In December last year, local domestic violence committees in South West Sydney joined together to conduct a forum to tease out a variety of issues concerning men as victims that were being raised within their community. The forum was initiated by the committees’ as a way to highlight and discuss the key issues which include the acknowledgement of men as victims, establishing referral pathways and the importance of accurately reporting on research findings regarding prevalence. Stephen Fisher was one of nine panellists who participated on the day. The following are his thoughts on the issues raised by this contentious debate.
"Are men equally violent?" This was the title of a well attended forum conducted by combined South Western Sydney local domestic violence committees one very hot day in Liverpool in November last year. In fact the 42 degree heat blast symbolically mirrored the contention surrounding claims made about men, women and interpersonal violence.
"Are men equally victims of domestic violence?" The actual forum title is so loaded it is at risk of tipping over. While the answer is easy – NO – the question itself requires deeper interrogation. The answer is simply NO because there is no rigorous or legitimate research to support such a claim. Consistently, crime victimization studies typically find that domestic violence is serious, escalates over time, and is largely perpetrated by men (Kimmel 2002). While the complexity of human behaviour defies definitive generalisations there is a high degree of consensus among researchers that around 85% of intimate partner violence is committed against women (Dubin 2003). Recent research undertaken by the highly credible firm Access Economics found that 87% of victims of domestic violence are women with 98% abused by a male partner.
One key source is repeatedly cited by men’s rights groups to claim equality in violence. This work is based on a dubious methodology, the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS), for measuring partner violence. According to Flood (1999) “…It leaves out important forms of violence, it treats violent acts out of context, and it depends only on reports either by the husband or wife despite poor interspousal reliability.” For example, there is no recognition of female violence as self-defence, and minor acts – breaking a teacup – are given equal weight to major aggression – breaking a rib.
Despite the research identified above why is this claim of mutual violence made so consistently and vociferously by those concerned about ‘men’s rights’? Overtly, I think there are two ways of understanding the strategy of claiming symmetry in violence. One involves using extremism to shift a debate and the other is the commonly employed “Straw (wo)Man” argumentative technique.
In polarised social action campaigns where two sides advocate quite different moral positions, it is common that the public sympathy would sit somewhere in the middle. One technique to shift opinion more to one’s own end of the spectrum is to have a fringe group deliberately promote ideas or actions that sit at your end but are more extreme. Your group then deliberately distances itself from such radical and unreasonable views, and as a result your own position appears to be much more reasonable in comparison. The general public are more likely to align with such a reasonable voice, unwittingly moving the centre ground to a position more favourable to your cause. Radical feminist organisation SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) was actually a piece of artistic fiction by Valerie Solanas (1971) but may well have encouraged the uptake of more moderate feminist positions. So it is possible that men’s rights advocates actively promote absurd falsehoods as a deliberate strategy to shift the gender political debate their way.
I suspect the “Straw (wo)Man” technique is more likely however. This involves setting up one’s opponent position in such a way that it is refuted or defeated. In this case it involves caricaturing women’s agencies and representatives as holding extremist or black and white positions. The claim is that feminists believe that only women are victims of intimate partner assault and only men are perpetrators. While some refuge workers at times may believe this is a realistic assessment, there is acknowledgment that men can be victims too.
The difficulty is that by setting up the “Straw (wo)Man” the protagonists are able to refute claims made about women as victims because they are aware of cases where women have assaulted their partner. In this case offering a defence is very difficult because as soon as women start to refute the equality of domestic violence, the credibility of their claims are undermined. Perhaps such a tactical error is the result of treating the question rationally and at face value. It is more rhetorical than sincere. The lack of sincerity of the men’s rights claimants is quite clear. Using Internet search term “violence against men” results in the first 20 hits all referring to domestic violence, and most are backlash in orientation. It is a fact that men are assaulted (and murdered) more frequently than women and assault in the home by a female intimate partner comprises a negligent percentage of all attacks on men. But rarely, if ever, do we encounter men’s rights groups speaking about injury to men in contexts other than the home. If these activists were really concerned about preventing injury to men their attention would be elsewhere.
When I came across the following comment, the emotion behind the forum question became clearer:
“I was doing some thinking about women and some women's attitude towards men. The feminist movement is extremely hostile towards men in this nation. … Such an action is equated to pure cruelty. That is what the feminist’s keep doing. They invade the world of men and attack.” (O'Neal 2004)
This man feels victimised. And I was reminded that it is not uncommon for perpetrators of intimate partner violence to believe in their own victim hood. Ironically, in many ways the psychology of the vocal men’s rights member and the man who commits assault in the home are similar.
In his book examining the nature of evil Roy Baumeister (1997) describes a number of key characteristics of perpetrators of violence:
They often feel their actions are justified, as they themselves are victims.
They often have over-inflated and fragile egos or sense of self-worth.
Their identity is strongly tied to identifying an “in-group” and demonising outsiders
They often downplay the importance of their actions.
They commonly set up situations in which violence is almost inevitable.
They tend to think in terms of short-term gains, rather than long-term consequences.
They tend to deal with being confronted with their actions by citing external causes.
The first three of these are particularly relevant here. It appears that it is very common for violent perpetrators to not only deny the seriousness of their actions, but also go further to claim that they are victims. Baumeister explains that this response is not only common but quite understandable. Rather than being seen as ‘a bastard’ a victim is able to make a legitimate claim on others sympathy. Also victimisation provides a more acceptable explanation for their unreasonable behaviour. This helps to explain the lack of responsiveness these men display to well meaning exhortations that they take responsibility for their behaviour. This same attitude is clearly a fundamental self-construct for the men who feel compelled to challenge “the statistics”.
Secondly, contrary to popular belief, individuals who commit malevolent acts do not suffer from low self-esteem. Baumeister provides ample convincing evidence to demonstrate that “evildoers” tend to think quite highly of themselves. This is not to mean that having a positive self-regard leads to violence. The crucial factor is that the individual’s ego is over inflated, and like a balloon, easily deflated. They are constantly on guard to protect or defend their sense of self. As a result … “men who beat their wives differ in many respects from other men – and one important difference is their tendency to construe seemingly innocuous or ambiguous acts by the wife as deliberate personal attacks.” (p. 44) Again parallels can be seen with men’s groups who often appear to overreact to the actions or statements of women’s services. And this response, i.e. the perceived threat, is likely to be strongest where the women’s advocates have presented intelligent and compelling arguments about the tragedy of violence against women.
The third aspect of a dangerous person’s psyche is the tendency for their sense of self to be strongly tied to identification with a particular group in direct opposition to an outsider class. Hence the declared gender war. Women are the enemy and the man’s sense of self can only be maintained by fighting (at least verbally) and if possible, winning.
The reality is that when talking about men as victims there is the tendency for positions on the issue to become so polarised. While it is important to strongly and clearly counter misinformation about gender violence, rational argument is unlikely to have much success with a certain group of men. We should not be surprised when men claim victim status (even when they have directly harmed someone) and attempts to dissuade them are unlikely to be effective. We should be ready to deal with over-reactions from men who feel personally attacked each time a criticism is made of male behaviour or a woman is publicly being assertive and confident about men’s violence to women.
The men’s rights movement is experiencing a concerning degree of mainstream support and we must continue to evaluate and refine our responses.
Access Economics, 2004, The cost of domestic violence to the Australian economy : part I. Partnerships Against Domestic Violence, Office of the Status of Women, Canberra.
Baumeister, R. F. 1997, Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Violence. W.H. Freeman and Company, New York.
Dubin, M. 2003, Men As Victims of Intimate Violence, Communities Against Violence Network.
Flood, M. 1999, When men are subject to violence.
Kimmel, M. (2002). "Gender symmetry in domestic violence: A substantive and methodological research review." Violence Against Women, Vol. 8, No. 11. Special Issue: Women's Use of Violence in Intimate Relationships, Part 1.
O'Neal, D.,2004, Men's Rights, Altnews.
Solanas, V. ,1971,. SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto. London, Olympia Press: Pans.
Walter S. DeKeseredy and Martin D. Schwartz, 1998,. Measuring the Extent of Woman Abuse in Intimate Heterosexual Relationships: A Critique of the Conflict Tactics Scales, National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women.
By Stephen Fisher, Chisholm Institute of TAFE, Victoria