Angry White Men and Domestic Violence

By Kristin Anderson

Domestic violence happens to all social groups, but it is more likely to occur among those who have to worry about paying the rent or keeping kids safe from neighborhood violence. Data from the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), the most recent large national survey of domestic violence victimization among U.S. adults, show that women who live in households with incomes under $25,000 experience annual victimization at over three times the rate of women in households with incomes of $75,000 or more (here).  Study after study finds that heterosexual women with less access to education and income suffer the highest rates of abuse.

Does this pattern also occur among men?  Are the least educated and poorest men at greatest risk for victimization?  My research with Mick Cunningham shows that the story is more complicated among straight men.  Our analysis of NISVS data finds that both women and men report the highest rate of physical abuse by a partner when they have less than a high school education (11 years, see Figure 1 below).  For women, the risk of abuse falls as their level of education increases.  Among men, the decline is much less steep.  Additionally, the gender gap widens as educational attainment increases: men with college degrees report almost twice the rate of victimization as women with college degrees.  We find the same pattern when we look at earnings: women are less likely to be victims as they earn more income, but men with higher incomes report being abused at similar or even higher levels than men who earn less.

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Figure 1.

Figure 1. Predicted Probabilities of Annual Physical Intimate Partner Violence Victimization among Heterosexuals, by Gender Identity and Years of Education, NISVS (2010, N = 16,372).

Why Does the Pattern Vary by Gender?

What explains this difference?   Why don’t education and income resources protect men from abuse as much as they protect women?  One answer – but we think it’s probably not the right one– is that women with higher education and income feel more empowered to use physical violence against men than women with less economic power.  Because people usually choose partners who share their same levels of educational attainment, these findings suggest that women with some college or higher education are hitting the men they date, live with, and marry much more often than they are getting hit.  This answer seems unlikely and it doesn’t fit with what we know from the limited data on women’s self-reported domestic and dating violence perpetration, which shows higher rates of perpetration among women with lower education.

Another answer is that men with more education report being victims of their women partners because they feel like victims of the social changes of the last half-century.  In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel writes that some privileged (white, middle-class) men have “aggrieved entitlement”—the belief that women, immigrants, and people of color have stolen the jobs, the deference, and the power that “should” have been rightfully theirs as members of the privileged gender and racial categories.  Kimmel writes that although angry white men “still have most of the power and control in the world, they feel like victims.”  It is men who have some economic and educational resources—not the poorest of the poor—who feel entitled to the power and privilege that white men have been historically granted.   Although the growing divide between the rich and the poor and the shrinking middle class are the main source of men’s declining fortunes, angry white men are encouraged by conservative talk-radio pundits and the internet “manosphere” to blame immigrants, racial minorities, feminists, and/or their wives for what they see as their loss of power and status.  They feel beaten up by the social changes around them and they are sharing their pain.

Kristin L. Anderson is professor of sociology at Western Washington University. Her current research examines the implementation of lethality risk assessment in domestic violence cases. She is currently an editorial board member for Gender & Society. 

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3 thoughts on “Angry White Men and Domestic Violence

  1. I recently saw an article that suggests higher education and income are not such great protection for either men or women, at least when there is a disparity between income and education.

    The article proposed that it is choosing a partner below one’s education/earning ability actually puts the better educated, higher earning partner at greater risk for abuse.

    Counter- intuitive to the usual abuse narrative but I think it makes a kind of sense if you think about it. Abuse is about power, whether maintaining it, regaining it or addressing a perceived imbalance.

    It is easy to see how a higher status woman marrying a lower status man might be at greater risk for abuse. Her greater knowledge base might make him feel stupid, her greater earning power might make him feel kicked out of his male roll. Certain inadequate personality types would choose a destructive and maladaptive way of addressing this.

    A little extra thought reveals how it might play out in the case of a man marrying a lower-status woman. Again his greater knowledge base might make her feel stupid and his greater earning power convince her that he could have someone better anytime he wanted, even if that thought never crossed his mind. And as stated before, certain inadequate personality types would choose a destructive and maladaptive way of addressing this.

    As for why the higher status partner stays… the woman might feel she’d better because if she leaves, her husband would have nothing left to lose and really harm her or their kids. Or he’s really good at manipulation and has her feeling that she shouldn’t hurt his feelings by being who she is and living her life.

    As for the man, I’d say fear for any kids and guilt over a sense that he should be able to fix what’s wrong with his wife would be paramount. Also he might have convinced himself that it’s “not that bad.”

    I don’t think people abuse each other because they feel “empowered.” I think they are desperate to feel empowered by any means necessary.

  2. Also a less cynical idea for why better educated men are reporting abuse more- they would have more opportunity to be tuned in to the national dialogue on abuse and have a better understanding of what abuse is. So behaviors from their partners they might have once tried to laugh off and excuse (oh she’s so wild, passionate, difficult etc) are now starting to be called out for what they are. And that’s a good thing. Even if you are not in immediate danger from abuse, it can still do a lot of damage, especially psychologically. Plus I think it helps to remember that tolerating abuse tends to escalate it if you tolerate its less damaging forms.

    Further, abusive relationships always have the potential to become dangerous. A man who is not under normal circumstances under much threat from his abusive wife might be in an accident and get hurt or succumb to a serious illness. That would not stop the cycle of abuse (I site Stephen Hawking’s second marriage) and make him far more vulnerable to her attacks.

    There’s an article I wish I could find again written by the wife of a wounded veteran. By all accounts, they were a great couple. They had their problems, but there was a lot of mutual love there and the wife moved heaven and earth to make sure he received the best care possible. An inspection was coming up that was attached to a new set of benefits that they wanted. So she kicked into higher than usual gear, making sure the house was hospital eat-off-the-floors clean and that all supplies etc were in order. The inspectors basically told her that of course her family was a shoe-in for the benefits, she took far better than average care of her husband and really these inspections were mostly to make sure she “hadn’t duct-taped her husband to the basement wall or something.” I read that sentence over a couple of times and thought “my that is specific.” The inspectors have probably walked in on some horrifying scenes, perhaps that one included.

    I’m not saying aggrieved entitlement does not exist. Of course it does. But I don’t think we want to write off every grievance or complaint a man makes under that heading. Unless as a society we want to a. tolerate abuse to anyone at any time and b. create more Limbaugh ditto-heads.

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