Looking at Violence


By Cathy Young, Boston Globe, Globe Correspondent

October 15, 2000

OCTOBER IS Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a good time to reflect on the fact that America's awareness of domestic violence has risen dramatically in the last 20 years. The new concern with a problem that once got swept under the rug is a welcome development for which the women's movement deserves credit. Yet the politics of this movement have also limited and distorted our understanding of the issues.

Groups such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence focus almost entirely on male abuse of women - which, they believe, is not just the product of sociopathic tendencies or family dysfunction but an expression of patriarchal norms that enforce male dominance.

This philosophy dominates most domestic violence programs supported by the government and major charities. It is contradicted, however, by virtually all scholarship on family violence.

Thus, many studies - including one by University of Wisconsin psychologists Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi that was published by the Justice Department last year - have found that woman-beating is far more consistently linked to drinking, drugs, mental disorders, and lawbreaking than to patriarchal attitudes. Gay and lesbian relationships are no more immune from physical abuse than heterosexual ones (try blaming that on sexism!). Finally, women are perpetrators as well as victims of spousal assault.

The National Family Violence Surveys, periodically conducted since 1975 by Murray Straus and his colleagues at the Family Violence Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, have found that about half of all marital and partner violence is mutual (with women often hitting first) and that when only one partner is violent, it is as likely to be the woman as the man.

More recently, in the National Violence Against Women Survey sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control, more women than men reported abuse - but the gender gap was surprisingly small: nearly 40 percent of those attacked by a partner in the past 12 months were men.

Feminists and battered women's advocates decry claims of female violence as misogynist propaganda based on a handful of discredited studies. In fact, there are close to a hundred such studies, many done by feminists, such as University of Pittsburgh psychologist Irene Frieze, who wouldn't release her findings on dating violence for years because they indicated that women were the aggressors more often.

Because of differences in size and strength, male violence poses a greater risk. But female violence is far from harmless. Studies indicate that one in four injuries are suffered by men. Women may use weapons, from knives to the stereotypical frying pan, to neutralize their disadvantage. The psychological effects of abuse are almost as bad for men as for women.

Cultural blinders often keep us from seeing female violence in the context of domestic violence. In 1998, when comedian Phil Hartman was fatally shot by his wife, Brynn, (who then committed suicide), news reports quoted family friends who talked about her ''temper'' and said Hartman had to ''restrain her at times.'' The words ''domestic violence'' or ''abuse'' never came up.

The feminist response to this issue is rife with doublethink. People who assert that women are as aggressive as men when it comes to military service or competition in business insist that on the home front, violent women act only in self-defense.

Such flawed dogma has become the official party line on domestic violence. It underlies the Violence Against Women Act, passed by Congress in 1994 and reauthorized last week. The act hands out money to rigidly ideological domestic violence coalitions and gives them a major role in coordinating state programs.

It has funded training for judges, prosecutors, and police that often promotes antimale bias (such as the idea that in mutually violent couples, the man is the ''real'' batterer).

Amazingly, guidelines for federal grants to combat violence against women on college campuses state that programs that focus on alcohol or drug abuse will not be supported because violence against women must be is based on attitudes about gender roles.

It's time to expand our domestic violence awareness to include male victims and encompass a more flexible view of the causes of violence. To treat domestic abuse as a human rather than a gender issue would be a truly feminist approach - one that insists on equity for both sexes and holds women to equal accountability standards.


Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page C7 of the Boston Globe on 10/15/2000.

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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