If you follow discussions of gender issues around the interwebs, you are bound to run across this claim: “Women commit domestic violence just as much as men do.” Armed with statistics, reporters and bloggers will explain that female-on-male domestic violence is an underreported but prevalent phenomenon, but that all of the resources go to female victims while male victims feel too humiliated and stigmatized to seek help.
If you are wondering why you haven’t heard about the emergency rooms full of men suffering black eyes and broken bones inflicted by their wives and girlfriends, it’s because the reasoning behind the claim of parity is largely unattached to reality.
“Large numbers of women and girls seek care in emergency rooms for injuries due to violence by a male partner; however, no documentation exists of partner violence from female partners as the source of a significant portion of emergency department visits by men or boys” (Reed, et al, “Losing the ‘Gender’ in Gender-Based Violence,” Violence Against Women, 2010).
There are lies, damned lies, and statistics, as Mark Twain famously said. Let’s examine the evidence.
A Bureau of Justice report from 2009 reveals these facts:
• In 2008, females age 12 or older experienced about 552,000 nonfatal violent victimizations (rape/sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated or simple assault) by an intimate partner (a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend).
• In the same year, men experienced 101,000 nonfatal violent victimizations by an intimate partner.
• In 2008, 72% of the intimate partner violence against males and 49% of the intimate partner violence against females was reported to police.
• About 99% of the intimate partner violence against females in 2008 was committed by male offenders. About 83% of the intimate partner violence against males was committed by female offenders in 2008.
• Females made up 70% of victims killed by an intimate partner in 2007, a proportion that has changed very little since 1993.
• Females were killed by intimate partners at twice the rate of males. In 2007 the rate of intimate partner homicide for females was 1.07 per 100,000 female residents compared to 0.47 per 100,000 male residents.
So where does the claim of perpetrator parity come from?
The stats come from an assessment tool, called the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS), widely used in social science research. The CTS is a questionnaire that asks respondents to identify specific acts that they have committed in the course of a “conflict” with a partner. Framed in neutral language, the questions do not elicit any information about motives, circumstances, behavior patterns, or history. Nor does it distinguish between minor and severe instances of the acts of violence. Therefore, acts of self-defense are counted as acts of violence and disparity of force is ignored.
Critics of the CTS note that it does not address the use of domestic violence as a terroristic means of controlling one’s partner, leaves out sexual assault, and demonstrates little to no correlation between the reports of couples describing the same incident. “On several CTS items, mainly the most severe ones, agreement was actually below chance. On one item, ‘beat up,’ concordance was nil: although there were respondents of both sexes who claimed to have administered beatings and respondents of both sexes who claimed to have been on the receiving end, there was not a single couple in which one party claimed to have administered and the other claimed to have received such a beating.” (Dobash et al, “The Myth of Sexual Symmetry in Marital Violence,” Social Problems, 1992). Furthermore, other research has found that women tend to over-report their own use of violence and underreport their partners’, while men do the opposite. (Gilfus et al, “Gender and Intimate Partner Violence,” Journal of Social Work Education, 2010).
In an apologetic yet defensive article titled “The Gender Debate about Intimate Partner Violence: Solutions and Dead Ends” (Psychological Trauma, 2009), CTS co-author and royalty recipient Sherry Hamby acknowledges that CTS results indicating a 50/50 engagement in domestic violence by men and women makes little sense given that men are overwhelmingly more violent in every other realm. But, she insists, the CTS continues to play an important role in illuminating the dynamics of domestic violence. She does not address the damage done by creating misleading statistics that are used to argue for policy and funding changes that deemphasize the needs of female victims or suggest that male perpetrators should not be targeted for enforcement or treatment.
A quick scan of recent domestic violence news turns up this story: there were 106 domestic violence deaths in North Carolina in 2011. Of the total, 68 victims (65%) were female and 38 (35%) were male. And if we look a little closer, we learn that of the perpetrators or suspected perpetrators of those homicides, 81 (76%) were male and 25 (24%) were female. It is clear that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators. What are not clear are the circumstances surrounding the cases in which women were the perpetrators.
Consider the case of Marissa Alexander, convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison earlier this year for firing a warning shot into the ceiling to ward off her violent husband. Though the man had a history of domestic violence and on this occasion had repeatedly attacked and threatened to kill her, her self-defensive actions tagged her as the perpetrator and took her away from her children.
It seems probable that a significant proportion of women who have been charged with committing domestic violence were in fact acting in self-defense. This is not to say that women are not capable of outright assault or that they should not be prosecuted in those cases. Nor am I suggesting that men who have been victimized do not deserve sympathy, care, and protection. However, gender-based domestic violence continues to be overwhelmingly a crime committed by men and women continue to be the vast majority of victims.
In an era in which the previously bipartisan Violence Against Women Act barely passed, it is critical to disseminate accurate information. Changes in the law based on bogus statistics can only lead to more women dying.