Male family brutality

A couple of months ago, I wrote a bit about masculinity and domestic violence. The issue has remained very live in my mind, and I have a few more somewhat fragmentary thoughts I want to record here:

1) Language matters. “Domestic violence” is a terrible way to characterize male family brutality. “Violence” is a part of everyday life. It’s in video games, on the playground. But “violence” misses an essential aspect of male family brutality: power. Men beating women or children aren’t engaging in violence. They are engaged in brutality, sadism. When I play with my son, we often play violently. Using the same word to describe what happens when a husband routinely, systematically, terrorizes his wife and children with beatings and rape and threats is worse than inaccurate. “Bullying” is closer, but its association with the schoolyard makes it sound quaint. This is why I think “male family brutality” (or maybe even “soul assault”) is a better way to think of the problem.

2) We have no societal way of engaging. Patrick Stewart, who grew up with a dad who, suffering from post-traumatic stress, beat his mom, said in the recent video (which is powerful and moving) below that he supports “refuge for [his] mother and combat stress for [his] father, in equal measure.” And Jackson Katz, an inspiring leader on the subject of male family brutality, articulately seeks to drive cultural changes in the conception and construction of masculinity. I’m struck, though, by how poorly we conceptualize this problem.


We think of male brutality as we should think about drugs: if only we could get women to stop having relationships with men who beat them, we think, then there would be no woman-beating. As if woman-beating were a product for which there’s an unfortunately nearly infinite demand, and the only trick is to cause the demand for it to dry up. Then, we tell ourselves, men will stop beating women.

But beatings aren’t a commodity.

Male family brutality is a disease, a public health problem. When a man beats a woman or child, it is because he is sick, and he needs treatment. When a family has brutality in it, it becomes a little breeding ground for the next generation of brutality, and it needs treatment. When a culture has family brutality, the whole culture becomes an engine for the reproduction of family brutality.

This is a field about which I truly know next to nothing. I don’t presume to know more than the experts who are working to help women trapped in, or choosing, abusive relationships, or than those who are thinking systemically about how to re-think masculinity, or who treat abusers.

But Patrick Stewart’s video seems about right to me: he manages to see that his father was brutal because he was sick. And the way to stop that particular form of brutality is to become adept at treating the sickness of which it is a symptom.

A last thought: the only weapon I know how to use is that of compassion. My impulse is to seek out those who beat women and children and love them, and get to know them, to understand them. I believe love and compassion are transformative. This isn’t some sort of soppy (or Christian) pitch to love the sinner and hate the sin. Rather, it’s to say that I know firsthand that monsters are people too, and that evil actions almost always are born of pain. It’s a pragmatic, tactical view, that the best thing to do when actions are harmful isn’t to treat the consequences of those actions, but to treat the causes.

Of course, there’s an assumption in what I’m saying: that the disease of brutality is treatable, that compassion could, would have an impact. I believe so almost as an article of faith. But I’m sure there’s been research done and people with both experience and intelligence greater than mine know the answer.


    1. I’m not usually disrespectful, but… that’s just bullshit. I’m sorry.

      Men are responsible for the vast majority of violence in the world. This is true at a state level and a personal level. I’m not saying anything about our respective intrinsic natures – women may well be as inclined to violence toward men (Margaret Thatcher certainly was a bellicose prime minister; I don’t expect the second President Clinton to be LESS warmongering than her husband). But if they are, they are, generally, restrained by their lesser power.

      It’s worse than blind to assert that women are “just as violent as men.” It affirmatively resists reality and raises the already-high bar on solving the problem presented by male brutality.

      As men, we have a responsibility to own our behavior. Blithe assertions like the one you made are really damaging.

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