No Joke

The Hope Solo Case: Why Do We Laugh When Abusers Are Female?

Abuse and assault aren’t funny. As gender equality gets closer to reality, we need to accept that women can be perpetrators too.

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As the World Cup dominates headlines around the globe, soccer star Hope Solo has found herself in the news but not for reasons she or her fans probably hoped. Solo was arrested for allegedly assaulting two relatives. Solo becomes yet another high-profile woman accused of assault. Security footage reportedly capturing rapper Jay-Z on the receiving end of an attempted assault by his wife Beyonce’s younger sister, Solange, in an elevator became one of the biggest stories of the year.

Yet the footage didn’t inspire any serious discussion of inter-family violence. Instead it resulted in a lot of speculation—and jokes. Saturday Night Live produced one of its most inspired, and funniest, sketches in recent memory on the incident. But if the genders were reversed, would anyone be laughing?

“I think we do not take female abusers as serious as males,” Dr. Michelle Golland, a clinical psychologist told me. Golland, who has seen female abusers in her practice, added, “This is evidenced by the fact they are less likely to be charged with violent crimes. If they are charged, females will not serve as much time as males. We see this across the board, whether child abuse, sexual abuse, teacher/student abuse, or any type of assault.”

When Tiger Woods’s infidelities were exposed, rumors swirled that his wife, Elin, lost her temper during a confrontation with him and picked up a golf club—and not to play the sport that made her husband famous, but to whack him across the head. The speculation surrounding this incident inspired an endless stream of jokes—and another Saturday Night Live sketch that poked fun at a supposedly battered Woods.

It is worth noting that shortly before the Solange/Jay-Z kerfuffle made international headlines, another incidence of celebrity elevator violence also made headlines, but didn’t result in much laughter. NFL running back Ray Rice was caught on video dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator. His lawyer would later blame "very minor physical altercation." Ultimately, both Rice and his fiancée would be charged with assault. But the image of a burly football player assaulting a woman in any way certainly has a much more negative connotation than a woman raising her hand to a man. And that may be part of the problem.

“There are times when a person can be both the perpetrator and the victim of violence,” Dr. Jeff Gardere, a family therapist, wrote in an email. “At other times both partners can be fighting actively. Both situations are still considered to be destructive and categorized as domestic violence.” In Solo’s case, her husband, retired NFL player Jerramy Stevens, was arrested in 2012 for assaulting her. Though there was allegedly an injury, charges were dropped due to lack of evidence, and she wed him a day after his arrest. Similarly, Ray Rice wed his bride, Janay Palmer, one day after being indicted for assaulting her.

Asked if society has a problem taking female perpetrators of domestic violence seriously, Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline had this to say: “I don't think society takes abuse as seriously as it should, period. I think there is still a lot of victim blaming.” To Jones’ point, plenty of male athletes have been accused, arrested, and even convicted of assault, and their careers have carried on. A 1998 study of a sample of 509 NFL players found that more than 20% had been arrested for a violent criminal offense, while an analysis by The San Diego Tribune found NFL players 34% more likely than the general population to be arrested for assault and domestic violence. But Ray-Jones acknowledged that there is simply something different about how society reacts to allegations against women.

“I think when a female is identified as the abuser you see people laugh.” Ray-Jones recalled a troubling story that illustrates her point. “I was doing a training and a young man stood up and expressed his pregnant girlfriend had hit him in the head while they were driving and he didn't know what to do. He was taught never to hit a woman. The whole room of more than 80 people erupted in laughter. It was heartbreaking, and I was able to turn that into a teaching moment.” She added, “There is stigma surrounding male victims. I have worked with male victims before who have indicated that their friends and family did not believe them or that their co-workers laughed when they shared that their wife had hit them. In some instances, men have said that law enforcement didn't believe them or a shelter would not serve them. As a society, we still have beliefs about what a ‘real man’ looks like. Real men aren't abused by their partners.” She concluded, “Domestic violence remains a complex issue, and we still have a lot of education to do.”

Ray-Jones did note that less than 5 percent of calls the hotline receives reporting abuse comes from men.

Last year of 211,733 calls, fewer than 10,000 were from men identifying as victims of violence.

But since all experts I interviewed agreed that men face greater stigma in reporting violence, it is very likely the percentage is deceptively low. Additionally Dr. Golland explained that the idea of “mutual combat” versus “primary perpetrator violence” is something that can be hard for experts and law enforcement to sort out. Dr. Gardere said that as the idea of gender equality continues to gain ground, more are starting to appreciate the idea that women can in fact be perpetrators of abuse, just as much as men, something that for so long has been treated as a laughable concept. To that end, full equality in how we treat perpetrators is essential, according to Dr. Golland. “One way to discourage female violence is to deal with it on par with male violence,” she said. “I also think we must encourage women to seek counseling for their anger issues and inability to control rage and frustration.”