Thus stated, feminist theory renders the notion of therapy for wife assaulters implausible. If assaultive males are simply carrying out the prescriptions of the culture it seems pointless to focus on individuals and expect them to change. Nor is there much point in trying to alter a pervasive societal phenomenon through therapy with a small group of highly selected individuals. Indeed, much feminist anaysis argues that an emphasis on psychopathology in explaining wife assault is misguided because wife assault results from "normal psychological and behavioral patterns of most men" and that "trait theories tend to excuse the abusive man through reference to alcohol abuse or poor childhood histories." I shall argue that psychopathology and abusive histories are important in the background of abusive men but that these factors do not excuse behavior.
The result of the feminist analysis of wife assault has been the acknowledgement of the powerful and complex role of social factors in creating the context in which violence occurs. Feminist analysis puts research findings back into the context from which they were deracinated by scientific abstraction. For example:
- MMPI scores on battered women were typically read out of context and misdiagnosed. Scores which indicated anger,anxiety and confusion in response to battering were misinterpreted as indicating a preexisting "personality problem" such as paranoia.
- Contextual features of battering formed paradoxical attachments that made leaving a battering relationship difficult, and this lead to erroneous interpretations of battered women as masochistic.
- Female-perpetrated homicide decreased when criminal justice system resources became more available to women in abusive relationships, a pattern that was distinct from male homicide.
Finally, it was shown conclusively that the Conflict Tactics Scale could not be used to compare male and female violence, because of differences in the context of that violence. Every assessed act on the Conflict Tactics Scale is different when performed by a man. The reasons have to do with the greater force of the action, the relative strength of perpetrator and target, the point of impact of the action and the target's ability to resist or escape. The dangers of removing context from the measurement process is the danger of "equating fender benders with head on collisions." As the above examples demonstrate, feminist focus on the context of violence has led to some valuable reassessments of research findings.
Despite these impressive accomplishments, however, the feminist approach has been unable to account for other key research findings. Indeed, close reading of feminist theory and research on the problem of wife assault reveals what Kuhn (Structure of scientific revolutions) referred to as a paradigm. Paradigms direct research, but they also serve to deflect critical analysis of the paradigms' own central tenets through diverting attention from contradictory data. A form of "groupthink" ensues whereby dissent is stifled by directing attention from potential contradictory information. I shall argue below that much information exists that contradicts the notion that patriarchy is a main effect for wife assault. (That is, that patriarchy serves as a sufficient cause for male assaultiveness). I shall also argue that feminist disdain for psychopathological explanations of wife assault are politically driven, leading to an obfuscation of our understanding of the phenomenon of male assaultiveness. I shall conclude that psychopathology and patriarchy interact to produce abuse but that both are required to fully understand male abusiveness in intimate relationships.
Direct Tests of Patriarchy
Some direct empirical tests of patriarchal norms on assaultiveness have been reported in the literature. One attempted to correlate wife abuse (using the Conflict Tactics Scale) and the patriarchy. They developed a composite Status of Women Index using (U.S.) state-by-state economic, educational, political and legal indicators of the structural inequality of women. Alaska had the highest status (70) and Louisiana and Alabama the lowest (28). An ideological component of patriarchy was also assessed: the degree to which state residents believed that husbands should be dominant in family decision-making (patriarchal norms).
A U-shaped relationship was found between structural indicators and wife assault rates, with both the lowest and highest status of women states having the highest rates of severe wife assault. Structural indicators and patriarchal norms had a correlation of near zero. Patriarchal norms were related to wife assault, in that the states with the most male-dominant norms had double the wife assault rate of states with more egalitarian norms.
The researchers argued that in states where the status of women is highest, the high rate of wife assault is due to an inconsistency between a woman's sociopolitical status and her "in family" status. This explanation assumes that the structural changes came initially and that family patriarchal norms lagged behind, thus generating conflict. However, no independent evidence to support this temporal relationship is presented.
Another problem with this explanation is that low status states have high rates of wife assault. The authors attempt to explain this as due to "greater force being necessary to keep women 'in their place' and because women in these states have fewer alternatives to violent marriage.".
The conclusion of this study is that men will use violence against women when they can (in low status states) and when they can't (in high status states). In low status states, women are more likely to be trapped in abusive marriages, whereas in high status states, women feel free to violate the patriarchal norms of marriage. This explanation is confusing and contradictory. Trapping women in marriage through lessened opportunity should produce higher violence frequency scores within couples but not necessarily higher incidence scores. That is, it accounts for why women could not leave an abusive marriage but still does not supply a motive for male violence. The assumption that men will use violence when they can would lead to the prediction that most men in such social circumstances would be violent. This assumption is not supported by surveys which show the majority of males, even in low status states to be non-violent.
The explanation for high status states is stronger. Here male violence is generated through a threat to informal patriarchal norms. The finding that structural inequality and patriarchal norms are not associated is not explored, although it raises another problem for patriarchal explanations of wife assault: namely that macrosystem (cultural) patriarchy is unrelated to microsystem (familial) patriarchy.
Another researcher asked 604 Toronto women to guess their male partner's response to a series of questions about "patriarchal beliefs" and then correlating these responses with socioeconomic factors and, finally, with that woman's responses to the Conflict Tactics Scale measure of "wife assault." He claimed he was assessing "patriarchal ideology" and that this measure, in combination with sociodemographic factors, could predict wife assault. However, the responses that these women supplied for their male partners described a very non-patriarchal group, with the majority disagreeing with the patriarchal statements of the measure in all cases save one, that "sometimes its important for a man to show his partner that he's the head of the house." (Of course, using the modifier "sometimes" can usually increase agreement rates.) One conclusion that could be drawn is that the patriarchal structure of North American society has a weak effect on the "patriarchal ideology" of most men. He didn't draw this conclusion. Instead, he said, "When all the socioeconomic risk markers and indexes of patriarchal ideology were combined in a single model assessing the extent to which these variables predicted wife beating, the combination of husband's educational attainment, patriarchal beliefs and patriarchal attitudes parsimoniously explained 20% of the variance in wife beating."
It seems to me that such a claim clearly accentuates the paradigmatic aspect of current family violence research. Another study using women's CTS self-reports on husband violence found that brief assessments of the husband's anger and identity problems explained 50% of the variance in psychological abuse and 20% of wife assault reported by one sample of battered wives. In other words, some psychological factors have much greater predictive weight that the attitudinal and sociodemographic assessments of "patriarchal ideology." Only someone working only within the confines of a paradigm could find the explanation of 20% of the variance conclusive.
Acceptance of Violence
One survey found that 24% of men and 17% of women approved of a man slapping his wife "under appropriate circumstances". Again, this finding hardly seems to demonstrate a cultural norm for the use of violence against wives.
- First of all, only a minority of men and women approved of a man slapping his wife under any circumstances. Viewed from another perspective, the survey result tells us that the majority believe slapping is never appropriate.
- Secondly, the wording of the question was ambiguous. The phrase "appropriate circumstances" loads the question; we do not know what egregious transgressions may be conjured up by respondents as necessary before a slap is appropriate.
- Finally, the question tells us nothing about the degree of violence that is acceptable. While 25% of men may approve of slapping a wife, fewer may approve of punching or kicking a wife and still fewer may approve of beating or battering a wife.
Also, many men who have been convicted of wife assault do not generally feel that what they did was acceptable. Instead they feel guilty, deny and minimize the violence, and try to exculpate themselves in the manner of one whose actions are unacceptable to oneself. The sociological view of violence as normal would lead us to expect the opposite: that no guilt and evasion would follow from "normal" behavior.
If patriarchy is the main factor contributing to wife assault, then the majority of men raised in a patriarchal system should exhibit assaultiveness. However, given the four major surveys of incidence of wife assault that have been implemented to date, the vast majority of men are non-assaultive for the duration of their marriage.
In surveys conducted by female interviewers of female respondents using strategies to maximize disclosure, only one of eight couples reported acts from the Severe Violence subscale of the CTS occurring at any time in their marriage, and only 27.8% reported any kind of violence (including pushes and slaps) occurring at any time in their marriage. Furthermore, this finding does not seem to be related to a desire on the female respondents' part to image-manage. Dutton and Hemphill (1992) found that women's reports of violence committed against them were unrelated to social desirability factors (unlike male perpetrators).
This result is hard to explain if one considers patriarchy as the main cause of wife assault. If social license determines violent behavior we would expect a majority of men to be violent, but only a minority actually are. Also, as the violence becomes more extreme, the size of this minority group of perpetrators shrinks. The type of actions that might be called "wife beating" occur in only about 11% of marriages at any time during the marriage. A clearer picture of the incidence of violence in marriage is that serious assaults do not occur in 90% of marriages, they occur once in another 7%, and they occur repeatedly in about 3%. One is curious to know about those factors that differentiate the men is these groups.
Power and Violence
Feminist analyses also do not explain why dyadic family power is non-linearly related to use of violence. Coleman and Straus found that there was no main effect of power on violence. Male-dominant couples were the most violent, but female-dominant couples were next most violent and violence was mitigated by attitudes toward power sharing. Hence, couples who agreed to a gender-dominant arrangement were less violent than those who disagreed. In that study, a decision-making "final say" measure was made of power. By this measure, male-dominant couples made up only 9.4% of the total and female-dominant made up 7.5%. The more typical power arrangements were "divided power" (54%) and "equalitarian" (29%). The main contributor to marital conflict and violence was lack of consensus about power sharing. Where the couple agree, both conflict and violence were low regardless of marital power arrangement. To a feminist perspective, the notion of a male-dominant marriage where both parties agree to that power-sharing arrangement is reprehensible. However, it is not a sufficient cause of violence.
Feminist definitions of power and status are arguably an impediment to understanding male assaultiveness because these definitions are restricted to the sociopolitical. Feminist analysts are acutely aware of the sociopolitical powerlessness of women and have taken important steps to help remedy this situation. However, what defines powerlessness for a politicized woman and what defines it for a non-politicized man are not the same.
For a man, sociopolitical comparisons with women or with a woman are irrelevant. What is experienced, especially in intimate relationships, is the power advantage women appear to have in their ability to introspect, analyze and describe feelings and process. Hence, assaultive males report feeling powerless in respect to their intimate partners. One is reminded of Eric Fromm's definition of sadism as the conversion of feelings of impotence to feelings of omnipotence. While batterers may appear powerful in terms of their physical or sociopolitical resources, they are distinctly impotent in terms of their psychic and emotional resources, even to the point of depending on their female partner to maintain their sense of identity. I do not suggest by this that we should excuse or exonerate batterers. To the contrary I believe in zero tolerance for all forms of abuse. However, to view their violence simply as a defense of sociopolitical power is erroneous. Only a minority of batterers are misogynisitic, and few are violent to non-intimate women; a much larger group experiences extreme anger about intimacy. If there is a politic at work, it exists in the microsystem of the dyad.
The prevalence of violence in homosexual relationships, which also appear to go through abuse cycles is hard to explain in terms of men dominating women. Findings include:
- lesbian relationships were significantly more violent than gay relationships,
- 52% had been a victim of violence by their female partner,
- rates of verbal, physical and sexual abuse were all significantly higher in lesbian relationships than in heterosexual relationships, and
- in one sample of women, 78.2% had been in a prior relationship with a man: reports of violence by men were all lower than reports of violence in prior relationships with women.
There are two findings that are difficult to accommodate from a feminist perspective: why violence rates are so high in lesbian relationships and why they are higher for past relationships with women than past relationship with men? Possible explainations include equality of size and weight, fewer normative restraints on fighting back and tacit permission to talk about fighting back. However, Coleman and Straus (1986) found that power equalization produced less violence and it does not seem that these women as a group felt constrained about fighting back. Further, this does not account for the higher levels of combined violence in past relationships. It might also be argued that lesbians adopt the values of the dominant patriarchal culture and that a dominance-submissiveness relationship my exist in lesbian relationship whereby the "functional male" (i.e. the dominant member) is the abuser. The problem with this argument is that even in heterosexual relationships, a variety of power relations exist. The "functional male" theory maps a stereotype onto lesbian relationships that has no data support. The data are difficult to explain in terms of male domination. Homosexual battering seems more an issue of intimacy-anxiety than of patriarchy. The data seem to suggest that when partnered with women, women behave like men, only more so.
The question of why men beat women defines out of existence any notion of female pathology. The focus is on the male as transgressor, and feminists have avoided, with good reason, victim-blaming explanations that locate the causes of male violence in women. Given their advantages in strength and power, males can avoid physical conflict with women under all but the most extenuating circumstances. Nevertheless, those women who did report using violence in intimate relationships, 73.4% said they struck the first blow, women physically abuse children more than men do and that only minor differences exist between male and female aggression .
Some claim that "women usually use violence as a reaction to men's violence against them. However, 73.4% of a sample of 616 women in one study said they were the first to use physical violence. Stets and Straus found the female-severe/male-minor pattern to be significantly more prevalent violence pattern than male-severe/female-minor. For dating couples, 12.5% reported the female-severe pattern and 4.8% reported the male-severe pattern; 1.2% of cohabiting couples reported the male-severe pattern compared to 6.1% reporting female-severe; 2.4% of married couples reported male-severe and 7.1% reported female-severe.
With these data, the use of severe violence by females was not in reaction to male violence or as a preemptive strike, since the female partner in each couple reported only minor violence from her male partner despite using severe violence herself. Similarly, couples where only the female was violent were significantly more common (39.4% of dating couples, 26.9% of cohabiting couples, 28.6% of married couples) than couples where only the male was violent (10.5% of dating couples, 20.7% of cohabiting couples, 23.2% of married couples).
If feminist analysis is correct, we should expect greater violence directed toward women in more patriarchal cultures. However, this prediction is not supported. Campbell (1992) reports that "there is not a simple linear correlation between female status and rates of wife assault". Female status is not a single variable. Levinson (1989) found family-related female status (economic, decision-making, and divorce restrictions) to be more predictive of wife beating than societal level variables (control of premarital sexual behavior, place of residence, property inheritance). The exception to this finding was female economic work groups, whose presence correlated negatively with wife assault incidence. Campbell also points out that feminist notions that male sexual jealousy is an expression of a cultural norm that women are male property is not supported by cross-cultural studies of jealousy and wife assault. Except in extreme cases, jealousy varies widely between cultures and appears unrelated to variations in wife assault incidence.
Questions of psychopathology are routinely ignored by feminist analysis because such questions might "maintain that violent acts and violent relationships have a psychology" and "once again let batterers off the hook" and also because psychopathological analyses imply that only some men, men who are atypical, generate violence against women. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that the majority of men who are either court-referred or self-referred for wife assault do have diagnosable psychological pathology. In general, about 80% of both court-referred and self-referred men in these studies exhibited diagnosable psychopathology, typically personality disorders. Estimates of personality disorder in the general population would be more in the 15-20% range. As violence becomes more severe and chronic, the likelihood of psychopathology in these men approaches 100%, typically with extreme scores on borderline personality organization, narcissism, antisocial behavior and aggressive\sadistic personality.
To say that violent batterers are psychopathological neither "lets them off the hook" nor exculpates social forces in shaping their rage. Dutton has argued that men with severe identity problems and intense dependency on woman seek out aspects of the culture to direct and justify abuse. For example, the primitive defenses of borderline personality organization in males, which involve splitting "good objects" from "bad objects" are reinforced by cultural judgements about female sexuality. Cultures that divide women into "Madonnas and whores" provide a sanctioned reinforcement of the object split in the assaultive borderline male. Cultures that socialize men and women to expect the woman to be responsible for relationship outcome provide a rationale for the borderline personality's expectation that his intimate partner should maintain both his ego integrity and euphoric affect. Any dysphoric stalemates that occur are then viewed as her fault. Hence, attachment-derived anger is projected toward the individual woman partner. Through this view, the personality pattern contains emotional demands which it directs and justifies through drawing on the ambient culture.
Hence, patriarchy does not elicit violence against women in any direct fashion. Rather, it provides the values and attitudes that personality-disordered men can exploit to justify their abuse of women. This distinction is an important one: it explains why the majority of men remain non-violent and how they differ in at least one essential and non-tautological aspect from violent men.
Walker describes a "socialized androcentric need for power." However, a need for power, in itself, does not predict violence or even dominance in social relationships. But others have demonstrated how power motivation translates into a variety of behavioral forms, including stamp collecting and running for public office. It is only when power needs are combined with identity diffusion, so that the intimate other becomes necessary for one's identity integrity, that power needs begin to focus exclusively on that person. In a culture that isolates men emotionally and alienates them from their ability to sense and know their own feelings, dependency on a female who can enable this to occur will remain essential. Violence does have a psychology and this psychology is not exculpatory. To refuse to understand this psychology is to not fully attempt to answer the question of why men are violent toward women.
Therapy and Policy Implications
Feminist therapists criticize anger-management approaches for focusing on stress reduction, anger management and coping skills while not paying enough attention to gender politics. At the same time they criticize insight therapy for focusing on identity deficits to offer labels instead of explanations and for not emphasizing male responsibility for violence and control. I have argued above that patriarchy is another label that doesn't explain violence. If patriarchy "causes" violence how can we hold men individually responsible for their violence?
Feminist therapists want to focus on power and control issues and on misogynisitic attitudes toward women in what they call resocialization models. The problem with these models is that the relationship between attitudes and violence is weak. Furthermore, there is a problem in delivering these models to court-directed men who both resent female power and who exist in a subculture that may not share feminist values. Such approaches may develop backlash in clients. The therapy has to make sense from their perspective while challenging them and holding them responsible for their violence. My view is that anger and anxiety provide the psychological substratum for control. Males try to control the things they fear and intimate relationships are a source of great fear. Hence, a complete understanding of anger does not only reflect on outbursts of anger but on chronic resentments and control of another. It also renders the "case" against "anger control" treatment for assaultive males artificial. It is not an issue of "anger versus control" as Gondolf & Russell put it; anger and control stem from the same origin; terror of intimacy.
A complete theory of wife assault must locate a man's violence in the normal learning environment to which that man has been exposed and it must be able to differentiate assaultive from non-assaultive males on the basis of differences in that learning environment. In order to answer the question "why do men beat their wives?" one has to answer why do some but not all men beat their wives. This leads necessarily to psychological explanations in order to differentiate these men. Hence, while feminist theories provide important analyses of the social context of wife assault, this context has to be combined with characteristics of the assaultive male in order to explain variation in behavior. A complete explanation for wife assault must also distinguish men who repeatedly and severely assault their wives from men who do so sporadically and in a less serious way and from men (the majority) who remain non-violent throughout their marriages.
The policy implications of such an analysis are important. Imagine a zero tolerance policy for the type of repeated injurious assaults that 3% of men commit. Such a policy is probably more attainable than one that involves the state in every family where pushing, shoving or dominance behaviors exist. The former could attain mainstream support while the latter would be viewed as "Big Brotherism".
The ways in which male sex role socialization shape men for violence are numerous. These include agency, the shaping of experience and affect for action on the external, which shapes emotion in the direction of anger, and the consequences of this agency: the inability to grieve and mourn and the inability to detect internal states. However, all men vary in the extent to which such socialization defines their identity.
Feminism and Subjectivism
Some feminist writers have taken the position that objective science and the quantitative method are masculine and have called for a turning away from this particular epistemology. As Yllo puts it, "there remains a vague...allegiance to the positivist notion of objectivity; that the research simply uncovers 'what is out there.' In contrast, many feminist researchers regard their work as not just being about women, but for women." Hence the focus of feminist research is on other forms of inquiry and on the utility of truth (i.e., whose purposes truth serves). I see a grave danger in such thinking. For one thing, all forms of ideology have a danger of becoming closed systems, or paradigms, where contradictory data are not allowed to challenge central dogma. A clear example of this phenomenon was the psychoanalytic refusal to consider the real existence of sexual abuse of female children as a cause of adult female pathology. It is astounding to read the extremely insightful paper by Freud on this topic written in 1896 and later suppressed.
A retreat to subjectivism virtually guarantees that the feminist paradigm will go unchallenged by the types of empirical disconfirmations we have presented above. We are at a time when family violence is being seriously treated by governments and where public consciousness of the problem is acutely high. Now is the time for consensus to stop the problem. Consensus requires some shared view of "what is out there." Retreating to subjective notions of truth will not serve this need. We have to have objective data against which we can pit our theories. The alternative is solipsism and groupthink. Feminism has made great contributions to our understanding of wife assault. What remains now is to move from simplistic definition of power and Manichaeistic views of gender toward multiplicative or interactive models that combine psychological aspects of abusers with cultural beliefs that lead to a condoning of abuse.
1. It could be argued that from a feminist perspective, violence will not necessarily be "widespread" but will only occur when other forms of male control of women have failed. This should lead to the prediction that when men have large power advantages in relationships they should not be violent. This predcition is not supported by empirical examination.