That’s men: A slap in the face is more than a cliché
Men are not immune to suffering, and the reality of physical abuse goes far beyond gendered stereotypes
Watching a soap recently in which a female character slapped a man hard across the face to express her disapproval, I wondered how this lazy old stereotypical bullshit has managed to survive.
It serves as a useful dramatic device to underline tension, no doubt, though it’s so common that most viewers, I imagine, see it coming from some way off.
The male character typically looks physically unhurt and suitably told off. By and large, he does not then slap the woman hard across the face.
It all comes down to the lulling effect of stereotypes. At its most extreme, the stereotype suggests that men are big and strong and women are small and physically weak and that a woman slapping a man isn’t really going to do any harm. Women are emotional creatures and this is how they express themselves when men’s behaviour pushes them too far. And because men don’t really have emotions, slapping them like this doesn’t really leave them feeling devastated or humiliated. So the stereotype goes.
Maybe I move in the wrong circles but I have never seen the woman- slaps-man cliché happen in real life. I expect that when it does happen, though, the effect is one of shock and humiliation. And if it’s witnessed by children, then the effect on them can only be profound. The same, of course, is true of a man slapping a woman, except that the slap by the man will be seen as the more abusive act.
Stereotypes span drama and real life. According to Dr Jessica McCarrick of Teeside University, writing in the Psychologist, among a large sample of people “acts were more likely to be perceived as abusive if they were executed by men”.
She notes that this bias can also be found among psychologists “with a husband’s behaviour being judged as more psychologically abusive and severe than the wife’s use of the same actions”.
Violence in the home
But, McCarrick notes, when Pizzey stated in a lecture that 62 per cent of the women who came to her shelters were as violent as the men they lived with, she was condemned. “Indeed, the notion that women could also be perpetrators was so controversial that early researchers discussing this received death threats,” McCarrick writes.
An effect of this stereotyping is to make men less willing to come forward to say they have been physically abused by women. They too are influenced by the stereotype and can experience their own sense of humiliation in coming forward, for example, to their doctor or to the Garda. As a result, recognition of this problem has suffered and so female violence can be used as a dramatic device without raising anybody’s blood pressure.
I think that abused women also feel a sense of stigma in coming forward: it’s humiliating to walk into a hospital or a Garda station and to reveal that this is happening to you in your life. I suspect that this alone discourages many women from seeking help.
For men, though, the humiliation is greater: contradicting the stereotypes of your gender, for example that you should not let yourself be beaten by a woman, is no easy thing.
It is true that men can do a lot more physical damage to women than women can to men, though some research suggests that women are slightly more likely than men to be physically aggressive.
What matters is that the violence of both genders be recognised, and that all targets of domestic violence be protected as a matter of public policy. Men who are subject to domestic violence can get support from Amen; see amen.ie. Women experiencing intimate partner violence can get support from a number of organisations, of which the best known is Irish Women’s Aid at womensaid.ie.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness on the Go. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email. Muiris Houston is on page 4