For more than three decades, scholarly research on domestic violence has made little progressive in achieving rough scholarly consensus about domestic violence. That scholarly failure contrasts with the historical record of newspaper advice columnists. Newspaper advice columnists hear from ordinary women and men in difficult situations. Leading newspaper advice columnists Ann Landers and Dear Abby gradually came to recognize that domestic violence against men is a serious social problem.
In 1978, Ann Landers curtly dismissed, with a strongly sex-biased response, a letter writer’s description of domestic violence against men. The letter writer began by observing that he read a lot about battered wives in Ann Landers’ columns, but only once about a battered husband. The letter writer stated:
I’m sure the reason we don’t hear more from battered husbands is because few men want to admit their wives can beat them up. So, they commit suicide, disappear or get taken to court where the wife says he clobbered her. Since her story is more believable, she walks out with the house, the kids, everything they own in common, and he winds up paying the bills. The police are no help. They tell the guy to go sleep someplace else for the night and let her “cool off.”^
The letter writer then told the story of “a friend of mine” (a conventional device for distancing personal experience):
he was the one who got beat up. The guy was trying to put some clothes on their 3-year-old (his wife thinks bodies are beautiful and everyone should walk around the house naked). She tried to brain him with a lamp. He called the police and guess who had to leave the house and is now the defendant?
The letter writer asked Ann Landers whether she thinks starting a shelter for battered husbands is a good idea. This was at a time when numerous shelters for battered women were being established. Ann Landers responded dismissively:
I’m sure more men beat up their wives than the other way ’round, but if you think there is a need for a Shelter for Battered Husbands, gather together those of like mind and get one going. I’m working the other side of the street, Mister.
Human compassion and relations between women and men aren’t usually bounded by male and female sides of the street. Nonetheless, to this personal letter Ann Landers expressed merely general concern for the interests of her own sex.
More than two decades latter, Ann Landers was still showing little concern for abused men. A father wrote to Landers:
Every day I lived in fear of her unprovoked attacks and storming rages. Finally, one night, my wife brutally beat me in front of our 7-year-old daughter. That was the night I decided that I had had enough, and packed up and left. … After years and $55,000 in legal fees, I was finally successful in defending myself against her charges that I was the abuser, and got custody of our daughter. My ex-wife was ordered by the court to get therapy to deal with her severe emotional disturbance, as a condition of being allowed to see our daughter. I am now in a wonderful happy relationship with a gentle, mentally healthy woman. … please tell us, Ann, if there are resources available for abused men. They need all the help they can get.^
You were brave to write, and I thank you. Abused husbands are not as rare as you think. I have heard from several over the years and printed their letters.
A sensitive reader might perceive a whiff of sarcasm in that reply, especially since the letter writer suggested that husband abuse is an important, not a rare, problem. Landers sidestepped the reality that few compassionate resources for abused men were available. A few months later another letter writer observed:
Ever since our son went through the same hell, I have wanted to help other male victims. The man who wrote to you spent $55,000 to get custody of his daughter. This is a disgrace. … In many cases, the father cannot get visitation rights, let alone custody, without shelling out big bucks for a lawyer. Furthermore, when the man is the battered party, he is rarely believed, because the woman is smaller. Most fathers don’t have $55,000 to spend on legal fees. Today, the courts are almost always biased in favor of mothers.^
Ann Landers responded:
Although you’ve made some valid points, would you not agree that many more husbands beat their wives than the other way around? And most women do not have $55,000 to fight for custody, either. I do agree, however, that abused men should receive the same help and support as abused women, but unfortunately, this problem is largely ignored.
Landers responded to injustices against men first by asserting the primacy of concern for women. The controversial claim “many more husbands beat their wives than the other way around” isn’t directly relevant to the letter writer’s subject. The claim that “most women do not have $55,000 to fight for custody” isn’t relevant to one father who, in the face of perceived anti-male bias in the family courts, did so. Landers abstractly conceded, “abused men should receive the same help and support as abused women.” One might think that such an assertion would be widely accepted in theory and in practice, but the facts show otherwise. Landers final clause, “but, unfortunately, this problem is largely ignored,” is a passive statement, not a call for action to address the largely ignored problem of domestic violence against men.
In June, 2000, Ann Landers recognized the existence of many men victims of domestic violence and made a concrete statement in support of services for those men. A letter writer pleaded:
in case you don’t know it, the Violence Against Women Act explicitly says all money should be used for women’s support only. There is no government protection or support allocated for abused men. Please, Ann, publicize this unjust treatment, and help us out.^
Ann Landers responded:
We now know that many males are also abused by their mates, and I agree that they should receive the same governmental support as abused women. But they must be willing to identify themselves, and many are reluctant to do so. That’s where the problem lies. I say, speak up, guys.
The public problem of communication about domestic violence goes much deeper than the blameworthiness of men who are victims of domestic violence. Yet, compared to the performance of experts on domestic violence, newspaper advice columnist Ann Landers performed relatively impressively in learning about domestic violence against men and calling for action to address the problem.
Dear Abby performed even more impressively. In 1983, a husband wrote to Dear Abby:
I was a badly battered husband for years and had cuts, bruises, burns and broken bones — all attributed to “accidents.” How could I tell people that I, a 6-2, 185-pound man, was beaten by a 5-4, 135-pound women?^
Dear Abby responded:
National support groups for the battered woman are all over the place, but I know of no equally effective national support group for the battered man as yet. In this regard, women are “beating” the menfolk to smithereens.
That’s a factual, important, and witty statement. In 1989, Dear Abby published another man’s story:
I was raised never to hit a woman — even in self-defense. Many times my ex-wife would throw things at me and come at me with her fingernails, drawing blood from the scratches she would inflict on my face and neck. She even broke my arm and ribs when she threw a heavy chair at me. I always made up some kind of lie when I had to go to the emergency room of the hospital after she beat me up.^
Dear Abby responded:
Your case is not unusual and from the mail I receive, I can attest to that. Thanks for writing.
Within the genre of a mass-market newspaper column, that’s an excellent response. A newspaper advice columnist cannot be expected to analyze nationally representative data on injury-related visits to hospital emergency rooms. A successful newspaper advice columnist cannot ignore the requirements of attracting and keeping readers. A newspaper advice columnist can acknowledge the volume of mail she receives from abused men. She can publicly express sincere personal sympathy for men’s injuries.