Battered Men: Research Reveals A Secret Side To Domestic Violence - Women Are Doing The Abusing, Too

When I first heard the phrase “male victims of domestic violence” I rolled my eyes. My mind served up an image of a sniveling bully with a bandaged hand wishing he’d had the presence of mind to pound his wife’s head with an ashtray instead of his fist. But the men I encountered two months later weren’t perpetrators; reports of police and prosecutors made that obvious. Yet neither did they describe themselves as “victims.” This greatly surprised me, because the accounts I heard that day were nothing if not anguished: an auto mechanic whose fiancée pushed him down a flight of stairs, causing a concussion; a teacher whose wife went to jail after stabbing him with a coiled coat hanger and leaving her teeth marks on his leg; and a 40-year-old insurance broker whose wife kicked him in the groin, propelling him through a sliding glass door.

“Men are socialized not to see males as victims, and not to want to,” the broker said. “Most of all you don’t want to be one yourself, because victims are weak, and men aren’t ever supposed to be weak, guys have the power, we’re supposed to be strong all the time, a victim is a pathetic feeble loser wuss – and that’s not a man.”

“Forget what you’ve heard about domestic violence,” says Patricia Pearson, author of When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence. “The truth is that women are just as likely to batter as men.”

The largest and most recent survey, conducted three years ago by the U.S. Department of Justice, reported that 39 per cent of spousal assault victims are men. Professor John Archer of the University of Central Lancashire in England reached a similar conclusion after analyzing 17 international studies from the US, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom published over the last 20 years.

"If you take into account all acts of physical aggression, then there's about equal numbers of men and women being abused," Archer said. He noted that women were more likely than men to receive physical injuries as a result of domestic attacks, but men were equally likely to be victims of less violent forms of abuse.

"The expectation I had was that it was going to be overwhelmingly the women who got injured,” Archer continued. “Given that they are more likely to be injured, why is it that they engage in acts of aggression with their partners?"

The first research to show that violence in the home claimed victims of both sexes was conducted over 25 years ago by two respected New Hampshire family violence researchers, Richard J. Gelles and Murray A. Straus. They published results of a survey stating that “women assault their partners at about the same rate as men assault their partners.” This applied to both minor and severe assaults. The findings were published in 1977 as was a book (Violence in the Family) with co-author Suzanne Steinmetz Ph.D., in 1980. Responding to feminist criticism of their research methods, Straus and Gelles reworked their questions and sampled several thousand households again. Published in 1985, (Behind Closed Doors) their findings were virtually identical, with the additional revelation that women initiated the aggression as often as the men. In minor violence (slap, spank, throw something, push, grab or shove) the incident rates were equal for men and women. In severe violence (kick, bite, hit with a fist, hit or try to hit with something, beat up the other, threaten with a knife or gun, use a knife or gun) more men were victimized than women.

Projecting the surveys onto the national population of married couples, the results showed more than eight million couples a year engaging in some form of domestic violence, 1.8 million women victims of severe violence, and two million male victims of severe violence. The study also found that half of spousal murders are committed by wives.

To say these findings sparked controversy is a colossal understatement. Feminist activists on the frontlines of the domestic violence movement continue to insist that the overwhelming majority (the figure 95% is typically cited) of spousal violence cases involve women as victims and men as perpetrators.

“In the rare instances where women behave violently in domestic situations, the violence is most often a matter of a woman acting in self defense,” says Donna Garske, executive director of Marin Abused Women’s Services. “The fundamental cause of partner violence is a belief system in which men are conditioned to expect to have authority over and services from their partners, a worldview which sanctions systematic violence against women.”

Researcher David L. Fontes agrees that male partner violence against women is real and must be vigorously challenged. He also says there are far more male victims of spousal violence by women than is widely recognized.

Noting that proponents of the patriarchy theory of domestic violence often quote a 1977 research study by Murray Straus showing that a woman is severely assaulted by her husband/boyfriend every 15 second in this country, Fontes says he finds its interesting that the same proponents regularly fail to mention that the same study indicated that a man is severely assaulted by his wife/girlfriend every 14.6 seconds.

“Feminist leaders deserve real credit for rallying around the first women who had the courage to go public with their accounts of being physically assaulted by their male partners,” says psychologist Fontes, Employee Assistance Program (EAP) manager for 5,000 employees of the California Department of Social Services (CDSS). “Yet many of these leaders seem to be exclusively interested in showcasing the maltreatment of females by males in society. This ignores the clear and convincing body of evidence, numbering more than 100 well-controlled two-sex studies, which shows there are also male victims of domestic violence by women, independent of self-defense or the evils of patriarchy.”

Fontes maintains that the controversy about the ratio of male to female victims is fueled by a confusion between two very different kinds of research: archival research (based on data from specialized or clinical sources like police reports, domestic violence centers, hospital ER rooms, and government agencies) and randomized survey research (based on data collected from a randomized sample of the entire population).

“The major problem with archival studies is that they should not be used to make generalizations about the larger population,” Fontes says. “Unfortunately, that is exactly what many in the domestic violence movement do with archival (clinical samples) data. The serious problem with the claim that 95 percent of domestic violence victim are women is that archival data only comes from reported cases of domestic violence.

“If there is a population that’s less likely to report their victimization, then the archival data is skewed and should not be used to make generalizations from. Research suggests that men are five to nine time less likely to report their victimization than women, which will have a major affect on archival results. This is why scientific randomized survey studies are critical in understanding the complete picture of domestic violence.”

Lenore Walker, one of the matriarchs of the domestic violence movement, echoes Fontes' concerns about the dangers of using only the reported cases of partner abuse to make generalizations. Of the women she studied for her 1979 book The Battered Woman, Walker writes: "These women were not randomly selected and they cannot be considered a legitimate data base from which to make specific generalizations."

In a report called Violent Touch: Breaking Through the Stereotypes , Fontes reviewed more than one hundred survey-based research studies conducted over the past two decades. He concluded that men and women are assaulting each other at nearly the same rate, or between 35 and 50 percent male victims. Survey data suggest that 50 to 80 percent of domestic violence is mutual assault. About 25 percent of the violence is men only, and 25 percent from women only. Women are more likely to receive serious injuries than men, owing to the greater size and strength of men. Only between 10 and 20 percent of women assault their partner for clear reasons of self-defense.

Covering up for abusive wives is a widespread male response, says Petaluma men’s advocate Joe Manthey, director of Kid Culture in the Schools, a seminar for educators and parents that focuses on the educational issues facing boys. “A key issue in male silence is child custody. In the same sense that many female victims stay in an abusive relationship for economic reasons, many male victims stay because they fear not only losing custody but also leaving their kids in a dangerous household.”

Robert Mitchell agrees, but adds there’s a bigger reason most men refuse to go public: “As males we’re taught to suppress our physical and emotional pain as a sign of personal strength.” A Sonoma County building contractor, Mitchell says he reached his limit on both counts the day his live-in romantic partner ended an argument they were having by extending a left hook to his jaw. She was arrested and jailed until Robert convinced the district attorney to drop the charges against her on condition that they would undergo couples therapy. Things escalated further when she got a temporary restraining order against him. Mitchell arrested when his (now former) partner claimed he had stopped her on the street at a time Mitchell that says he had proof of being elsewhere.

Even more amazing that being jailed for a crime he didn’t commit, Mitchell says, was “the automatic assumption of the arresting officer that the accused male is guilty, simply by virtue of being male and accused by a woman.” He believes some feminist activists and many police departments share secret common ground. “Feminists who despise patriarchy can’t tolerate the idea of women as perpetrators. Police officers who embody the essence of patriarchy can’t tolerate the idea of men as victims – of anything. The result is feminists and law enforcement agreeing to cast men as exclusive perpetrators and women as exclusive victims.”

Claudia Dias has seen her share of women and men in both roles, and she's doing her best to reduce the numbers all around. An attorney by training and currently a counselor by practice, Dias is director of Changing Courses, the only authorized treatment program in Sacramento that works with female abusers. She conducts separate weekly anger management groups for women and men.

Speaking at a domestic violence conference organized by the Petaluma Health Care District, Dias identified domestic violence “as far more of a family system problem than a power and control problem." She declared that only about 15 percent of the men who assaulted or abused their female partner did so because they felt the had the “male privilege” to do so. “The primary goal of anger and violent behavior” – for male and female perpetrators alike – is to "protect the personal and/or emotional integrity of the perpetrator."

Based on over 20 years of working with perpetrators of both women and men, Dias sees socialization as the main gender distinction. “Women try to keep dialogue going, while men typically walk away and refuse to talk. Men very often say ‘I hit her to make her shut up. She just wouldn’t shut up.’ Women say ‘I hit him to make him listen to me. He wouldn’t stay and listen, he just walks away.’ Different tools, same damage.”

Dias says that to grow up female in America is to get a clear message that certain forms of female violence are more than acceptable – they’re a sign of virtue. “If a man does or says something offensive, a woman gets to do something without consequence. She gets to slap the man right in the face as hard as she can. We’ve all seen it. Frank Sinatra propositions a woman who takes offense and hauls off and smacks him. If a woman does this to a man, it’s considered a prerogative of her honor. If a man does this to a woman, it’s considered an automatic felony. Who do we think we’re kidding?”

Jenna Brooke O’Neil, who teaches classes in women in U.S. history at Santa Rosa Junior College, says that’s pretty close to the question that caused her to rethink her one-time flirtation with the idea that the most fundamental feature of our society is its unrelenting maintenance of a sex/gender system that keeps women cowering and submissive. Describing herself as a “victim feminist in recovery,” O’Neil says her main beef with the idea of men as sole perpetrators in the domestic violence equation is that the idea that women can’t be perpetrators, except in self-defense and other extreme situations provoked by men.

“The appeal is that it reduces some very complex issues to a manageable band of complexity, or should I say simplicity,” she says. “Which of course is also its fundamental limitation. Many gender feminists – myself previously included – thrilled to the idea that masculinity is a point of view that forgets that it is one. But that can also be true of a viewpoint that puts the female gender in the privileged position. And it seems to me that we get on very shaky ground when we, as women, posit that our gender perspective is somehow truly universal and objective.”

A more pragmatic spin on the question of double standards was on Joe Manthey’s mind last year when he challenged the Sonoma County YWCA’s domestic violence prevention and treatment program. “The YWCA’s literature represented partner violence as equivalent to wife assault in all cases,” Manthey recalls. “Because the organization gets United Way funding, I asked them to consider making their literature gender-neutral. They declined, so I took the issue to the county human rights commission.” The YWCA reluctantly agreed to replace the word “man” with “abuser” in the sentence, “Abuse is ALWAYS the responsibility and choice of the abuser.”

The Sonoma YWCA has gone further in recent months. “Abused men who call our hotline are offered emergency motel vouchers, if they need to get to a safe place,” says domestic violence counselor Shari Tucker. “Men also get counseling and legal services such as restraining orders.” In effect, the YWCA is redefining domestic violence as a human problem rather than primarily a gender problem, a view shared by Claudia Dias and other frontline researchers.

That’s clear progress – or sheer regress, depending on your perspective or more fashionably these days, your paradigm: the lens through which you happen to make sense of life on Planet Gender. The Marin Abused Women’s Services has a men’s program of its own, one that gives men an opportunity altogether different from that afforded by the Sonoma YWCA. From MAWS’ website: “The program teaches that men use physical, verbal, emotional and sexual violence to enforce their superiority over their partners, i.e., get what they want, when they want it. Men have the opportunity to learn how they have confused their sense of self worth, character and personality with the authoritative male stereotype.”

No reasonably conscientious adult person can deny that too many men do use those kinds of violence to get their way. It’s very wrong, and it’s got to stop. But why should this be linked with an implied necessity on my part to start alerting my three-year-old son that there’s something dreadfully wrong with his being a guy, a boy, a dude, a human male? Check out how the word authoritative is used in the second sentence of the above passage. It’s plainly meant to convey something destructive, even malignant. My copy of Roget’s Thesaurus offers these synonyms for authoritative: authentic, commanding, convincing, influential, powerful, skillful, valid. For me these are not character flaws, or gender defects.

As a father it hasn’t occurred to me that my son doesn’t have the inherent capacity to be at once authoritative and male, in life-affirming ways. Lately in fact he’s been discovering there are lots of really cool things his hands can be other than fists. I feel enormous gratitude to the women who, twenty-five years ago, spoke up to say that men — as men — had to stop using their fists against the bodies of women. They made America a better country. If he’s lucky, my son will grow up in a world with a generation of women who will make the equivalent discovery for themselves. We will all be the better for it.

Source: Independent journalist and author Keith Thompson is a former U.S. Senate staff assistant. This article originally appeared in the Pacific Sun, a northern California weekly newspaper. © 2002 Keith Thompson

Related Issues: Domestic Violence, Violent Women, Violent Girls, Violence
Domestic Violence, Violent Women

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In violence we forget who we are. - Mary McCarthy

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