Bobbitt: Blaming the Victim

by Bert H. Hoff

(This article appeared in the March, 1994 issue of M.E.N. Magazine)

An abusive man is informed in counseling that there is no excuse for using violence against his spouse or lover, even if she has been violent. When he says, "She drove me to it," he is informed he is blaming the victim. There is no excuse for violence, and there are always alternatives.

The recent coverage of the Bobbitt trial seems to overlook an important point. John Bobbitt is a victim of a particularly heinous crime. Lorena Bobbitt was not exonerated. The jury found her "not guilty by reason of insanity," a verdict perhaps better phrased as "guilty but insane." She did the crime, but doesnít do the time, because she cannot be held responsible for her actions.

I can hear the outraged cries, "He abused her!" Thatís blaming the victim. Thereís always an alternative to violence. As one of Lorena Bobbittís closest friends said after the trial, "She encourages you to reach out, talk to somebody today." But thereís no help for violent women, or for abused men, because we have a myth that women are not violent.

Thatís simply not true. As Dr. Suzanne Steinmetz, director of the Indiana University/Purdue Family Research Institute found, husbands and wives are about equally as violent. This was confirmed in the 1985 National Family Violence Survey.

Why donít men report violence against them? First, he knows he may be laughed at. He must be a wimp to "let" a woman do that. Second, people say, "Well, he must have done something!" Both of these reactions are blaming the victim.

Cathy Lever, administrator of a counseling service for violent men in England, states, "We say there are always alternatives. He has to take sole responsibility for the violence. Thereís no excuse." She continues, "When I argue with my fiancť, Iíve slapped him round the face because I didnít like what he was saying." Thatís different. Men are so much more powerful that women.

Not when heís asleep and she has a knife. Not when she throws a heavy object at him.

Jerry Medol of Alternatives to Anger in Kansas City says that domestic violence is a dance involving both partners. Professor Steinmetz agrees, holding up Indianapolis as a model. "They have consolidated all domestic violence-related agencies under one agency. They donít look at the problem as battered women, abused children, elder abuse. They view it as a family problem and provide services to the entire family. Itís a more comprehensive approach that is much more likely to reduce family violence."

But this is an unpopular view. When psychologist Gary Sall suggested this approach for sexual abuse the Washington State Examining Board of Psychology ordered him to undergo an invasive eight-hour psychological examination on the grounds that he may be mentally impaired. When he refused, his license was suspended. A court later awarded him $100,000, but it may be a long time before a Washington psychologist suggests this approach again.

Some women deny --sometimes in violent terms--that women are violent. After Professor Steinmetz published "The Battered Husband Syndrome" in Victimology she received threatening phone calls from women saying, "If you donít stop talking about battered men, somethingís going to happen to your children and it wonít be safe for you to go out."

Why the denial that women may also be violent? Possibly, because millions of dollars in funding for womenís shelters are at stake. Erin Pizzey founded a refuge in London for women too aggressive or disturbed for other shelters. "There are as many violent women as men," she says, "but it isnít a politically good idea to threaten the huge budgets for womenís refuges by saying that some of the women who go into them arenít total victims."

Blaming the male victim and denying womenís violence is demeaning to women. Professor Steinmetz points out that "by ignoring or devaluing womenís violence toward men, we are saying to women that it doesnít matter what they do." Maybe women are the weaker sex. Maybe women, like children, canít be held accountable for their actions. This seems to be the message being delivered by women who view dismemberment or a burning bed as justifiable. Authors like Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe point out that this suggests that women are weak, in need of protection, and not to be held responsible. They say that this message is insulting to women.

More important, the myth that women are not violent prevents us from offering help, compassion and healing to women that are violent, or to men and women caught up together in a deadly dance of violence.

Bert H. Hoff is editor of Seattle M.E.N. Magazine, emerging as a national voice on menís issues. This article draws in part on Jack Kammer, Good Will Toward Men (St. Martinís, due Feb. 1994) and David Thomas, Men Are Not Guilty (Morrow, 1993). The views are the authorís, and do not necessarily reflect those of Seattle M.E.N.

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