Being a Male Victim of Domestic Violence: Like Having No Genitals?

by Cara on March 30, 2010

in Europe, International, media, misogyny, patriarchy, trans, transphobia and trans misogyny, violence against women and girls

In the UK, the National Centre for Domestic Violence has launched a new campaign focusing on men who are the victims of domestic violence. Sounds great, right? The fact that, while women are mostly the victims of intimate partner violence, they are not the only victims of intimate partner violence, is still an issue not discussed very frequently in mainstream culture, so increased visibility for the issue is certainly a good thing.

The problem is, I’m not so sure about the way they’re approaching the campaign. Ideally, I’d love for you to see the image on your own without my prior description, but it could be considered not safe for work. For that reason, I’m placing it below the jump, and am reproducing this description for you to make a call about whether to click through or scroll down:

The campaign, created by JWT London, focuses on the embarrassment experienced by men who often feel too ashamed to report the abuse they have suffered.

This is shown through a provocative image of an emasculated man who appears to have no genitalia.

The image, which was shot by renowned photographer Nadav Kander, is accompanied by the headline ‘We know how it feels to be a victim of male domestic violence’, and directs sufferers to the centre’s website.

The new campaign has been launched following research showing that approximately four million men are affected by domestic violence each year.

Dr Steve Connor, chief executive of the NCDV, said: “As a man, it can be difficult to admit that you are being abused, and many men may feel ashamed, embarrassed or worried that they may be considered less of a man by speaking out against their abusers.

Now, the image itself:

A pale, nude white man stands against a white background. His pubic area is hairless, and he appears to have no genitalia. Text on poster reproduced in post.

The text on the poster reads: We know how it feels to be a male victim of domestic violence. As a man, telling somebody that your partner is abusing you is difficult. You might feel ashamed, embarrassed, or worried you’ll be viewed as less of a man. But for all victims of domestic abuse, the advice is the same, you are not alone and there is help available.

The campaign doesn’t quite sit right with me for numerous reasons, and I want to explore the several ways I’ve tried looking at this ad below.

My immediate, unfiltered thoughts upon viewing this image with no prior description of it went like this: “that’s a man with a vulva. So, being a male victim of domestic violence is … like being a trans man, WHAT?

Of course, I then read the accompanying article, and saw the man described as having “no genitals.” I looked more closely and saw that what is actually just a shadow my brain had initially interpreted as labia, likely because labia are not only presented to us in popular culture as very small and hairless, but also because it is ingrained in our culture that if one does not have a penis, one must have a vulva instead.

Certainly, this initial reaction reveals some of my own implicit and subconscious biases. There is no way around that. But I also find it very difficult to believe that — in a world where vulvae are now pretty much always represented as hairless and tiny, where “vagina” is seen as the opposite of “penis,” where everyone is always assumed to have at least and only one of those body parts, and where a penis has been historically construed as something while a vulva has been construed as a lack of something — I am the only one who has subconsciously absorbed those biases and will, casually glancing at this ad as they pass by, see a man with a vulva. Of course, since trans* bodies are regularly treated as nonexistent, and since one’s genitals are regularly treated as indicative of one’s sex and gender, most of those people wouldn’t interpret the image as being of a trans man, but as being of “a man that’s actually a woman.”

Obviously, that interpretation would be incredibly transphobic. Since the image is supposed to represent how a male victim of domestic violence feels, that interpretation would also create the incredibly misogynistic message that being a male victim of domestic violence is like being a woman.

But let’s put my careless first glance at the image aside, and assume that everyone will see the man and perceive him seemingly as intended — not has having a vulva, but as having no genitals. Where does that leave us?

Again, in a cissexist world where men are always assumed to have penises, most aren’t going to truly see a man with no genitalia as “a man with no genitals,” but rather as “a man with no penis.”  (Indeed, this article has been posted to Twitter numerous times as “If you’re a domestically abused male, you may not have a penis.”) This still retains the transphobic and gender essentialist idea that a penis equals manhood, even though plenty of men, including some trans men, intersex men, cancer surviving men, and more, do not have penises (or what most people narrowly consider to be a penis) and are still men. And again, when a vulva is still frequently interpreted culturally as the lack of a penis (and vulvae are associated with womanhood), the misogynistic message isn’t so far off, either.

Looking away from the actual genitals or lack thereof, what the image is supposed to symbolize is also problematic. The man’s lack of genitals is supposed to represent his emasculation. In addition to the transphobic elements of this message listed above, the message is further disturbing in how closely society links emasculation with femininity. I hope we can all agree that gender is important to most people, and no one should be degendered or have their gender identity denied, regardless of whether they are trans* or cis.  But when masculinity and femininity are routinely (and falsely) presented as the only two gender options, it’s understood that an “emasculated” man is feminine, and a “defeminized” woman is masculine.

And so, again, the message remains that being a male victim of domestic violence is an awful lot like being forcibly feminized. And being a feminized man is an awful lot like being a woman.

But finally, let us for a moment, close our eyes and pretend that social constructions of masculinity and femininity are not connected. Let us pretend further that our culture does not interpret “less of a man” to mean “more of a woman.” And let us also pretend that depictions of penises and manhood as inextricably linked are not transphobic. I know, it’s difficult and kind of ridiculous. But just for a moment.

Forgetting all of those problems, let us just talk about how the targets of this ad — presumably cis men — are likely to view it. While never supporting help for some at the expense of active harm to more marginalized people, the real question here is: Is this ad is helpful?

I’m not a cis man, and I’m not a male victim of domestic violence. So I can only make a rough and quite possibly inaccurate guess as to how those men may feel. That guess is that on the one hand, they would be happy — as am I — to see some visibility for the issue of men who are abused by their partners. On the other hand, is it likely to cause them to get help? Are they likely to see the image and think “yes, I feel emasculated, these people get me, I’m going to call them for assistance, or at least think about it”? Or are they going to see a reinforcement of the idea that being a victim of domestic abuse makes them less of a man, and feel ashamed and to blame for their own abuse all over again?

I don’t know. I really don’t. But my gut feeling is that the latter is more likely. Because I know that as a woman who has been in an abusive relationship, I wouldn’t react positively to an ad that told me I felt a little bit like this image, a pathetic doormat who has been dominated by a man. That ad would strike me as insulting, likely to produce more victim-blaming laughs than sympathetic understanding, and wholly irresponsible. So at the moment, I find it hard to view this ad incredibly differently.

But I really want to know what you think — especially the guys, both trans and cis, though of course both trans and cis ladies, and those who identify as neither guy nor lady, are more than welcome to weigh in. How did your brain initially interpret this image? What ideas about gender, sex, and violence did that interpretation bring to mind? How do you think that men who are victims or have been victims of domestic violence will respond to it? If you are a man who is in or has been in an abusive relationship, how did you respond? If you’re a woman who is in or has been in an abusive relationship, how did you respond? As long as they’re expressed respectfully and in a way that neither reinforces nor discounts other forms of oppression, I’m really interested in hearing all of your views.

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{ 16 comments }

1 Danny March 30, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Well after thinking about it for a few minutes it seems to me that while I’m sure the makers of this ad were trying to say, “We understand that there are men out there that are abused and feel that because they are men they somehow deserve it and/or that they are less of a man because they were abused. We want those men to know there is help for them.”, I too am not sure that all male victims will see it that way.

I think the problem is that they went with the “penis and testicles = man” approach which doesn’t work because as stated there is more to being a man than his reproductive system. Meaning this approach is very limiting. I can imagine reactions to this ranging from non-inclusive to anti-male (even misandrist) which can in turn lead to, “Well even though I didn’t have a penis and testicles I can kinda relate to what’s happening so maybe I can get help there.” to “That’s just how I feel. Finally a place I can go to.” to “That’s image does not represent my manhood. Should I even try to get help there?”

2 seandehey March 30, 2010 at 11:47 pm

it’s a pretty weak ad. anything dealing with abused women always jumps to a woman with a black eye. here, it’s not even a wound, it’s just this strange absence. no bruises, no wounds. he doesn’t look scared, he looks /angry/.

i’m less concerned with how this will be seen by men who need the help the ad is trying to offer them, than with misogynist asshats who’ll see this and think they’re in good company.

it doesn’t say ‘this guy is being physically abused’ as much as it says ‘is your nagging bitch of a girlfriend breaking /your/ balls? we can help.’

3 F March 31, 2010 at 9:00 pm

I think it’s strange that the advertisers believe that the best visual expression of abuse against men is emasculation. As seandehey mentioned, abuse against women is most often portrayed as a black eye or a wound.

The ad strikes me as belittling the experience of the very people they are trying to reach out to. Since all sorts of non-abuse related behaviors are regularly labeled as ‘emasculating’ (child-care, wearing pink, being a stay at home parent), what exactly is the message here.

I’m just confused as to why they decided to say “abuse is like being emasculated” instead of “abuse is like being abused”.

4 Lyndsay March 31, 2010 at 11:37 pm

I can’t help but see it as a man with no genitals and that represents him not feeling like a man. However, I saw the title of this post before I saw the picture so I don’t know how I would’ve perceived it if I had seen it first.

“Or are they going to see a reinforcement of the idea that being a victim of domestic abuse makes them less of a man, and feel ashamed and to blame for their own abuse all over again?”

I agree this is more likely. I see what the people who made the poster are trying to do but I don’t think it works. It’s like saying, you can’t hide it, we know you feel like less of a man.

5 Rapheala April 1, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Seems to me like the message is that male victims of domestic violence are made to feel really really bad. As bad as being a woman.

Sort of like when you insult an athlete by saying he plays like a pus***.

What is the worst thing that can happen to someone — apparently to be female.

6 anon April 1, 2010 at 1:58 pm

If I had an ad that said that women who are raped can be made to feel guilty, or less of a woman, and that we are here to encourage woman who are raped to step forward,

You would not be asking if the ad makes women who are raped feel guilty or less of a woman. You would be applauding the ad and encouraging women who have been raped to step forward.

What you are doing here is ignoring the issue. WOMEN BEAT MEN.

7 Douglas Moran April 1, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Actually, I think that before you embark on a long chain of reasoning like this, you might want to ask a few men how *they* feel about the ad. Your entire post is based upon suppositions, sometimes several piled on top of each other, leading you to a couple of questionable conclusions. I respectfully suggest you get some input from several men and revisit the post.

Just as a side note: I have quite a few gay and lesbian friends, been to gay and lesbian weddings, had gays and lesbians in my wedding party, have a bi-sexual sister, etc. etc. etc., and have never hear of (nor even thought about) the terms “transphobic” or “cis”. If a person who has more than a foot in the GLBT world (as much of one as a straight white married guy can have, really) hasn’t even heard of some of the terms you consistently use, perhaps you could consider defining your terms in your post, or have a link to a glossary, or use more accessible language, or some such? Just a suggestion, I assure you. (“Transphobic” is obvious, but “cis”? I can deduce it from context, but what the heck does it stand for?)

8 Cara April 1, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Douglas, first of all, I asked guys what they think! Right there, in the post! You’re more than welcome to share your thoughts, since I got it so wrong. Though, again, when there are plenty of misogynistic and transphobic implications in the ad, the thoughts of men are not the only ones that matter here. If those implications weren’t there, I would have in fact left any critiques up to the guys.

Secondly, being gay, lesbian, or bisexual does not guarantee that you are informed on trans issues! In fact, I’ve seen many trans people express that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are not really all that much more informed than straight people a lot of the time. And so being around gay, lesbian, and bisexual people does not necessarily ensure that you’re going to know about trans issues either. I’m glad that you’re concerned about reading comprehension of my readers, but I imagine that my regular readers would get rather annoyed if I consistently defined the same phrases over and over again in every single post that I write for the benefit of a few new readers (who, you admit, will understand what I mean through context anyway).

Hi, anon! I believe that I addressed in the post exactly how I would feel about a similar ad aimed at woman, as a woman who has been abused! If such an ad said that being abused can make you feel like “less of a woman,” I would frankly be confused! Because that’s not how I felt, and while I’m sure that other women may very well see it differently, in all of the female abuse victims I’ve spoken with, none have ever expressed that feeling either. But, it’s how the message is portrayed that I am interested in. As I said, an ad that showed a woman being used as a doormat would not win my approval. It’d win my serious concern and criticism. This ad doesn’t just say “men who are abused can be made to feel guilty and like less of a man, and we are here to encourage men who are abused to step forward.” It does so in a problematic way.

But you’re absolutely right that some women beat men. Though you seem to ignore that some men beat their male intimate partners, too. In any case, I said numerous times in the post that I was happy to have more awareness for the issue. But not all awareness is good awareness. If you’d like to search my archives, you’ll find numerous rather angry posts critiquing campaigns aimed at stopping sexual violence and domestic violence against women.

9 evie April 1, 2010 at 2:44 pm

@anon

If I saw an ad that had similar implications, and illustrated as graphically as this one does (e.g. showing a woman covered in muck to show feeling dirty) I would definitely ask if it might feeding those feelings in survivors, and creating that flavour of stigma in the minds of non-survivors.

Cara’s not ignoring the issue: she praises this attempt to raise awareness several times in the post. The main thrust (interesting social psychology explorations aside) is whether this works at helping abused men or not. Questioning how best to address the issue is the opposite of ignoring it.

10 emandink April 1, 2010 at 2:47 pm

I actually just posted about this today without having seen your post and my take is very similar – that the ad crosses the line from acknowledging the cultural misogyny that makes men feel like less of a man or specifically “womanly” for acknowledging abuse to reinforcing the same cultural assumptions; likewise, that it completely erases non-cis individuals.

11 anon April 1, 2010 at 10:04 pm

“I would frankly be confused! Because that’s not how I felt, and while I’m sure that other women may very well see it differently, in all of the female abuse victims I’ve spoken with, none have ever expressed that feeling either.”

Interesting. This may be a learning experience for us both. I do not know why women who have been raped or abused feel guilt or shame, or why that feeling of shame happens to men who have been raped or abused either, I know though that’s how it has been reported, and perhaps I made the glib assumption that men feel that shame as they feel emasculated, that is, a loss of manhood, and women feel similar with regards to any feelings of shame they have, regardless of how incorrect those feelings are.

I stand corrected that men do not feel emasculated by being abused, and that women who have been raped or abused do not feel a loss of their womanhood.

12 Van Carter April 2, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Cara,

As a heterosexual and cis male (I admit I looked the term up to be sure I understood the context) victim of sexual abuse (prolonged abuse by men as a young boy) I want to offer my perspective.

The ad was for me wholly accurate to the model of men in Anglo-American culture. Whether that cultural model is healthy or not is a clear question but I feel this depiction is spot on.

What I mean by this ad’s accuracy in depiction is that as a victim of sexual abuse who tried to tell people around me about what was going on, I was treated functionally as a feminized and emasculated male.

The role of the male as cultivated by our culture is that of the ‘actor’ in a sexual relationship. The male is modeled as the aggressor, the one in control and the initiator, the loss of control that abuse entails functions to feminize and emasculate as a result, per our culture.

So, seeing the ad, I became sympathetic. It evoked memories of abuse and the feelings that still linger in my psyche. That said, I think the emasculation is an unhealthy depiction because it functions to reinforce the feelings it wants the victim to reject. It also unquestionably conveys the message that a feminized male or one who is not fulfilling our cultural sexual model is a victim or at the least weak, which is negative.

Perhaps they should have just shown a man cringing or curled in a fetal position or with bruises that indicated abuse, reinforcing the sense of powerlessness but absent the layer of messages strengthening the connection between emasculation and victimhood.

Sorry if this rambled a bit, it was stream of consciousness.

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for linking to this ad originally and continuing to attend to the dialogue surrounding it.

13 Cara April 2, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Thanks so much for your perspective, Van.

14 Gomi April 5, 2010 at 6:11 pm

I would agree with Van Carter that this ad plays directly into the cultural perception, regardless of the healthiness of that perception.

As a man, the normative assumption of masculinity is as drilled into us from childhood, same as every other cultural assumption. The assumptive “action” of maleness is hit hard in situations of abuse. “Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?” “You let a girl beat you up?” “What are you? A pu**y?”

What’s interesting to me is the difference in portrayal in this ad versus female victims of abuse. As other comments already pointed out, most abuse prevention ads picture the *results* of abuse (black eyes, tears, etc), rather than the *impact* of abuse (feelings of helplessness, victimization, etc). I wonder if this is again a factor of “maleness?”

My wife got a black eye a year ago, hitting the edge of her cheekbone on the car door while climbing in. As a result, she was asked and approached fairly regularly with questions of abuse, even by people that know us (and know me, who I like to think is a very peaceful and harmless guy). However, if I had a black eye, I’m sure any comments would ask about sports (thrown elbow in a basketball game), or a bar fight or something.

The assumption of male injury is active participation. We, as men, *earn* our scars. “You should see the other guy!”

If the man in this photo had been shown injured, the viewer’s likely assumption wouldn’t have been “domestic abuse victim,” the way a woman with a black-eye is perceived.

Besides the troubling trans/cis implications of this ad, what could they have used? Frankly, any simple imagery of male victims runs into societal hurdles, I think. The fast impact needed in advertising like this, rather than in-depth textual explanation, is likely to always result in misunderstandings, until the reality of male domestic abuse is more accepted. It’s a Catch-22, I think: we “need” more abuse victims to more easily communicate the horror of abuse.

15 Gomi April 5, 2010 at 6:13 pm

I meant to say that the typical picturing of “abuse results” isn’t about societal bias, so much as ease of visual communication. It’s a lot easier to illustrate “abused” by showing injury and bruised eyes, than by showing the internal emotional destruction that abuse creates.

16 Groan April 8, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Sadley one of the commonist images of male in popular culture is injured men. Images of injured women are rightly seen as shocking and attract attention.Frankly a battered man would be one of many such images. This image is surprising and probably does express one feeling abused men have exressed to me. I think it also worth pointing out feeling emasculated in not the same at all as feeling feminised. All in all an attempt to raise a very hidden issue.

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