I've Represented Hundreds Of Women In Domestic Violence Cases. Here's What I Know.

If we really want to protect our daughters, it begins with how we raise our sons.
The whole family at the New York City Women's March in 2017.
The whole family at the New York City Women's March in 2017.
Photo Courtesy Of Dean Masello

As a former attorney for victims of domestic violence who is now a stay-at-home dad to twin girls, I worry about their future.

I’m constantly bombarded with advice on how to protect my daughters from men. An Uber driver recently shared these words of wisdom: “If your daughters ever bring a guy home, look him square in the eye and say, ‘Hey, buddy, I’m not afraid of going back to prison.’ Make sure you say ‘back!’”

Quite a few people have suggested that the key to keeping my daughters safe is to enroll them in Brazilian jiujitsu, kick-boxing and various other forms of self-defense. The most common advice involves my wife and me procuring a brother to protect our girls: “Your girls are so beautiful. I hope they have an older brother.”

I think to myself, “Each year, 5 million women are victims of domestic violence. I assume many of them have brothers.”

I’ve devoted most of my professional career to public service, with a focus on advocating for victims of abuse and marginalized populations. In 2005, I formed a private practice that specialized in domestic violence advocacy. From my home base in Columbus, I traveled to small towns all over Ohio representing (mostly) women seeking civil protection orders. Over time, I formed an alliance with women’s shelters throughout the state.

As a domestic violence advocate, my role was equal parts lawyer and therapist. On average, it takes a victim seven times to leave an abusive partner before staying away for good. My clients would often dismiss their cases out of fear of` retaliation, but love for the abuser plays the most significant role in the victim’s decision. If a client wanted to dismiss a case against an abuser, I had to honor their decision; but I would always challenge their beliefs.

“The most common advice involves my wife and me procuring a brother to protect our girls: 'Your girls are so beautiful. I hope they have an older brother.'”

From 2005-2010, I represented hundreds of victims of domestic violence. Despite the myths surrounding domestic violence, well-educated, highly accomplished professionals are just as susceptible to abuse as anyone else. Domestic violence is not a socioeconomic issue. It has no regard for age, ethnicity, money, profession or level of education. It also affects men and nonbinary individuals, though my experience has been representing (mostly) women abused by men.

Young women raised with a positive self-image and self-esteem are less likely to develop eating disorders, suffer from depression and self-harm; but confident and strong-willed women are still vulnerable to male violence and aggression.

Preventing domestic violence has traditionally been framed as a women’s issue. The literature abounds with advice that places the burden of avoiding violence against women on women themselves and the parents of young girls. I recently came across an article titled “9 Ways To Bulletproof Your Daughter Against Domestic Violence.” I’ve read countless articles of a similar ilk, which seem to offer commercial solutions to the problem of sexual assault and abuse. Self-defense training and contraptions are a cottage industry built around the idea that, essentially, it’s a woman’s responsibility to protect herself.

In addition to trading in victim-blaming, traditional self-defense is extremely limited in application. Random acts of aggression perpetrated on unsuspecting victims make up a very small proportion of violence against women. The vast majority of violence and abuse is committed by intimate male partners and other men known to victims.

A recent photo of me and Clementine.
A recent photo of me and Clementine.
Photo Courtesy Of Dean Masello

“Beware! If Your Man Does These 15 Things, He’s Majorly Insecure.” According to this school of thought, insecure traits can be reduced to a predictable profile for women to identify in the early stages of dating. However, insecure men typically don’t reveal their insecurities on the first date. As we all know, first impressions rarely represent one’s true nature. Take my former client “Maria,” for example.

Maria was a modern woman in every sense of the word. She was strong-willed, independent-minded, and on track to become a partner at her accounting firm. After years of fleeting romance and dating disasters, Maria finally met the man of her dreams. Greg was a respected young surgeon with a gregarious nature, and most importantly, had always treated Maria with respect and tenderness.

Until the morning after their storybook wedding, on their Bora Bora honeymoon, when Greg suddenly instructed Maria to list her entire sexual history in detail then commanded her to never speak of those men again.

If this had been a first date, Maria would have laughed in Greg’s face. Yet under the circumstances, she was paralyzed with fear.

Maria’s story may strike some as preposterous, but it’s not an anomaly. By the time someone realizes they’re dating an insecure man, they’ve developed feelings for him. In other words, it may be too late. Reason and good sense have little chance against the strongest emotion known to our species. Once love enters the equation, humans are willing to endure circumstances they wouldn’t wish upon their worst enemy.

Now for some good news: Intimate partner violence is a cultural phenomenon with a cultural solution. I may not have all the answers, but if there is one takeaway from my years representing victims of domestic violence, it is this: If we really want to protect our daughters, it begins with how we raise our sons.

Granted, victims of domestic violence and their abusers come from all manner of backgrounds, but people with certain risk factors are more likely to become perpetrators.

In the past, experts believed children who suffered or observed abuse were destined to become adults who would someday abuse their own children or partners. All in all, there is evidence of a low to moderate (but statistically significant) association of violence in the home and later perpetration of domestic violence. The same goes for alcohol use; although there is evidence for an association, it is not as strong or as consistent as has generally been supposed.

In my experience, abusive men all have one thing in common: insecurity. Research has shown that failing to live up to society’s definition of a manly man is not, in itself, a risk factor for violent behavior. But if a guy’s perceived lack of macho cred gnaws at him emotionally … watch out.

Men who perceive themselves as masculine (and take pride in this perception) and men who consider themselves less than truly masculine (and who feel tense or anxious as a result) are both more likely to respond to stress by acting out in a stereotypically masculine way: through violence.

Of course, values also matter. It’s important to teach our young boys about integrity, honor, respect and equality; however, I’ve seen many so-called “good men” who abuse women.

Men and women both suffer from the enduring presence of stereotypical gender roles in our society. However, unlike their female counterparts, men are socialized to conceal their feelings and emotions. Boys who are taught to “conceal” and “not feel” are more prone to violence and aggression.

While I maintain that we do not have to scrap the entire concept of masculinity, certain qualities are inherently harmful to boys and society. Parents should always encourage their children to communicate personal and emotional concerns, and never shame them for crying or expressing their feelings. Fear and vulnerability are part of the human condition — it’s time we start treating our young boys accordingly.

As it turns out, the fight for gender equality includes men, too.

Women deserve to inhabit the same world as men — free of domestic violence and the fear of violence. Although times are changing, the U.S. is still one of the most dangerous countries for women in the developed world. If we truly want domestic violence to go the way of polio and smallpox, traditional gender roles must be scrapped in the dustbin of history.

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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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