Battering truth from domestic violence

Some American feminists argue that half of all married women experience battering; some male commentators retort that research shows women are as violent as men. Who is right? Karen Kissane reports.

IN THE United States, they call it battered-truth syndrome, and it is women, they say, who are battering the facts. The debate on domestic violence, fuelled by the murder of O.J. Simpson’s wife, Nicole, has led to an intensified scrutiny of the facts and figures about who beats whom, how often and how badly. The conclusion: in the war between the sexes, as in other battles, truth has been an early casualty.

In the US, as in Australia, there has been a sometimes poisonous debate about whether violence in the home is done mostly by men to women, or whether women are just as physically aggressive as men. The extreme has the radical feminist, representing the analysis that “all men are (at least potential) beasts”, in one corner of the ring, and an angry man contending that “men are victims, too”, in the other.

Each side cites research to try to prove its case; sometimes each uses the same studies to try to prove opposing points. Work by the American researchers Straus and Gelles was used by the federal Office of the Status of Women in the 1980s to argue that one in three wives are battered. More recently, male commentators such as Don Parham and Warren Farrell have quoted the same research to argue that women hit men as much as men hit women.

In fact, the truth lies somewhere in between and is more complex than either analysis would suggest. At issue is the difficulty of discovering the truth about something that has long been hidden, the imprecision of social science, and human nature’s reluctance to grapple with the shades of grey in controversial issues. The feminist analysis that wife-beating springs from women’s inequality with men holds true, but it is not the whole story.

Murray Straus, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, has been tracking domestic violence in America for nearly 20 years and been attacked by proponents from both sides of the ideological debate. He was one of the first to discover that women strike men as often as men strike women, and that they initiate as many aggressive encounters as their male partners. This aspect of his work is often cited as proof that women and men are equally responsible for domestic violence.

Professor Straus says radical feminists have made systematic attempts to discredit this part of his work and about 30 studies by other researchers with similar findings. He has experienced “bomb threats, accusations that I beat my wife, that I sexually harass students …

Many of my colleagues simply avoid the issue by not obtaining data, then they don’t have the embarrassing problem of not being able to publish it”. One Canadian researcher, he says, is now facing charges of ethical misconduct for having collected data that he chose not to publish for fear that it would be too controversial. Some feminist opponents fear that such findings will undermine public sympathy for battered women: “And here, I think, the public is losing sympathy because of the stridency of some people in the women’s movement.”
But many of Professor Straus’s findings support the view that violence in the home is overwhelmingly a problem for women caused by men.

“Many more women than men are injured,” he says. “For the same level of attack, women experience seven times more injury than men, not only because men are stronger when it comes to inflicting blows, but because women are more vulnerable, physically, on average. So if your definition of violence depends on who’s injured, then men are much more violent.”
In interviews with 10,000 people from 1975 to 1992, Professor Straus found that 16 per cent of couples experienced violence in their relationship in the preceding year. Of those cases, one quarter involved only the woman lashing out, and another quarter only the men.

In the remaining half, violent exchanges were mutual. This does not mean that serious criminal assault is the norm in 16 per cent of American homes; Professor Straus counted even low-grade violence such as a mild slap.

In marriages where women hit or kicked men, neither the wife nor the husband saw this as real violence, “at least not at the conscious level. But then when it’s her turn to do something outrageous or not to listen, the problem is that she’s provided moral justification for slapping and kicking”.

But his research cannot be used to argue that battering is a serious problem for men, or that they need the sorts of supports, like refuges, offered to women and children. “Fewer men are injured, fewer men are living in fear and fewer men don’t have
an economic alternative (to marriage),” he says. “American women generally now earn 80 per cent of what men do, but married women only earn half of what their husbands earn.”
Statistics are like the refractions of a prism; most have two or more facets, and it is not that one is right and another wrong, but that they each reflect different aspects of a complex phenomenon. Professor Straus warns that his work, which he once believed to be the definitive truth about domestic violence, is no such thing. “This is only the truth about a representative sample of the general population. But in couples where it’s bad enough for her to go to a shelter, or where the police are called, the dynamics are very different. Of women who were hit in the year of my surveys, the average number of times was six. A colleague of mine researched women in shelters and the average number of times was 58; that’s 10 times higher.”
Likewise, he says, the experiences of women who have fled cannot be extrapolated to the wider population. “For example, it’s an article of faith in the shelter movement that once violence begins, it doesn’t stop, it either continues or gets worse. That’s true for the people they work with and reflects their real experience, but that’s because if it had stopped, the woman wouldn’t have gone to a shelter. My study and other studies show that it does, typically, cease. They age out of it.”
There have been no big Australian studies into battering in the home.

Research last year at the Royal Brisbane Hospital found that one in five women who attended its casualty department, for whatever reason, had some history of domestic violence. This is consistent with another recent Queensland study on abuse in families of church communities, which found that about 22 per cent (one in five) of a sample of 1704 women had been subjected to violence sometime in their lives by someone close to them. This figure would not mean that one in five women experience violence daily, but that one in five encounter it at least once in their lives.

An Australian Bureau of Statistics survey on crime and safety in 1993 found that 0.6 per cent of women reported having been assaulted in their home that year, which would amount to 41,000 women aged 15 and over. This applies to the incidence in that 12-month period only, and the figure is likely to be lower than the reality.

Overseas, Statistics Canada has just released what is probably the world’s largest survey on the issue, in which 12,300 women aged 18 and older were interviewed in depth by telephone. It found that one in four had experienced violence at the hands of a present or past marital partner, that one in six married women reported violence by their spouse, and that one in 10 of those had at some point felt their lives were in danger. Eighteen per cent of incidents left a woman physically injured.

Statistics Canada did not ask about men’s experiences; presumably there, as in America and Australia, it is not perceived as a man’s problem because women are so much more likely to be hurt or killed.

Figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology show that, between 1989 and 1992, 160 women were killed in spousal murders compared with 44 men. Some of the women who killed their husbands had done so after years of abuse.

Nor do men present as victims to helping services. Margot Scott, a worker with Melbourne’s Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre, says the centre receives about 3000 calls a year from victims of domestic violence, and fewer than 10 are from men.

In terms of more general crime, violent offenders are overwhelmingly male; the National Committee on Violence estimated that 80 per cent of murderers and more than 90 per cent of those charged with serious assault, robbery and sexual assault are men.
Women, who spend more time caring for children than do men, are more often charged with child abuse, but men are more often the perpetrators in severe cases.

It appears that both sides have misused the facts. Professor Straus’s findings indicate that some feminists have overstated the incidence of domestic violence, while some male commentators have been reluctant to face the extent to which other men are responsible for its more serious manifestations.

Kate Gilmore, a member of the National Committee on Violence Against Women, says: “Fact is an elusive notion … This is the problem of social science. If you can’t put it under the microscope and subject it to tests with a control group, you move out of the realm of fact and into the realm of contested, discursive meanings, meanings that are affected by who holds them and what experiences they were
subjected to.”
Ms Gilmore argues that everyone involved in the domestic violence debate has an ideological barrow to push, and that feminists have no more distorted the truth than any other advocates of disadvantaged groups fighting for public support. “What’s going on here is trying to get something up on the public agenda that hasn’t had any attention. For all the excesses of which the field might be deemed to be guilty, it is only through these advocates that law reform, police training, education in university, and women’s refuges have come.”
What of the traditional feminist analysis of domestic violence as an outgrowth of inequality between men and women? Professor Straus says, “It’s correct, provided you don’t make the mistake of thinking that that’s the only cause.” His research found high correlations between increased violence and domination of the marriage by one or other partner; marriages dominated by men were the most violent. But he proved the hypothesis, now widely accepted, that the more violence people witness in their family as they grow up, the more likely they are to assault their own spouse.

More controversial was his discovery that the more spanking children experience while growing up, the more likely they are to strike their own spouse for “misbehaving”.

But there is much that women and men on either side of the ideological divide find hard to believe about what goes on behind closed doors, and it may be another generation before the issue can be looked at with calmness and clarity. For women who are battered, the debate is academic but damaging; the time and resources wasted in such arguments could be better spent in solving it.

First published in The Age.