The unspoken truth of domestic violence: Woman as aggressor

I approach this writing with some trepidation because it will run counter in some areas to the current debate regarding domestic violence. When wading in these highly volatile and controversial waters, one finds that disclaimers—like life jackets—must be affixed to the body of the argument.


Violence against women

Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. And pregnancy is consistently among the leading causes of death for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide.

Incidents of domestic violence against women occur every 15 seconds in the U.S.

Add to those glaring examples of epidemic-like violence against women figures the college/university campus date rape statistics, the reported high rates of sexual assault in South Africa, the mass kidnappings of girls in Nigeria, and the list could go on and on. These are not trivial things. Yet, although violence against women and girls includes domestic violence, not all domestic violence features women and girls as the victims. Sometimes, the woman is the abuser.

Let me be clear, the hesitance in speaking about female-initiated domestic violence is rooted in a very real concern about what the discussion can give way to: a dismissal and abnegation of the actual dangers women face. That, however, fails to be a compelling reason not to discuss the role of women in domestic violence. For example, an honest discussion about Israel’s occupation of Palestine need not devolve into anti-Semitism. Neither does a hard look at real terrorism, perpetrated by entities such as the Islamic state, have to degenerate into Islamophobia. So, conversely, a sincere critique regarding the totality of domestic violence does not have to be reduced to a capitulation to misogyny and sexist insensitivity.


Female-initiated domestic abuse

Women are three times more likely to be killed or seriously injured by their male counterpart than vice versa. Though those numbers suggest a more dire need, they do not connote that women are completely innocent when it comes to domestic violence.

More than 830,000 men fall victim to domestic violence every year. A man is the victim of domestic abuse every 37.8 seconds in America. These numbers are not inconsequential and the frequency is far from insignificant.

Jan Brown, executive director and founder of the Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men, stated that “domestic violence is not about size, gender, or strength. It’s about abuse, control, and power, and getting out of dangerous situations and getting help, whether you are a woman being abused, or a man.”

In 2001, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health collected data about the health of a nationally representative sample of 14,322 individuals between the ages of 18 and 28. The study also asked subjects to answer questions about romantic or sexual relationships in which they had engaged during the previous five years and whether those relationships had involved violence.

From this information researchers found that of the 18,761 relationships, 76% were non-violent and 24% were violent. Of the 24% that were violent, half had been reciprocal and half had not—reciprocal meaning there was violence inflicted by both partners. Although more men than women (53% versus 49%) had experienced non-reciprocal violent relationships, more women than men (52% versus 47%) had taken part in ones involving reciprocal violence.

This statistic was undoubtedly the most striking: in committing acts of domestic violence, more women than men (25% versus 11%) were responsible. In fact, in the 71% of non-reciprocal partner violence instances, the instigator was the woman. This flies in the face of the long-held belief that female aggression in a relationship is most often predicated on self-defense.

Further, while injury was more likely when violence was perpetrated by men, in relationships that featured reciprocal violence, men were injured more often (25% of the time) than women (20% of the time).

Great Britain’s Office of National Statistics also showed that while 1.2 million women experienced domestic violence, 800,000 men did as well—in the U.K., men comprise 40 percent of those who suffer from domestic violence.

The Department of Psychology at California State University, Long Beach, compiled a bibliography that examined 286 scholarly investigations, 221 empirical studies, and 65 reviews and/or analyses demonstrating that which we are reluctant to discuss—the uncomfortable reality that women are as physically aggressive, or even more so, than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners.

Let’s put this into perspective: a significant amount of the findings regarding male-as-victim intimate partner violence came about as the result of studies and surveys that were aimed at understanding domestic violence against women. These are not studies conducted by rabid anti-women men’s groups or right-wing think tanks. They were conducted by organizations like the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, the American Sociological Association, Psychology of Women Quarterly, and the American Journal of Public Health, to name a few.

And yet, these numbers prompt a resounding backlash. Accusations such as “You’re saying abused women are asking for it” or “You’re blaming the victim” get hurled. No person—female or male—is asking for it, and no victim—female or male—should be blamed for what is done to them. I’m merely broadening the definitions of abuser and victim.

If we are serious about addressing domestic violence, then we must deal with all of the incarnations of the realities of domestic violence.


Mixed messages

This writer does not pretend to have all the answers when it comes to this issue, but this can be said with a great deal of certitude: Confusing the very people one is trying to affect is not a sound strategy for change. If only one person in the relationship is supposed to exercise control, if both partners are not equally responsible for keeping a relationship respectful and free of violence, we will have succeeded in changing nothing.

In recent months we’ve seen that the NFL has a confused policy in regard to domestic violence. For quite some time we’ve known that our court system has had a confused policy about domestic abuse. Their confusion reflects our societal misunderstanding of domestic violence and our muddled perceptions about gender.

Men are told in one breath to shed their machismo and sexist leanings, and in the next they are told to “man up” and take the blows dealt to them by their female partners. Men are being told that phrases like “You throw like a girl” or “You hit like a girl” have chauvinistic underpinnings while simultaneously being told, “It doesn’t matter if she hits you because, essentially, she hits like a girl and you can handle it, big boy.” So, while we recognize there’s often a difference in the physical impact between male and females hitting each other, we completely disregard the emotional and psychological impacts—and often even the physical harm—of a woman hitting a man, whether it be with her hands, feet, or objects.

Just as we have done with women, we are trapping men in certain gender-based stereotypical straitjackets. This leads to two very important questions that are rarely asked: Is a woman ever responsible for a physical altercation that takes place between her and her male partner? Does a man ever have the right to tell a woman not to put her hands on him and expect her to respect that? Statistical and anecdotal data says the first question is barely acknowledged, and the second is treated by and large as an April Fool’s joke.

The same protocols that are used to address domestic violence against women are used to handle domestic violence against men, and the research tells us that the same abusive behaviors and tactics demonstrated by men (physical, verbal, and emotional threats and intimidation) are also demonstrated by women. And the fear and shame that is felt as a result of being abused, as well as the excuses made to cover up the abuse, are not gender-specific. Additionally, some researchers estimate that about 20% of men who call law enforcement to report an abusive spouse or partner are, in turn, arrested for domestic abuse.

There are signs, at least in the healthcare field, that these perceptions about men being the victims of intimate partner violence are beginning to change. The world-renowned Mayo Clinic has posted helpful information for men who have been victims of domestic violence. (I have practically lived at Mayo this year and can attest that the same questions that were once asked only of women in regard to domestic violence are now being asked of men with great frequency.)


Child abuse

Courtesy of recent revelations surrounding NFL players, child abuse—another form of domestic violence—is also grabbing headlines. According to child welfare studies, mothers are almost twice as likely to be directly involved in child maltreatment as fathers. Mothers are more likely to abuse or neglect their children than fathers. I agree with those who say these numbers are as such because women are usually more involved with their children, and as single-parent homes are on the rise and women are increasingly the single parent, they become overrepresented in the numbers on child abuse.

Interestingly, when former Minnesota Viking and NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter spoke of being a victim of child abuse, he revealed that it was his mother who was the abuser. His central point about child abuse was well received, but the fact that his mother was his abuser was either largely ignored or thought to have been of no consequence.

Meanwhile, one could also say that Black males are overrepresented in terms of homicide rates for various reasons (poverty, unemployment, education, etc), but the reasons why they are killed don’t make them any less dead than any other homicide victim. So it is with child abuse: The reasons why women are overrepresented in the crime of child abuse does not make a child any less abused. And these abused children, half of which are male, live with that pain and become adults. As men, they are told not to talk about their pain or acknowledge that a woman hurt them.

“Man up. Don’t cry,” we tell them. And in doing so, we create the perfect conditions for a toxic relationship: men who can’t verbalize their very real pain and an ethos that says women can’t really hurt or traumatize men.


Is a woman every bit as capable as a man?

In terms of domestic violence and/or intimate partner violence, the conversation is, overwhelmingly, about what we need to talk about with our men and boys. This writer agrees: We need to talk to our boys and men about having respect for their partners in their relationships. Yet, that’s only part of the problem. Our girls and young ladies need to be taught what appropriate behavior is and what non-violent conflict resolution looks like.

We are paying the price for not having this conversation with our daughters because over the past 20 years or so we have been experiencing a disturbing trend. Meda Chesney-Lind points to this in her essay “Are Girls Closing the Gender Gap in Violence?”:

Between 1989 and 1998, arrests of girls increased 50.3 percent, compared to only 16.5 percent for boys, according to the FBI’s 1999 report, Crime in the United States 1998. During that same period, arrests of girls for serious violent offenses increased by 64.3 percent and arrests of girls for ‘other assaults’ increased an astonishing 125.4 percent. In 1999, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported that the female violent crime rate for 1997 was 103 percent above the 1981 rate, compared to a 27 percent increase for males, prompting the statement that increasing juvenile female arrests and the involvement of girls in at-risk and delinquent behavior has been a pervasive trend across the United States.

A later report further stated that by 2000, that proportion had grown to 18%, and by 2004 it had risen to 30%. Although arrest numbers remained higher for boys than girls during that period, arrest rates for girls increased as that for boys decreased.

The voices in our world that cry out for greater protections for women against sexual assault, human trafficking, and spousal and/or intimate partner homicide must be heard. But we are taught by our mores, ideologies, and politics that we can only recognize one reality at a time. If we talk about female-initiated domestic violence, then it takes away from addressing violence against women. Further, we worry that writings such as these only serve as distractions, smokescreens, and misdirections.

I don’t believe that. I believe that we have an equal stake and an equal responsibility in making sure our relationships are healthy. I believe that we all have an equal right not to be assaulted or have our personal space disrespected. By bringing this largely unknown and very uncomfortable truth to light, it means we are serious about addressing violence—not just domestic violence—and its causes and effects.

“Is a woman every bit as capable as a man?” We are constantly answering the question across this country in our mayoral and gubernatorial elections and in our House and Senate races, and 2016 tempts us with that question in a national general election. Granted, not all elections and appointments come down to gender, but we have been able to see woman as CEOs, as leaders, and maybe soon we’ll even get to see woman as commander-in-chief.  That equality, though, also demands that we be able to entertain the thought of women as aggressors.

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