An image from the city’s anti-domestic violence campaign (NYC.gov)
The problem with the Until The Violence Stops: NYC Festival that starts today is that it “will force-feed the claim that only women can be the victims of partner abuse” despite the fact that “research now reveals that women are far more likely than men to engage in domestic violence.” At least that’s what they’re saying over at RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting), a Maryland-based group that has previously complained that the federal Violence Against Women Act discriminates against men.
RADAR bases its latest claim on work by Southern Methodist University psychologist Renee McDonald, who interviewed 1,600 couples and found that, “contrary to public perception, women committed more acts of violence than their male partners in 11 overall categories of violence.” Meanwhile, research by the University of New Hampshire’s Murray Strauss determined that “most incidents of partner violence involve violence by both the man and woman.” And another piece of evidence cited by RADAR declared that, “through the failure to address the subject in any objective manner, female violence is denied, defended and minimized.”
The complaint that depictions of domestic violence ignore men is not new. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s often wrapped into a larger critique of the mainstream feminist movement as an ideologically rigid cabal of man-haters. But RADAR and the groups that run websites like batteredmen.com or mencrytoo can point to a body of research suggesting that the popular treatment is flawed in depicting of domestic violence as a male-on-female phenomenon.
The debate poses interesting questions about how much the popular notions of domestic violence—despite being advanced by enlightened people—echo stereotypical versions of the male-female dynamic in which the guy’s the actor and the lass is the reactor, and the male automatically has the advantage in physical strength and the willingness to use it. That said, and despite RADAR’s complaints, acknowledgement of male victimhood is far from absent in mainstream domestic violence research. A recent National Institute of Justice report, for example, finds that “Fifty percent of female victims of intimate partner violence were injured by an intimate partner compared with 32 percent of male victims.” And in announcing V-Day last month, the Bloomberg administration explicitly noted that, “domestic violence affects both men and women.”
What’s more, the research that RADAR and likeminded folks cite can seem to say more than it actually does. When Strauss finds that most incidents involve both the man and the woman, that could merely reflect women hitting back in self-defense. And while McDonald’s study found that women committed more acts of domestic violence overall, it also reported that “men were more likely than women to commit ‘severe’ acts of violence, such as beating, choking, burning, forcing sex or actually using a knife or gun on their partners.” In all the research, the definition of what constitutes domestic violence (e.g. does punching a wall count?), and the issue of how to distinguish severe cases from minor, loom very large.
The source of the research also matters. “Studies employing large, random, and national or community samples and using . . . a questionnaire that asks about recent use of specific tactics by an intimate partner . . . tend to conclude gender symmetry: that men and women are equally likely to be both perpetrators and victims,” reads a 2005 paper from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. ” . . . Other studies are more likely to employ samples from shelters, hospitals, and police reports and report that as many as 90 to 95 percent of [Domestic Violence] involves a male perpetrator against his female partner or ex-partner.”
That 2005 study concludes that women are indeed more likely to be victims of domestic violence. “At the same time,” it adds, “it is necessary to recognize that there are some women and girls who are abusive and violent to their intimate male partners.”
If anything, the small proportion of male victims makes it all the harder for guys to report when their wives or girlfriends get rough. As with breast cancer—which quietly kills 400 guys a year (to 43,000 women)—the problem for male victims is that there is weakness in small numbers.