The fearful symmetry of family violence

Carolyn Moynihan
23 May 2014
Reproduced with Permission

A year ago the name Nigella Lawson conjured visions of a glamorous, upper class television cook concocting dishes for those aspiring to the culinary good life. Now it is more likely to evoke the incident that triggered her divorce from advertising tycoon Charles Saatchi - captured in a photograph and displayed around the world late last year under shock-horror headlines: Saatchi with his hand around Nigella's throat, appearing to choke her.

Shocking as the episode was, the image has proved useful to groups fighting domestic violence. What is so often hidden from public gaze was suddenly out there for everyone to see: the patriarchal male bullying the weaker sex. Recently it was cited by an Australian campaigner as helping to raise awareness of the issue and the fact that it touches people not only in "certain pockets of the community" but throughout society, making it "everyone's issue".

Everyone's issue it certainly is. In Australia, domestic violence is the leading cause of death and injury in women under 45. It accounts for no less than 40 percent of police time and costs the economy $13.6 billion a year. It's an epidemic, a national emergency, campaigners say. But do they know the remedy?

Do they even have the right diagnosis?

A crime that is perpetrated by half of humanity upon the other half must be a challenge to psychologists. Yet a certain school of social scientists has seen to it that it is always men in the dock when the issue is domestic violence -- whether it's Charles Saatchi over the table at a smart London café, or Charlie Bloggs in his dismal council flat.

As Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch, the New South Wales (Australia) police spokesman on domestic violence and an ambassador for White Ribbon, told the ABC: "Men need to wake up to the fact that it is a men's problem. It is perpetrated by men who use their power and control over women and until ... they wake up to that fact, nothing's going to change." he said.

Domestic violence is not a one-way street

This picture, which represents domestic violence as stemming overwhelmingly if not exclusively from a male urge to dominate, is portrayed so often in popular media that it is taken for granted by most of us. It fits neatly into the dominant social narrative about relations between the sexes. But it just happens to be wrong. Partner violence is not all, or even mostly, one way.

Both official surveys and academic research have shown repeatedly that women dish out their share of physical violence and other forms of abuse against male partners. Surveys in Australia indicate that around one in three victims is male.

The Partner Abuse State of Knowledge Project (PASK) based on summaries of the results of more than 1700 peer reviewed studies and published by the US Journal Partner Abuse between April 2012 and April 2013, showed that, overall, women actually perpetrate more violence and slightly more coercive abuse against male partners than vice-versa. From the summary of findings :

* 24 percent of individuals have been assaulted by a partner at least once in their lifetime (23% for females and 19.3% for males).

* 25.3 percent of individuals have perpetrated intimate partner violence (IPV) and rates of female-perpetrated violence are higher than male-perpetrated (28.3% and 21.6%).

* 80 percent of individuals have experienced emotional abuse and control either in response to provocation (expressive) or as a tactic to control or threaten a partner (coercive). Across studies, 40 percent of women and 32 percent of men reported expressive abuse; 41 percent of women and 43 percent of men reported coercive abuse.

* Most violence was mutual. Among large population samples, 57.9% of IPV reported was bi-directional, 42% unidirectional; 13.8% of the unidirectional violence was male to female (MFPV), 28.3% was female to male (FMPV)

* Male and female IPV is perpetrated from similar motives - primarily to get back at a partner for emotionally hurting them, because of stress or jealousy, to express anger and other feelings that they could not put into words or communicate, and to get their partner's attention.

In the studies that addressed the power/control motive directly, there was only weak evidence that men were more motivated by this than women. Self-defence was endorsed as a motive by only a minority of respondents, male and female. None of the studies reported that anger/retaliation was significantly more of a motive for men than women's violence; instead, two papers indicated that anger was more likely to be a motive for women's violence as compared to men. Jealousy/partner cheating seems to be a motive to perpetrate violence for both men and women.

Feminist theory and ignoring the evidence

These findings are very broad generalisations but they do challenge prevalent generalisations that imply men perpetrate virtually all partner violence. So why do we hear little or nothing about the slapping, punching and psychological bullying that women mete out to the men in their lives?

One reason, obviously, is that women sustain more serious injuries from being assaulted, are more likely to go to emergency rooms or hospitals and report assaults to the police. This naturally focuses attention on their victimisation.

But Dr Murray Straus, a US social scientist who has published research on partner violence since the early 1970s, points out another reason: the evidence of female violence does not suit feminist theory about patriarchal power as the key reason for inequality between the sexes.

Straus himself assumed at the beginning of his research that partner violence was about men dominating women and ignored the evidence in his own studies, as he acknowledges in an article , "Thirty Years of Denying the Evidence on Gender Symmetry in Partner Violence: Implications for Prevention and Treatment", published in Partner Abuse in 2010. But colleagues who did point out what surveys were showing were vehemently criticised and even personally attacked. Typically, he says, the evidence that women perpetrate about the same amount of partner violence (excluding other forms of abuse) as men is ignored, concealed or explicitly denied - tactics documented in his paper.

Straus acknowledges that the effects of being a victim of partner violence are not "symmetrical" with those of male victims.

Attacks by men cause more injury (both physical and psychological), more deaths, and more fear. In addition, women are more often economically trapped in a violent relationship than men, because women continue to earn less than men and because, when a marriage ends, women have custodial responsibility for children at least 80% of the time.

For these reasons it is necessary to provide more services for women victims than men victims. But it does not follow that we completely ignore the violent behaviour of women - or deny it because it offends feminists.

The point here is not merely political: we do not need a big Blue Ribbon campaign and people marching up and down for men. It is about behaviour change and prevention. If we really want to deal with the problem of domestic violence effectively we have to proceed on the basis of a proper diagnosis, of truth, not myths driven by ideology.

Not power, but relationships

The truth is that both men and women are among those who abuse their partners. But, says Straus, "With rare exception current prevention and treatment efforts are based on the assumption that PV is perpetrated almost entirely by men. … To substantially reduce partner violence prevention and treatment efforts must be explicitly directed to women as well as men, and must attend to the dynamics of the relationship…"

The word "relationship" is important. From the evidence that Straus and others in the PASK project present, domestic or intimate partner violence and abuse is less a "gender problem" that requires a grand social change (the end of "patriarchal power") than a relationship problem that requires individual and mutual change.

The man who slaps his wife because she taunts him about some weakness, or the wife who throws a plate a food at her husband because he refuses to answer her questions (the level of most domestic violence) lacks relationship skills such as nonviolent methods of resolving conflicts and poor anger management.

The best form of prevention, then, would be teaching skills like communication and self control to children and adolescents. And the best form of treatment would recognise that both sexes contribute to this problem and offer something to both, tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of the individual offender.

Gender theorists and their campaigns seem redundant, to say the least.