The Denial of Female Domestic Violence (Dr Augusto Zimmermann, Quadrant, July-August 2016)

July 9, 2016

You may have seen the campaign against domestic violence running on Australian television. These ads are part of a $30 million federal campaign designed ‘to help break the cycle of violence against women and their children’. Curiously, it seems to suggest that all of the perpetrators are strictly Caucasian males.

We must speak out loudly and clearly about domestic violence against women, but men and children are also victims of such violence. And yet, from the media reports, public inquiries and official campaigns one would be forgiven to believe that men are the sole perpetrators of domestic violence – and that all men are equally likely to carry out such acts of violence.

The feminist lobby exerts constant pressure to present domestic violence solely as a ‘male problem’, to place all the blame for domestic violence on men as a group. As a result, and based on a radical feminist theory that addresses domestic violence primarily as a male issue that is predicated on so-called ‘patriarchy’, male victims are frequently met with disbelief, even suspicion, when they seek protection from a violent female partner.

This might explain why crime surveys are so reluctant to estimate the number of male partners who sustain domestic violence. In general, instances of domestic violence against male partners are grossly underreported since men who sustain such violence are unlikely to seek help for these issues because of a reasonable fear that ‘they will be ridiculed and experience shame and embarrassment’. If they do overcome these internal psychological barriers, they still face numerous unfair external institutional barriers in seeking help from social services and the criminal justice system.

There are few social programs or non-profit organisations providing useful assistance to men who are the victims of domestic violence. When male victims locate the few resources that are specifically designed to accommodate their needs, hotline workers often infer that they must be the abusers and refer them to batterers’ programs.

Male victims of domestic violence also encounter greater animosity when contacting the police. For instance, male help seekers often report that when they call the police during an incident in which their female partners are violent, the police sometimes ‘fail to respond or take a report’. What is more, some men report ‘being ridiculed by the police or being incorrectly arrested and convicted as the violent perpetrator, even when there is no evidence of injury to the female partner’.

Further, male partners are far more likely to be arrested compared to their female counterparts, even when other factors including previous arrests are taken into account. A study in the United States revealed that men face harsher legal ramifications post-arrest: 85 per cent of violent men were arrested and prosecuted by the police compared to only 53.5 per cent of violent women.

Within the judicial system, men who are victims of domestic violence are often treated unfairly solely because of their gender. Male partners who make claims of domestic violence face a system which is far less sympathetic in its treatment of abused men. This is an area in which the so-called ‘general paradigm’ has caused serious problems of injustice. In the United States, even with apparent corroborating evidence that their female partners were violent, male help-seekers frequently report that they have lost custody of their children and have been falsely accused by their female partners of violence and of sexually abusing their children. As professors Denise A. Hines (Psychology) and Emily M. Douglas (Social Policy) point out,

Male help-seekers have reported that their complaints concerning their female partners’ violence have not always being taken seriously, yet their partner’s false accusations have reportedly been given serious weight during the judicial process. Other men have reported similar experiences in which their female partners misused the legal or social service systems to inappropriately block access between them and their children or to file false allegations with child welfare services. According to some experts, the burden of proof for IPV [i.e.; intimate partner violence] victimization is high for men because it falls outside of our common understanding of gender roles; this can make leaving a violent female partner that much more difficult. For example, many men who sustained IPV report that they stayed with their violent female partners in order to protect the children from their partner’s violence. The men worried that if they left their violent wives, the legal system could still grant custody of the children to their wives and that perhaps even their custody rights would be blocked by their wives as a continuation of the controlling behaviors of their wives used during the marriage.

Since the 1980s more than 200 academic studies have demonstrated that, despite the common assertion, most of partner violence is mutual. Professor Linda Mills of NYU Law School is currently the Principal Investigator of National Science Foundation and National Institute of Justice, which focus on treatment programs for domestic violence offenders. The studies involve a randomised controlled trial examining and comparing batterer intervention and alternative treatment approaches for domestic violence offenders. According to Professor Mills, ‘when it comes to intimate abuse, women are far from powerless and seldom, if ever, just victims”. Like men, she explains, ‘women are frequently aggressive in intimate settings and … [t]he studies show not only that women stay in abusive relationships but also that they are intimately engaged in and part of the dynamic of abuse’.

By contrast, those who deny the empirical evidence showing gender symmetry in the context of domestic violence often resort to unacceptable tactics. This includes ‘concealing those results, selective citation of research, stating conclusions that are the opposite of the data in the results section and intimidating researchers who produced results showing gender symmetry’.

The Australian government is objectively wrong to regard domestic violence as a solely male problem. The Prime Minister seems quite eager to believe in the radical feminist ideological postulate that women do not and would never resort to violent behaviour against their male partners. This assumption is derived from a view that domestic violence is an issue of power and control of which only men in a so-called ‘patriarchal system’ are capable.

What then of all the reports of numerous women (both mothers and wives) involved in the most appalling acts of domestic violence? There are numerous facts that simply do not support the argument of violence as primarily a male problem.

The reality is that anyone, regardless of gender, can become a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence. According to New South Wales criminologist Paul B. Kidd:

of the thirty-two recognised cases of serious murder in modern times in Australia, nine of the killers were women – or around 33 per cent – with only two of those case in tandem with a male. This means that seven female serial killers acted entirely on their own, without the excuse of alleged influence of a male encouraging them to commit unspeakable acts.

In the United States, an emergency clinic study in Ohio found that burns obtained in domestic relations were as frequent for male victims as for female victims, and that 72 per cent of men admitted with injuries from spousal violence had been stabbed. Likewise, at an emergency clinic in Philadelphia male patients reported having been kicked, bitten, punched or chocked by female intimate partners in 47 per cent of cases.

Unfortunately, however, an important study has found that emergency clinics tend to ask only women, but never men, about potential domestic violence origins for injuries. This may be a natural consequence of the cornerstone of mainstream feminist theory that domestic violence is primarily motivated by ‘patriarchal control’. According to Adam Blanch, a Melbourne psychologist and family counsellor, ‘only a very small percentage of domestic violence is found to be motivated by control’. As he points out, reliable studies have discovered that ‘control’ is a motive for both men and women in equal proportions, and Dr Blanch also reiterates that ‘an extraordinarily large body of evidence consistently shows that most domestic violence is committed by both women and men and is motivated by feelings of revenge, frustration and anger’. Thus, he concludes that women are no less violent than men, although women’s violence against their partners is notoriously unreported because men rarely report violence against them.

Perhaps it is not surprising, given the ideological construct of the problem, that domestic abuse against men is so significantly under-reported. As Hines and Douglas comment in their seminal study on women’s use of domestic violence against men:

the conceptualisation of domestic violence from a strict feminist viewpoint has hampered the ability of women who abuse of their male partners to seek and get help from social service and criminal justice systems.

Women who resort to domestic violence, these two female scholars inform, face considerable barriers when seeking help within the current social service system. The following quote exemplifies the experience of one of these abusive women:

He tries to understand my side of the argument. He talks to me rather than hits me. I still hit him, however. I would like to enrol in a class in anger management, but the shelter for battered women does not help women with this problem.

Frequently men do not conceptualise the physical violence they sustain from their female partners as a ‘crime’. Indeed, studies in the field indicate that men are considerably reluctant to report assaults by women, ‘even when severe injuries result’. This reluctance is prevalent among male domestic partners, perhaps because they are expected to be physically dominant. It follows, therefore, that admitting to sustaining violence from a female partner may be viewed as ‘emasculating’. Further, when domestic violence is conceptualised as a ‘crime’ in these surveys, women are significantly less likely to report their own use of violence. Some research reveals that women fail to report as much as 75 per cent of their own use of violence. According to Professor Donald G. Dutton and Dr Katherine R. White,

One reason that intimate partner violence toward men is underestimated is that men are less likely to view [domestic violence] as a crime or to report it to police. Men have been asked in survey if they had been assaulted and if so, had they reported it to police. In a 1985 survey, less than 1% of men who had been assaulted by their wife had called police (Stets & Straus, 1992). In that same survey men assaulted by their wife were less likely to hit back then were wives assaulted by their husband. Men were also far less likely to call a friend or relative for help (only 2%) … Historically, men who were victims of assault by their wives were made into objects of social derision. … Men are socialized to bury problems under a private veil, including being the object of abuse from female partners … Either the women are bragging or the men are in denial, or both.

Male victims of domestic violence struggle to find anti-domestic violence services to assist them since help lines or shelters are generally targeted towards female victims. Moreover, male victims often report not only that their complaints concerning their female partners’ violence have not being taken seriously, but that they have even lost custody of their children as a result of malicious accusations of violence and/or sexually abusing their children by what are commonly the female abusers themselves. And research also indicates beyond any reasonable doubt that fatherless children are particularly vulnerable to becoming the victims of domestic violence by their mothers and the mothers’ boyfriends.

Domestic violence by women against men has received little attention within the media, academia and the political elite. Despite this lack of attention, for nearly four decades research has shown that men are frequently the targets of domestic violence by their female partners. It is therefore time to abandon the sexist (and racially biased) paradigm that has dangerously hijacked the domestic violence debate, and to correct all the injustices caused by the politicisation of a tragic reality that affects countless adults and children, male and female alike.

Dr Augusto Zimmermann is a member of the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia, and the Director of Postgraduate Research, Murdoch University School of Law.

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