So here goes:
The invisible man riding the donkey backwards
Okay, someone sent me a link to an article in The Atlantic, called "What's Wrong with the Violence Against Women Act". Now I suppose I could pick apart the article, confirm many of its points, and examine what it leaves out of its analysis, but I didn't get further than the sub-heading, which reads as follows:
"A bill that was designed to rectify gender discrimination tips the balance too far, putting accused men at an unfair disadvantage."
There is so much wrong with that sentence, I don't even know where to start. Oh wait, actually I do.
The bill was never designed to rectify gender discrimination. It was designed to increase the gender discrimination that already existed. Believing that there was gender discrimination AGAINST women in domestic violence law and in society's attitude toward it, is to essentially rewrite women's history, and to utterly ignore men's.
Up until the early 1700s in the UK, there existed archaic laws regarding husband's discretion to physically chastise their wives. By this law, a husband was permitted to give his wife "mild correction", and I think it's important to note that this law existed because a husband was legally answerable for his wife's actions. If she committed a public crime or misdeed--stole from or assaulted someone, for instance, or even gambled away the family fortune--it was her husband who was held to account, legally, financially and socially. This law afforded him the power of correction "within reasonable bounds" and actually prohibited husbands from using violence.
A couple of things:
I'd guess that, considering the nature of the culture back then, how common corporal punishment was wrt children (not just by parents), convicted criminals, servants and apprentices, etc, the 1720s definition of "violence" is a probably a little different from our definition today, and the 1720s definition of it within the context of domestic violence--wherein current definitions include "not speaking to your wife" or "using logic"--will have been VERY different indeed.
Considering a husband was answerable for his wife's behavior in public and any wrongs or crimes she might commit against others, forbidding him ANY means of holding her accountable to HIM would have been an egregious imbalance of power within the institution of marriage. The law equally afforded men the right to correct the behavior of any individual for whom he was held legally answerable--children and apprentices, for instance.
And finally, before anyone pounces on the idea that men were answerable for their wive's behavior because men were in authority over their wives, and that this authority was a benefit given them by the system in order to oppress women, I'm going flip the sequence of that line of thought around.
Instead of "marriage is an institution to oppress women for men's benefit" therefore "husbands have authority over their wives" therefore "men are answerable for their wives since they could order those wives to do bad things", I'm going to posit a different sequence of logic based on a different primary assumption. "Marriage was an institution designed to serve children and protect women" therefore "women were entitled to the protection of their husbands" therefore "men must stand as a shield between their wives and the violence of the rest of the world, including that of the law" therefore "men must have authority over their wives." That is, if a man must be answerable for his wife in order to protect her from the consequences of even her own actions, then she should at the very least be answerable to HIM.
Why would I posit this sequence based on this different starting point? Because there were laws limiting what husbands were legally permitted to do to the women under their authority. Not just physically, but financially as well. Laws like [privy examination] also existed to protect women from financial abuse by their husbands. The law of [privy examination] required a woman who owned property and wanted to sell it--say, a house she had brought with her into a marriage--to be interviewed outside her husband's presence by a legal official to determine that she really did want to sell it, and that her husband was not forcing her to do so.
And I'd also posit this because lifelong marriage itself is a raw deal for men--a man's value in the sexual marketplace often increases with age, as he accumulates wealth and social status, while a woman's ALWAYS decreases and eventually fizzles to nothing long before she'll die of old age.
In a "male-dominated" society where marriage really WAS designed to oppress women for the benefit of men, it would have been legally easy, socially acceptable and even encouraged for a man to divorce his wife the moment her youth and beauty faded, if he could trade her in for someone better. Maybe a LOT better considering he'd have had a decade or two to acquire more wealth, and considering he owned his children, who could have contributed to that wealth in an age of child labor.
And frankly, the entire notion that marriage is the equivalent of female oppression and slavery is belied by the hand-wringing from pundits across the political spectrum clamoring that women want husbands and men aren't doing their duty and dragging themselves to the altar. If marriage is a form of slavery for WOMEN, why is it women who still desire marriage? And if it's an institution devised to benefit men, why is it MEN who are avoiding it like the plague?
So I think it's reasonable to assume that in the past, a man was expected to stand as a shield between his wife and the dangers of the world, even when those dangers were posed by the legal or criminal consequences of her own actions. Does ANYONE believe it would be remotely fair to hand a man the job of bodyguard and handler, to hold him accountable not only for the safety but the behavior of his charge, and then give him no means to enforce his judgment on that charge? To say to him, "If this person is harmed, you will be held accountable for it, and if they commit a crime, you will be punished for it, but oh, by the way, they don't have to do one damn thing you say"?
As early as 1768, when Lord Blackstone, gathered up all the assorted laws of England into one big compendium, it was made clear that physical violence and even physical restraint by husbands against wives was in violation of the law, though he noted it was common for such violations among the underclass to be swept under the judicial rug. Perhaps because female members of the underclass would be more likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law, male members of the underclass spent more hours a day performing labor and therefore had less time to supervise the behavior of their wives, and all members were subject to hand-to-mouth living that meant jailing a battering husband would subject his wife to financial destitution?
Likewise, in the US, there have been laws against wife-battering since before the American Revolution, and by 1870 it was officially illegal in nearly every state. I have only heard of one gender neutral domestic violence law in this period--Massachusetts Bay Colony's law of 1655. Even prior to the drafting of these laws, wife-batterers could be and were, in fact, arrested and penalized for abusing their wives using the simple criminal charge of assault and battery. Punishments for wife-beating included 40 lashes at the public whipping post, fines ranging from $255 to $1000, and sentences of 1 to 5 years in prison.
Moreover, male family members, neighbors, and members of religious congregations were known to enact vigilante justice on wife-beaters--sometimes beating them, abducting and whipping them, or even running them out of town. Even in accounts I have read from feminist sources that include excerpts from women's diaries, there is often a male relative or family friend who steps in and removes the battered woman from her batterer's immediate presence, or even from his household, when serious abuse was witnessed.
And before anyone jumps in and claims that these protections and restrictions were based not on gender but on the power imbalance between those who had authority over others (husbands) and those who were under their power (wives), I'm going to call bullshit.
Because, we have a perfect example of a huge, socially and legally systemic ungendered power imbalance in history wherein women received protections that equally powerless and vulnerable men did not--slavery.
In France and Spain, in the early days of slavery, provisions in the slave code existed to protect pregnant and sick women from physical abuse. Other legal amendments prohibited sexual use or abuse of female slaves by slave owners--wrt both rape by owners and pimping.
In the 19th century, Britain introduced laws to limit the types of punishment allowed wrt slave women, forbidding punishing one in public, restricting the number of lashes she could receive, and prohibiting any physical punishment for pregnant slave women.
And though enforcement of these laws probably left a lot to be desired, no such protections existed for male slaves to be enforced or not.
Only 2/3 as many slave women were brought over to the European colonies as slave men, however, in many colonies females outnumbered males--because they lived longer. I wonder why?
Keep in mind, too, that even when I was a kid, children were still receiving corporal punishment in some schools--including caning. So attitudes toward physical punishment were VERY different from what they are today--yet wives and even female slaves had legal protections that prohibited those in authority over them from going too far, while men had no such protections.
Nor were they protected in ANY way from the violence of their wives. In fact, when a man was battered by his wife, the community held him answerable for THAT, too. In France, when neighbors discovered a man in their community was being dominated or beaten by his wife, he was paraded around town while seated backwards on a donkey holding its tail, while the crowd ridiculed him. In England, battered men were routinely strapped to carts and subjected to the derision and mockery of the community. Essentially punished for the abuse they suffered at the hands of their wives--abuse, I might add, that had no legally codified limits or restrictions in most jurisdictions.
And while many experts have attributed this treatment to a kind of blind adherence to the patriarchal norm of "husband as lord of his household", and systemic vilification and contempt for weak men that still goes on today, when you look a little deeper, it's not quite so simple.
Life was a lot harsher back then, and as I've said before, when life in a community is harsh, things like individual wellbeing, safety and fulfillment tend to take a back seat to more important things like social cohesion and collective survivalism.
Back then, when a woman married there was only one legal entity to which a she was fully answerable--her husband. A woman who beat her husband was seen as a HUGE threat to the stability of the community. Here was a woman capable of defying the socially enforced and legally endorsed norm of husbandly authority, a breaker of social and legal taboos. If such a woman--one already predisposed to ignore the rules of society--got up to malicious or harmful behavior outside the home, there was no way for the community to hold her personally accountable for her actions. That was her husband's job, and clearly he couldn't be trusted with it.
If she committed a crime, her husband might even be sent to prison for it, and if that happened, what little external constraint there'd been on her behavior--her husband's authority--would be out of the picture entirely. She would, in effect, be free to wreak havoc in the community, a socially irresponsible woman who is answerable to none.
Forcing a man to ride the donkey backwards served a couple of purposes within the community. For one, it put other men on notice, reminding them how important it was to social cohesion for them to exercise authority within their households and control misbehaving wives. Any man watching or participating in such a spectacle would be reminded just what things would be like for him if he failed the community in the same way this poor chump did. And secondly, it essentially stripped the battered man of respect and social status within the community, which was a consequence his wife--who shared in the respect and social status of her husband--could not avoid. She could not be punished directly for her behavior, but she could be punished through the public humiliation of her husband, and the decrease in her own social status that accompanied it. If the contempt of the community extended to such things as, for instance, job loss, she'd be forced to live with that consequence as well.
A few things have changed since those days, when it comes to battered husbands. The elaborate rituals of public ridicule are gone, but men are, by and large, still held accountable for the abuse they suffer, and women excused for their misbehavior within marriage. There exists little outreach or assistance for such men, because Patriarchy Theory and its twisting of reality fooled everyone into believing battered husbands could not possibly exist. Female batterers are still not held fully accountable for their behavior, nor does the community intervene the way it always has when men were horribly abused by their wives--we instead expect individual men to deal with the problem on their own.
Legislation and arrest policies are more biased than they ever were, but it's no longer because we see men as a shield between their wives and the violence of the rest of the world, even the violence of the law. It's because we've been fooled into believing that marriage was an institution designed to oppress rather than protect and support women. We've been tricked into believing marriage was always a raw deal for women and a great one for men, despite the fact that single motherhood--which is a struggle even now--would have been a one-way ticket to extreme poverty for 99% of women through history, and despite the fact that its lifelong component was designed to keep men from abandoning their wives after menopause, rather than the other way around.
We've been tricked into believing the job of a husband was to be a bully rather than a bodyguard, and that "male-dominated" societies are oppressive to women because hey, when men are in charge they will always act in ways that benefit men without ever considering the wellbeing of women. We've been fooled into thinking the extra rights and freedoms men had were cookies given to them "just because they were men" rather than because women were biologically vulnerable and dependent on men, and giving men those extra rights and freedoms enabled them to do the job society expected of them--to support and protect women.
We've been fooled into thinking the authority society gave husbands within marriage was a means to oppress women, rather than a necessary component of men's expectation to protect them, even from the consequences of their own actions. We've been tricked into believing the exception--the husband who used his authority to victimize and cruelly abuse his wife--was the rule.
We've been fooled into believing the battered husband is a time-honored and well-worn comic trope that makes appearances in Bugs Bunny cartoons on Sunday mornings, because it has always been RARE, rather than because it defies our internal gendered narrative of women as harmless and deserving of protection and our expectation on men to be strong and capable of taking care of and protecting themselves as well as others.
We've been bamboozled into believing that domestic violence against women was NEVER considered a crime until feminism arrived to enlighten us, and that it was ALWAYS socially acceptable, despite tons of historical evidence to the contrary. And the safer the world gets and the less directly dependent on individual men women become for their support and protection, the easier it is for us to believe that men are brutes and abusers by nature, and the easier it is for us to toss them in the trash when they're abused.
We don't even have to notice them anymore.
Because before the age of the pill, child support enforcement, subsidized daycare, safe streets, welfare benefits and safe, easy indoor jobs, the task of protecting and providing for women...well, that necessary task fell to individual men and it necessitated keeping those individual men around to do that job.
Whereas 200 years ago, the community could not afford to pretend a battered husband did not exist, well...we've come a long way, baby, and arrived at a point in our social evolution where society, rather than individual men, can do the job of supporting women and protecting them from harm, even when that harm arises from their own actions, and where battered men, instead of being subjected to ritualized humiliations, are essentially invisible to everyone, even when they're standing right in front of us, because we can afford not to care about them one way or the other.
By defying our gendered assumptions, battered men make us so uncomfortable we'll recast them as abusers themselves whenever we possibly can, and when we can't, we'd rather close our eyes and stick our fingers in our ears when they beg for help, than acknowledge their existence. And when even the people who are smart enough to realize that VAWA is the equivalent of gender apartheid are laboring under the misperception that historical laws and social attitudes about domestic violence discriminated against WOMEN, is it any wonder that it's so fucking easy for the rest of society to sweep all those male victims under the rug?