Are women the perpetrators of domestic violence as often as men, and are men the victims as often as women? Ben Wadham assesses the evidence.
With an increasing interest in men and masculinity, a change in the awareness and understanding of gender and power relations is occurring. That awareness is inherently influenced by the way we as individuals within those gender and power relations are socialised. In this western world of overt rationalist logic some of the emerging dialogue is limited and adversarial in nature. One significant example is the recent emergence of literature suggesting that women are as much perpetrators of domestic violence as men, and men are as much victims of domestic violence as women.
Recent research and literature by John Coochey, the People's Equality Network (PEN) and Katherine Dunn claim that contemporary representations of male violence are false. These authors argue that female domestic violence is as prevalent as male domestic violence. They suggest that domestic violence organisations and services, and some prominent women in the domestic violence field, are fudging statistics and actively maintaining a false representation of domestic violence for political and financial purposes.
Coochey is particularly vocal and he focuses on denigrating the recent and current domestic violence research which predominantly considers male violence against women. He does not advance current perspectives and knowledge of domestic violence by offering an alternative which would consider the gendered nature of male and female acts of violence toward their partners. Passages like, "These days people will accept even the wildest claims, as long as they make women out to be victims. Particularly, if they also put men in a poor light," express a conspiratorial and antagonistic stand. Is there a need?
The development of this position demonstrates many men's strong feelings of rejection of anything which portrays them in a negative sense. It is important to realise that many streams of feminism and pro-feminist writing do not adopt a simple `all men are rapists' line although they may critique elements of masculinity. Masculinity in most feminist paradigms is seen as constructed, and therefore reflective of an array of power relations and dominant interests, rather than being essentially male. The fact that most research on domestic violence reports predominantly male violence against women is not a personalised attack on men, but a representation of the real safety issues which women and men face from male violence.
Men as victims
There would be little argument, I suspect, about the incidence of female violence against males. Police and court records in the USA consistently show that 5 percent of men are victims of domestic violence (Dobash et.al), expressing the need to consider men's experience of violence by a female partner. However, there is a more pressing need to develop a sound, contextual framework for understanding the epidemiology of male and female violence. It is the development of an argument which suggests that men and women perpetrate identical forms and levels of violence as a justification for the re-allocation of services and resources which is problematic. It is especially problematic when it is based upon a selective research model which Coochey, Dunn and PEN continually cite.
The research used by Coochey, Dunn and PEN to support the claim that violence is gender-neutral is an American study titled Behind closed doors, by Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz (1980). This is an incidence survey, designed to identify how much violence is occurring in households across America, and has been conducted several times. Questionnaires are conducted through a telephone survey with the information collated according to the "Conflict Tactics Scale" or CTS.
The survey involved the interviewer asking a range of questions of either the husband or the wife (not both) from randomly selected households. The questions of the CTS were posed around how the couple settled their disagreements. The interviewee was presented with a list of 18 acts ranging from discussing calmly, cried, threw something at him/her to beat him\her up. These classified acts were intended to measure three things--"reasoning", "verbal aggression" and "physical aggression"--on a scale of either minor violence or severe violence.
The statistics which Coochey, PEN and Dunn cite are mainly reported from studies using the CTS. PEN also base their analysis on another research model used by the VicHealth Injury Surveillance Statistics (VISS) The findings of these research models report equal incidence and prevalence of male and female violence. Steinmetz also used the CTS type of data to proclaim the `battered husband syndrome' in 1978 and there are a range of other studies producing similar findings which use the CTS as the methodological tool.
Coochey endlessly pumps out figures from the Straus et.al (1980) study. For example, he states that "one in three households would experience some degree of domestic violence but in half the cases the woman would be the perpetrator" and he uses this finding to substantiate the claim that violence is gender-neutral. Furthermore, PEN suggest that "only studies which are likely to prove useful in the future are those which, like those developed by Straus et.al in the USA, do apply exactly equivalent methodologies to both female and male experience of domestic violence". Dunn paraphrases Straus et.al (1980); "In about half the cases of mutual battering, women were the instigators--the ones who slapped, slugged or swung weapons first. Male violence against passive wives occurred in one quarter of the incidents; in another quarter of the incidents women were the violent partners who attacked non-violent spouses." Straus et.al conclude in their study that "women not only engage in physical violence as often as men, but they also initiate violence as often".
These findings are seriously incongruent with the majority of domestic violence literature. Data from criminal victimisation surveys, hospital admissions, police records, court orders, and spouses seeking shelter and refuge all show that women are persistently victims of reported assaults. Dobash et.al suggest that police and court records continually indicate that women constitute 90 to 95 per cent of such reported assaults. The way authors such as Straus et.al and Coochey can develop such an argument for `sexual symmetry in domestic violence' is by using a very suspect methodology.
Battered Data Syndrome
There are considerable problems with the Straus et.al (1980) methodology, as Jack Straton explains. Firstly, the survey questions cannot discriminate between intent and effect. The CTS fails to contextualise the violence; the violent acts are not considered in relation to the events which led up to the act, and there is no consideration of the outcomes, for example the extent of injury or the degree of fear. Moreover, the type of acts of violence are poorly differentiated. For example, having kicked, bit, hit or tried to hit with an object, beat up, choked, or threatened with a knife or fired a gun are all naively grouped as "severe violence". It isn't too hard to see that a man slapping a woman is a qualitatively different act from a woman slapping a man, in terms of the potential for harm, the level of force, the level of fear and the historical context in which such acts are situated.
Another major issue with Straus' studies is they only look at one year so that the possible history of violence which may lead up to a violent response is left out and the violence again is decontextualised. Moreover, there is no means of validating the claims of either spouse as only one spouse is interviewed. Studies by Szinovacz and Jouriles and O'Leary found that spousal accounts of violence differ significantly. This gives grounding to the common knowledge that two people in a violent relationship are going to give different descriptions and accounts of their experience of violence.
Furthermore, Coochey, Dunn and PEN use the Behind closed doors study selectively. Even Straus et.al (1980) point out a number of reasons why abuse against women should remain the focus of intervention. Husbands had the higher rates of the most dangerous behaviours, husbands repeated their violence more often, husbands are more likely to do damage because of their size and strength difference, wives are economically trapped in marriage more often than husbands, and many wives may be using violence to defend themselves. While the `men as victims' argument attempts to substantiate a case for a `battered husband syndrome', it only substantiates a claim for a `battered data syndrome'.
The argument of these proponents of `men as victims' is hard-hitting, just like the simplistic media portrayals of violence which have motivated its emergence. It is based upon the idea that similar incidents of violence behaviour mean that the violence, the circumstances leading up to it and the effects and consequences of it are the same also. Coochey in particular fails to elaborate that the Behind closed doors study also showed that when both partners were violent 44 percent of the husbands used a higher level of violence than their partners compared with 23 percent of the wives who used a higher level of violence. He also failed to say that the study found that the risk of victimisation of women is larger because of significant size differences and relative lack of fighting experience (Saunders, p. 49). On average, at the time of the study, men were 45 pounds heavier and 4-5 inches taller than women.
The Behind closed doors study also showed that if women do use violence it is more likely to be against a violent partner than a non-violent partner. This raises the question about the form and reasons for female violence toward men. The PEN article cites figures from the VISS research which suggest that men suffer more lacerations and puncture wounds than female victims of domestic violence. Women were more likely to suffer bruising, inflammations and pain. The study also states that women used knives more than twice as often as men, as weapons of domestic violence. This data has been used to imply that not only is male\female offending similar but women are more brutal. However, this neglects the reasons and motivations for violence. For example, Straus showed that husbands' threats to use weapons were highly associated with their use and women's threats to use weapons were not as highly associated with their actual use. This suggest that women's use of weapons with little actual violence is a measure of self-defence while men's threats with actual use suggest actual attempts to control.
Moreover, the consequences of violence need to be considered. A push or punch by a woman may cause rage or laughter in a male while a punch or push by a man can be far more damaging and terrifying. Such a lack of physical power is likely to promote women, if they do `fight back', to use weapons for their own safety or as an equaliser.
Furthermore, if we follow the line of Coochey, Dunn and PEN then we are restricted to considering domestic violence as discrete from other forms of violence. However, violence is not restricted to the domestic sphere and unfortunately, males account for perpetration of 91 per cent of homicides, 90 per cent of assaults and nearly all sexual assaults and robberies in Australia (Egger, 1995). Men are also predominantly the victims of violence from other men (Egger, 1995).
It is counter-intuitive to suggest that women perpetrate the same kinds of violent acts, in the same ways, and for the same reasons as men. It has, historically, predominantly been men who have lead armies, gone to war, and commanded expeditionary forces into other countries conquering and colonising. What is more, there are no phrases I can think of which describe the use of force on male partners, like the term "wife-beating" does for men. And there are few historical phrases like "A woman, a dog, a hickory tree, the more you beat them, the better they be," which legitimise female violence against men as this legitimises male violence against women. Moreover, personally as a man it is other men who challenge my feelings of safety not women.
For me this infers that as men we have an obligation and responsibility to look at male violence, not only for the sake of women, but for our own health and wellbeing.
The way forward
Writing an article questioning the emotive methodology of the `men as victims' argument potentially sets up an environment for antagonism. This is however, what I am attempting to refute. I believe that it is time to consider the real effects of dominant masculine values upon others in the family, the workplace, in politics or in the ways we perceive difference in others. The dominant masculine values of `an unwillingness to talk', to `admit weakness', to `disclose vulnerability' (as Newburn and Stanko describe them) or practices of control and `power over' are successful tactics of power but they are also the site of men's undoing.
Men who experience female violence may be unwilling to report their assault because of shame and tensions with their ideas of masculinity, or police may laugh at a man reporting female violence because `no real man would let his wife hit him'. Research to date, of issues involving the implications of masculine ideals in men's experience of female violence, has been few and far between. Future research could well illuminate some of these issues. However, this research will take us down the path of considering what dominance, control and violence mean for us as men, not leading us into a `battle of the victims'.
The research I have criticised is less a cry for the issue of female violence to be addressed and more a representation of dominant interests attempting to perpetuate existing notions of gender and power. A more serious and considered approach would challenge these notions and afford women the attention that male domestic violence (95 percent of domestic violence) requires and those smaller number of men (5 percent) access to services which would provide them with support and safety. A more serious approach would improve both men's and women's lives. Unfortunately, it seems that for some of us the concept of male violence is too bitter a pill to swallow.
Coochey, John 1995 "Domestic violence survey provokes a row", IPA Review, 481
Coochey, John 1995 "All men are bastards", The Independent Monthly, November
Dobash, R.P., Dobash, E.E., Wilson, M. & Daly, M. 1992 "The myth of sexual symmetry in marital violence", Social Problems, 391
Dunn, K. 1994 "Media beat-ups conceal truth on female domestic violence", The Australian, 21 July
Egger. S 1995 "A preview of violence in Australia", Violence: Australian perspectives, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra: AGPS
Jouriles E.N. & O'Leary, K.D. 1985 "Interspousal reliability of marital violence", Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 53
Newburn, T. & Stanko, E.A. 1994 Just boys doing business?, Routledge: London
People's Equality Network 1995 Domestic violence - recent statistics in Victoria, January
Saunders, D.G. 1986 "When battered women use violence: husband abuse or self defence?", Victims and Violence, 11
Steinmetz, S.K. 1977/78 "The battered husband syndrome", Victimology, 2
Straton, J.C. 1994 "The myth of the `Battered Husband Syndrome'", Masculinities: Interdisciplinary Studies on Gender, 24
Straus, M.A. 1973 "A general systems theory approach to a theory of violence between family members", Social Science Information, 12
Straus, M.A. Gelles, R.J., & Steinmetz, S.K. 1980 Behind closed doors: violence in the American family, New York: Doubleday/Anchor
Szinovacz M.V. 1983 "Using couple data as a methodological tool: the case of marital violence", Journal of Marriage and the Family, 45
First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 6(1), Autumn 1996. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission.