Recognizing men abused by women


This year in Massachusetts, there was something different about the vigil for victims of domestic homicides held in October for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Three of the 15 names on the placards belonged to men slain by their female partners. In previous years, all the victims whose deaths were commemorated were female.

The willingness to recognize male victims of violence by women may mark the beginnings of a change in societal perceptions of domestic abuse. In the same month, a conference on male victims of abuse held by the Battered Men's Helpline in Portland, Maine, received positive coverage in the local media. Also in Portland, a photography exhibit by victim advocate Donna Galuzzo, "A Celebration of Surviving: Celebrating the Strength, Success and Diversity of Survivors of Domestic Violence," open until Dec. 6, features photographs of gay men and lesbians who have been abused by their partners, as well as women battered by men (though not of men abused by women). Nationwide, a group called Stop Abuse for Everyone, which addresses violence in same-sex relationships and against men by female partners, has been gaining recognition in the victim advocacy community.

It would seem that broadening outreach to a more diverse group of victims should be an unequivocally good thing for those concerned with domestic violence. But that's not the way many advocates see it. Nancy Scannell, legislative director of Jane Doe Inc., a Massachusetts-based domestic violence coalition, has told The Boston Globe that the recognition that men are sometimes victimized did not in any way affect the organization's basic outlook on the causes and nature of domestic violence: "It happens because of sexism and power and control of men over women in our society."

This ideology has dominated the battered women's movement since its inception in the 1970s and still remains powerful. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and its member coalitions in various states require participating organizations to endorse it.

Yet a vast body of research suggests that the reality of family violence—which includes child abuse and elder abuse as well as spousal or partner violence—defies this simplistic gender analysis.

Ever since the 1970s, most domestic violence studies have shown that men and women are equally violent toward their spouses. Reports of female violence were initially dismissed as self-defense by battered women. Yet subsequent research has found that women are as likely as men to admit being the aggressors, and only slightly more likely to cite self-defense as the reason for their violence.

A cumulative analysis of dozens of domestic violence studies, published by British psychologist John Archer in the November 2000 issue of the journal Psychological Bulletin, found that overall rates of violence were roughly equal for men and women. While women were more likely to be injured in domestic assaults, a third of those sustaining such injuries were men.

The numbers remain a subject of heated dispute. Battered women's advocates point to Justice Department surveys which find that only 15 percent of domestic assault victims every year are male. But because of the context of these surveys, they may miss many attacks that the victims do not regard as crimes. (They also find considerably lower numbers of female victims than the 2 million or 4 million a year commonly cited by the advocates.) The National Violence Against Women Survey, co-sponsored by the Justice Department and the Centers for Disease Control, estimated about 1.3 million women and 900,000 men are assaulted by spouses or partners every year.

Studies also consistently show that violence is no less likely to occur in gay and lesbian relationships than in heterosexual ones—which also undercuts the notion that domestic violence is a product of male oppression of women.

Yes, some batterers believe that a man should keep his wife "in line." But domestic violence has many other causes, ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to economic stress to dysfunctional relationships and emotional disorders.

Battered women's advocates claim that female violence toward men is too much of an aberration to warrant a change in social policy. Yet today, our domestic violence policies are all too often influenced by an outdated, one-sided, and sexist view of abuse. The result is pressure on police and prosecutors not to arrest or charge violent women, lack of support for domestic violence counseling programs that do not toe the party line, and lack of meaningful assistance for male victims as well as gay victims of domestic violence. It is indeed time for a change.