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Emotional Abuse

Male Survivors of Abuse by Women Can Heal Without Misogyny

Bias can prevent us from comprehending men as victims and women as perpetrators.

Key points

  • Lacking the language to unpack and articulate their pain can lead male survivors of abuse to scapegoat women.
  • Abuse by women can go unnoticed when it primarily involves relational aggression or psychological abuse.
  • Advocates often forget that internalized patriarchy can manifest in women as a need for control over others.
Mart Production/Pexels
Source: Mart Production/Pexels

There are two commonly understood reasons why we fail to comprehend women’s victimization of men as abuse. The point of this post is to present a third compelling reason, then unpack the implications for professional helpers—attorneys, investigators, therapists, victim’s advocates, and so on—who, in their work, may come across male survivors of abuse by women.

While this under-discussed problem warrants more visibility for many reasons, chief among them is the reality that we create more misogynists—someone with a strong hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women—by neglecting the healing of male survivors of abuse by women. Lacking the tools and language to unpack and articulate their pain can lead male survivors of abuse to scapegoat all women and, sometimes by extension, gender non-conforming folks, too.

Patriarchy already deprives boys and men of emotional freedom and outlets, limiting the “appropriate” range of emotional expression boys and men can engage in, at the expense of their own emotional, physical, social, and spiritual well-being. And because we socialize boys and men to externalize emotions, to perpetuate this emotional void for male survivors of abuse by women is to perpetuate their vulnerability at our own expense.

The First Misconception

The first commonly understood reason we overlook the victimization of men by women is that men disproportionately victimize women, by a longshot. To invite anyone, but especially men, into this discussion, while simultaneously minimizing men’s disproportionate enactment of violence against women, would be not only disingenuous but telling of an anti-feminist agenda that I do not endorse.


I am keenly aware of how men lacking in a structural-historical power analysis of gender and sex routinely hold feminism to an ideological purity test that no framework can pass—to keep dismissing it, keep deflecting, and keep evading accountability. The intent of this post is not to invalidate women survivors of abuse by men or to invalidate feminism’s immense contribution to survivor discourse.

Six years ago, I published Unharm Your Sons: A Plea to Black Fathers About the Culture of Toxic Masculinity, in which I explain how dominator culture has always been the basis of the patriarchal socialization of males, and to this day, still is.

Boys have always been socialized to be rulers or warriors, not self-nurturers or nurturers of others. In most societies, manhood has been defined by maintaining power and control over others (encroaching and imposing), and conversely, womanhood has been defined by maintaining control over oneself (self-doubting and shrinking).

Consequently, “boys will be boys” often excuses and rationalizes boys’ bad behavior, to the point that “good boys” are often no better than “bad girls.” The “power over” versus “power with” expectation for boys not only increases the likelihood that boys become abusive but also increases societal confusion about where to draw the line between patriarchal ideals of male strength and patriarchal abuse.

The convergence of all these social factors makes it more likely that the typical person struggles to comprehend male victims as victims, and abuse of men by women as real abuse.

The Second Misconception

Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash
Source: Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash

The second commonly understood reason we overlook the victimization of men by women is that girls and women are socialized to be aggressive in a relational manner—that is, emotionally, psychologically, and socially—that can inflict pain without fear or force.

Girls’ and women’s heightened relationality is at least partially a byproduct of patriarchal domination. It can be traced back to patriarchal pressure—economically, legally, and religiously—for women to prioritize becoming mothers and wives, as well as the need for interpersonal support when healing from men’s unwanted sexual advances.

On one hand, this compulsory relationality, when expressed as emotional and social intelligence, is positive. It can have a prosocial effect that comforts and conciliates.

On the other, compulsory relationality can also increase the propensity for relational aggression, behavior that “intends to harm others through deliberate manipulation of their social standing and relationships”—three features of which include excluding someone, gossiping, or purposefully withdrawing acknowledgment of another’s presence (for example, “the silent treatment”).

A study on gendered bullying styles suggested that girls are much more likely to engage in relational aggression within same-sex groups, compared to boys, who are more likely to be physically aggressive. Similarly, in the workplace, women colleagues are more likely than male colleagues to be passive-aggressive and socially aggressive with each other.

Notably, relational aggression is not limited just to interactions between women. It can also show up in mixed-sex friendships and relationships between women and men. Further, relational aggression can manifest cross-generationally, spilling over into parenting, as discussed in Jennette McCurdy’s memoir, Why I’m Glad My Mother Died.

Significant overlap exists between feminine relational aggression and the classic power and control tactics of psychological abuse, particularly covert narcissistic abuse.

Yet, both relational aggression and psychological abuse can be covered up with rationalizations that are legal and socially acceptable, at face value. This unfortunate reality complicates getting accountability for either, which can lead to bitterness and, particularly for male survivors who are unlikely to be believed anyway, misogyny/misogynoir.

Implications for Advocates

Patriarchy has no gender. — bell hooks

Mart Production/Pexels
Source: Mart Production/Pexels

The third reason we overlook the victimization of men by women is because we confuse protecting women from patriarchy with dismantling patriarchy, when, in fact, women can be patriarchal. As Black feminist scholar bell hooks wrote, “Patriarchy has no gender.

To hooks’ point, patriarchal domination is a social system and ideology that is conditioned and socialized into everyone, including girls and women in the form of internalized patriarchy. Operationalizing patriarchy in terms of its hegemonic values, assumptions, and aims—instead of simply attributing it to biological sex—can be an enlightening experience for male survivors of abuse by women who exhibit patterns of behavior that reflect patriarchal socialization.

Yet, gender essentialism gets in the way. Gender essentialism—the notion that women and men are monolithic demographics and that any observable distinctions are rooted in fundamental differences that are allegedly innate and intrinsic—biologizes gender in a way that makes it impossible to account for male victims and female perpetrators.

Nevermind that baselines for sex hormones vary between people, and even within the same person over a lifetime. Nevermind that intersex people with multiple sex chromosomes and/or genitalia exist. Nevermind that gender norms have shifted over time, with pink being gender-neutral prior to the mid-1900s and men wearing short-shorts and platform heels throughout the 1970s and 1980s—that’s what gender essentialism says.

Cottonbro Studio/Pexels
Source: Cottonbro Studio/Pexels

When we operationalize patriarchy beyond gender essentialism, however, we can see beneath the surface of abuse, and focus on the core characteristic of patriarchal control and dominance, rather than the perpetrator’s sex assigned at birth.

In turn, male survivors of abuse by women can feel validated and witnessed, decreasing the likelihood that trauma radicalizes them into misogyny, out of frustration that their pain seems invisible and incomprehensible to broader society.

Thus, it is critical for victims’ advocates to realize that when male survivors are able to contextualize their victimization and traumatization by women—particularly via historical, political, religious, scientific, and psychosocial contexts about patriarchal domination—they are arguably less likely to bond with other men over misogyny, and less likely to be emboldened into recidivism.

In almost all cases, it’s healthy for survivors to realize their perpetrators attempted to gain power and control over them because they lacked a sense of power and control in their own life: Moreover, in instances of legal abuse or malicious prosecution that hinge on false allegations, it’s healthier for a male survivor to understand his abuser’s motive for victim-playing, rather than resign himself to misogynistic distrust. Practically speaking, too, deconstructing patriarchy toward these ends is ultimately the most productive.

Most of all, it’s important for victims’ advocates to consider how psychoeducation about patriarchy can prepare male survivors for the possibility that accountability and justice may never come. It is an inevitable fact of life that people get away with mistreating others, and often avoid guilt by villainizing their victims.

Fortunately, the truth not coming to light does not have to feel like the end of the world for male survivors, any more than it has to be confirmation of misogynistic stereotypes.

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