Controversy Within Family Violence Research
Reena Sommer, Ph.D.
University of Manitoba
PRESENTED AT THE WOMEN'S FREEDOM NETWORK CONFERENCE
October 14-15, 1995
I have been involved in the study of partner abuse for the past eight years. My interest in this issue began with my concern about violence against women. Initially, my examination of partner abuse focused on courtship violence and spouse abuse perpetrated by men. My sense of curiosity led me to go against what I believed to be the essence of partner abuse and examine the prevalence of abuse perpetrated by women. Quite to my surprise, I found that women too, abused their male partners at equivalent rates. This led me to search out other research examining this issue, and again to my surprise I found my findings were not an anomaly, but had considerable support.
Considerable controversy has emerged as a result of studies finding equivalent rates of abuse for males and females. The rift within family violence research centers on how researchers have approached their investigations. On one hand, there is the unidimensional approach to partner abuse advanced by feminists. They view abuse between intimates as a problem of women being abused by men whereby the abuse is perceived as a dichotomous variable (abuse/no abuse) and seen in its most sever forms. On the other hand, sociologists and family researchers view partner abuse as being gender neutral and occurring along a continuum with no abuse at one end and very severe abuse at the other end.
I would like to address this controversy by first providing a backdrop to how the divisiveness in the study of partner abuse developed, and then by discussing some of the methodological and practical issues that have contributed to it.
Long before the first reference to violence within the family was made in academic circles -which was actually not that long ago - somewhere around 32 years ago - the goings on within the family took on a very different tenor than they do today. Back then, family problems were considered private and were no one's business but those directly involved. This is not to say that the outside world was totally oblivious to the problems that some families experienced. On the contrary, family problems were often quite apparent, however they were defined somewhat differently and were viewed as issues that were to be resolved without outside interference.
I'm sure those of us old enough to remember those simpler times and as well as those too young to remember that era in history will recall stories about families whose children were not adequately fed, unclean and sent to school without warm enough clothing. There were also stories about husbands and wives who quarrelled a little too much and whose houses echoed with sounds of yelling, screaming and items hitting the walls. We may recall husbands who were labelled as boors and wives who were labelled as hen peckers because they didn't treat their respective spouses with the respect or consideration they deserved. We may also recall stories of elderly people stranded in their homes, not being able to adequately care for themselves while their able children only rarely came to visit them but for a few minutes each time. I would venture to suggest that when we reflect back on these stories, the notion of abuse never crosses our minds. Instead, we probably thought about how unfortunate these families were and how thankful we are that such things did go on in our own families.
The explosion of research in family violence as well as the work done by the women's movement has redefined not only how we look at family violence, but how we approach family issues, in general. During the past three decades, the family has been placed under the social science microscope and has been examined in many different ways. We have learned about the division of labour within households, different child rearing practices and alternative lifestyles, to name just a few. What was once considered a troublesome, but private problem is now defined as abuse in its various forms and is subject to the scrutiny of numerous social agencies. In the case of family violence, this move toward deprivatizing the family has been positive in many respects and has led to the protection of those unable to protect themselves. Today, we have very strict guidelines about the reporting and handling of child abuse cases and legislation concerning protecting the elderly is currently in place in many U.S. states and Canadian provinces.
Twenty-five years ago, the problem of wife abuse went virtually unnoticed by the legal, medical, social and research communities. Up till that point, women caught in abusive relationships were left to suffer in silence with no where to turn to for help or understanding. Little support was provided by their own families because of strong adherence to the notion of "to death do you part". Much of the credit for the increased public knowledge about wife assaults is attributed to the women's movement which, through its tireless efforts, has brought the issue of wife battering to the forefront. Today, wife abuse has been identified as the single most important dimension of family violence. In fact, lobbying efforts by women's groups have been so successful that the issue of wife abuse has taken precedence over other social problems such as poverty, alcoholism, and unemployment.
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However, the lobby for the protection of women has been at the expense of protecting other family members also at risk for abuse. In some quarters of both popular and media cultures, as well as the legislative culture, violence against women by men has literally squeezed out recognition of other forms of family violence, including the violence perpetrated by women against other women (siblings, daughters, mothers and lesbian partners), against children, and indeed against male partners and elderly fathers. Especially noteworthy is research which reports that female perpetrators commit between 3% and 13% of all sexual abuse. The tunnel vision view of domestic violence where women are the victims and men are the perpetrators is built on the patriarchal model which conceptualizes abuse as resulting from men's overt attempts to dominate women. This conceptual framework argues that men are socialized into violence, and is supported by many of our social institutions, most notably the institution of marriage. Feminist writers maintain that violence by men is pervasive and normal, and some have gone as far as to equate violence against women with jungle warfare.
At the centre of the debate on family violence is the argument over who is the biggest victim. Feminists would have us believe that women are unquestionably the greater victims and men are the greater perpetrators - even at the cost of invented figures, illogical arguments and suppressed empirical data which dispel this position. It has been suggested that feminists fear that what is perceived as the more serious problem of wife abuse will be impeded by drawing attention to other forms of domestic violence. In other words, it is believed that by sharing the victim spotlight with men, funds will be diverted away from women's shelters and advocacy and toward the needs of men and others suffering abuse. Is it is too naive of me to suggest that by viewing family violence - and specifically spouse abuse - as a much larger problem than has been until now, more funds could be directed to domestic abuse programs which recognize the role of both partners. These funds could then be used to bring about long term solutions by working with couples and their families instead of the current band aid strategies that shelters offer to women alone.
It is only recently that the presentation of domestic abuse as solely a matter of the victimization of women by men has begun to be questioned by academics, government officials, the media and the public. More and more often, stories about women assaulting their family members appear in our newspapers. Although the story of Susan Smith shocked the nation, a perusal of newspaper articles reveals that she is not the first woman to harm her children. Still, examples of women's violence are continually dismissed as rare events while examples of violence by men are held as symbols of their innate violent make-up. As a consequence, challenges to the patriarchal model of spouse abuse have not been well received by women's advocates, and in fact have been labelled as the "backlash" in the violence against women struggle.
The controversy over the salience of the feminist stance on wife assault has been discussed by only a few academics. The penalties against criticizing feminist ideology are varied but nevertheless, severe. They range from personal attacks such as name calling and malicious rumours, to threats to academic careers, to threats to their family members. Because of this, many academics feel the price of speaking out is too high to pay. On the other hand, those who have braved the consequences and spoken out, have gained public attention and given many reason to rethink what has till now become accepted truths in our societal consciousness. Those who have dared to question the myopic, unidimensional view of domestic abuse have done so because of their commitment to see that the issue of violence perpetrated by women is brought to the forefront after being hidden as wife abuse was 20 years ago.
I want to shift gears now and talk about some specifics. While there is no shortage of official statistics, emergency room reports and anecdotes from shelters supporting the claim that women are very often severely abused by their male partners, these claims in no way: 1) describe the condition of all women in society, nor 2) do they address the issue of abuse sustained by men that has already been demonstrated by several large general population surveys.
With respect to my first point concerning the generalizing of findings from one population to another, I will begin by stating that we must remember that the cases that are described by these clinical data sources (that is the shelters, police and hospitals) reflect the tale end of domestic abuse cases. In other words, these are the most serious examples of domestic abuse. On the other hand, surveys conducted on random samples of men and women in the general population find equivalent rates of abuse in which the abuse is relatively speaking more benign in nature. By that I mean, the tactics used during incidents of abuse have a lower probability of producing injuries. This is supported by the low rates of injuries reported.
Much of the confusion in the debate over whether or not women are the sole victims of male perpetrated abuse centers around the data source used to report cases of abuse. To resolve this debate, we must begin by asking, "why do women overshadow men in cases of severe abuse?" Based on the information that has flooded the media, the most obvious answer would be "because that is the way it is; these statistics reflect reality". However, there is an alternative explanation which is: "women overshadow men in reports of severe domestic abuse because the sources from which we gather data do not adequately reflect cases of abused males". Think about it, how many abused men can we expect to find in battered women's shelters?
You might argue though that police and emergency room statistics have likewise failed to produce large numbers of male victims of domestic abuse. How do I explain that? My answer is, "look at the cities that have instituted zero tolerance domestic abuse policies". If you compare pre policy male/female arrest ratios with those at present, you will undoubtedly find that the gap between male/female arrests is quickly closing. In fact, in my home town of Winnipeg, Manitoba, the number of arrests of females is escalating faster than the number of arrests of males. Unfortunately, data on emergency rooms is not as convincing in that few men report domestic abuse as the cause of their injuries. However, based on the anecdotal reports of injured men many say they often lie because they fear they will not be believed.
The bottom line is, we do not have a comparable clinical population of abused men. Appropriate comparisons cannot yet be made between clinically abused males and females, nor can the issue of injuries sustained be appropriately addressed without a parallel population of abused men. Until such time, the motivations for the abuse as well as its associated factors within this high risk population remain unresolved. For now, valid comparisons of male and female abusers should be limited to research conducted on either random samples from the general population or convenience samples drawn from a number of sources including therapy groups. Unfortunately, this is something that is rarely done and is certainly not reflected in media reports.
In terms of my other point concerning the abuse sustained by men, I will say again, there is ample empirical evidence demonstrating that the perpetration and victimization of spousal abuse within the general population is shared by both men and women. Spousal abuse is not exclusively a woman's issue. Yet this notion of domestic violence as being solely a women's issue still persists. In addition to what I has already been said, the strong adherence to female victimization by males centers on women's use of violence as being motivated only by self defence as well as men's greater relative physical strength over women.
Research by Straus and colleagues has demonstrated that an equal proportion of men and women initiate episodes of domestic abuse. This suggests that self defence is not likely a factor in these cases. My own research goes a step further by straight forwardly asking "was the abuse perpetrated in self defence?". Results indicated that only 9.9% of women and 14.8% of men said they perpetrated abuse in self defence during the year prior to the survey. In other words, for the vast majority of men and women, the abuse they perpetrated was for reasons other than self defence.
To date, there are no data that take into account height and weight as a factor involved in the perpetration of domestic abuse. As a result, comments regarding men's greater relative physical strength as a predictor of perpetrated abuse are strictly speculative. While it makes intuitive sense that a person of greater stature and strength will have the advantage in a physical assault, it would be a mistake to believe that one's greater relative strength is the only determining factor in the outcome of a domestic assault. Anecdotal reports from abused men suggest that small framed women exert considerable fear and intimidation by threatening to take their children away and by other forms of emotional abuse such as insults and degradation. We know all too well that anyone can compensate for a lack of strength with a weapon. The case of Lorena and John Bobbitt speaks to that issue quite well.
My point is that we should not automatically jump on to the band wagon that discredits the other reality that men like women can be victims as well as perpetrators of abuse. Regardless of our gender, we are all members of the same human species with the same innate drives of flight or fight. Each one of us has the ability to react violently given the right set of circumstances. What the literature on spousal abuse has shown us is that there is considerable variability in what triggers violent responses to marital conflicts. Some of abusers are triggered by stress, while others are triggered by alcohol, unemployment, family background or poor coping skills. In most cases, it is a complex combination and interaction of these factors that predispose men and women to use violence to resolve conflicts in their intimate relationships. The job of research is to identify these triggers and be able to accurately predict who is most vulnerable and under what set of circumstances. Once accomplished, the road to effective intervention may be at hand.
I want to conclude this talk by making a plea for honesty during future discussions on domestic abuse. As a woman who is deeply concerned about the well being of all women, I cannot help being frustrated by attempts to resolve the abuse that many women suffer by turning a blind eye to other women who inflict serious physical and emotional abuse on their loved ones. By denying this aspect of many women's existence, we do little to help women cope with life's stressors, or assist them in building more satisfactory intimate relationships. In our efforts to improve the lives of all women, it is incumbent upon us to see all aspects of their reality. Even more damaging to the image of women is the self imposed label of victim. In doing so, we deny ourselves the empowerment that we have long strived toward. As long as women subscribe to the notion of universal victimhood, they will never experience the freedom that goes along with having control over their lives.
The truth is, thank goodness, we are not all victims. Research shows us that 89% to 97% of couples report no violence during the year prior to the surveys conducted. In light of these findings, it seems that it would be more appropriate to examine the factors associated with women who have risen above the abuse and have made positive changes in their lives instead of continuously focusing on the small subset of women who have been unable to free themselves from extremely violent relationships. An approach such as this may provide the needed insight to help those still caught in abusive relationships. If not for ourselves, then we need to think about our children and do what is necessary to improve their lives. Since domestic abuse is often handed down from one generation to the next, the only way we can protect our children's future is to stop the abuse they witness and experience in their lives today. Let's take off our politically correct blinders and see the problem of domestic violence for what it really is. Domestic abuse involves and affects all family members!
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