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:
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.