Male DV Victim: Will Amber Portwood Case be ‘anything more than a blip on the radar?’

I want Fathers and Families readers to see the letter reprinted below.  It’s a comment to a short piece that appeared in recently and it is of no particular moment except that it describes so succinctly and well the experience of being a male victim of domestic violence (, 11/19/10).

The comment is by a man who signs himself “acknowledgment.”  It’s in response to a piece by Tracy Clark-Flory about our old friend Amber Portwood of “Teen Mom” renown.  Portwood, you’ll recall was recently charged with two felonies and one misdemeanor arising out of her multiple attacks on sometime boyfriend, Gary Shirley.  Clark-Flory’s piece is pretty straightforward and makes the following obvious point:

When the latest episode of violence aired in September, I wondered what “the public reaction would be if the direction of the violence in their relationship was reversed” and concluded, “It’s hard to imagine comparable male-on-female violence continuing to air, season after season, without major outcry or intervention” — but, hey, better late than never.

Here’s “acknowledgment’s” comment.

It would be refreshing if this incident highlighted this little-discussed side of domestic abuse. There are women who do hit men.

I suffered 10 incidents of abuse in a 2-1/2 year-long relationship with my girlfriend. 5’2″ and 100 lbs soaking wet, she studied martial arts for years and could strike a concentrated punch.

A growing understanding that she was unmedicated bipolar was of little consolation when a simple misunderstanding cooking dinner, watching television or preparing for an evening out exploded into a hail of screaming fists.

Like many men in this country, I was raised to never, ever, under any circumstances, hit a woman. I stayed true to that.

Several times I never saw it coming, but her small fist could make my nose explode like a tomato if I wasn’t ready for it. Other times, like a boxer, I just covered up and let her wail (sic) away. There were times when those episodes would end with rough sex, others spent in a cheap hotel room or a friend’s couch.

But the role reversal doesn’t change. I would blame myself, tell myself it was the last time, make excuses for her, lie to my friends – I suffered in silence, questioned my manhood constantly, did everything I could to prevent it and throughout it all I was hopelessly, deeply, passionately in love with her.

The 10th incident was the last – not because I had the courage to move out or the wisdom to just remove myself, but when her violent episode ended with me pushing her away – with measured restraint, but it was unprecedented resistance. She tripped over her feet and landed straight down on her ass … and called the cops.

And here my troubles began.

Even today I’ve explored founding a support group – but the shame is unimaginable. So when I see an incident like this, it gives me hope for a larger discussion of this issue. But I’m doubtful that this will be anything more than a sensationalized blip on the radar.

It’s pretty much all there; much of what “acknowledgment” says is reflected in the findings of two researchers at Clark University, Denise Hines and Emily Douglas, who studied men who had contacted a DV hotline.  (Here’s my article on their study.)  Smaller women attacking larger men is one; the refusal to retaliate is another as is the deep shame felt by a man who’s been pummeled by a woman.  So is the love felt by the man for his assailant.

Most telling is the fact that the writer’s girlfriend attacked him 10 separate times, some of which resulted in significant injury, but when he finally pushed her away, she reported him for DV.  What appears likely from those facts is that his girlfriend really didn’t understand her own behavior as domestic violence. 

Any number of things might account for that including a culture that refuses to call domestic violence by women by its proper name and a boyfriend who didn’t either.  It could also stem from the type of emotional disorder that leads people to assault each other in the first place.

Then there’s the tantalizing sentence “and here my troubles began.”  I’d love to know what that means in his case.  Did he go to jail?  Pay a fine?  Pay “restitution” to his “victim?”  What those words suggest is that, even though he was surely the victim and his girlfriend the perpetrator, their training teaches the police to arrest the man in almost all situations, even those in which he’s done nothing wrong and she’s committed a crime.

“Acknowledgement” doubts that the Amber Portwood case will do much to change our cultural distortions of the facts of domestic violence.  Those have been patiently built up over some 40 years and won’t be undone by a single segment of reality TV. 

Still, every little bit helps.  Countless men saw Amber Portwood’s violence toward Gary Shirley and we humans are visual animals; a picture is worth a thousand words.  My guess is that the simple act of witnessing her attacks will be, for many of those men, the magic moment at which they understand and give a name to their own intimate relationships.

Will that change the world?  Will elected officials bow their heads as one and confess that their laws have been misguided all along?  No, the Amber Portwood case will be just another “blip on the radar” screen.

But all those points mount up and the more of them there are, the more they begin to resemble a picture.  It’s the picture for which we’ve waited so long, the one that shows domestic violence as it really is, the one that includes women hitting men, men being hurt and both needing the type of help that law enforcement can’t give. 

For far too long we’ve been force-fed a false narrative of who commits DV, why, how injurious it is and how to fix the problem.  My guess is that that false narrative is partly responsible for Amber Portwood’s assumption that she could do what she did on nationwide TV and get away with it.  I’d bet the same holds true for “acknowledgment’s” girlfriend.

Thanks to “acknowledgment” and, yes, thanks to Amber Porwood, for helping to correct that false narrative.

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