Is domestic violence primarily a male problem? Chances are you’ve absorbed this idea explicitly through news, or implicitly through entertainment media. But a major discrepancy exists between our popular perception and what is being said on the topic in the social science literature.
Our popular perception is most often based on a feminist view of domestic violence. This theory emerged in the 1970s and argues that domestic violence is best understood as an artifact of living in a patriarchal society—where domineering male partners seek to control their female partners. This painful history is something that needs to be confronted.
This painful history is something that needs to be confronted.
But I would argue this problem was not as endemic or baked into the culture as many feminist perceptions assume—with human history often portrayed as an unmitigated scene of male on female violence. When researchers look at actual laws and attitudes of people living in ancient Europe and colonial America, they find that wife-beating was extremely discountenanced and there were harsh laws against it. When it came to family dynamics of that time, historian J.A. Sharpe says:
The husband was always considered to be the natural head of household, and to that extent marriage was a patriarchal institution. But this patriarchy did not constitute a harsh, tyrannical rule. Husbands were to assert their authority as sparingly as possible, and the assumption was that in a good working marriage, the friction that might otherwise provoke assertions of husbandly authority would be kept to a minimum. The writers of conduct books remembered that fundamental premise that so many historians have lost sight of: married couples had to live together under the same roof, and that was a great incentive toward developing affection, co-operation, and mutual give-and-take.
And while this is undoubtedly a much more patriarchal attitude than that in most contemporary families, it’s also a far cry from pervasive one-way abuse. For example, a surprising amount of evidence exists in the historical records of violence instigated by wives against their husbands.
The historical roots of the feminist theory on intimate partner violence leave much to be desired and the data they use is suspect. As Psychologist John Archer writes in the Routledge International Handbook on Human Aggression, feminist researchers tend to rely on data gathered from police reports, crime surveys, male batterer programs, and battered women shelters to support their arguments that domestic violence is primarily a male problem. The problems with relying on these sources should be obvious: all of these rely on highly-selected samples that themselves rely on feminist assumptions in admittance criteria. After all, crime surveys suffer from severe underreporting by men for cultural reasons. Meanwhile, in the early days of the field, researchers would suppress research that found more equitable rates of domestic violence among men and women.
But a better framework for understanding intimate partner violence exists—Family Conflict Theory. This theory posits that there are different typologies of intimate partner violence and that domestic violence is best understood as arising from a variety of family conflicts. Michael Johnson’s five typologies have become the most commonly accepted of these. Johnson’s typologies don’t discount patriarchal influences in domestic violence, but don’t overstate their effects either. One of the typologies, formerly known as “patriarchal terrorism,” recognizes the existence of this patriarchal violence. But significantly, Johnson has had to change the name of the typology to “coercive controlling violence” as research found more and more instances where women matched the characteristics of this typology. These typologies cover many different types of violent contexts, from violence that sprouts from control, to situational violence, to separation-instigated violence. Situational couple violence is the most frequent of all the typologies and springs, not from the desire to control, but from the couples’ inability to handle arguments in a healthy way. Hurt feelings play a much larger role in domestic violence than sexism.
Hurt feelings play a much larger role in domestic violence than sexism.
It is important to note, that while the rates of physical aggression coming from men and women are fairly similar, women sustain more injuries in domestic violence situations than men—62% to 38% according to a widely cited 2000 meta-analysis.
Consequences of competing perceptions
The disparity between the reality versus the perceptions of the rates of domestic violence incidence causes real and increasing problems. As an example, younger women tend to be more likely to perpetrate domestic violence against their partners than older women. And according to a meta-analysis on teenage intimate partner violence, it is increasingly clear that girls beat their partners more often than boys do.
These patterns and trends could be partly due to the fact that our society is more likely to blame the victim when men experience female perpetrated domestic violence (e.g. “Why didn’t you just leave her?” or “Why didn’t you fight back?”). Female-perpetrated domestic violence is also seen as less serious by our society and is even seen as “funny” or “cute” which feeds into the belief that female on male violence is not a significant problem. There is also research that shows that our society expects men to “man up and take it” even when they are legitimately victimized.
Meanwhile, men who do report domestic violence tend to struggle to find appropriate services due to the fact that our social welfare system is biassed against men. Their satisfaction with institutions intended to help with domestic violence is significantly lower than the satisfaction of female victims. Frequently, male victims of domestic violence are assigned to entirely inappropriate batterer programs with the assumption that they were the perpetrator rather than the victim. Men report being afraid of calling for police help because they are worried that they will be arrested. This problem stems largely from society’s eagerness to see women as victims and men as perpetrators irrespective of the context of the situation.
It is also important to note that even in cases where violence is one-sided, these situations often do not fit into a clear perpetrator/victim dichotomy. In Roy Baumeister’s book “Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty” he explains that many cases of male on female violence begin with one spouse saying hurtful things to the other, or humiliating the other in public. After experiencing this repeatedly, the hurt spouse snaps and violently lashes out. This is by no means an attempt to justify the violence, but it does show that even in cases where violence is one-sided, it does not always stem from a patriarchal desire to control or dominate.
If it’s true that hurt feelings play a much larger role in domestic violence than sexism, the solution should be to help couples process domestic disputes in more healthy ways, rather than simply demonize men.
Often, public perceptions and even clinical interventions lag behind the most up-to-date research. In the case of intimate partner violence, however, the stakes are simply too high to be satisfied with incorrect perceptions. We must reject the failed 70s research models if we are to ever properly address the problem and heal our homes and families.