The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence
by Philip W. Cook
"Most of us believe that masculine
power is the fountainhead of private, as well as public, violence. Never mind that women
commit the majority of child homicides in the United States, a greater share of severe
physical child abuse, an equal rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about
a quarter of child sexual abuse, and an overwhelming share of the killings of newborns.
Spouse assault is what men do to women, women from all walks of life, getting punched in
the face by the dark fist of patriarchy. Even if we concede that women batter their
children, we cannot take it a step further and picture them battering men. We might learn
that a man's nose was broken, that he lost his job, that he was emotionally devastated,
but we still think to ourselves: He's a man. He could have hit back. He could have hit
Patricia Pearson, author of
When She Was
Bad: Female Violence and the Myth of innocence. (order on-line)
"Things started out pretty good the first couple of years. Then, she slowly
changed. She always had a temper, but then we got into some money problems,
and it got worse. She would get mad, and it would escalate all out of
proportion. She'd start hitting. She'd slap at my face, and then keep slapping
and try to scratch me. I'd put up my arms, or just grab and hold her hands. I
never hit her back. I was just taught that you never hit a woman."
Joe S. is one of thirty male victims of domestic violence that I interviewed over a
two-year period. Canadian researcher Lesley Gregorash and Dr. Malcolm George in
England have interviewed a similar number of such men. This apparently represents the sum
total of all such men who have been the subject of in-depth published interviews.
Some common patterns of behavior by victims and abusers have emerged; perhaps the most
striking is the similarity between female and male victims and their abusers. Of the
differences, the biggest is one of public and personal perception. In most cases,
male victims are stuck in a time warp; they find themselves in the same position women
were in twenty years ago. Despite the overwhelming numbers of male victims of
domestic abuse, their problem is viewed as of little consequence, or they are somehow seen
to be at blame for it.
With support from the National Institute of Mental Health, Murray Straus Ph.D., and
Richard Gelles Ph.D. conducted a nationally representative survey from the Family Research
Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, of married and cohabiting couples regarding
domestic violence. The results were first published in 1977 as was a book with
co-author Suzanne Stienmetz Ph.D., in 1980. Straus & Gelles followed up the
initial survey of more than two thousand couples, with a larger six-thousand-couple group
in 1985. 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.
Rate of Violence per 1,000 Couples
|Husband against wife
|Wife against husband
"The image of a battered wife is firmly
established in the national consciousness. In the aftermath of the Nicole
Simpson murder (we've nearly forgotten about Ron Goldman), the national media
almost exclusively portrayed the male as the brutal, overpowering, must-be-stopped
perpetrator of domestic violence and the female as the helpless, innocent victim,
deserving our collective sympathies. That situation may be accurate in
some instances and should not be tolerated. However, to consider the
possibility of a battered husband is so far from our national image of men as to be
laughable. Nevertheless, many studies have been done that demonstrate the reality of
the husband who has been assaulted and seriously injured by his wife or girlfriend."
James Sniechowski, Ph.D. and Judith Sherven, Ph. D., from the article, Backlash and the Fact of Battered
Husbands available at the Men's Resource Center Web site.
The figures for abused women are the most often quoted figures regarding domestic
violence in support of funding and attention for the problem. Most often, the equal
or greater number of male victims are simply ignored. If couples not currently
living together were included, the figure would likely be higher. These totals come with a
qualification that is rarely mentioned, however; the surveys asked only if a particular
type of violence occurred at least once in the past year. Other studies indicate
severe repeated "battering" attacks to be much less common. The familiar
statement that a woman is beaten every 15 seconds comes from the Family Research
Laboratory surveys, using two million severe attacks as a basis. This statement is
often attributed to the FBI or Justice Department, who have referred to it in
publications, but it is not their result. To accept the Family Research Laboratory results
for women should mean having to accept the same sources for male victimization, and to
accept the most recent results, which find that only some things have stayed the same
since the surveys began. Both men and women experience an equal level of domestic
violence victimization, but in the most severe category the number of women being
assaulted has declined, from two million to 1.8 million while the number of men assaulted
has stayed at two million. This means that a woman is severely assaulted every 18
seconds by her mate, and a man is similarly assaulted every 15 seconds.
Mentioned much less often is what the Justice Department does in fact say about
domestic violence in their National Crime Survey: they report a total rate for all types
of domestic violence that is considerably less than the academic results, only one million
cases of all types of domestic violence directed against women. The Family Research
Laboratory surveys are recognized, however, as being more accurate since they are based on
a nationally representative sample, are not labeled a "crime" survey and cover a
range of violent actions that the Justice Department survey neglects. The Family
Research Laboratory results have been upheld by more than thirty other studies in the
U.S., Canada and Great Britain.
Most domestic violence is mutual, and most wouldn't happen if there was not a history
of such violence in the family of origin.
By their own admission in the sociological surveys, Women hit first at about the same
rate as men do. About half of all incidents of violence are one-sided: the rest is
mutual combat. The woman who slaps or throws things greatly increases her chances of
being hit in return. More importantly, the sons of violent parents have a rate of
wife-beating 1000 per cent greater than those of non-violent parents. The daughters
of violent parents have a husband-beating rate 600 per cent greater. Only about 10%
of violent couples have a family history that was non-violent. Ignoring violent
women, and concentrating solely on inhibiting violent men contributes to the cycle
of violence for the next generation.
Who Was Violent?
Certainly, a man slapping or shoving a woman is much more likely to inflict injury than
a woman slapping or shoving a man. Since much more domestic violence falls into the
"general violence" category there would be more injuries for women. An
examination of 6,200 police and hospital reports by social scientist Maureen Mcleod,
however, found that men suffered severe injuries more often than women did in domestic
encounters. Seventy-four percent of the men reported some injury, while injuries
among women average 57%. When domestic violence falls into the "severe"
category, women are more likely to use a weapon than men. In Dr. McLeod's study, 63%
of the men faced a deadly weapon, while only 15% of the women did. Additionally, a
report published by Barbara Morse of the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University
of Colorado found that men sought medical care for domestic violence injuries at a
slightly greater rate than did women. Apparently, its just a matter of style.
Women probably suffer a greater amount of total injuries ranging from mild to serious
because they are struck with the most ready instrument, the human hand, which will cause
greater damage coming from a man than from a woman, but when it comes to serious injuries
where weapons and object use come into play, the injury rate is about the same or pehaps
greater for men. Stylistic differences aside, the result comes out about the same
for their partners: injury and intimidation.
While law enforcement numbers show that a woman is nearly twenty-five percent more
likely to be killed by her mate than a husband killed by his wife, the rate is virtually
equal for black couples.
Another argument for ignoring the true nature of most domestic violence is to claim
that women have a much more difficult time than men do in leaving an abusive
relationship. This doesn't hold up to scrutiny either; in fact, low-income women are
more likely, not less likely to leave an abusive relationship than are affluent women.
Indeed, if there are children men may be more likely to be inhibited against leaving an
abusive relationship than women. Men do know one thing: their chances of getting
custody of the children are not very good. Their chances of unblocked visitation with the
children from a possibly vindictive and abusive spouse aren't very good either.
Losing a relationship with one's own children, possibly forever, can certainly be
considered as a big factor in a man staying in an abusive relationship.
Men also face another factor that abused women today don't face as much--ridicule and
isolation. Who can they talk to about their problem?
"The cops show up, and they think it's a big joke," Tim S. explained
after his live-in girlfriend hit him in the head with a frying pan, which resulted in
severe bleeding and a deep cut. "I never did tell anyone [of my friends and
family] about all this while it was going on, because they would assume that I had done
something to her, or that I deserved it. If there had been a crisis line for men in
this situation I would have called it, to find out what to do, what the options were, how
to stop it."
Not having any resources to turn to for help with their situation, no victim's
advocates, no crisis lines, no support groups, no media recognition, no shelters, and a
pervasive attitude that supports a macho "I can handle it...I must be the strong and
responsible one" kind of response, further inhibits a man from leaving an abusive
relationship, or even acknowledging it.
Even if a man seeks out a therapist for help, he is likely to find none, contends
counselor Michael Thomas of Seattle, Washington. "In talking with other therapists, I
find that they rarely even ask questions of their male clients about the possibility of
the client being abused. I think a great many clinicians are still resistant to
seeing certain types of female behavior as abusive. If the client can't talk about
it, it becomes internalized, and it increases the danger of the men exploding in rage
themselves, getting depressed or suicidal, withdrawing from relationships, and other kinds
of effects. I have also heard from female abusers who can't get help. There
are very few resources out there, for either victim or abuser."
Recognition of this possibility for individuals, therapists, the news media and many
helping professionals will come slowly, and even more slowly for the general public. It
should come as no surprise that national surveys show a significant drop in public
approval of a man slapping his wife under any circumstances, but no change at all in
approval for a woman slapping her husband.
The point is not to excuse violence. It should not matter who started it, or what
the provocation was. True self-defense is one matter; however, research clearly
shows that in the overwhelming majority of domestic violence incidents, a direct threat to
one's life is not involved. If we excuse violent acts by women by saying that they
must have been provoked or were in response to violent acts by men, then that would put us
in the position of accepting violent acts by men under the same circumstances. It
does not reflect reality, either, as women themselves say that self-defense was not the
reason for the overwhelming majority of attacks on their mates.
The solution for dealing with domestic violence on a realistic and factual basis does
not necessarily mean a threat to funding for shelters or crisis lines as they currently
exist. I don't believe we need a second set of funding for men's shelters.
Rather, a change in attitude can accomplish the same goals. The Valley Oasis Shelter
of Lancaster, California, for example, treats each call from those seeking help with
dignity and respect, man or woman. It has a separate facility for men with children
in need of shelter. The Kelso, Washington Emergency Shelter also handles crisis calls from
men, and has a male support worker, while not providing shelter services. There is
no reason current crisis lines cannot serve both genders. A little creative thinking
and configuration could provide actual shelter services for males and their children in
many circumstances. These type of approaches are rare, and if a recent survey by the
Detroit News in Michigan is of any guide, even crisis lines that claim to be
gender-neutral and helpful to abused men in public statements, may not be in reality.
No program to combat domestic violence will be very effective, however, unless the true
nature of such violence is recognized. We need to believe what women themselves
report in surveys; they start a quarter of the violence, men start a quarter of the
incidents, and the remaining half involve mutual violence.
Unless this fact is recognized, women seeking help for their anger problem, lesbians
and gay men with partner problems, and heterosexual men who are being abused will continue
to be discriminated against and told that their problem isnt real. The facts
show otherwise; their problem is real and it affects millions of people.
Attitudes can change, however, and they have even been put to the test. When the vast
and respected list of research showing men and women to be equally guilty of domestic
violence was shown to psychology students at California State University, Long Beach, only
one-third of the men and women were unwilling to accept the findings.
Its probably surprising that the number of students (and one would presume in the
general population) unwilling to accept only a part of the research results about domestic
violence when presented with it is not larger. For more than twenty years, we have
been presented with only one part of the equation. Given the legal and societal
history of discrimination and oppression against women in many areas, this was
appropriate: it is not appropriate today. It has become an "us" against
"them" battle. The reality of domestic violence, however, tells us that
it is more complex than that. Some cases can be attributed to mental illness, but most are
due to family upbringing, poor self-esteem, alcohol abuse, and/or uncertain employment
combined with low anger management and communication skills. Domestic violence is a
human problem, not a gender problem.
If we fail to put resources and effort into dealing with the total reality of domestic
violence instead of just one part of this phenomena, we only encourage a
group-against-group effect which is a disservice to everyone. The sociologists tell us
that domestic violence at some level affects a significant minority of British, Canadian,
and US couples. It is a criminal tragedy that must be dealt with on an economic,
social, legal and spiritual level, but evidence of these human events should not encourage
us to declare that the family is a bankrupt construct. If we can move forward to a
better understanding of the benevolent and malevolent nature of each gender, we increase
the opportunity for constructive rather than destructive relationships.
©1988 by Philip W. Cook
This article orginally appeared in the Women's Freedom Network newsletter and is based on Philip W. Cook's book Abused
Men: The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence By .
Mr. Cook is a former broadcast journalist and currently writes and lectures on domestic
violence and gender issues.
Thanks to Jim Bracewell, Men's Resource Network, for formatting and other cooperation in making this article available to you.
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