(This was originally posted in November of 2002; this week’s post concerning methodology of collecting data on intimate violence reminded me of it.
It’s one of my better posts, in my opinion, but it probably hasn’t been read by many current “Alas” readers. So I thought it was worth reprinting.)
Anyone who watches the men’s rights movement has run across the claim that men are equal victims of domestic violence. I disagree, and as it happens I’ve done a little research on this over the years, so hopefully people won’t mind if I present some contrary evidence.
Forgive how long this post is (and it’s a monster!). Refuting untruths takes time, and I want to be thorough.
1. Introduction and Background.
First, let me provide a little background. The primary argument made by men’s rights activists is that men are as likely, or more likely, to be abused by a wife or girlfriend than the reverse. They base this opinion on various family violence studies. Typical is Warren Farrell’s statement that “the great majority of two-sex studies that have been done (more than a dozen) find women and men to be equally as likely to initiate domestic violence at every level of severity.” (Farrell’s quote is a bit dated – there are now dozens such studies.)
Farrell’s claim is based on influential research conducted by family violence researchers Murray Straus and Richard Gelles, and by other researchers who have followed up on Straus and Gelles’ work. (It’s worth mentioning – I’ll get into this later – that both Straus and Gelles have objected to the misuse of their work by men’s rights activists). This research, based on interviews with both men and women, has found that wives are as likely to assault husbands as husbands are to assault wives. Other researchers have replicated Straus and Gelles’ results, most often using the same survey instrument, resulting in a intimidating list of studies showing equivalent rates of male and female-perpetrated spousal violence.
An article by men’s advocate Philip Cook summarizes the Straus/Gelles findings:
Men’s rights activists acknowledge that government records such as police reports have found that vastly more women than men are victims of spousal assault. But they dismiss this by saying men would never admit to being abused. As Warren Farrell explains, “male socialization to ‘take it like a man’ makes men the sex more fearful of reporting their abusers.”
Men’s rights activists conclude, therefore, that data showing that men are greater abusers is invalid due to male underreporting: fairer studies, in their view, find that men are equal victims, and women are equal abusers. I’m here to examine where that data comes from.
The empirical claims made by men’s rights activists about domestic violence are based on studies using Straus and Gelles’ Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) (and also from a few studies using methodology very similar to the CTS). When I examined a bibliography of “references examining assaults by women on their spouses or male partners” on a men’s rights website, for example, I found that of 86 prevalence studies cited, 59 (about 70%) used the CTS as a research tool! In order to evaluate men’s rights activists claims of equal male victimization, it is therefore necessary to examine the CTS.
A review of the social science literature indicates that the CTS is, even according to its creators, seriously flawed when used as a comparative measure of male and female domestic victimization (i.e., the way men’s righters and anti-feminists use it).
2. How do we define “abuse” and “violence?” What’s left out?.
Many critics have questioned whether the CTS’s definition of violence can fairly capture the range of marital violence. For example, none of the original CTS’s questions ask respondents about rape or sexual assault – an area in which male abusers predominate. Not asking about rape could lead to undercounting of severe male-on-female violence. (In response to this criticism, a later version of the CTS – the “CTS2″ – pasted on some questions about sexual assault. However, of the 59 CTS studies I found listed on a men’s rights website, only 3 used the CTS2).
More subtly, the CTS’s method of measurement may be overly literal, measuring narrowly-defined actions while failing to consider their context and meaning. As Straton points out, results of violence are ignored: the CTS “equates a woman pushing a man in self-defense to a man pushing a woman down the stairs.” Similarly, the context of violence is ignored: playful kicking in bed, considered aggressive by neither partner, is counted as more severe violence than a bone-jarring push against a wall.
The CTS ignores not only different physical impacts of violence, but also different mental impacts of violence. A recent study indicated that violence, “even when both the man and woman participate,” leads to significantly worse outcomes for women; women are more frightened by the violence, with a greater sense of loss of personal control and well-being.
As a matter of common sense, there’s an enormous difference in mass and physical strength between most women and men, and that can make a big difference in how abuse “feels.” An ex-girlfirend of mine – who weighed 100 pounds less than I do – once punched me, as hard as she could, on my chest. It left a bruise and hurt my feelings, but I certainly didn’t feel frightened or helpless. Why not? Because I could walk out the room whenever I pleased, and she couldn’t stop me.
Now, what if I had hit her? Although the action would have been the same, the dynamic would have been totally different – because she would have been effectively trapped with me unless I chose to let her go.
Researcher James Nazroo conducted a survey of domestic violence, which was designed to consider the kind of contextual information the CTS leaves out. As Nazroo wrote:
Don’t get me wrong – I know what my ex-girlfriend did was reprehensible. I’m not saying it’s okay to hit men. I’m not denying that some individual men are badly abused, sometimes by girlfriends or wives who are much smaller than their victims. But for most male-female relationships, there’s a big difference in physical power that benefits the male, and it’s pointless to pretend it doesn’t exist.
It’s no coincidence that, even according to the Straus/Gelles study, women are nearly seven times as likely to report being injured as “equally abused” men are.
3. Sampling bias.
According to Michael Johnson, the CTS’s dependence on voluntary interviews with a representative sample population could create a strong bias against measuring the worse cases of domestic violence: “men who systematically terrorize their wives would hardly be likely to agree to participate in such a survey, and the women whom they beat would probably be terrified at the possibility that their husband might find out that they had answered such questions.” Straus himself seems to agree with this criticism.
Sampling error is always a concern, of course, but there are reasons to think it’s a bigger problem with the Straus/Gelles work than in most. For one thing, according to Michael Johnson, Straus and Gelles people who refused to answer screening questions were not included when Straus and Gelles calculated their 84% response rate; taking this discrepancy into account, the actual response rate may be closer to 60%, low enough to create a severe danger of sampling bias. More importantly, Straus and Gelles compiled information only about abuse within current, ongoing relationships; but fear of a current abusive partner would obviously make a victim hesitate to be frank with interviewers. It’s much safer for a victim of severe battery to refuse to be interviewed altogether, in such circumstances.
In contrast, when the US Bureau of Justice statistics did a similar study (see part 5, below), they designed the interview process to enourage current victims to report honestly (they put protections in place to assure that the person interviewed could respond safely while alone in the house, without the spouse’s knowledge), and did not ask only about current relationships. They also had a higher response rate, which means a much lower chance of serious sampling error.
Jack Stranton points out another important sampling bias: the CTS, as used in the original Straus/Gelles research and most of the research that follows it, excludes violence that occurs after a divorce or separation. However, such violence accounts for 76% of spousal assaults, and is overwhelmingly committed by men; excluding this violence disproportionately omits most spousal violence against women.
4. Contrary Social Science Data.
CTS studies leave thousands of abused women uncounted. According to a CTS study, a typical woman in a battered woman’s shelter reports having been assaulted by a spouse 65 times in the year previous to admission. Straus and Gelles’ national study found that there are about 80,000 women in the United States who are abused at that level. In contrast, data from battered women’s shelters show that up to 490,000 women use shelters each year – and that figure doesn’t even include thousands of severely battered women who don’t make it to a shelter.. This huge discrepancy shows that instances of severe woman-battering, far from being fairly measured by the men’s rights activists favorite studies, are in fact badly undercounted.
When combined with Michael Johnson and Jack Stranton’s observations about sampling bias, it seems clear that the CTS simply isn’t measuring the worse cases of violence against women.
Many non-CTS studies have found, contrary to CTS results, that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of domestic violence, while women are overwhelmingly the victims. Since most (but not all) of these studies are designed to measure criminal violence, Farrell dismisses them, saying men are socialized to “take it like a man” and not report their victimization. However, Russell Dobash pointed out “that women have their own reasons to be reticent, fearing both the loss of a jailed or alienated husband’s economic support and his vengeance.” Moreover, surveys of domestic violence victims in the US and Canada have found that men are more likely to call the police after being assaulted by their partner. So while it’s true that both men and women have motivation not to report their abuse, it’s just not true that men are actually less likely to report abuse than women.
Finally, studies using variants of the CTS have found some apparent contradictions. A CTS study of violence by stepparents (conducted by Gelles himself) found no difference in rates of stepparent and natural-parent violence – but as Jack Stanton points out, other studies, including homicide reports, show that “a stepparent is up to 100 times more likely to assault a small child than is a birth parent.” Like the unaccounted-for abused women, this finding suggests that the CTS is deficient at measuring the most severe instances of family violence.
5. Putting the CTS to the test.
A 1998 study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) used a modified form of the CTS to survey a representative sample of 8,000 Americans. Unlike most previous CTS studies, the BJS study asked about rape and sexual assault, and did not limit respondents to describing only violence taking place within marriages or relationships; these changes addressed many (but not all) of the criticisms previously made of the CTS. And responding to the claims of men’s rights activists, the survey was designed to be about “personal safety” issues, rather than being presented as a survey about crime. (In this case, by the way, men’s rights activists are right: it’s better not to use hot-button words like “crime” in surveys.)
This study was an important test for people on both sides of the CTS debate. If CTS critics were correct, such a study would find different results from previous CTS studies, and specifically would find that women are more frequent victims of spousal violence. If, on the other hand, men’s rights activists were right, then this study would have found equal abuse, since it asked men and women the same questions (mostly the same questions as the CTS).
Critics’ expectations were fulfilled. The results of the government’s study strongly contradicted previous CTS studies: the BJS study found that overall women were more likely to be abused by an intimate partner than men, particularly for the more severe kinds of violence. For example, women were seven times as likely to have been threatened with a gun; 14 times as likely to report having been “beat up” by a partner; and twenty-six times as likely to have been raped.
6. Straus and Gelles on the men’s rights movement’s use of their work.
The evidence against using the CTS to show equal victimization on the part of men is strong and persuasive; not even the creators of the CTS endorse the men’s rights activist interpretation any longer. Straus has recently written that the female victims of severe battery are the cases which are “the most serious problems and which need to have priority in respect to interventions.” Gelles has put it even more strongly, arguing that “it is misogynistic to paint the entire issue of domestic violence with a broad brush and make it appear as though men are victimized by their partners as much as women.”
To be fair, Straus and Gelles have also been critical of feminists – although Straus (who considers himself a feminist) has described some feminist work as serious and deserving of respect, a concession that few men’s rights activists are willing to make.
7. Summing up what the stats can tell us.
Overall, the evidence supports a commonsense conclusion: there isn’t sex equality in serious violence. Women are battered by their intimate partners much more often than the reverse. Given the many reasons to doubt the CTS’s accuracy for measuring severe violence in families, the most reasonable conclusion is that the Straus/Gelles studies – at least, as they’re used by men’s rights activists – are inaccurate.
So should the Straus and Gelles studies be rejected entirely? I say no. The evidence weighs strongly against the “equal victimization” hypothesis, but that doesn’t mean the results of CTS-based studies should be thrown out entirely. Although it’s clear the Straus/Gelles work doesn’t accurately measure the most severe instances of intimate violence, the validity of the CTS in measuring what Michael Johnson calls “common couple violence” – minor, sporadic, non-escalating and mutual violence between spouses – has not been disproved. Some researchers, including CTS co-creater Straus, have suggested that the seemingly contrary data actually indicates two different aspects of domestic assault, the relatively sex-neutral “common couple violence” and the more severe violence that lands some women in shelters. The results from the CTS may, in the end, significantly deepen understandings of the dynamics of violence within families.
It is unlikely, however, that this possibility will provide much comfort to men’s rights activists committed to the equal victimization hypothesis. While CTS studies corroborate a key men’s rights belief – the capacity of women to commit spousal assault – the possibility of equal victimization is key to the CTS’s appeal to men’s rights activists. And the facts just won’t support that belief.
And to those men’s rights activists who say that we need more services for male victims of domestic violence – I agree completely! It’s only the men’s rights claim that women and men are equal victims of intimate violence that I’m disagreeing with. I don’t think anyone can look at the facts and deny that women are sometimes violent, or that male victims of intimate violence need more support services.
8. Epilog: Why It Matters
Men’s righters disagree with feminists – and with conventional social science – about how often husbands beat up wives, and vice versa. They argue that men are equal or greater victims of intimate violence. Feminists disagree. Is this just squabbling over numbers? It can sure look that way. But there’s a deeper argument going on here.
In the face of strong counter-evidence, and contrary to the opinions of the researchers whose work they rely on, men’s rights activists passionately insist that men are equally victims of spousal violence. What compels them to this belief? Men’s rights activists are at least partly driven by a fear of guilt and shame. Men’s rights activists are attracted to the equal-victimization hypothesis because, to them, it suggests that men are not to blame for violence against women.
It is common for feminists to be perceived as anti-male; bell hooks (herself a feminist) argues that anti-male sentiments have been a significant part of bourgeois white feminism, and that such anti-male discourse is a barrier to male support of feminism. A similar analysis is made by R.W. Connell, who describes the “public face” of feminism as “hostile to men.” Shame for being male is a common first reaction among men encountering feminism, and doubtless that first impression drives some men away from feminism.
A fear of shame is also a common theme in the men’s rights critique of feminism. From David Shakleton’s essay in Everyman Journal, a men’s rights magazine: “The deepest, most deadly power given to women by tribal evolution is the power to shame… Today feminism is using that deep power to shame the souls of men.” A men’s rights activist on an online discussion board expressed similar themes of blame and shame, quite plaintively (capitalization, punctuation and line breaks as in the original):
emotionally it gets easy to be confused)
Why is everything we do wrong?
Why do we have to be the bad guys?
Why can’t WE be people too?
Allen Johnson’s The Gender Knot analyzed seminal men’s rights writer Warren Farrell and found a similar subtext: “Farrell seems so worried and angry about guilt and blame that he goes off the deep end to argue that men aren’t powerful at all.” Farrell’s desire to deny the idea of male privilege – and thus deny that any blame can fall on men – leads him to argue that men are equally or more victimized in almost every instance, including spousal abuse.
What the men’s rights movement offers men is a defense mechanism – a lens for viewing sex roles which obscures an “ocean of guilt and shame” (in Johnson’s words). As Michael Messner describes in his analysis of men’s rights discourse, “a few highly questionable studies [provide] an emotionally charged basis for the development of an ideology of male victimization.” By describing men as equal (or, often, greater) victims, the men’s right lens shields men from shame or guilt; it is this lack of blame that appeals to men’s rights activists.
The purpose of claims of equal male victimization isn’t to deny the reality of wife-battering (to the contrary, many men’s rights activists fervently claim sympathy with individual battered women), but to deny the existence of patriarchy and male privilege altogether. In this way, men’s rights activists hope to avoid shame.
(Of course, many feminists – including me - have argued that there is no need for men to feel shame in feminism; wallowing in guilt is not only unnecessary, it’s counterproductive.)
What’s sad is, men’s righters are right about some things. Patriarchy hurts men, too. It’s harmful to have only men register for the draft. It’s harmful to men to be set on career paths that estrange them from their families. It’s harmful to men who face violence from other men. Its harmful to men that some male-dominated jobs are unsafe. And for those men who genuinely are victims of severe intimate violence, it’s harmful that there are almost no services available to help victimized men. (Etc, etc.)
Which makes it ironic that the men’s rights movement is primarily a movement about preventing change; about rolling back the years to bring back “Father Knows Best”; about denying that patriarchy even exists; and about attacking feminism, the only movement that’s made any progress in challenging how sexism and patriarchy hurt us all.
However much they say they want change, by denying male privilege, the men’s rights movement has become fundamentally reactionary. It isn’t possible to undo patriarchy if you won’t even admit it exists.
And that – not just statistics – is what the debate over “husband-battering” is about.
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