Last week the internet exploded with outrage over statements that ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith made around domestic violence and victim provocation. To reiterate what I said in my article, SAS isn’t THE problem. He’s just symptomatic of the deeper, more insidious lack of value for Black womanhood that exists in our culture and the media overall. He is also symptomatic of the ignorance that our society has on the dynamics of abusive relationships.
It was mentioned to me on several occasions that a larger conversation around domestic violence went unsaid in the midst of the hullaballoo around SAS, ESPN, the NFL, and Ray Rice. So, I’d like to use today’s piece to discuss one of the most frequent responses I received about my article:
“Women are abusive, too. What is a man supposed to do? Just take it?”
Well, to start, let’s look at the facts around male victims of domestic violence:
- One out of fourteen men will be physically assaulted at some point in their lives by a current or former partner.
- 835,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually.
- HOWEVER, the majority of intimate partner violence against men happens within same sex relationships rather than heterosexual ones.
- Women who commit lethal acts of violence against their male partners are 7-10 times more likely than men to be acting in self-defense.
So the short answer is yes, women can be abusive. Women can also be obsessed with controlling their partners through a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviors that may include physical violence. But the reality is that in a heterosexual relationship the majority of women tend to have less financial resources or physical power. Which is part of the reason why 85% of victims of domestic violence are women. This imbalance of power is what makes it difficult for her to be able to control her partner by using two of most powerful and tangible weapons wielded by an abuser: physical violence and economic control. There are women who are textbook physical abusers, but for the most part women don’t have the same ability to assert themselves physically as their male partner. Which means it is far less likely that a woman will be able to routinely cause serious bodily harm to her partner.
Both women and men can be verbally or emotionally abusive and I’m in no way shape or form minimizing its damaging effect. What I am saying is that saying “women are violent, too” is just another justification used to rationalize what our society believes is a man’s right to use physical violence to address what he deems are “provoking” behaviors by his partner. A right otherwise known as “male privilege.”
Male privilege is the belief that you’re entitled to social, economic, or political advantages simply because you’re a man. Male privilege is one of the natural outgrowths of a patriarchal society, of which America is one. Most people wouldn’t argue that in our country the predominate power dynamic is one in which men, particularly White men, hold the power and determine and direct how they choose to exercise it over classes of people or groups they consider subordinate. Everyone outside of their group falls into this catchall “subordinate” category.
One of the ways unjust and oppressive belief systems are perpetuated is through mass media, which consistently transmits messages about the lack of value of Black life, the superiority of White males, and the inferiority of women. When you combine all three messages together, you’ve got a synthesized larger message that Black women’s lives have less value because they are both female AND Black. This is why the media (which is coincidentally owned almost exclusively by White males) has no problem with the prevalence of the stereotypical and misogynistic imagery of Black women. Black women are routinely portrayed in the media as violent, loud, aggressive, gold digging Jezebels intent on destroying each other and the men in their lives. These images lead men who are either violent or predisposed to violent behavior towards women (and women who have internalized misogyny and racism) to justify the disproportionately high rates of abuse of Black women while simultaneously promoting the White male privilege agenda. Case in point, this lovely photo I found on Instagram:
Abusers are for the most part not born, they’re made. Domestic violence stems from how a person thinks, NOT how they feel. It is a problem of socialization. Men in our country are socialized from the time they are children to believe they are superior to women and that women should defer to male authority. This message of male privilege is passed on by men to each other, generation to generation, through their words about, actions towards and reactions to the women in their lives. This type of message transmission is the same thing that occurs between Whites who pass on a belief system of their inherent racial superiority from generation to generation. Same concept, different groups.
Going back to the original question stated at the beginning of my article, yes, people will provoke you. People will anger you to the point that you want to hit them. But people are also selective in how and with whom they respond to provocation. For example, if an old man were to spit on you (which is the alleged offense that caused Ray Rice to knock his fiancée out in the elevator), you would probably NOT punch him because you would assume he was sick or you didn’t want to hurt an old guy who obviously had some problems. If a homeless and mentally ill person were to spit on you on the street, you probably wouldn’t hit him or her. You’d call the police or walk away. If someone else’s child in a park were to spit on you, you’d probably go find his or her parents and let them deal with their child’s behavior. Why? Because that’s THEIR child and hence THEIR responsibility to discipline them.
If a person of equal size and strength were to spit on you and you were someone who believed in using physical violence against a perceived or actual threat to your safety or dignity, you’d probably clock them because the power balance would be equal. But there are far too many men in our society who would justify “defending” himself from “his woman” spitting on him by using physical violence in spite of the obvious lack of equal strength. Why? Because it’s what he’s been taught is his right and entitlement. And, as so many situations show, there will be no real consequences for his choice to use violence against a woman.
That’s right, I said it: If someone “provokes” you, you get to CHOOSE how you respond. Violence as a response to aggression can be controlled. There just need to be consequences harsh enough to motivate you to not respond with violence. One can choose a different way to respond to provocation, as was so beautifully illustrated in the use of non-violent civil disobedience in the movements against oppression by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. In both instances, there were economic and social gains to be won for all members of the oppressed and marginalized society, which is why there was unity between men and women in these movements. In the case of eliminating the acceptance of violence against women in our society, at this time there is no unity. Why? Partially because in a society governed by men, there aren’t enough perceived economic or social advantages to be gained. After all, why would the average man choose to give up his male privilege and all the entitlements that come with it? As the famous American Express ad says, “Membership has its privileges.”
The only way men will relinquish this damaging value system is when they realize that the women they love, their sisters, mothers, daughters, and aunties, are being destroyed by the very system they are born into and perpetuate every time they either abuse or blame a victim for her abuse. Fortunately, there are men who are fighting alongside us to create a more just and equitable society for women. If you’re a man who is interested in doing your part to end violence against women, please visit A CALL TO MEN’s website to learn how you can be a part of the solution.
Sil Lai Abrams is a writer, inspirational speaker, domestic violence activist, and author of ‘No More Drama.‘ She is also the founder of Truth in Reality, a media advocacy organization committed to changing the way Black women and interpersonal violence are portrayed on reality television. Follow her on Twitter at @Sil_Lai.