Tiger Woods and Domestic Violence

What the Tiger Woods controversy says about the state of gender politics


As the news of golf superstar Tiger Woods' alleged multiple affairs spills all over the media, a fascinating—and disturbing—subplot to the story has become a revealing litmus test of societal attitudes toward gender and domestic violence.

Persistent rumors allege that the November 27 car accident in which Woods hit a fire hydrant and then a tree while backing out of his driveway around 2:30 a.m. was linked to an assault on the golfer by his wife Elin Nordegren—and that the cuts and bruises on Woods' face were the result of the assault, not the accident. These claims have been strongly denied by the police and by others; the official version is that Nordegren rushed to her husband's aid after the accident and smashed the car window with a golf club to free him. Nonetheless, further tales of marital fighting will no doubt be fueled by Woods' confession on December 2 to unspecified "transgressions" against his family and by new allegations of a recorded voice-mail message in which he supposedly tells his mistress his wife has found her number on his phone.

Whether or not the assault actually took place, the truly remarkable thing is that some voices in the feminist corner of the media have rushed either to defend it or to excuse it. The Daily Beast website ran a piece by culture correspondent Rebecca Dana under the title "The Year of Women Fighting Back," asserting that if Elin Nordegren did attack her cheating husband with a golf club, she belongs in the company of other scorned or betrayed women who have stood up to their no-good men.

On Slate.com and its soon-to-fold female-oriented offshoot, DoubleX, journalist Hannah Rosin does not go quite so far as to cheer an alleged perpetrator. However, she speculates that Woods may have lied about the incident to spare his wife the arrest she would have faced under gender-neutral domestic violence laws—God forbid that "the glamorous Elin would be led out of their mansion in handcuffs"—and then proceeds to decry the absurdity of the gender-neutral approach.

Rosin readily concedes that if the roles were reversed and the rumors were about Woods assaulting his wife, even over a possible infidelity, "we would be a lot less ambivalent and complacent"—and if his wife had tried to cover up for him, we would appalled. But in her view, "all of these gender-dependent reactions make some instinctive sense."

Yet one person's common sense is another's noxious cultural stereotype. For vast numbers of people, it makes "instinctive sense" to feel that a mother with young children who spends long hours at work is bad mother but a father who does the same is a good provider, or that it is humiliating for a man but not for a woman to have a spouse with a more successful career, or that the opportunity to excel in athletics is more important to boys than to girls. One doesn't hear feminists defending these particular gender-based assumptions—quite the contrary.

Of course differences in size and strength can be legitimately taken into consideration in cases of assault, regardless of gender or relationship. A small, slightly built person punching a taller, heavier, more muscular person is far less likely to do damage than the bigger person punching the smaller one. But the male advantage in size and strength can be neutralized by a woman's use of weapons—such as golf clubs—and by the constraints inculcated in the vast majority of men against using force toward a woman, even in self-defense. To suggest that cultural complacency toward female-on-male violence should extend not only to slapping and shoving but to acts capable of causing serious injury is not only bizarre but offensive.

Chastising men's rights groups for using the Tiger Woods story to promote awareness of men as victims of domestic violence, Rosin dismisses the female abuser as a myth unsupported by "sociological research." Never mind that some of the most prominent sociologists specializing in domestic violence research, such as Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire, have written extensively about abuse as a two-way street (though recognizing that male violence poses a higher risk of harm).

A review of hundreds of studies, published in 2000 by British psychologist John Archer of the University of Central Lancashire, found that women are as likely to initiate partner violence as men and that male victims account for a third of domestic violence injuries. But Rosin ignores this vast research, much of it done by women, in favor of a single "expert" on "the myth of the battered husband syndrome": Jack Straton, an assistant professor of University Studies at Portland State University whose Ph.D. is in quantum physics and whose background in domestic violence is that of a feminist activist, not a scholar.

Yes, Rosin admits, there are some female perpetrators, but generally "women tend to use violence as self defense, or impulsively, not as a systematic method of control the way male abusers do": while "they may slap a man or throw a cup of water at him," they are "less likely" to engage in real abuse. Therefore, she concludes, if Elin Nordegren really did assault her husband, the best course of action for him is to show "chivalry" and cover up for her.

Imagine the response to someone who tried to argue for a more lenient attitude toward wife-beaters who use violence impulsively rather than for systematic control—or who suggested that, since most male violence in the home consists of shoving, grabbing, or slaps without injury, a husband who leaves his wife with a bruised and bloodied face should be left off the hook. That person would be promptly denounced as an apologist for abusers.
Domestic abuse may not be a "50/50 issue," as some men's rights activists claim. Even researchers such as Straus who acknowledge the reality and importance of female violence in the home agree that male violence toward women is rightly a greater cause of concern. But this does not mean that male victims do not deserve attention and services. A double standard that excuses female violence is not "common sense" but common sexism.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at cathyyoung.wordpress.com. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.