Who’s abusing whom?

I met Alan and Faith nearly 25 years ago, when I was interviewing men and women on a then-taboo topic — violence in the family. I was one of the first researchers in the U.S. to study the extent, patterns and causes of domestic violence. There was precious little research or information to guide my study, back then — the entire scientific literature consisted of two journal articles. Except for the tabloids, the media had not yet discovered the dark side of family relations.

Both Alan and Faith discussed their experiences with violence in their respective intimate relationships, including a stabbing and broken bones. Yet Alan and Faith ended up as mere footnotes in my first book, The Violent Home. I admit now (and knew then) that I had overlooked their stories — because they didn’t fit the perceptual framework of my research.

My main focus — the issue I hoped to raise consciousness about — was violence toward women. But Alan had never hit his wife. The broken bones and abrasions that occurred in his home were inflicted by his wife. Faith, on the other hand, was a victim of violence; her husband, ex-husband and boyfriends had struck her and abused her many times. These events were dutifully counted and reported in my book and in subsequent articles. Faith’s situation, in fact, was the focus of my article “Abused Wives: Why Do They Stay?” Faith’s own acts of violence, however — including stabbing her husband while he read the morning paper — were reported only as a small quote in my book, with little analysis or discussion. In my first study of family violence, I had overlooked violence toward men. I would not, and could not, ever do that again.

In researching The Violent Home, I had interviewed 80 people in New Hampshire. That research pointed to the possibility of widespread family violence, and the probability that social factors such as income and family power were causal factors. But the study was too small and too exploratory to be more than suggestive. To enhance the understanding of family violence, my colleagues Murray Straus and Suzanne Steinmetz and I conducted the First National Family Violence Survey in 1976.

We interviewed a nationally representative sample of 2,143 individual family members. The results were reported in a number of scholarly articles and, finally, in the book Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. What surprised us most were the high rates of violence toward children, between siblings, toward parents and between partners that were reported by those we interviewed. At that time, estimates of the incidence of child and wife abuse ranged from the hundreds of thousands to a high of 1 million incidents per year. But our study, based on self-reports, predicted 1 to 2 million incidents per year.

The most controversial finding was that the rates of female-to-male and male-to-female intimate violence were the same. Even the rates of abusive female-to-male and male-to-female violence were the same. When my colleague Murray Straus presented these findings at a conference in 1977, he was nearly hooted and booed from the stage. When my colleague Suzanne Steinmetz published a scholarly article, The Battered Husband Syndrome, in 1978, the editor of the professional journal published, in the same issue, a critique of Suzanne’s article.

The response to these findings sparked not only heated scholarly criticism, but intense and persistent personal attacks. All three of us received death threats. Bomb threats were phoned in to conference centers and buildings where we were scheduled to speak.

Suzanne bore the brunt of the attacks. People urged her university to deny her tenure, and urged government agencies to rescind her grant funding. All three of us became “nonpersons” in our field; invitations to conferences dwindled. Advocacy literature and feminist writing would cite our research, but not attribute it to us. Librarians publicly stated that they would not order or shelve our books.

The more sophisticated critiques were not personal but methodological, focusing on how we had measured violence. We had developed an instrument, the Conflict Tactics Scales, which met all the scientific standards for reliability and validity, so the criticisms focused on content. First, the measure assessed acts of violence, not outcomes — so it did not reflect the consequences of those acts. Second, it did not assess who struck whom, or whether the violence was in self-defense. These two criticisms became a mantra-like refrain over the next two decades.

Meanwhile, Murray Straus and I conducted the Second National Family Violence Survey in 1986, seeking to address the two methodological criticisms. We interviewed a nationally representative sample of 6,002 individual family members by telephone, and this time, we asked about the outcomes of the violence, and who started the conflict and how.

This study also produced surprises. As expected, women were found to be much more likely than men to be injured by acts of domestic violence. But we also found that women were as likely to initiate the violence as were men. In order to correct for a possible bias in reporting, we re-examined our data, looking only at what women had reported. The survey had asked subjects about the last time there was partner violence: “In that particular instance, who started the physical contact, you or your spouse/partner?” And the women we interviewed reported similar rates of female-to-male and male-to-female violence; they also said they were as likely to initiate the violence as men.

When we reported the results of the Second National Family Violence Survey, the personal attacks continued, and the professional critiques simply ignored the methodological changes we’d made. This round of personal attacks was much more insidious — including charges that Murray had abused his wife. This is not unusual in the field of family violence — men whose research results prove contrary to political correctness are labeled “perps.”

It’s important to note that our findings have been corroborated numerous times by many different researchers, using many different methodological approaches. Reviewing more than 30 such studies, my colleague Murray Straus found that every study not based on a “self-selective” sample has reported comparable rates for female-to-male and male-to-female assaults on partners. (Samples of women in battered-woman shelters, or women responding to ads recruiting research subjects, would be considered self-selected samples — as opposed to, say, samples of college students or community members, or representative samples.)

The only exceptions to this were the Justice Department’s Uniform Crime Statistics, the National Crime Victims Survey, and the Justice Department’s National Survey of Violence Against Women. The Uniform Crime Statistics found that female victims of partner homicide outnumber male victims, and the rate of such violence is higher (25 years ago, the rates were about the same). Both of the other two studies are crime surveys. And, since neither men nor women view female-to-male partner violence as a crime — whereas they do view male-to-female violence that way — it is reasonable to suppose that both groups would underreport the former in a crime survey.

It’s worth repeating, however, that almost all studies of domestic or partner violence agree that women are more likely to be injured as a result of partner violence.

Most journalistic accounts, and many scholarly examinations of domestic violence toward women, describe the horrors of intimate violence, including remarkable cruelty and sadism, fatal or disabling injuries, and systematic physical and emotional brutality. I have heard many of these accounts myself and have reported them in my own books, articles and interviews.

The horror of intimate violence toward men is somewhat different. Hundreds of men are killed each year by their partners, and a minimum of one-fourth of these men have not used violence toward their homicidal partners. Men have been shot, stabbed, beaten with objects and subjected to verbal assaults and humiliations. But the real horror of violence toward men is that its victims continue to be the “missing persons” of the domestic-violence problem. Male victims simply do not count — and are not counted.

The Federal Violence Against Women Act labels domestic violence as a gender crime. None of the nearly $1 billion in federal funding resulting from this act is directed toward male victims. Some U.S. Justice Department requests for proposals specifically state that research on male victims, or programs for male victims, will not even be considered, let alone funded.

Battered men face a tragic apathy. Their one option is to call the police and hope they will abide by a mandatory- or presumptive-arrest statute. But when the police do make an arrest in connection with a male beating, they tend to arrest both parties.

Battered men who flee their attackers, on the other hand, often lose physical and even legal custody of their children. And those men who stay are thought to be “wimps” at best, and “perps” at worst — since, if they stay, it’s seen as proof that they’re the true abusers in the home.

Thirty years ago, battered women had no place to go, and no place to turn for help. Today, there are more than 1,800 shelters and many agencies to help them. But for men, there is still no place to go. And when a shelter for battered men is created, it rarely lasts — first, because it lacks ongoing funding, and second, because it probably doesn’t meet the needs of male victims. Men who try to protect their children from abusive mothers, for example, often find themselves arrested for kidnapping.

Protecting only the female victim and punishing only the male offender will not resolve the tragedy of domestic violence. While this is certainly not a politically correct position — and while it will almost certainly ignite more personal attacks against me and my colleagues — it remains clear to me that the problem is violence between intimates, not violence against women. If we are to reduce the toll of violence in the home, we must also address the needs of male victims.

[This commentary is reprinted with permission from The Women’s Quarterly, a magazine of the Independent Women’s Forum, PO Box 3058, Washington, DC 22203. Tel: 703/558-4991. Richard J. Gelles, Ph.D., holds the Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work. He is the author, with Murray A. Straus, of Physical Violence in American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence in 8,145 Families. A 1988 book by Gelles and Straus, Intimate Violence, is available at Pack Library.]


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One thought on “Who’s abusing whom?

  1. Lilian

    My question is why men beat their wife?
    because of psychological being depress,over stress
    or both couple can not communicate well rather they just initiate an arguement from small problem into big problem? i like to know as soon as possible because i’m writting a paper about domestic violence

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