When men are battered

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While at dinner with friends, I noticed a nice-looking, well-dressed couple in the booth adjacent to ours. The conversation at our table, however, was interrupted by the hushed tones of a furious woman.

“You’re using the wrong fork, idiot! Daniel — why are you so damn stupid?!”

Our table could not believe what we’d just heard. But more than that, we all silently prepared for the loud and escalating argument we were certain was about to occur. Should it turn into an all-out shouting match, or even become a physical altercation, we knew we would have to pull the hulking black man away from his angry woman.

When men are abused

But what happened next shocked us even more: nothing. Daniel didn’t do or say a thing in response. Instead, he hung his head and slouched his shoulders, and then quietly picked up his salad fork.

The berating continued. She told Daniel to sit up straight and stop slumping like a punk. She insulted his clothes and his hair. She called him worthless, stupid, and a bum. Then she said, “You’re just sorry. Do you know how many men want to take me out? And you can’t even buy me an appetizer!”

What we witnessed was domestic abuse. The Office of Violence against Women at the Department of Justice defines this as, “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.” This includes emotional abuse that, “undermines an individual’s sense of self-worth,” such as “constant criticism and name-calling.”

Offering protection — to a man?

Recognizing this as abuse was easy. The harder part was determining what, if anything, we could do. This was further complicated by the fact that a woman was the perpetrator here. Three men – my friends and I – publicly confronting a woman for abusing her partner runs so counter to societal norms that it can be paralyzing when action is needed most.

From an early age, society conveys certain truisms about gender and abuse: men do not need protection from women; a group of men confronting a woman presents a threat to her safety and well-being; verbal abuse is not a significant event that warrants intervention. These perceptions are especially exaggerated in the black community where traditional gender roles, exacerbated by the influence of racism, take on a particular character.

It’s no secret that men can be victims of domestic abuse. But women are generally victims of it in much larger numbers. Statistics show that every nine seconds a woman in the U.S. is beaten or assaulted. It’s estimated that 23 percent of women have been abused by an intimate partner whereas only about 7 percent of men report such abuse.

In the black community, the numbers show domestic abuse is even higher – about 30 percent of black women and 12 percent of black men reported experiencing abuse from an intimate partner.

It was also recently found that black women are three times more likely to be killed by a partner or former partner than women of other groups.

Abused men: Ignored?

What is largely unknown by the general public, however, is the extent to which men are abused. Because of conceptions of masculinity, men often don’t report abuse when it occurs. Yet, in 2010, a national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Department of Justice found something startling: more men than women had been victims of intimate partner violence over the last 12 months. It also revealed that over 40 percent of men were the victims of severe physical violence from their partner.

In addition to the physical abuse, the study reports that more men than women were the victims of emotional mistreatment and psychological aggression

Despite this, the study notes, “few services are available to male victims of intimate partner violence.” This complicates the ability to intervene, especially in instances when the victim’s life or safety is not immediately at risk.

All of the research shows that intervention is a key aspect to prevent further abuse. But coming to the rescue of a man being verbally abused by his wife or girlfriend is rather taboo, especially in the black community. In fact, such an act could be seen as further emasculation –- both through the act of protecting him from a woman, as well through the intervening man being perceived as a threat to the abused man and the abusing woman.

If my friends and I had intervened, Daniel could very well have lashed out at us as an expression of the manhood that his abuser constantly assaulted, in an attempt to defend it from us and her.

Helping where one can

As we sat there feeling helpless, we quietly discussed among ourselves why this man would tolerate anyone talking to him this way. Then we overheard the abusive woman say, “Look, you better learn how to be a man. You got out of jail and you didn’t have anything! And I took you in, fed you, and gave you a place to stay. All I expect is for you to be a man, and you can’t even get that right.”

When the couple got up to leave, he looked completely broken. Though he was twice the size of his abusive companion, he appeared small and empty. He looked like this woman was his last option at stability and security – a common tactic abusers use.

As they walked by our table, my friend stood up, looked the man in the eye, and said, “Be strong, brother.”

Daniel nodded in acknowledgement, and left with his woman.

Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.