DOMESTIC VIOLENCE:
NOT AN EVEN PLAYING FIELD

By Richard J. Gelles


The highly publicized O.J. Simpson case has spawned a flurry of stories in local, national, and international media, all focused on pieces of the domestic violence puzzle. In fact, coverage of the case has become the battleground on which one of the most controversial questions in the study of intimate violence is being debated: Is domestic abuse a "war against women" or are men battered just as much as women?

In the media-frenzy replication of that debate, “war against women” stories are countered with violence against men articles, opinion pieces, letters and broadcast reports. Groups on both sides of the issue are jockeying for media attention and support of their position.

Many feminists content that it is clear women are overwhelmingly the victims of intimate violence and that there are few if any battered men. On the other hand, self-described battered husbands, men’s rights group members and some scholars maintain that there are significant numbers of battered men, that battered men are indeed a social problem worthy of attention and that there are as many male victims of violence as female. The last claim is a significant distortion of well-grounded research data.

To even off the debate playing field it seems one piece of statistical evidence (that women and men hit one another in roughly equal numbers) is hauled out from my 1985 research - and distorted - to “prove” the position on violence against men. However, the critical rate of injury and homicide statistics provided in that same research are often eliminated altogether, or reduced to a parenthetical statement saying that “men typically do more damage.” The statement that men and women hit one another in roughly equal numbers is true, however, it cannot be made in a vacuum without the qualifiers that a) women are seriously injured at seven times the rate of men and b) that women are killed by partners at more than two times the rate of men.

That women are perpetrators of intimate violence there can be no doubt. There is consistent and reliable empirical evidence that women use violence toward their male partners. The question of whether there are “battered” men and the prevalence of the problem of the battering of men is more complex.

We know that there are two to four million women battered in the United States each year. At least half these women fight back and defend themselves, and about 700 times last year, women killed their husbands or partners.

In the majority of cases, the women act in response to physical or psychological provocation or threats. Most use violence as a defensive reaction to violence. Some women initiate violence because they know, or believe, that they are about to be attacked. A smaller number of women, having been beaten and brutalized for months or years, seek vengeance against a brutal partner. Despite Lorena Bobbit’s much publicized act least year, the majority of violence women do not inflict significant injury on their partners: women are typically smaller than their husbands and less skilled in using weapons.

Thus, when we look at injuries resulting from violence involving male and female partners, it is categorically false to imply that there are the same number of “battered” men as there are battered women. Research shows that nearly 90 percent of battering victims are women and only about ten percent are men. Movie portrayals of the vengeful, violent women notwithstanding (for example, in “Fatal Attraction” or “Basic Instinct”), there are very few women who stalk male partners or kill them and then their children in a cataclysmic act of familicide. The most brutal, terrorizing and continuing pattern of harmful intimate violence is carried out primarily by men.

Indeed, men are hit by their wives, they are injured, and some are killed. But, are all men hit by women “battered?” No. Men who beat their wives, who use emotional abuse and blackmail to control their wives, and are then hit or even harmed, cannot be considered battered men. A battered man is one who is physically injured by a wife or partner and has not physically struck or psychologically provoked her.

My estimate is that there are about 100,000 battered men in the United States each year - a much smaller number than the two to four million battered women - but hardly trivial.

Despite the fact that indeed, there are battered men too, it is misogynistic to paint the entire issue of domestic violence with a broad brush and make it appears as though men are victimized by their partners as much as women. It is not a simple case of simple numbers. The media, policy makers, and the public cannot simply ignore - or reduce to a parenthetical status the outcomes of violence, which leave more than 1,400 women dead each year and millions physically and/or psychologically scarred for life.


Richard J. Gelles is Director of the Family Violence Research Program, and a professor of Sociology and Psychology at the University of Rhode Island. He has published extensively on the topics of child abuse, wife abuse, and family violence. His most recent books are: Intimate Violence (Touchstone, 1989); Physical Violence in American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptions in 8,145 Families (Transaction Books, 1990); Intimate Violence in Families, (Sage, 1990); and Current Controversies on Family Violence (Sage, 1993).

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Dr. Richard J. Gelles, (401) 792-4138/(401) 783-8034; or Jhodi Redlich at (401) 792-2116


Go back to What Everyone Should Know
Go back to Safety Zone home page