That women accounted for 7% of all convictions for domestic violence last year will come as a surprise to many. But what is not clear is whether the growing numbers of women convicted – a 150% increase in five years – represents a rise in actual cases of female-perpetrated domestic violence.
Domestic violence has traditionally been understood as a crime perpetrated by domineering men against defenceless women. Research spanning over 40 years has, however, consistently found that men and women self-report perpetrating domestic violence at similar rates. Professor John Archer from the University of Central Lancashire has conducted a number of meta-analytic reviews of these studies and found that women are as likely to use domestic violence as men, but women are twice as likely as men to be injured or killed during a domestic assault. Men still represent a substantial proportion of people who are assaulted, injured or killed by an intimate partner (50%, 30% and 25% respectively).
If the empirical research is correct in suggesting that between a quarter and half of all domestic violence victims are men, a question follows: why has women's domestic violence towards men been unreported for so long, and what has changed in the last five years to make it more visible?
One reason may be the feminist movement. Feminism took up the cause of domestic abuse of women in the 1970s, with the world's first women's refuge being opened by Erin Pizzey in 1971. Feminism understood domestic violence as the natural extension of men's patriarchal attitudes towards women, leading men to feel they had the right to control their partners, using violence if necessary. Feminists campaigned successfully to bring the issue into the public arena, thereby securing resources to establish services to help victims. This activism and advocacy led to governmental and public acceptance that "domestic violence" was synonymous with violence against women.
Paradoxically, feminist concerns for female victims may also have led to the recent increase in arrests of female perpetrators. The disparity between prevalence study statistics and criminal conviction data of male domestic violence perpetration led US feminists to successfully campaign for mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence call-outs. Mandatory arrest policies coincided with a three-fold increase in the number of women arrested. In the UK, a pro-arrest policy was also introduced, requiring police forces to always consider an arrest in domestic violence cases. Although not eliminating police discretion, the policy undoubtedly diminished individual police officers' discretionary powers. The increase in female arrests for domestic violence suggests that when police officers were freer to exercise discretion, it was exercised more frequently in favour of female perpetrators.
Support for a feminist conceptualisation of domestic violence has been afforded by men's generally more visible violent behaviour. Men make up the majority of perpetrators of violence in public places, such as football matches and nightclubs. As men appear to be more ready, willing and able to use violence outside the home, the logical extension is that men are more violent than women per se. This argument has frequently been cited by researchers such as Professors Russell and Emerson Dobash as evidence against the veracity of figures showing large numbers of male victims of domestic violence, while ignoring the fact that men's aggression in public places is almost always directed towards other men.
In recent years, female violence has become a more public affair, with changes in drinking patterns being a likely contributing factor to more women being arrested for violent offences outside of the home. In addition, the widespread use of CCTV may have provided sufficient evidence for the police and CPS to override stereotypes of women as nonviolent. The erosion of the passive female stereotype is likely to result in more women being charged and convicted of offences generally, which might also result in increases in the conviction rates for women's domestic violence.
The dual stereotypes of the violent man and passive woman have undoubtedly obscured the existence of male victims of domestic violence in the past. Men were also unlikely to view their own victimisation as either domestic violence or a criminal assault, and so were unlikely to seek help.
Large sums of money have been spent on educational campaigns to encourage female victims to seek help. Until there are similar campaigns for men, it is unlikely that the true number of male victims needing help will be known. If the current trends continue however, women may find themselves increasingly likely to be charged with domestic assault, and men more likely to be offered help and protection.
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Domestic Violence Against Women is a global issue reaching across
national boundaries as well as socio-economic, cultural, racial and class
distinctions. It is a problem without frontiers. Not only is the problem
widely dispersed geographically, but its incidence is also extensive, making it
a typical and accepted behavior. Only recently, within the past twenty-five
years, has the issue been "brought into the open as a field of concern and
study" (Violence Against Women in the Family, page 38).
Domestic violence is not an isolated, individual event but rather a
pattern of repeated behaviors that the abuser uses to gain power and control
over the victim. Unlike stranger-to-stranger violence, in domestic violence
situations the same perpetrator repeatedly assaults the same victim. These
assaults are often in the form of physical injury, but may also be in the form
of sexual assault. However the abuse is not only physical and sexual, but also
psychological. Psychological abuse means intense and repetitive humiliation,
creating isolation, and controlling the actions of the victim through
intimidation or manipulation. Domestic violence tends to become more frequent
and severe over time. Oftentimes the abuser is physically violent sporadically,
but uses other controlling tactics on a daily basis. All tactics have profound
effects on the victim.
Perpetrators of domestic violence can be found in all age, racial,
ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, linguistic, educational, occupational and
religious groups. Domestic violence is found in all types of intimate
relationships whether the individuals are of the same or opposite sex, are
married or dating, or are in a current or past intimate relationship. There are
two essential elements in every domestic violence situation: the victim and
abuser have been intimately involved at some point in time, and the abuser
consciously chooses to use violence and other abusive tactics to gain control
over the victim. In some instances, the abuser may be female while the victim is
male; domestic violence also occurs in gay and lesbian relationships. However,
95% of reported assaults on spouses or ex-spouses are committed by men against
women (MTCAWA e-mail interview)
"It is a terrible and recognizable fact that for many people, home is
the least safe place" (Battered Dreams, 9). Domestic violence is real violence,
often resulting in permanent injuries or death. Battering is a widespread
societal problem with consequences reaching far beyond individual families. It
is conduct that has devastating effects for individual victims, their children
and their communities. In addition to these immediate effects, there is growing
evidence that violence within the "family becomes the breeding ground for other
social problems such as substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, and violent
crimes of all types" (MTCAWA e-mail interview). Domestic violence against
women is not merely a domestic issue; but, rather a complex socio-economical
crisis that threatens the interconnected equilibrium of the entire social
Causes & Effects
"Within the family there is a historical tradition condoning violence"
(Violence Against Women: The Missing Agenda, 29).
Domestic violence against women accounts for approximately 40 to 70% of
all violent crime in North America. However, the figures don't tell the entire
story; less than 10% of such instances are actually reported to police (The
Living Family, 204).
The causes of domestic violence against women are numerous. Many claim
stress is the substantial cause of domestic conflict resulting in violence.
Though stress in the workplace is a contributing factor, it is by no means the
substantial one. Many people suffer from stress disorders, but most don't
resort to violence as a means of release. It is apparent that the substantial
causes have more to do with the conditioning of males culturally, and within
the family of orientation than anything else.
Historically, women have been treated more as belongings than human
beings; Old English Common Law permitted a man to abuse his wife and kids, as
long as he didn't use a stick thicker than the width of his thumb--"Rule of
Thumb" (The Living Family, 201). Culturally, men have been conditioned to
repress their feelings of emotion--always acting like the tough guy, the
linebacker, the cowboy. But, when confronted with an emotionally difficult
conflict, one which is impossible to shove down deep, they irrupt in volcanic
proportions, often taking out years of repressed rage on those closest to them,
in particular their own family.
However, what seems to be the most significant cause of the male tactic
of violent conflict resolution is violence within the family of orientation.
Statistics show that 73% of male abusers had grown up in a family where they
saw their mother beaten, or experienced abuse themselves (MTCAWA e-mail
interview). Using the (relatively accepted) Freudian model, which claims that
all mental illness stems from traumatic childhood trauma, one can see how there
is a direct correlation between violence in the family of orientation and
violence within the family of procreation. And, indeed, abusers are mentally
ill, though the illness tends to be more subtle than others: many abusers
display a Jekyll&Hyde personality, where they are nothing like their domestic
selves outside the home.
In most cases the cycle of violence starts slowly; it usually consists
of a slap in the face or a hard shove. But the frequency and degree of violence
escalates with time. The abuser will justify the abuse by pointing out his
wife's inadequacies and faults. But, no matter how wrong the wife is, there is
little, if no, justification for spousel abuse within a civil society.
The real issue at hand is the neurosis within the male psyche. Just as
in rape, the key issue is control. Male abusers are laden with fear about
losing power. They inflict physical abuse on their spouse to prove that they
have, still have, and will have control over their spouses (and/or children.)
They won't stop there either. The pattern of abuse involves severe mental
torture and humiliation--blaming, threatening, ignoring, isolating, forcing sex,
monitoring phone calls, and restricting any form of social life. It is a
vicious cycle of abuse, where the wife is almost literally chained to the
husband. Her self-esteem has been obliterated. She is financially, emotionally,
and functionally helpless. She is incapable of reaching out for help for
herself or for her children. At this point the abuse gets more routine; the
abuser sites his partner's pathetic state as more reason to beat her. And the
victim sinks deeper, and more beatings ensue. She has been infected with
psychological-AIDS; she has no defense ("immune system") to combat the disease
For women, escaping an abusive relationship is VERY difficult. And the
abuse usually doesn't stop at the discretion of the male. An in-depth study of
all one-on-one murder and non-negligent manslaughter cases in Canada from 1980
to 1984 found that 62% of female victims were killed by a male partner (Violence
Against Women Homepage). It is painfully clear that victims have little but two
choices: leave or die. Sadly, the latter is the easier one.
Domestic Violence as a Health Issue
The World Health Organization defines health as "a state of complete
physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or
infirmity" (In the Health of Women: A Global Perspective, 78). Based on this,
domestic violence against women is clearly a health problem. In 1984, the U.S.
Surgeon General declared domestic violence against women as the number ONE
health problem (Violence Against Women Homepage).
Physical violence is the most basic form of domestic violence, leading
to extensive injury, unsuccessful pregnancies and even murder. As mentioned
above, in Canada 62% of women murdered were killed by an intimate male partner.
These are deaths caused by a preventable social problem.
Actual or threatened physical violence, psychological violence and the
denial of physical and economic resources all have an enormous impact on women's
mental health. "A history of victimization is seen as a strong risk factor for
the development of mental health problems" (MTCAWA e-mail interview). These
problems take many forms, all affecting women's ability to attain a basic
quality of life for herself and her family. Abuse is strongly associated with
alcoholism and drug use in women (Facts About Domestic Violence). It also can
lead to "fatigue and passivity coupled with an extreme sense of worthlessness"
(Violence Against Women in the Family, 78 ). These symptoms together remove any
initiative and decision making ability from the victim. This lethargy, coupled
with economic barriers, makes escape from the situation very difficult. The lack
of initiative also thwarts women's abilities to participate in activities
outside of the home. High levels of stress and depression are also extremely
common mental health problems for victims of family violence, often leading to
suicide (Facts About Domestic Violence). In the United States, one quarter of
suicide attempts by white women and one half of attempts by African American
women are preceded by abuse (In the Health of Women: A Global Perspective, 128).
The World Bank's analysis found domestic violence to be a major cause of
disability and death among women; the burden of family violence is comparable
to that of HIV, tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease or cancer (Domestic
Violence Against Women: A Global Issue, 29). In industrialized nations one in
five healthy days of life are lost to women age 15 to 44 due to domestic
violence (Fact Sheet About Domestic Violence)
Domestic violence "diverts the scarce resources of national health care
systems to the treatment of a preventable social ill" (Violence Against Women
in the Family, 87). Medical costs for the treatment of abused women total at
least 3 to 5 billion dollars annually in the United States. Battered women in
the United States are four to five times more likely than non-battered women to
require psychiatric treatment, and over one million women in the U.S. use
emergency medical services for injuries related to battering each year. Finally,
families in the United States in which domestic violence occurs use doctors
eight times more often, visit the emergency room six times more often and use
six times more prescription drugs than the general population (Facts About
A Socio-Economic Crisis
Domestic violence against women is not an individual or family problem.
It is an important social issue. Using the Systems Theory as a theoretical
framework helps show the resonating effect of such violence. The family unit
is one of many sub-systems. Together, all these different sub-systems make up
the one big system (i.e., society). The human body serves as a good example:
when one organ (sub-system) is malfunctioning, all other organs are effected
(other sub-systems). This will have an effect on the whole body itself
(society). Although the family unit is only one among the many sub-systems, it
is considered to be the most important of them all--the heart, if you will.
Since the family unit is responsible for the socialization of children who will
later go on to participate in other sub-systems, than it is logical to assume
that a deterioration in the crucial family unit can result in a deterioration
within other sub-systems, and of course, the entire system itself.
As mentioned above, the sub-system of health care is feeling the
pressure. Something as preventable as domestic violence against women is
diverting funds from an already under-funded health care system. There are
people out there who need serious medical treatment, but will never, or at the
very most, will get insufficient treatment. In the U.S., domestic violence
against women ranks as one of the most expensive health problems (Facts About
Domestic Violence). Monies allocated to the medical treatment of abused women (3
to 5 billion dollars annually) diverts much needed funds from such already
under-funded institutions as education, law enforcement, social services etc.
Therefore the possibility exists that adults of the future will be sparsely
educated delinquents; crime will be on the increase; and important social
services won't be able to look out for the welfare of the people--such as
shelters for abused women. The result is long term decay within the entire
system, which will add further to the decay within the family, which will cause
the entire vicious cycle to continue.
As previously mentioned, 73% of male abusers were abused, or saw abuse
as children. Thus an epidemic of violence within the family of orientation is a
primary cause of psychological disfunction--in specific, violent conflict
resolution--which is responsible for the breakdown of the entire social order.
U.S. Justice Department statistics show that at least 80% of men in prison grew
up in violent homes (Facts About Domestic Violence.) And in at least half of
the wife abusing families, the children were battered as well. And 63% of boys
ages 11 to 20 who commit homicide, murder the man who was abusing their mother.
As mentioned initially, violence within the family "family becomes the
breeding ground for other social problems such as substance abuse, juvenile
delinquency, and violent crimes of all types." The all important family unit is
the centre of social universe. All other institutions revolve around it. If
the sun were to blow up the entire galaxy would go with it.
Domestic violence against women must be perceived as a socio-economical
problem rather than a private issue imbedded within family -- a domestic issue
which can be easily ignored. It must receive appropriate attention from the
various institutions within our society as an issue affecting the overall
standard of living. It is not only a women's issue, but also a problem that
threatens the harmony within our communities.
1. Carrillo, Roxanna, Battered Dreams, UNIFEM, 1992
2. Connors, Jane Francis, Violence Against Women in the Family, Toronto, 1989
3. Facts About Domestic Violence, "http://gladstone.uoregon.edu.violence.html"
4. Jarman, F.E., et al, The Living Family: a Canadian Perspective, J.
5. Kantor, Paula, Domestic Violence Against Women: A Global Issue, UNC Press,
6. Ed. by: Koblinsky, Marge, et al, In the Health of Women: A Global Perspective,
Westview Press, 1993
7. Ed. by: Koblinsky, Marge, et al, Violence Against Women: The Missing Agenda,
Westview Press, 1993
8. Metro Toronto Committee Against Wife Assault (MTCAWA), E-mail interview w/
Morag Perkens (Thurs, Nov, 15/96), firstname.lastname@example.org
9. Violence Against Women Home Page, "http://www.usdoj.gov/vawo"
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