Brazilian Machismo Gives Way to Husband Beating
Brazilian Machismo Gives Way to Husband Beating
Date: July 28, 2003
Source: "Brazilian Machismo Gives Way to Husband Beating: Soaring Numbers of Men Seek Help at Abuse Shelters in Rio." National Post (July 28, 2003).
About the Author: This article was written by an anonymous staff writer at the Canadian English-language newspaper National Post.
This is a newspaper article of the type known in journalism as "man bites dog", a story about an unexpected or intriguing reversal of roles. In it, the National Post, a major Canadian English-language paper, reports that men are increasingly victims of domestic abuse in Brazil. The article suggests that machismo may be "dying a slow and painful death" in Brazil, thus offering a possible explanation for "soaring" domestic violence against men in that country.
Machismo is a Spanish word that denotes exaggerated maleness. Men who espouse machismo (that is, men who are macho) tend to view themselves as superior and to emphasize physical toughness, bravery, stoicism, and (sometimes) violence against women. Feminists and some government social agencies have associated machismo with domestic violence, particularly the beating or murder of wives or girlfriends. Forms of machismo appear in many or perhaps most modern societies, not just in Brazil and other Latin American countries.
Like machismo, domestic violence is a feature of many societies, including the United States. Brazil, however, has a particularly serious domestic violence problem. Brazilian law has long acknowledged the "defense of honor" principle, whereby a man can with impunity kill a wife who has been sexually unfaithful. Although the Brazilian Supreme Court struck down the "defense of honor" principle in a 1991 murder case, lower courts have continued to apply the concept. According to the U.S. State Department (1999), "courts are still reluctant to prosecute and convict men who claim that they attacked their wives for infidelity." Female murder victims in Brazil are thirty times more likely to have been killed by husbands or lovers than by other men. Thirty-one percent of Brazilian women report being physically abused by their husbands or lovers.
RIO DE JANEIRO —When security officials here embarked on an ambitious project to set up special services for the thousands of women abused by their husbands and boyfriends several years ago, they never imagined that a substantial portion of those seeking their services one day would actually be men.
But machismo, it seems, may be dying a slow and painful death in this society traditionally dominated by men. In the past two years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of men seeking help at shelters and special police stations, usually reserved for battered women. At one shelter in the working-class Rio suburb of Sao Goncalo, cases of men seeking help over abuse has more than doubled from 108 to 259 cases in the last year, social workers say.
And it is not just men from poor families, where a great deal of domestic abuse still happens. More than 100 of the male clientele at the Sao Goncalo shelter are from middle-class households.
Statistics also show that although women are still the biggest sufferers of domestic violence throughout Brazil (in a recent survey in this beach-front city more than 51% of men admitted to using some form of abuse against their partners), the women themselves are more likely to lash out and hit their partners if they are in abusive situations. In many cases, social workers recount that while it is usually the woman who denounces her husband for domestic violence, when police go to arrest the aggressor, they find out that he is just as much a victim as his wife or girlfriend.
"Often, when we start prosecuting the husbands in abuse cases we find out that they are just as abused, if not more so, than their wives," says Catarina Noble, who heads up a police station that specializes in domestic abuse in downtown Rio. According to Ms. Noble and others, cited in a study by media giant O Globo, in many cases men usually engage in verbal abuse, and women respond with physical violence.
It's a surprising trend in a country where some judges have been known to uphold the so-called "defence of honour," an anachronistic piece of jurisprudence that allows men to murder their wives if they are caught in an affair. But for many analysts, the recent violence against men symbolizes a loss of their dominance.
As Brazil, a country of 175 million people, faces difficult economic times, with increased joblessness and rising prices, domestic abuse is going up exponentially, experts say. At the same time, there are increased opportunities for impoverished women—traditionally the biggest victims of domestic abuse—with more government-sponsored training and educational programs targeted at them.
"Women are getting stronger in Brazil," says analyst Alice Bittencourt. "They have to deal with tougher situations. Many times, the husband is unemployed."
"When he gets home drunk, for example, she has an attack and hits him. That's typical."
In one case, Fatima, 32, was abused by her boyfriend and decided to fight back. She is an expert in Thai martial arts, and inflicted some serious damage on her boyfriend, social workers say.
"He arrived home drunk and he attacked me," said Fatima, who would not reveal her last name. "I fought back, and hurt him a lot, and I told him it was the first and last time he would ever hurt me. After that we separated." She said she did not seek out the police because her boyfriend was a police officer.
Abused men are very similar to abused women, experts say. They arrive at shelters or special police stations here with low self-esteem and are afraid their wives or girlfriends will discover that they have sought help. At one shelter, a social worker recounted the story of a prominent union leader who was being physically abused by his wife.
At the women's shelter in Sao Goncala, officials reported the experience of a 50-year-old businessman they call "X." He came to see social workers complaining his wife was verbally abusing him, and throwing things at him. "He was completely in love with his wife, who was having an extramarital affair," said the co-ordinator of shelter, Mariza Gaspary. "The curious thing was that after they separated, the wife hooked up with a new boyfriend who started to abuse her physically."
Domestic abuse transcends national, cultural, class, and religious barriers. In most poor countries, women are more likely to be assaulted by a husband or boyfriend than by a stranger outside the home. Men also are victims of domestic violence but less frequently. Figures on the relative frequency of male and female domestic victimization are not readily available for Brazil, but in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, eighty-five percent of those violently victimized by "intimate partners" in 2003 were women and seventy-four percent of those killed by an intimate partner were women. In the United States, intimate partners committed twenty percent of all violent crimes against women and three percent of all violent crimes against men.
The article reproduced above gives no quantitative information about the growth of domestic abuse of men in Brazil as a whole; it uses nonspecific phrases that give the impression that the phenomenon of increasing male victimization in Brazil is revolutionary in scope, the "death of machismo." For instance, in its first paragraph it states that a "significant portion" of those seeking help at government domestic abuse centers are men but never defines "significant." In its second paragraph, it notes that in one suburb the number of men seeking help for abuse doubled from 108 to 259 over a one-year period, but it does not say how many women sought help in the same period. Without such context, there is no way to assess the significance of the figures given. Morever, figures for one suburb are of little value in establishing the extent or even the existence of a national trend. Other vague language appears in the fourth paragraph: after the article states that women are still the "biggest sufferers of domestic violence throughout Brazil" (how much bigger is "biggest"?), it goes on to state that women are now "more likely" (how much more?) to "lash out" in abusive situations and that "in many cases" (how many?) social workers find that men are "just as much a victim" as the wife or girlfriend. The article quotes a Brazilin study as finding that in "many" (how many?) cases women respond with physical violence to verbal abuse. Finally, although the piece speaks of "the recent violence against men," it cites no data to support its claim that violence against men is increasing ("soaring", in fact) in Brazil.
It should also be noted that while the article speaks repeatedly of the "abuse" of men by women, the only detailed anecdote related—the story of Fatima, a woman skilled in Thai martial arts who was attacked by her boyfriend and fought back, injuring him—is an instance of self-defense, not abuse of a man by a woman. In that story, Fatima's boyfriend is not legally a "victim" at all. This would apply to all women who "lash out" violently when attacked violently. Fighting back against violent attack is not considered to be a form of domestic abuse.
Conclusions about sweeping changes in social psychology cannot be drawn from data as fragmentary as those given in this source. Nevertheless, the article draws attention to a group often omitted from discussions of domestic violence—whether in Brazil or elsewhere—namely male victims.
Nelson, Laura Sue. "The Defense of Honor: Is It Still Honored in Brazil?" Wisconsin International Law Journal. 11 (1992–93): 531. Available at: 〈http://www.law-lib.utoronto.ca/Diana/fulltext/nels.htm〉 (accessed March 13, 2006).
BBC News. "Two in Three Women Abused." 〈http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1992915.stm〉 (accessed March 14, 2006).
BBC News. "Women 'Face Worst Abuse at Home'." 〈http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4465916.stm〉 (accessed March 14, 2006).
U.S. Department of State. "Brazil: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 1999." 〈http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/1999/377.htm〉 (accessed March 14, 2006).