Family Issues

Slapping Down the Truth

Feminist dogma on partner abuse


October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which should be an opportunity for some meaningful and informative discussion of how to deal with this important issue. Unfortunately, it looks like we are going to get a lot of boilerplate rhetoric that will generate far more heat than light.

There is, for instance, the initiative by Marie Claire magazine and the clothing designer Liz Claiborne Inc., which has long been in the forefront of the war on family violence, to designate Oct. 14 "It's Time to Talk" Day. Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, Democrat of California, is sponsoring a congressional greeting for the occasion. But it's time to talk about what? The press release for "It's Time to Talk" Day announces, "Nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives." Thus, once again, partner violence is being defined exclusively as male victimization of women and as a society-wide epidemic.

In fact, the National Violence Against Women Survey conducted for the National Institute of Justice in 1996 found that about 22 percent of women had been physically assaulted by an intimate partner—mostly pushed, grabbed, or slapped—at least once in their lifetime. By these standards, I am a "victim" too: Some 20 years ago, during a tumultuous breakup, my then-boyfriend slapped me. Of course, by these standards, I am also an "abuser," since I had slapped him first. I'm not especially proud of it, and neither, I'm sure, is he; but this is not the kind of problem societal resources should be marshaled to combat.

This is not to minimize the importance, and in many cases the tragedy, of real domestic violence. Researchers estimate that serious, ongoing physical violence exists in some 3 percent of marriages. Depressingly often, this abuse is witnessed by children. Every year, about 1,200 women and 500 men die at the hand of a spouse or partner, and some 200,000 women and 40,000 men seek emergency room help due to domestic violence.

But how do we need to talk about this problem? For too long, the issue of abuse has been viewed through the lens of radical feminist theory which sees battering as an instrument and an expression of patriarchal "power and control." However, this approach not only ignores "unconventional" victims—men abused by women, men and women abused in same-sex relationships—but distorts our understanding of male violence against women and thus makes it harder to find effective solutions.

Take, for instance, the issue of batterer intervention. The Massachusetts guidelines for state certification of treatment programs for court-referred batterers require approved programs to recognize that "perpetrators batter victims to achieve and maintain power over their victims," categorically stating, "It is a myth that batterers resort to violence when they lose control." The guidelines also reject a number of interventions as inappropriate: "psychodynamic individual or group therapy which centers causality of the violence in the past," "systems theory approaches which treat the violence as a mutually circular process, blaming the victim," "theories or techniques which identify poor impulse control as the primary cause of the violence," and "methods which identify psychopathology on either party's part as a primary cause of violence."

Suppose some conservative group tried to pass guidelines mandating that domestic violence programs subscribe to the belief that the cause of all abuse is godlessness. Most of us would see this as an outrageous imposition of religious dogma on public policy. Yet a lot of domestic violence programs today are based on the ideological dogma of patriarchy as the devil more than on fact or science.

If scholarship on family violence shows one thing, it's that domestic abuse cannot be reduced to a single cause or a single pattern. Sometimes, it involves one partner (in heterosexual relationships, more often but certainly not always the man) terrorizing and controlling the other; sometimes, it involves a mutual "dance" of physical and emotional combat, described by New York University professor Linda Mills in her recent book, "From Insult to Injury: Rethinking Our Responses to Intimate Abuse." Psychologist Donald Dutton of the University of British Columbia, a leading expert on domestic violence, concludes in a 1994 article in the research journal Violence and Victims that as many as 80 percent of batterers exhibit symptoms of "diagnosable psychopathology." Alcohol and drug abuse are common factors in family violence as well.

Radical feminist dogma on domestic violence demonizes and sometimes victimizes men. But it also ill serves women—be it female abusers whose behavioral problems go unrecognized or female victims who get ideology instead of assistance.