Abuse: What’s Society Got to Do With It?

Abuse: What’s Society Got to Do With It?

This post was written by Mikaela, a loveisrespect advocate

Dating abuse is often mislabeled as a “relationship problem,” but we know that it’s actually a problem with one individual’s behaviors. Abuse happens when one person tries to gain and maintain power and control over their partner. While every abusive person is 100 percent responsible for their own behavior and choices, the beliefs that lead to abuse are, in many ways, rooted in our culture. Today we want to talk about some of the ways our culture reinforces and normalizes abusive behaviors so we can combat those unhealthy beliefs and stop abuse before it starts! 

We know that abuse can and does happen to people of all genders and sexual orientations, but statistics show that, around the world, relationship abuse is predominantly inflicted upon women, often by men. Unhealthy ideas about gender roles and expectations can encourage and excuse really unhealthy beliefs about relationships and power. Two concepts that contribute to these ideas are male privilege and the objectification of women.

Male Privilege

Coming from a long history of patriarchy (which is the idea that power and control inherently belong to the men of a community), many beliefs about male privilege are still built into our society, including our ideas about power in intimate relationships.

Something we hear from many abusive partners who are working to change their behavior is that they deeply believed they had the right to control their partner. That misconception can affect people of all genders in relationships, but it can be especially true for boys and men who have grown up surrounded by the message that they are supposed to be powerful and that they deserve to have control. They feel that anything less than full control in a relationship means they are being “emasculated” or they’ll be seen as weak, and weakness is associated with being “feminine.” For men who subscribe to these beliefs, being feminine is the ultimate failure. You can start to see how this leads to some unhealthy ideas about both men and women.

Ads, movies and other media often reinforce the idea that being in any way “feminine” is an undesirable trait for men and makes them less powerful and less admired by their peers. As an example, in the ad below a man is wearing a facial mask like you might get at a spa.


The caption reads, “Some men just need to be slapped” and the small print at the bottom implies that if you cry or share your feelings, you aren’t “manly” enough. The subtext is that getting a spa treatment or expressing feelings are exclusively feminine, and it’s unacceptable for men to participate in feminine activities. Not only is it unacceptable, but guys who do it should be physically hurt. This kind of thinking divides men and women into separate boxes (watch Tony Porter’s great TED talk about the “man box”) and suggests that any overlap, especially for men, is wrong or even worthy of violence.

Even common phrases can hint at male privilege and these separate “boxes.” You’ve probably heard someone say, “He/she wears the pants in the relationship,” which is often used to indicate who has the power or control in the relationship. The phrase itself suggests that one person should have more control in a relationship and the control is rightfully the male partner’s, since traditionally men wore pants and women wore skirts. A woman who “wears the pants in the relationship” is taking on the “male” role and the power that supposedly comes with it.


One way that we can work towards ending abuse in our society is to shift our beliefs and recognize that no one has the right to power and control over others, regardless of gender. A healthy relationship should never feel like a power struggle, but is instead based on equality between partners.

Objectification of Women

Women are often objectified in media, from billboards and magazines to music, movies and video games. While it may not seem like a big deal, the constant objectification of women can actually have a huge impact on relationships in the real world because it creates very unhealthy ideas about the value and role of women.

As Caroline Heldman described in her TEDtalk, The Sexy Lie, objectification is the act of making someone or something an “object.” In some cases, they are literally turned into another object, like in these ads where women’s bodies are turned into food and furniture:

LIR objectification

The reason this is so harmful is that an object is passive and powerless. The “object” is usually controlled by a “subject,” which is often portrayed as a man. This ad for men’s shoes shows a man (the subject) buying a woman (the object) out of a vending machine:


Objectification reinforces the idea that a woman’s value is in appealing to and pleasing others. These toxic messages can shape both how girls see themselves and how guys view the women around them, which can lead to unhealthy power dynamics in relationships.

So What Do We Do?!

Recognizing the role that cultural and social beliefs can play in perpetuating abuse is super important, because it’s the first step towards breaking down those ideas and creating a world where healthy relationships are the norm. While it can seem like a lot to tackle, we all have the ability to change the way we think about power and control in relationships. Here are some really simple things that YOU can do everyday to help make that happen:

Get Savvy

Look closely at the world around you and think about what messages are being presented to you about gender, relationships and power. By recognizing unhealthy messages around us, we can make active choices about when and how we let those messages influence our actions and beliefs.

Start Conversations

Silence can be seen as acceptance. If you see or hear something that you think is unhealthy, talking about it (if you feel safe) could help open someone’s eyes to their own unhealthy beliefs. Remind your friends and peers that everyone deserves respect and equality! Read more about what makes a relationship healthy here.

Engage Your Community

Find ways to help your community combat unhealthy messages and make healthy relationship education a way of life, whether it’s in school, at home or on social media.

Where do you see unhealthy messages about power and control? What do you plan to do to help shift the conversation and promote healthy relationships? Let us know in the comments!

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