Chapter 3


If you want to push some hot buttons, just try suggesting that women also abuse men. While the very idea of a man being beaten by a woman runs contrary to many of our deeply ingrained beliefs about men and women, female violence against men is a well-documented phenomenon almost completely ignored by both the media and by society.

Even the most open-minded find it difficult to imagine that husband battering could take place. Although feminism has opened many of our eyes about the existence of domestic violence, and newspaper reports often include incidents of abused wives, the abuse of husbands is a rarely discussed phenomenon. One reason researchers and others have not chosen to investigate husband battering is because it was thought to be a fairly rare occurrence. Police reports seemed to bear this out by showing a ratio of 10 to 15 female victims for every one male victim. Another reason for this is that women were seen as weaker and more helpless than men, whereas men were seen as more sturdy and self reliant.

The image of a battered wife is firmly established in the public consciousness. In the aftermath of the Nicole Simpson murder (and the nearly forgotten 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 universal image of men, it is hard for some to accept. Nevertheless, many studies have been done to demonstrate the reality of the husband who has been assaulted and seriously injured by his wife or girlfriend.

In 1975 and again in 1985, researchers Murray A. Straus, Ph.D., and Richard J. Gelles, Ph.D., conducted the National Family Violence Survey, one of the largest and most respected studies on family violence ever done in America. Their findings confounded conventional beliefs on the subject. Not only are men just as likely to be victims of domestic violence as women, but also the study showed that between 1975 and 1985, the overall rate of domestic violence by men against women decreased from 12.1% to 11.3%, while women's violence against men actually increased from 11.6% to 12.1%. In 1991, to avoid accusations of gender bias, Straus recomputed the assault rates based solely on responses of the 2,947 women in the 1985 survey. The new results confirmed that even according to women, men are the ones more likely to be assaulted by their partners. When I saw this data, I admittedly was skeptical so I decided to look for other sources and found several which reported similar results.

In 1993, the Children's Rights Coalition, a children's advocacy and research organization in Austin, Texas, reviewed every state's child protective services annual report and found that overall, mothers physically abused their children at a rate twice that of biological fathers. They further found that the second highest percentage of abusers were mother’s boyfriends or new husbands. Similar findings were released by the U.S. Justice Department in July 1994 in a report entitled "Murder in Families." The report finds that in the majority of cases of child murder, they are murdered by their mothers, with their boyfriends and new husbands being the next highest group of perpetrators. Biological fathers accounted for only a small percentage of familial child murders.

Further evidence supporting the Straus-Gelles study appeared in the November 1986 Journal of the Association of Social workers. In their report on adolescent dating relationships, they found that girls were violent more frequently than boys. As well, a 1986 study done by the Family Violence Research Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire reported that 3.2% of elderly persons had been abused. 52% were abused by men and 48% by women.

The idea of women being violent is a hard thing for many people to believe. It goes against the stereotype of the passive and helpless female. This, in spite of the fact that women are known to be more likely than men to commit child abuse and child murder. In the 1988 Daly & Wilson Report, 54% of parent child murders, where the child is under 17, were committed by the mother in Canada between 1974 and 1983. The Statistical Abstract of the United States in 1987 reports that of child reported maltreatment cases, between 1980 and 1984, between 57% and 61% of these were perpetrated by the mother. It should be noted that because mothers tend to have more access to children than do fathers, these results should not be interpreted to mean that if there was equal access, women would still commit more abuse.

Violence takes various forms. There is no question that since men are, on average, bigger and stronger than women, they can do more damage with their fists. However, research shows that the average man's size and strength are usually neutralized by weapons such as guns, knives, scissors, lamps, frying pans, boiling water, bricks and other tools. A 1984 study of 6,200 cases of domestic assault found that 86% of female-on-male violence involved weapons while only 25% of male-on-female violence did.

According to many women's rights advocates, female violence against a man is purely a self-defense response to male violence. Several studies, however, show that women initiate about one quarter of all domestic assaults, men initiate another quarter, and the remaining half are classified as "mutual." Other research, attempting to discredit the findings on men as victims, claims that since women are physically weaker and do less damage, only "severe assaults" should be compared.

The results of that analysis show that men are only slightly more likely to initiate the violence. Overall, Dr. Straus found that whether the analysis is based on all the assaults or is focused exclusively on dangerous assault, about as many women as men attack a spouse who has not hit them in the past year. Clearly, then, the claim that women's violence is purely "self-defense" is unsubstantiated.

If female violence against men is so widespread, why haven't we heard more about it in the discussion of domestic violence? There are several reasons. First, men, in general, are extremely reluctant to report that they have been victims of any assaults. After all, men are supposed be tough and able to take care of themselves. And what would people think? Men are trained not to ask for help and a man not being able to solve his own problem is seen as a sign of weakness in our society. According to a 1990 U.S. Department of Justice Survey of Criminal Victimization, men report all types of violent victimization 32% less frequently than women.

Confessing to being assaulted by another man is easy compared to admitting being victimized by a woman. Why? Most likely, men fear society's traditional reaction. In the 18th and 19th century, the husband who had been pushed around by his wife would be forced by the community to wear women's clothing and to ride through the village, sitting backwards on a donkey. Today’s punishment is ridicule and shame by ones peers. In 1991, the Reverend Jesse Jackson had a T.V. show on domestic violence. During the program one man related how his wife repeatedly hit him and attacked him with knives and scissors. The audience's reaction was exactly what male victims, who go public, fear the most: laughter and derisive snickering. Even when they are severely injured, men will go to great lengths to avoid telling anyone what they have been through.

When it comes to domestic violence, society seems to have one set of rules for men and another for women. Perhaps it's because we have been programmed to view women's violence as somehow less real than men's violence. A 1989 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that both men and women evaluated female violence less negatively than male violence. When it came to domestic violence, the researchers found that physical violence of any kind was perceived less negatively when the female in the arguing couple was the aggressor. The double standard for violence apparently extends as far as a murder. A recent survey of 60,000 people over the age of 18, conducted by the Department of Justice, found that people rated a husband stabbing his wife to death 40% worse than a wife stabbing her husband to death.

There are several very serious effects of society's reluctance to acknowledge the female potential for violence. First, women are subtly encouraged to be more violent. Dr. Straus found that a large number of girls had been told by their mothers to slap him if he gets fresh. Images of women kicking, punching and slapping a man with complete impunity are not only widespread in the movies, T.V. and books, but the viewers or readers reaction is usually "Good for her." Second, while it is possible to argue that a slap is unlikely to do any severe damage, not recognizing that slapping is still violence, sets a rather dangerous precedent. Arresting a man who slapped a woman, while dismissing a woman who slaps a man as "nothing to worry about", both condones the violence and reinforces a double standard.

Men's victimization is a fact. Nevertheless, some questions still remain. First, if men are so much bigger and stronger, why don't they protect themselves? The answer, when you think about it, makes perfect sense. First of all, at the same time little girls are being taught it's okay to slap, the boys are being told "Never hit a girl." And while these little boys grow up, they are told that any man who hits a woman is a bully. But if a woman hits them, he is supposed to take it like a man. Secondly, according to professor Suzanne Steinmetz, Director of the Family Research Institute at Indiana University, men recognize the severe damage they are capable of doing and therefore consciously try to limit it. These reasons explain why most abused men, no matter how capable they are of doing so, offer little or no resistance to their partners’ physical violence. Many women, well aware of these fears, may continue their abuse, knowing they can get away with it.

In 1977, Professor Steinmetz also released results from several studies showing that the percentage of wives who have used physical violence was higher than a percentage of husbands, and that wives’ average violence tended to be higher, although men were somewhat more likely to cause greater injury. She also found that women were as likely as men to initiate physical violence and they had similar motives for their violent acts. She concluded that the most unreported crime is not wife beating but rather husband beating. In 1980, a team of researchers, including Prof. Steinmetz, attempted to address some concerns about earlier surveys. They created a nationally representative study of family violence and found that the total violence scores seemed to be about even between husbands and wives, and that wives tended to be more abusive in almost all categories except pushing and shoving.

The latest Canadian study to be produced on domestic violence was a Manitoba study by Reena Sommer, a research associate at the Manitoba Center for Health Policy and Evaluation. The study is entitled "Male and Female Partner Abuse: Testing a Diathesis-Stress Model." The study, an integral component of Ms. Sommer’s Ph.D. thesis, was conducted in two waves over a 4 year period. The first wave, during 1989-1990, collected data from a random sample of 452 married or cohabiting women and 447 married or cohabiting men, who completed self-administered questionnaires as well as a 90 minute formal interview with a researcher. The second wave during 1991-1992 gathered follow-up interviews from 369 of the same women and 368 of the same men.

In both waves of data collection, and both by self report and report by their partners, women were found to be more abusive than men. The study defined abuse as: "An act or acts carried out with intention, or perceived intention of causing physical pain or injury to another person." Note that this definition removes from consideration such incredibly dubious types of abuse as simple yelling, while including abuse such as threatening violence without actually doing violence. Acts of abuse also included throwing an object, pushing, grabbing, shoving or hitting. The study also examined who were the perpetrators of the violent act.

Under the category of minor violence, 23.6% of women threw or smashed an object compared to 15.6% of men; 14.9% of women threatened to throw an object compared to 7.3% of men; 16.9% of women threw an object directly at the partner compared to 4.6% of men; and 16.2% of women pushed, shoved or grabbed a partner compared to 17.2% of men. Under the category of severe violence, 15.8% of women slapped, kicked or punched compared to 7.3% of men; and 3.1% of women struck their partner with a weapon compared to .9% for men.

Other categories included 9.9% of women claiming that they perpetrated the violence in self defense compared to 14.8% of men; 8% of the women admitted to consuming alcohol during the violence compared to 16% for men; and 14.3% of women admitted that their partner needed medical attention compared to 21.4% for men. On an overall basis, 39.1% of the women were found to have perpetrated violent behaviour compared to 26.3% for the men.

Other studies and reports also give the same message. On July 11, 1994, the U.S. Department of Justice released a study on domestic violence and spousal homicides. In this study, it is reported that women kill men at approximately the same rate as men kill women in spousal homicides. A spousal homicide is a husband or wife killing the other partner or a homicide perpetrated by a common-law partner on the other partner. In addition, this study also reported that children were killed by mothers in 55% of all parental homicides.

On December 9, 1994, a survey for the British Broadcasting Corporation reported that one in five men in the United Kingdom have been victims of domestic violence and that men are more likely to be beaten up at home than women. The survey found 18% of men had been victims of domestic violence by a partner, compared with 13% of women. In an interview for the BBC program, neuroscientist Malcolm George said "You are confronting here two taboos. One is that women can be violent and the second is that men can be beaten up by their wives. And that is something that nobody wants to take on board."

In addition, on July 19th, 1994 at the 13th World Congress of Sociology, it was also reported that in the U.S. in 1992, husband-on-wife severe assault occurred at a rate of 2% whereas wife-on-husband severe assault occurred at a rate of 4.6%. Husband-on-wife minor assault occurred at a rate of 9.9% whereas wife-on-husband minor assault occurred at a rate of 9.5%. It was also reported at the conference that although male-on-female violence has been slowly decreasing over the last decade, female-on-male violence is now increasing sharply.

Further evidence of the societal problem came in a press release dated August 27, 1997 from the Journal of the American Medical Association. Entitled "Battered Men", the press release stated that while medical groups champion campaigns to reduce domestic violence against women, a new study indicates that men are victims as often as women.

The study included 516 patients who presented at the emergency department of Charity Hospital, New Orleans, La, in July 1995. Using the Index of Spouse Abuse (ISA), a validated survey tool, researchers determined the prevalence of domestic violence in four areas: physical violence that occurred recently and that more than a year ago and non-physical violence that was recent and that had occurred in the past. Based solely on the ISA scoring, the researchers said 19% of the women patients and 20% of the men had experienced recent physical violence. The researchers also wrote that recognition of the global nature of violence may be more realistic than assuming that only women are victims.

Finally, in September, 1995, an article entitled "Assaultive Girlfriends" appeared in the AP Monitor, a monthly publication of the American Psychological Association. Two psychologists, Kathryn Ellis D.Ed. and Dr. Irene Freize, Ph.D. had found that college women kick, push, bite and slap their male partners more often than vice versa. In a study of more than 300 University of Pittsburgh college women in the early 1992, Dr. Frieze found that women reported being significantly more violent towards their male partners than men reported being towards their female partners. Most women cited romantic jealousy as the reason for insulting their boyfriends. In the same study, Dr. Freize found that women did just as much damage as men during fits of anger.

Dr. Freize speculates that women have become more aggressive because they think they can get away with it more easily than men. Men tend not to take such physical violence very seriously and women see it as an expression of independence. Contrary to many psychologists’ beliefs that strong identification with the male role promotes violence, Dr. Freize found that traditional men who hold conservative beliefs that men are providers and women are care takers, were less likely to be violent and more likely to be benevolent and protective of women. Surprisingly, she found that less traditional men, with more progressive views of women being leaders and having successful careers, were more likely to be violent with their more traditional counterparts, who see men as more capable and able bodied than women.

Given the range of evidence, it is clear that men are also victims of abuse. This is not to suggest that abuse of women is any less serious but only to make the point that it is a two-way street. Domestic violence regardless of who perpetrates it should not be tolerated.

Not fighting back is one thing, but why would any sane person stay in an abusive relationship? It may surprise some that studies have shown that men's reasons differ very little from women’s, namely economics and concern for the children. Although the average male victim of domestic abuse has more financial resources available than his average female counterpart, this is changing fast. As more and more women enter the workforce, it is getting harder and harder to find a traditional family any more. In addition, many abused women fear that if they leave their husbands, the violence they have experienced may be directed against their children. Despite widespread stereotypes to the contrary, abused men are just as concerned for the children as are women.

We cannot hope to solve the cycle of violence until we are prepared to admit that women can be as violent as men. Failing to acknowledge the violence perpetrated by a woman, prevents us from developing effective programs to address the societal problem in the true light of reality.