Behind closed doors

Sheila walked into my office; she was a bundle of nerves. She looked down at her hands, which were twisting a handkerchief round and round between her fingers. She had come in to talk about her problem (she was having trouble sleeping and remembering things). The first thing she said was, “I’m not one of those battered women — he doesn’t hit me.”

Sheila and I met many times over the next six months. Her story came out in bits and pieces. It was true: He didn’t hit her, except for that one time — the time he broke her jaw, her cheekbone and her favorite mixing bowl (all over the kitchen). After that, he never hit her again. But there was the time he cut the cord to the telephone, and wouldn’t let her fix it — because she talked to her 85-year-old mother too much. There was the time he threatened to kill her twin sister, if she ever left him. There were the times he kept her awake all night, telling her what a lousy mother she was and that she couldn’t even keep the house clean. And then there was the time he hanged her dog in the garage, because she couldn’t make it stop sleeping on the sofa.

The thing about domestic violence is that it is insidious — it is, by definition, private and “behind closed doors.” The true depth and impact of the violence are almost impossible to quantify. Was Sheila a battered woman? YES. The number of hits, or who hit whom first, does not define abuse. It is, rather, a pattern of behavior. Was Sheila afraid of her husband? You bet.

The more telling point is who has the power — and who is afraid. One partner in a relationship may have been the one to “hit first,” this time. But what went on in the hours or days before that hit? Domestic violence goes far beyond the physical violence. It is also the coercion and threats, the sexual abuse, the intimidation, the isolation, the economic abuse, the use of the children as a threat (or to make her feel guilty). And, most often, it is the minimizing of that abuse — the denial and the blame.

The minimizing, denial and blame are all cruelly intentional acts designed to make the victim feel responsible for the abuse. Sheila believed that her actions were the cause of his violently abusive behavior.

We have all been taught from infancy that the well-being of homes, families and marriages is the responsibility of women. When there are problems in these arenas, we look to the women first: “Where was she while the children were doing that?” “Why does she stay?” These are the questions we are used to hearing, and asking. These are the questions that battered women ask themselves. And these questions are reinforced by everything that batterers tell their victims: If it’s her fault, then there must be something she can do to stop the abuse. But the truth is, there is nothing she can do to stop the abuse: It is the batterer’s intentional choice to batter.

Are there men who are battered? Most reliable research says yes. And it’s a sad fact that all of us are most in danger from those we are closest to. But the 1995 Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) found that women were six times more likely than men to experience violence committed by an intimate (the number of incidents per 1,000 people is 9.4, and for men it is 1.4). And, according to other Justice Department crime statistics, three out of four rapes/sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, and 45 percent of murder victims are related to or acquainted with their assailants.

Surely there are men who are battered; the question is, What are the real numbers? The following numbers from the NCVS differ dramatically from those reported by Mr. Gelles using the Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS).

Average annual rate and number of violent victimizations committed by lone offenders by sex of victim and victim/offender relationship, NCVS 1992-94:


Intimate Other relative Acquaintance/friend Stranger

FEMALE VICTIMSAverage annual rate per 1,000 females age 12 or older 9.3 2.8 12.9 7.4Average annual number of victimizations against females 1,008,000 304,500 1,402,500 802,300MALE VICTIMSAverage annual rate per 1,000 males age 12 or older 1.4 1.2 17.2 19.0Average annual number of victimizations against males 143,400 122,000 1,754,000 1,933,100

I agree with Mr. Gelles that men who are battered face a tragic apathy; I disagree that their only option is to call the police. It is certainly one of their options. They may well have a difficult time in court — the same difficult time that women have been facing in our male-dominated criminal-justice system for more than 200 years. However, battering is a gender-based crime, and violence against women has been codified in our legal system. Women have historically had fewer rights than men in the family and society. Until the late 18th century, women were chattel — like slaves.

This pattern has persisted, even as rights have changed. Violence was seen and is still seen as a way to control women’s behavior — as a man’s right to discipline his wife and children. In North Carolina, a law that was on the books into the 20th century permitted a man to beat his wife, so long as the rod used was no bigger around than his thumb.

Setting aside the empirical experience of thousands of advocates for battered women throughout the world, let’s consider the statistics and methodology of Mr. Gelles’ research. Had Mr. Gelles called Sheila on the telephone (which is how his researchers collected their data) and asked her how often, in the last six months, any of these incidents had occurred in the context of an argument, spat or dispute, her answer would have been, “None.” Why? Because he only hit her once, and it was not in the context of an argument or conflict: It was because he didn’t like what she was cooking for dinner.

The CTS employed by Mr. Gelles was administered to men and women in intact, heterosexual couples over the age of 18. The CTS was developed in the 1970s. Many researchers and practitioners contend that several major limitations with this instrument hinder or even preclude the development of accurate data. Far from being mere scholarly quibbles, these difficulties suggest that Mr. Gelles has succeeded only in answering the question: Do men get hit? These difficulties suggest that his survey provides little solid ground for his sweeping conclusion that domestic violence is the same for men and women.

A February 1998 article by Walter S. DeKeseredy, Ph.D., of Carelton University and Martin D. Schwartz, Ph.D., of Ohio University — titled “Measuring the Extent of Woman Abuse in Intimate Heterosexual Relationships” — reflects the following problems and weaknesses of the CTS:

• Underreporting. To minimize this problem, researchers need to use more than one simple measure of one type of abuse. Further, any survey will get more accurate data when attention is paid to a safe environment, trained interviewers, etc.

• Lack of context and motive information. For example, by using only CTS information, many researchers and commentators have contended that women are just as, if not more, violent than male partners. Clearly, the CTS shows that women strike as many blows as men. However, context, meaning and motive measures added to the CTS clarify for us that violence is not sexually symmetrical. When asked, a substantial number of women state that their violence was done in self-defense, or “fighting back.” Further, most of the injuries in intimate violence are to women. Thus, researchers should include questions about context, meaning and motives for the use of violence.

• Lack of “nondispute” information. The CTS situates abuse only in the context of spats, disputes or “differences.” We know that much violence either stems from attempts by one partner to control the other’s behavior, or else does not stem from any single identifiable cause (dispute, difference or spat).

• Rank ordering of violence. Many object to the “rank order” concept that some events (e.g., kicking) are automatically worse than others (e.g., slapping). Most battered women claim that psychological and emotional terror are worse than the physical violence.

A survey of recent research in the field of domestic violence shows that gender equality is found only in the studies done by Mr. Gelles, or in others using the CTS. All other research shows that women are disproportionately the victims of domestic violence.

We must all do our utmost to end violence, regardless of who is the perpetrator and who is the victim. The truth is that, when there is violence, no one wins.

[Judy Chaet is the program director at the Affordable Housing Coalition of Asheville/Buncombe County; she has worked with battered women since 1984. Chaet was a founder and the first executive director of McDowell County’s shelter for battered women. She is the author of Peer Teaching: A Program Manual on Family Violence Education. She has facilitated numerous trainings and workshops on domestic violence and batterers’ education, both locally and nationally.]

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