Let’s stop playing the gender blame game
Domestic violence is labelled angry man versus helpless woman, but studies show otherwise
By Don Dutton
November 3, 2012
Stemming back to columnist Daphne Bramham’s piece on Aug. 2, 2011 and continuing with YWCA advocacy manager Chantelle Krish’s more recent op-ed in October, the view of domestic violence portrayed in The Vancouver Sun is of helpless and non-violent women who are the sole victims of abuse. Bram-ham acknowledges eight per cent of abuse victims are men, adding the qualifier that “most are elderly or disabled” while Krish maintains this exclusive view of “women in abusive relationships.” The facts belie these reflexive assumptions. According to the 2004 Canadian Social Survey, over the preceding five years seven per cent of women and six per cent of men reported being victimized by physical abuse. A recent study by the (U.S.) Centers for Disease Control found equivalent rates of partner violence by gender and that men were more often the victims of psychological abuse. While both Bramham and Krish allude to rates of female victimization through domestic abuse, neither mentions the finding from several credible surveys that 75 per cent of victimized women are both aggressors and victims.
In Canada, no survey has asked about both victimization and perpetration but several in the U.S. have done so and found bilateral (two-way) domestic violence is the most common form of domestic violence. And contrary to popular assumptions fuelled by dramatic films and TV shows, wife battering is statistically far less frequent – in third place, actually – than reports of women initiating unprovoked violence against non-violent men. This finding has been replicated from 1989 to 2007. The main cause of domestic violence is not patriarchy, it’s a “coercion trap,” where neither party can let the issue go and escalation seems the only way out. Nor is women’s violence self defensive; 60 per cent start the physical fight according to their own reports and 40 per cent of women partnered with men in court-mandated treatment for wife assault said they, the women, had started the violence.
Arrest statistics obscure these facts. A long-term study of bilaterally violent couples in Oregon found that when the police were called, it was the man who was arrested 85 per cent of the time. Although women are injured more frequently, they are quite capable of using severe violence. Several studies find long-term medical and psychological consequences of domestic violence for men and women are similar. Yet there are no supports for male victims – neither shelter nor police support.
In Canada, hospitals question women as to cause of injuries but not men. Fearful injured men seeking help for domestic violence at local shelters were told they were the “real batterers.” They had experienced choking, being knifed, and burned with scalding water. They did not fight back for several reasons, chiefly an internal standard against using violence with women. A domestic violence hotline for male victims in New Hampshire found these men were in much the same state as female victims in the 1970s before there was help for women.
The stereotypical wife battering pattern goes unchallenged yet constitutes only four to five per cent of all domestic violence reported in surveys. Extreme rather than typical cases of domestic violence get media attention. Domestic abuse with a female victim has been politicized, called “violence against women” (in general). More realistically, is it violence against a woman with a psychological rather than a political motive by the man.
There is no term for “violence against men” yet the most common form of domestic violence involves violence both against a man and a woman. The domestic violence problem is not merely a case of changing men’s attitudes. It is already known that only two per cent of men in North America support the idea of hitting a woman “to keep her in line.” The problem is that criminal justice policies based on the dogmatic gender paradigm view have failed repeatedly and need to change. We need to focus on early intervention, teaching children empathy and conflict resolution skills. We need to include marital therapists and couples counsellors in the intervention solution. It is long past time that we stopped playing the gender blame game, and put our minds to solving the root causes of violence between intimate partners, period.
Don Dutton is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.