Women can be as abusive as men
by Dr Augusto Zimmermann
Domestic violence used by women against men is a
phenomenon that has received little attention within the media, academia and
the political elite. Despite this lack of attention, for nearly four decades
the best research indicates that men are also frequently the targets of
domestic violence. And yet, the media and our political/judicial elite often
frame domestic violence merely as “violence against women”, thus generating the
false and misleading assumption that males are always the aggressors and are
more capable of harming their female partners.
Here in Australia, for example, the Federal Government has recently
embarked on a campaign to eradicate domestic violence that Prime Minister
Malcolm Turnbull assures us is going to create “a new culture of respect for
women”. This was Mr Turnbull’s first major policy announcement as Prime
Minister. A $100 million women’s safety package is deemed necessary because, so
Mr Turnbull says, domestic violence is primarily a “gender issue” caused by
men, and violence against women in the home is on the rise.
In the Prime Minister’s own words: “All disrespect for women does not
end up with violence against women, but let’s be clear, all violence against
women begins with disrespecting women.”
It is worth noting that Mr Turnbull is not a social theorist or a
qualified health professional to be making such far-reaching statements. Above
all, such a one-sided policy announcement is misleading because it falsely
presents men as the sole culprits of every instance of domestic violence.
That being so, as Australian commentator Bettina Arndt points out:
“Many women were concerned by Turnbull’s first major policy announcement on
domestic violence, which whitewashed this complex issue by presenting men as
the only villains.”
Bettina also says that when she wrote last year about research showing
the prominent role women played in violence in the home, she received many
supportive letters from women, including professionals working with families at
risk from violent mothers and other women who had grown up in such homes, or
had witnessed brothers, fathers, male friends experiencing violence at the
hands of a woman.
“Many [women] commented how
surprised they were that Turnbull made such an offensive, one-sided policy
announcement,” she explains.
Professor Linda Mills is the
Ellen Goldberg Professor at New York University. She is the principal
investigator of National Science Foundation and National Institute of Justice-funded
studies, which focus on treatment programs – including alternative treatment
approaches – for domestic violence offenders.
Her leading studies in the
area of domestic violence have been published by Basic Books, Princeton
University Press, Journal of Experimental Criminology, Cornell Law
Review and Harvard Law Review.
Professor Mills points out:
“Years of research, which mainstream feminism has glossed over or ignored, show
that when it comes to intimate abuse, women are far from powerless and seldom,
if ever, just victims. Women are not merely passive prisoners of violent
“Like men, women are
frequently aggressive in intimate settings and … [t]he studies show not only
that women stay in abusive relationships but also that they are intimately
engaged in and part of the dynamic of abuse. As the studies of lesbian violence
demonstrate, women are capable of being as violent as men in intimate
relationships. And women can be physically violent as well as emotionally
Erin Pizzey, the woman who
set up the first refuge for battered women in 1971, always knew that women can
be as irresponsible and vicious as men in the context of domestic relations. In
point of fact, she herself was raised by a deeply abusive mother who used to
beat her with an ironing cord until the blood ran down her legs. In her
experience, women are just as capable of domestic abuse in both the physical
and emotional sense as their male counterparts.
When Pizzey opened a refuge
for battered women in England, 62 of the first 100 women to come through the
door were as abusive as the men they had left. So, when the feminists started
demonising fathers in the early 1970s, those stark images of her own mother’s
physical and verbal abuse were a sober reminder.
Pizzey wrote: “Women and men are both capable of extraordinary cruelty.
… We must stop demonising men and start healing the rift that feminism has
created between men and women. This insidious and manipulative philosophy that
women are always victims and men always oppressors can only continue this
unspeakable cycle of violence. And it’s our children who will suffer.”
Pizzey is one of a growing number of domestic violence experts and
scholars trying to set the record straight. Since as early as the 1980s
academic researchers such as Dr Murray A. Straus, a sociology professor at the
University of New Hampshire, have developed research demonstrating that men are
just as likely as women to report physical and emotional abuse of a spouse.
These findings have been confirmed by more than 200 studies of intimate
violence and they are summed up in one of Dr Straus’ most recent journal
articles, “Thirty years of denying the evidence on gender symmetry in partner
violence” (Partner Abuse, Vol. 1, No. 3, 2010).
This important article summarises the results from more than 200
studies and found gender symmetry in the perpetration, the risk factors and the
motives for physical violence in marital and dating relationships. It goes on
to explain that, despite the common assertion, most partner violence is
actually mutual and that self-defence explains only a small percentage of partner
violence by either men or women. Rather than self-defence, the most usual
motivations for violence by women, as by men, are coercion, anger, and
punishing misbehaviour (Cascardi & Vivian, 1995; Fiebert & Gonzalez,
1997; Kernsmith, 2005).
In the United States, estimates from national family violence surveys
indicate that within a given year, at least 12 per cent of men are the targets
of physical aggression from their female partners, and 4 per cent (or over 2.5
million men) sustain severe violence. In another pioneering study in that
country, the clinical sample found that “the eruption of conjugal violence
occurs with equal frequency among both husbands and wives”.
The empirical study presented statements from women who abuse their
husbands, including the following: “I probably had no reason to get angry with
him … but it was such a bore. I was trying to wake him up, you know. He was
such a rotten lover anyway. So I’d yell at him and hit him to stir him up.”
In Britain, female-inflicted
domestic abuse against men is clearly on the rise. The last findings from the British
Crime Survey reveal that 40 per cent of reported domestic-abuse victims
were male. Seventeen men were killed by their female partners in England in
According to a recent research,
British men are twice as likely as their female counterparts to keep abuse to
themselves because of the cultural barriers of a system that does not
effectively protect them. “They feel emasculated. Their pride is undermined and
they are reluctant to see themselves as victims,” says Mark Brooks, the
chairman of Mankind, a charity for male victims. Even so, “every year our
helpline is seeing at least a 25 per cent increase in the number of men seeking
As for this country, in May
2015, the Australian Institute of Criminology published its findings that
“[w]here females were involved in a homicide, they were more likely to be the
offender in a domestic/family homicide”. Although the majority of victims of
domestic homicides overall were female (60 per cent), women were the sole
offenders in more than half the filicides (52 per cent). Further, men were more
likely to be the victims of filicides (56 per cent), parricides (54 per cent)
and far more likely to be victims of homicides involving other family
relationships (70 per cent).
Likewise, the Australian
Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey reveals, among other things,
that proportions of non-physical abuse (for example, emotional abuse) against
men have increased dramatically, with 33 per cent of all people who had
experienced domestic violence by a current partner now being male.
Although Australia seems
therefore to be experiencing an alarming growth in female-perpetrated domestic
violence, one of the tactics the feminist lobby and domestic violence
campaigners use is to highlight only men’s violence and leave out any
statistics relating to women.
As Bettina Arndt noted:
“Whenever statistics are mentioned publicly that reveal the true picture of
women’s participation in family violence, they are dismissed with the domestic
violence lobby claiming they are based on flawed methodology or are taken out
of context. However, the best available quantitative data – ABS surveys, AIC
(Australian Institute of Criminology) and homicide statistics, police crime
data – show that a third of victims of violence are males. These data sources
are cited by the main domestic violence organisations, [although] they
deliberately minimise any data relating to male victims.”
As can be noted, across
several countries and jurisdictions the best research reveals that the
percentage of women who physically assault their male partners tends to be
similar to the percentage of men who physically assault their female partners.
However, those who deny the empirical research showing this considerable gender
symmetry often resort to unacceptable tactics, including, as Arndt notes,
“concealing those results, selective citation of research, stating conclusions
that are the opposite of the data in the results section and intimidating
researchers who produced results showing gender symmetry”. A leading researcher
in the field has received death threats, and a co-researcher has been the
subject of a campaign to deny her tenure.
One must speak out loudly
and clearly about violence against women, but men and children are also victims
of appalling instances of domestic violence. This tragic reality should not be
approached as a gender issue because anyone, regardless of their gender, may
become a victim of domestic violence. And yet, from most of our media reports,
government inquiries and the pronouncements of politicians, you could be
forgiven for sincerely believing that men are the sole perpetrators of – and
that all men are equally likely to carry out – domestic violence.
It is time to abandon such a
false and misleading gender paradigm and to correct the injustices provoked by
the politicisation of a tragic situation that affects millions of adults and
children, male and female alike.
Augusto Zimmermann, LLB, LLM cum laude,
PhD (Monash), is Law Reform Commissioner, Law Reform Commission of Western
Australia; Senior Lecturer and Director of Post-Graduate Research, Murdoch
University School of Law (Australia); Adjunct Professor of Law, the University
of Notre Dame Australia (Sydney); President, Western Australian Legal Theory
Association (WALTA); Fellow at the International Academy for the Study of the
Jurisprudence of the Family (IASJF).