What's so funny about abusive girlfriends?

News about women's role in domestic violence inspires comedy, as well as cries in defense of men.

Published October 25, 2007 8:51PM (EDT)

Buzzfeed has a page on "abusive girlfriends" that I made the mistake of diving into, and now the stench of "slutbags popping wimps" is all over me. But seriously, the page of links to all things abusive and female offers a strangely profound view into the problem of abusive women and our culture's multilayered response to the issue.

On the surface are the most obvious facts and feelings that nobody disputes. Women do abuse men and violence is wrong. But beyond this, the research poses as many questions as answers. A study of relationship violence published in the American Journal of Public Health last May found that among adults between 18 and 28, women were responsible for instigating 71 percent of the violence in relationships with non-reciprocal-partner violence. (The guy doesn't hit back.) This flies in the face of research that supports societal assumptions about men perpetrating more domestic violence than women. According to a 2000 study from the National Institute of Justice titled "Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence," nearly 25 percent of women -- compared with 7.5 percent men -- reported having been a victim of partner violence, suggesting that women experience an estimated 4.9 million intimate partner rapes and physical assaults annually as compared with American men, who suffer approximately 2.9 million partner assaults. This study also found that violence against women more often leads to injuries, supporting previous data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Survey, which found that women are seven to 10 times more likely to be injured than men in partner assaults.

How to account for the difference? Some have suggested that the 71 percent factoid points toward increasingly violent tendencies among young American women. Others have suggested that it's a matter of some men feeling too inhibited to report honestly about being victims of domestic violence. Whatever the case, the field has been awash in unproved factoids for decades, and it'll take more research to quell the debate.

Beyond (below?) the search for statistics are the pundits who use (and abuse) study sound bites to beat their political horses. Recently, the combined bonanza of Amy Winehouse's public battering of her husband and the 71 percent finding has unleashed new war cries in the defense of men and the defamation of feminism. But it's from the message boards and video clips that emerges another weirder and far more discomfiting picture of female violence: It's entertainment!

One clip allegedly showing a woman beating up her boyfriend after he tried to hit her, complete with snickering in the background, children watching and the woman shouting "fight back!" has an almost campy quality, as if the couple were hoping they would end up on "Sally Jessy Raphael" to talk about their problems. At one point the little girl asks the woman (her mother?) about a broken toy. "Please don't ask me about that at this point in time," the woman answers. Another Buzzfeed link leads to a "humorous" (fictional) skit about a woman beating her boyfriend. Jezebel's post reporting on the ass-whupping acts of their female staff prompted two months of similarly jocular confessions from women who have smacked down their boyfriends, and similarly unfazed tales by boyfriends who had been assaulted by their girlfriends -- some of them admitting they found it funny or that they actually "deserved" it.

Yeah, intimate relationships do get ugly sometimes, but these stories about "douche bags" and "bitches" had me wondering why women behaving violently against men strikes so many people as funny. Is it because women have so little power -- like laughing at a younger sibling flailing away at an older one? Or is it the last place where both the victim and the perpetrator have a stake in believing it's just not that bad?

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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