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Beyond a One Dimensional View: The Politics of Family Violence in Canada.

Reena Sommer, Ph.D.

(1997) In K. Bonnycastle & G. Rigakos (Eds), Unsettling Truths, Toronto, Ont.: Collective Press.

During the past few years, a renewed interest in examining both sides of the spouse abuse question has arisen. This alternative approach to understanding the problem of domestic violence has met with opposition from feminists who believe that spouse abuse is rooted in power imbalances between men and women where “power” is primarily held by men.

In this essay, I examine some of the issues surrounding one dimensional feminist views of family violence. I begin with the premise that the public’s acceptance of the wife victim and husband victimizer dichotomy stems from the inappropriate application of the ‘patriarchal model’ of spouse abuse to all instances of domestic abuse. I argue that in addition to shaping and reinforcing the public perception of spouse abuse as exclusively a women’s issue, the reliance on over extended and flawed conceptual framework limits studies of family violence to the detriment of advancing knowledge and protecting all families members exposed to domestic abuse.

A perusal through feminist literatures reveals rifts within feminist understanding of violence. Nonetheless, the feminist understanding of violence that has come to dominate not only feminist research and critique but government programs and policy responses is a one-dimensional ‘patriarchal model’ of violence. This essay challenges the dominant feminist stance by:

  • identifying the limitations of the patriarchal model and the flaws in the research based upon it such as incomplete literature reviews, flawed methodologies and overgeneralized interpretations of findings, and

  • by addressing the criticisms of research conducted from a gender neutral perspective.

The essay concludes by looking at the politics of family violence. I tell my own story about university based measures to silence my research which espouses a gender neutral stance on family violence and raises troubling questions about women’s violence.


Family violence and feminist scholars rarely dispute the seriousness of domestic abuse. Nor do they disagree that socially constructed wall of privacy surrounding families is a major impediment to understanding this form of violence. For family violence researchers, however, the major point of departure centres on resolving whether or not gender should be considered the pivotal variable for identifying victims and perpetrators of family violence. Feminist researchers maintain that women have been and continue to be the victims of domestic abuse perpetrated by men. Feminist advocating patriarchal models of violence claim that male violence is pervasive and normalized; some go as far as to equate violence against women with ‘jungle warfare’ (Yllo 1993). Violence is viewed instrumentally as one of several ways men maintain their dominance (Goldner, Penn, Sheinberg and Walker 1990; Martin 1976) within the context of male entitlement (Dobash, Dobash, Wilson and Day 1992), control, intimidation and isolation (Yllo 1993). Thus, while violence as a manifestation of power and control is understood by feminists to be characteristically within the confines of male behaviour, violence by women on the other hand is viewed as a less frequent event typically occurring in response to male aggression (Saunders 1986).

This feminist argument is based on the belief that women are controlled and disadvantaged systematically by a patriarchal societies (Dobash and Dobash 1979). According to this perspective, men are socialized into violence by multiple social institutions, most notably marriage and family. The Cycle of Violence Theory, borne out of Lenore Walker’s (1979) research on a self selected sample of battered wives is often used to support this position. Walker’s theory explains how a woman’s emotional connections to her partner (e.g., through commitment, love or children), combined with her lack of material resources (e.g., economic and social) in tandem with cyclical fluctuations between periods of abuse and peaceful coexistence lead often to "learned helplessness". This psychological state explains why many battered women never attempt to leave abusive relationships (Walker 1979) even when their lives or their children’s are at risk.

Central to all feminist conceptualization of violence is gender and the insistence that spousal abuse be interpreted as power differentials (Kurz 1993). Based on this approach, all violence tends to be collapsed into the category of ‘male perpetrated’ negating the dynamics of power across different social contexts. This assumption then shapes how spouse abuse is then investigated. For instance, beginning from the premise (that women are victims and men are perpetrators of family violence), ‘patriarchal model’ research typically dichotomizes abuse as being present or absent and characterize violence only in it most severe forms.

The family violence genre of domestic abuse differs from that of feminist research theoretically and methodologically. The most noted study conducted by family violence researchers is the 1975 National Survey on Family Violence (Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz 1980). Considered a landmark study not only because it extended the scope of domestic abuse beyond clinical populations and alerted the world to the pervasiveness of family violence, it also marked a shift in how spousal abuse was to be regarded. For years, domestic abuse was once thought to be a rare event resulting from mental illness or psychopathology (Gelles 1979). This research challenged that belief by demonstrating that spouse abuse is ubiquitous, affecting all levels of society.

Much of the research that followed focused on establishing the prevalence, correlates and social patterns of spouse abuse (Straus et al. 1980). Most recently however, the focus of research has shifted toward incorporating and understanding how the interactions of social forces such as unemployment, stress and past abuse and constitutional factors such as personality, alcohol consumption and a family history of abuse (Bland and Orn1986; Gondolf 1988; Sommer, Barnes and Murray 1992; Sommer 1994) contribute to family violence. Regardless of the approach used, surveys conducted over the past 30 years in the U.S. (Straus et al. 1980; Straus and Gelles 1986; Straus and Kaufman Kantor 1994), Canada (Brinkerhoff and Lupri 1986, Kennedy and Dutton 1989, Sommer 1994) and Britain (Russell and Hudson 1992) consistently suggest that men and women share an equal involvement as perpetrators of domestic abuse.. Therefore, family violence researchers adopt a gender neutral approach in their research recognizing that domestic abuse involves a complex set of interpersonal and social dynamics that stem from maladaptive processes within family systems.


Notwithstanding the contributions made by the women’s movement in bringing the issue of wife battering to the forefront, we cannot overlook the existence of theoretical and methodological limitations inherent in the patriarchal model on which these efforts were based.

To begin, it can be argued that the patriarchal argument is limited because it is dated and ignores the realities of the present. I refer reader to the laws sanctioning spouse abuse dating back to the 1700’s which have been consistently used to support the “male oppressor/female victim” position (Sommers 1994). Alternatively, the evidence demonstrating changes in society’s attitude toward women through progress made in the areas of employment equity, affirmative action and child care have instead been ignored (Sommer 1996). Through the selective presentation of evidence supporting men’s power over women , the experiences of present day western women have been falsely characterized as stagnant and oppressive. Yet, when confronted with research which contradicts the systemic subjugation of women, feminists justify excluding it by alleging that the methodology used in that research fails to consider the qualitative aspects of women’s experiences (Straus and Gelles 1990).

Beyond the above limitations, various inconsistencies are also evident within the existing literature. For example, the literature on violence within lesbian relationships reports that the rates of abuse among lesbians is equivalent to those found within heterosexual populations (Marie 1984; Renzetti 1992). This body of research challenges feminist doctrine espousing that violence against women is the result of men's overt attempts to dominate them or that women are inherently nonviolent. Research demonstrating women’s over-represented as perpetrators in incidents of physical child abuse (Coleman and Charles 1990; Star 1983; Straus et al. 1980) further challenges arguments against women’s proclivity toward violence. Research by Simons (1995) reports that one of the risk factors in a woman’s abuse by her husband is her own delinquency as a child and suggests that a history of maladaptive conduct may be an antecedent to later abuse. Finally, for the past ten years, research on child sexual abuse has identified women as well as men as perpetrators (Kendall-Tackett and Simon 1987; McCarty 1986; Schultz and Jones 1983). Research by Kaufman, Wallace, Johnson and Reeder (1995) adds insight into understanding the female offender by reporting that compared to males, they are more likely to exploit their victims.

A number of salient criticisms can also be raised about the methodological limitations of spouse abuse research guided by the patriarchal model of spouse abuse. While the cycle of abuse provides an explanation of spouse abuse that is consistent with the large number of women identified by clinical samples who refuse to press charges against their partners following a domestic abuse incident or who welcome them back following an arrest, it does not describe the experiences of all women in abusive relationships. The population upon which Walker’s (1979) theory was developed raises questions regarding its application as a universal explanation of wife abuse that polarises victims and perpetrators on the basis of gender. Not only has the practice of overgeneralising this theory generated misinformation, it has also been instrumental in shaping public perception and developing programs, policies and legislation that have little applied value in the general population.

In addition to the inappropriate application of theory, limitations related to problems in reporting of findings and flaws in research design are also evident. The following studies have been selected because they are based on Canadian data: the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women report by Linda Macleod (1987), the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women (1993), DeKeseredy and Kelly (1993)’s national dating survey, and the Violence Against Women Survey (Canadian Center for Justice Statistics 1994).

Macleod's (1987) study reported that approximately one million Canadian women (1 in 10) annually. When one considers the source of this estimation (from information drawn from transition houses and inappropriately generalized to the female population at large (Lees 1992), one soon realises that it is nothing more than a falsely grounded guestimation. Similarly, the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women (1993) left the impression that sexual abuse is almost universal when it reported that 98% of a self selected sample of abused women from Metro Toronto had also suffered some form of sexual abuse.

Another set of criticisms relates to the selective analysing and reporting of data, as well as the designing of investigations to generate desired findings. DeKeseredy and Kelly (1993)’s study on dating violence analysed data collected from male and female students who were administered different questionnaires based on their gender. The questionnaires given to the males cast them as the perpetrators while the questionnaires given to the females cast them as the victims. Given this questionnaire structure and a broad definition of abuse used in the study, it is not surprising that 81% of females were reported to have experienced some form of abuse. Although the principal investigators also collected data on females’ use of violence __, these results have yet to be released. This leaves one to ponder whether the researchers’ reluctance to release their findings is because their data on female initiated abuse contradict their theory that males are socialized into violence against women (DeKeseredy and Kelly 1993).

The Violence Against Women Survey (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 1994) which interviewed 12,300 Canadian women on their experiences of violence, reported that 51 percent encountered some form of violence at some point during their lives since the age of sixteen. Estimates of violence experienced across various contexts were also reported. However, missing from the Family Violence in Canada report (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 1994) were the following findings taken from the Public Use Microdata File Documentation and User’s Guide (Statistics Canada, 1994): 1) being "pushed, shoved or grabbed" was the most common form of abuse experienced by women , 2) only 17% of abused women reported ever fearing for their lives , and 3) only 2.35% of abused women ever contacted a women's shelter (Statistics Canada, 1994). In failing to report these findings along with the others, the report distorts toward the negative the experiences of the majority of women in the general population. By selectively reporting their own data, the Family Violence in Canada report fails to provide balance to the feminist position that violence against women is a pervasive and systemic societal problem.

Beyond the problem of selective reporting of findings, a number of other flaws have also been identified. They include: 1) an unrepresentative sample, 2) the use of double-barrelled questions and over-inclusive questions, 3) biased wording, 4) the presentation of the context of abuse as the proportion of multiple relationships, rather than the proportion of responding women, and 5) the selective citing of research literature to support the conceptual frameworks of feminist advocacy (See Sommer and Fekete 1995 for a detailed discussion).


Criticisms of research conducted from a gender neutral perspective have generally been directed at the Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS) (Straus 1979) because it has been alleged to understate the victimization of women and overstate the violence by women (Straus 1990). Of the criticisms waged, the charges that the CTS fails to examine the context, initiation and consequences of abuse_are the most common.

Those who criticize the CTS for not considering these variables clearly lack an understanding of the purpose and the design of this measure. The CTS is a concise instrument that can be used in interview or self administered formats (Straus 1979) and has the capacity to generate data from large samples. It is designed to objectively measure a broad range of conflict resolving behaviours across varying populations. Straus (1990) argued that an examination of the context, initiation and consequences of abuse as part of the CTS would compromise its conciseness and would also assume a relationship between them and the CTS items. Family violence researchers have alternatively assessed these variables apart from the CTS and analysed their interaction effects (See Kaufman Kantor and Straus 1987; Sommer et al. 1992; Stets and Straus 1989).

In spite of the numerous papers criticizing the CTS, it continues to be the mostly widely used measure of family violence even among feminist researchers (DeKeseredy and Kelly 1995; Okun 1986) . Even when other measures have been employed, the overall estimates of abuse are still comparable (Straus 1993). With respect to the latter, when comparing my own findings based on a random sample of adult men and women living in Winnipeg, Manitoba and using the CTS, with those of the Violence Against Women Survey (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 1994) using a modified version of the CTS (e.g., added an item on sexual assault and collapsed “threats” and “the use of a gun or knife” into one item), the overall prevalence of abuse by men was 26.3%.,and 30%, respectively. Even without accounting for variability in abuse rates across the province or differences due to reporting sources, these two findings are nevertheless remarkably similar. Given the similarity in these findings, the question needed to be asked is “why then are the estimates of female perpetrated abuse using the CTS or any other measure deemed less cogent”. Perhaps what is really at issue is the failure of the patriarchal model to explain what it has long espoused.


For me, the most troubling aspect of conducting gender neutral research has been coping with personal attacks. While the attack on The Battered Husband Syndrome was documented by media and academics, other examples of this type of intolerance are less well publicized.

In my own academic history, there have been a few occasions where I became convinced that my work was being criticized not on its academic merit, but rather because it did not mesh theoretically with what I have already described as a dominant feminist approach. Indeed, in one particular instance, my research received front page attention in a local newspaper. Soon after, the family violence perspective employed throughout my work, the credibility of my methodology, my understanding of the literature, and my insensitive commentary was the subject of heavy interrogation by fellow academics. Of course, this should not be unexpected in academia since dialogue and criticism are not only anticipated, but preferred. Indeed, early feminists often suffered and continue to endure marginalization and intolerance.

Whomever this type of academic censorship attacks, whether feminist or family violence researcher, the individual toll quite often results in the cultivation of vendettas and continued intolerance - an atmosphere antithetical to serious scholarship. How unfortunate it is when the advancement of ideology takes precedence over the pursuit of knowledge or the welfare of society. The most damaging effect is that instead of accepting the reality of female perpetrated violence, most feminists dismiss any data that do not mesh with a unidimensional patriarchal model. This tendency undermines their ability to cogently speak to woman initiated violence and stunts the progress of scholarship.


The evidence in this chapter points to researchers’ reluctance to move beyond a one dimensional view of domestic abuse to consider both men’s and women’s relationship to violence. This trepidation, fueled by personal politics or even fear of political and academic reprisal, remains an obstacle to understanding how power and control are negotiated within familial contexts specifically. Because the prevailing view of domestic abuse fails to recognize the interactive and reciprocal relations of violent incidents (and its antecedents), support for the needs of women, men and children living in abusive relationships is limited. Until domestic abuse is seen as a problem stemming from maladaptive family relations embedded within wider maladaptive social conditions, rather than the dysfunctional conduct of one individual, or perhaps one gender, viable solutions to family violence will not be forthcoming.


  • This justification for using qualitative methods is selective. The literature on family violence contains numerous examples of feminist research using quantitative research methods (DeKeseredy & Kelly, 1995; Koss, Gidycz & Wisniewski, 1987; Violence Against Women Survey, 1994)

  • Questions regarding female initiated violence were framed within the context of self defence. This estimate was derived from a composite variable assessing reports of violence across a number of contexts (e.g., current and previous intimate relationships, dating relationships, non intimate relationships, strangers) and included forms of violence ranging from threats to the use of weapons. For the majority of women, the violence reported was an isolated incident occurring at some point in the past. For frequency counts on reports of violence across all contexts, see the Violence Against Women Survey: Public Use Microdata File Documentation and User’s Guide (Statistics Canada, 1994).

  • Ironically, this is a similar criticism that family violence researchers raise regarding feminist studies on wife abuse.

  • The estimate of abuse noted is based on Manitoba respondents.


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