Gender Bias in Domestic Violence Treatment

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The oldest
battered women’s shelter in New England, established in 1975, is
setting precedent and making many feminists nervous in the process.

Transition
House
not only launched a “gender-neutral” search for a new
executive director but also appointed a man as its interim director.
Transition House explains that it simply wants to hire the best
person for the job, and interviewing men doubles the chance of success.

Feminists of
my ilk, who judge individuals on merit rather than gender, are applauding.
(Admittedly, a muttered “it’s about time!” may also be heard.)

Feminists who
believe that gender must be a deciding factor in who addresses domestic
violence and how it should be addressed, are appalled. They view
the very prospect of hiring a male director as violating the “mission”
of the shelter movement: to assist battered women and children.

In short, the
“women-only feminists” believe males should be precluded from major
employment and entry at shelters. Indeed, women’s shelters often
deny entry to male children over 12 years old. (The legality of
doing so at tax-funded shelters is dubious, to say the least.)

Why should
even male teenagers be excluded? In a protest letter to the Transition
House Board, the feminist organization About Women explained
that the shelter must be a space where “women could feel safe from
male intrusion and could openly unburden themselves of the experiences
of male violence they had undergone without fear of censure, criticism
or inhibition by male presence.”

One interpretation
of the foregoing statement makes sense. Some female domestic violence
victims have been so brutalized by the men in their lives that a
mere male presence may well terrify them. For that category of domestic
violence victim, a women-only shelter may be the most compassionate
and effective option.

(Men-only shelters
for similarly devastated male victims would be equally valid.)

Nevertheless,
it is difficult to understand why a male executive director who
may have no direct interaction with battered women is so objectionable.
To understand this response, it is necessary to enter the realm
of ideology.

The argument
for a women-only space is rooted in a belief that domestic violence
results from the general societal oppression of women as a class
by men as a class.

The “Power
and Control Wheel”
that is used by every domestic violence organization
I know of embodies this belief. The wheel explains the origins of
domestic violence through a pie chart; one of the pie segments is
labeled “Male Privilege.”

In short, women-only
feminists argue that women are battered not merely by an individual
male abuser but by the entire male gender and, so, they must be
protected from both.

This is similar
to claiming that a white person who has been beaten by a black needs
to be in a black-free environment because they have been battered
not merely by a specific black person but by an entire race.

To carry the
analogy one step farther, it is similar to demanding that blacks
should not be employed or allowed on the premises of a whites-only
shelter…even if those premises are tax-funded and, so, prohibited
from discrimination.

The ideological
argument for women-only shelters – as opposed to the practical
argument that, sometimes, such shelters just make sense – is class
guilt. The guilty class is “male.” Class guilt does not allow an
individual male to demonstrate his innocence because, simply by
being a member of a class, he is guilty by definition.

The concept
of class guilt never ceases to anger me. As a victim of domestic
violence, I know the fist that legally blinded my right eye was
wielded by a specific man, not by a class. And I refuse to dilute
his responsibility by extending it to men who’ve done me no harm.

It angers me
as well because I’m the sort of domestic violence victim who needed
exposure to non-abusive men, not isolation from all male presence,
in order to heal. I needed to realize that decent caring men still
existed and that I could interact with them in a positive way. In
other words, a specific man was my problem; men as a whole were
part of the solution.

As I mentioned,
there are domestic violence victims who do not share my reaction.

It would be
amazing if hundreds of thousands of people – from different cultures,
lifestyles and backgrounds – responded to a complex experience
in exactly the same manner. Just as there is no one explanation
for domestic violence, neither is there a one-size-fits-all remedy.

But the ideological
women-only argument for domestic violence shelters is inflexible.
It denies to female victims the healing presence of benevolent men
with whom they can re-establish trust.

It denies the
very possibility of male and female victims occupying the same shelter
and, so, coming to an understanding of their differences and shared
realities. Such mingling of the sexes is common in other forms of
therapy and rehabilitation but it is akin to heresy to even suggest
the prospect for domestic violence.

In short, women-only
zealots dismiss the feminist goal of ‘diversity’ and insist instead
upon only one explanation for domestic violence and only one organizational
principle for shelters.

Women-only
zealots are hurting victims. They are harming those battered women
who would benefit from learning how to regain their trust and respect
for male. They are harming the significant percentage of domestic
violence victims who are male themselves.

Estimates vary
on the prevalence of male domestic violence victims. Professor Martin
Fiebert of California State University at Long Beach prepared
a summary
of hundreds of studies and reports which indicates
that men and women are victimized at much the same rate. A recent
BOJ study found that men constituted 27 percent of domestic violence
victims between 1998 and 2002.

Whichever figure
is correct, a significant percentage of domestic violence victims
are refused admission to most shelters in North America based solely
upon their gender.

The anti-male
prejudice in domestic violence must cease.

The deadline
for Transition House’s job search is August 30, which means there
may be a new executive director as you read this column. Whether
it is a ‘he’ or ‘she’ is secondary. What matters most is that the
individual will have been judged upon his or her merits and no longer
upon genitalia.

September
1, 2005

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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