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 intimate dynamics.
“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 abusive.”
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 2012 alone.
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 help”.
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).