification doesn’t involve downplaying the rates of intimate partner violence and sexual assault, which are very distressingly high. It involves telling the truth about the rates of men who commit intimate partner violence and sexual assault, which are relatively really quite low. Both the numbers used above and other studies show that only small minorities of men are abusive towards women. Even if the rates are actually higher than most statistics show, as many activists believe, the fact remains still that a large majority of men are not committing intimate partner violence and are not committing rape. Prevention education aimed at preventing more people from becoming abusive must include this information, not as a means of excusing abusers or soothing some men’s belief that anti-violence activists portray all men as violent, but as a means to break apart misconceptions about just how “normal” abusive behavior is and take down the “everybody’s doing it” justification.
Probably even more vitally, it requires a more intense focus on bystander behavior. Bystander training is a great means of preventing individual assaults. When bystanders know how to respond to a situation that has turned or could turn violent instead of standing by as though it’s not their business, abusers lose their support systems — and the complicity of others is a major tool used by abusers.
But ideal bystander behavior involves not just intervening to stop an assault at the last moment, it also involves saying something when another person makes a remark that supports violence. It involves pushing back when one makes a statement indicating their willingness to take advantage of another person’s vulnerability or indicating that they don’t see their partner as an equal worthy of respect. And as Kate Harding so aptly put it years ago, it involves speaking up against “jokes” that promote IPV and sexual violence and not making them oneself, not only because these same “jokes” may traumatize victims, but also because abusers are everywhere. And when you make one of those jokes or laugh at them, the abuser thinks you’re on their side.
While essential for everyone to do whenever they feel they safely can, this is especially important for the large majority of men who are not abusive. Because while education is necessary, the fact is that to a lot of abusers, we can spout statistics until we’re blue in the face. The inclination to justify one’s own bad behavior is a strong one. And the fact is, statistics are routinely incredibly unpersuasive to a person whose life experience tells them something dramatically different. Statistics won’t do much at all unless the same men who abusers are out there seeking support from back those statistics up with their own actions and responses. They won’t do much until non-abusive men ally themselves with women and social justice instead of with abusive men and the “all in good fun” excuse. They won’t do much until non-abusive men stop using misogyny as a marker of manhood and masculinity, and until they stop viewing it as a means to bond with other men rather than as a way to actively hurt women.
I would hope that the vast majority of male readers here are here because they know this already, and are already behaving accordingly whenever they safely can. We need to make sure that other men start, and include in preventive education not only statistics about how relatively few men abuse, but also information about how important it is to denounce all tolerance for abuse whenever and wherever it is found.
The beauty is that even if further research showed this tactic had no effect whatsoever on abusers’ behavior, successful implementation would undoubtedly improve women’s lives all the same — even if it meant nothing more than an increased ability to be around friends with lesser fear of hearing words that will hurt and reduce one’s humanity, nothing more than making the terrible bargain just a little bit smaller part of our lives.