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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Evangelicals and domestic abuse

Alas, a Blog posed the question: Do Evangelical Men Beat Their Wives Less? I had some thoughts on this, but refrained from blogging to see what the commentors would say. There were some good questions raised on methods, etc. which are illuminating and you should read it in total. But it seems like a good bet that evangelicals are simply under-reporting domestic violence, not that they have less domestic violence.
There are a few things that I think are likely causing evangelicals to under-report domestic violence more than others. To be blunt, in modern America, most women would most certainly classify being pulled over a man's knee and spanked to be old-fashioned wife-beating. But under a religious system where women are little better than children and subject to their husband's authority in the same way, things like spankings are much more likely to be considered just discipline and not abuse. Certainly, other things that most of us would consider outright abusive behavior are considered normal and even necessary in fundamentalist circles. If a friend of mine told me her husband was dictating her clothes and her friends, I would tell her to get out. But that's part of the fundamentalist belief system.
And evangelical women who would classify themselves as abused may be more likely to lie on these surveys. There might be fear of breaking up the families that isn't so strong with other women. I'm not sure on that.
There is a fundamental problem with the idea of defining domestic abuse in evangelical marriages. We can only define domestic abuse because we accept the precept that it's somehow wrong for one marriage partner to be forceful with another. And that's because we recognize the basic human rights of both partners. That's why feminism was the element that exposed domestic abuse; it wasn't until we realized that men shouldn't have authority over women that it became clear that physical measures to enforce that authority are deeply wrong. How do you define domestic abuse to a crowd that believes in natural male authority and therefore isn't even in the same mindframe as those who define what domestic abuse is?
Which leads me to my final thought--if, in fact, there is less wife-beating in evangelical marriages, can we really chalk it up to a better ability of evangelical men to control their tempers? It's not implausible to me that evangelicals fight less.
Movies like to show domestic violence in a very unrealistic light, with the simpering wife who just wants to please her husband getting an ass-whupping with absolutely no provocation. The reason for this is simple--the audience may not be ready yet to accept that a woman has a right to speak her mind without getting a fist in the mouth for her troubles. To emphasize the horror of a man beating his wife, the wife has to be made into a perfect victim.
But as many women who've actually been there will tell you, the hitting erupted in the middle of a heated argument, as a heated reaction to a woman who is not giving in but arguing back. If, and this is a big huge if, but if evangelical women really are taking to heart their subservience, it's possible that they conflict with their husbands less, argue less, and therefore get hit less.
By no means am I arguing that women need to adapt a subservient attitude in order to escape violence. In fact, I'm arguing the opposite. It is absolutely unreasonable and inhuman that women be kept in line with violence. A man who cannot engage in an argument, even a screaming, yelling argument, without hitting is someone with serious problems. (Ditto for a woman, but like it or not, that's a lesser issue in just sheer numbers.) That people feel compelled to restrict their own speech and behavior, no matter how reasonable, for fear of violence is one of the great shames of our society.
And someone who avoids violent confrontation by taking a lifelong role of subservience may be avoiding short-term losses due to violence, but in the long term, her losses are great. By measuring marriage success in terms of violence, we are doing a great disservice to women. It's just as surely abuse to control women by threatening them with God's wrath and the loss of all love, community and stability as it is to threaten them with violence.
I don't have a solution. But I do know that focusing on number of punches thrown in marriages is a nifty way for the evangelicals to avoid the larger questions of how their entire belief system is abusive towards women.

15 Comments:

Blogger Rachel Ann said...

Amanda,

You have so eloquently stated what I have been feeling and what I have tried to say to much less effect.

Wonderful synopsis of the situation.

And I think you are right about the subservience. They may simply be doing what is demaneded of them without a murmer of protest, and if they don't or don't perform according to their dh's wishes, accept any "discipline" as moral and not abuse.

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