The release of the video of Ray Rice knocking out his then-girlfriend Janay Palmer in an elevator was notable mainly because it decimated all attempts by the NFL, the Ravens, and Ray Rice apologists to argue that Palmer and Rice shared the blame. But some are bravely forging ahead, pushing the claim that men are the real victims here and suggesting there's no reason to think there's any sort of gendered component to domestic violence.
"Some might even say, watching that video, that Ray Rice is the bigger victim of domestic violence here," A.J. Delgado, a National Review writer, said on Sean Hannity's radio show earlier this week, even though Hannity—usually a dependable anti-feminist—pointed out, mere moments before, that Rice could have killed Palmer with that blow to the head.
On Hannity's Fox News TV show, contributor Tamara Holder also pushed the line that Ray Rice is the real victim here. "I think it’s interesting that the anti-testicular police are coming out and just taking this guy’s balls and ripping them off and not paying attention to the fact that there is a family here,” she argued. “That there were decisions to be made behind closed doors. That also, Miss Rice, formerly Miss Palmer, she played a role in it."
On another Fox News show, Outnumbered, male guest David Webb also flirted with drawing a false equivalence. "Violence, frankly, between men and women shouldn't happen in either direction," he said. "Not everyone in the NFL, there's a lot of good guys in the NFL. Most of them don't go out and beat their wives—or, frankly, to the wives out there or girlfriends, don't hit your husbands." When host Kennedy pointed out that most victims of domestic violence are women, Webb insisted on talking about it as if it was a gender-neutral topic.
The reason Ray Rice nearly got away with a light punishment in the first place is because he drew this same false equivalence between the teeny swat Palmer tossed at him during their fight and the knockout punch he gave her in the elevator. It is true that plenty of women hit men. But, as this situation has demonstrated, there's a real problem with simply counting up the times people touch each other in anger, and calling it even. No one should hit anyone, but we shouldn't let that understanding obscure the massive difference between a smaller, weaker person pushing a bigger, stronger person during an argument and the systemic campaign of abuse and control that so often marks male violence against women.
The National Institute of Justice has an excellent one-pager explaining the difference. While "National Family Violence Survey (NFVS) found nearly equal rates of assault" the site reads, "collecting various types of counts from men and women does not yield an accurate understanding of battering and serious injury occurring from intimate partner violence." Focusing on the strict number of pushes and swats "does not measure control, coercion, or the motives for conflict tactics; it also leaves out sexual assault and violence by ex-spouses or partners and does not determine who initiated the violence."
If you take a more holistic approach, it becomes crystal clear that domestic violence is very much a male problem. "A review of the research found that violence is instrumental in maintaining control and that more than 90 percent of 'systematic, persistent, and injurious' violence is perpetrated by men," the National Institute of Justice concludes.
On Thursday's episode of Slate’s The Gist, former prosecutor Christopher Mallios of AEquitas, a prosecutor's resource on violence against women, explained to host Mike Pesca how common it is for victims of domestic violence to hit or push in ways that get recorded by crime statistics, but should not be understood in the same way as serious domestic violence. "Many victims of domestic violence use violence against their abuser to either fight back, retaliate, protect themselves, sometimes in anticipation of violence when they know what’s coming because of a certain look or the use of certain words," he argued. "They immediately start getting into a defensive mode and actually use violence themselves."
It’s worth listening to the whole interview, but here’s one especially relevant clip:
Asked by Pesca why both Rice and Palmer were charged in the incident, Mallios explained:
We always caution police officers not to make dual arrests. It’s a big mistake, because it’s their job to determine who is the predominant aggressor. And that predominant aggressor analysis is so important for the first responders to do. It’s difficult to do after the fact, it’s difficult for prosecutors to do. But if someone is the victim of a crime, if someone’s a victim of battering, ongoing, systematic abuse and control, and now they’re beaten again and they use violence against their abuser, and they are turned into a defendant in a criminal case, that’s almost like using the criminal justice system to re-victimize that victim. It should never happen.
But it does, and perhaps part of why it does is because of this belief that all hitting is the same. We know from the Janay Palmer/Ray Rice incident that it is not. She swats at him while trying to walk away. He follows her, beats her down, acts shockingly cold-blooded as he man-handles her unconscious body and ignores her distressed crying when she comes to. There's just no equivalence there, unless you're a commentator actively trying to distract people from the realities of domestic violence.
Because of this vast gulf in male and female experiences of domestic violence, unsurprisingly the impact also varies dramatically. On Tuesday, Catherine Cloutier of the Boston Globe published an examination of how much more seriously women's lives are impacted by intimate partner violence. The CDC surveyed around 14,000 people to determine the impact of domestic violence on their lives. Men and women were somewhat similar in rates of having endured some kind of assault, at 27.5 percent for men and 29.7 percent for women. But looking beyond counting individual touches, a different picture emerges. Twenty-four percent of female victims report feeling fearful, compared to 7 percent of men. One in five female victims suffer from PTSD symptoms, whereas only 1 in 20 male victims do. Only 3 percent of male victims suffer physical injury, but over 13 percent of female victims do. Twice as many female victims as male victims missed work because of domestic violence.
The disparity is likely the result of male abuse simply being way more violent and chronic than female abuse. Asking people if they've been hit once is relevant, of course, but in measuring the realities of domestic violence, the more important question is if you're being hit frequently, being terrorized by violence on a regular basis, being stalked and controlled, or being threatened with your life if you try to leave. Yes, no one should hit anyone else. But that statement is the beginning of the conversation about the problem of domestic violence, not the end of it.