Without fail, every time I post something to do with domestic violence, someone answers “but women are aggressors too!”
Yes, women are absolutely capable of being the violent party. We can safely assume that most victims of domestic violence where women are the aggressors fall into two camps. The victims are usually either identified female or male.
So let’s look at the literature reviews and studies already conducted on the subject. Here. I have focussed on Australia and Canada as these are my primary areas of concern due to my own life.
Vickers (1996) uses Lundy’s definition of domestic violence which I think suits our purposes, “whether heterosexual or homosexual [domestic violence], is nothing less than the systematic exercise of illegitimate power and coercive control by one partner over another (Lundy, 1993)”.
Same Sex Domestic Violence (SSDV)
In an American study, Tesch et al. (2012) found that “abuse in same-sex couples occurs with roughly the same frequency as it does for heterosexual couples (see Barnes, 1998; Island & Letellier, 1991; Letellier, 2002; Potoczniak, Mourot, Crosbie-Burnett, & Potoczniak, 2003; Renzetti, 1992; Seelau, Seelau, & Poorman, 2003). Taken together, a conservative estimate is that domestic violence, regardless of the sex of the couples involved, is a serious social problem.”
Certainly SSDV does not receive enough attention. Tesch et al. (2012) argue that this is due to “A belief that women are not violent towards one another may be due to the dominant social stereotype that women are not socialised to be violent or hostile like men; as such, women may be perceived as more likely to be passive and egalitarian towards one another in romantic relationships (Drucker, 2003; Elliot, 1996; Merrill, 1996; Poorman, 2001). For example, traditional feminist theorists argue that domestic violence of any form is the result of gender inequality, and that domestic violence can only occur when a man abuses a woman in an effort to subjugate his wife (Istar, 1996; Merrill; Renzetti, 1992; Russo, 1999).” In some ways these feminist arguments due same sex relationships an extreme disservice, and create barriers to accessing help from legal and community services.
As Tesch et al. (2012) go on to report that “Police officers (as well as other service providers who do not have ties to the GLBT community) may have difficulty understanding the complexities inherent in SSDV in that community. Ristock (2002) conducted in-depth interviews with lesbian clients in Canada to see how their experi- ences compared with other victims of les- bian domestic violence. Of those women interviewed, one stated that she tried to have her partner brought up on charges of sexual abuse. The police refused to press charges due to the officers’ belief that a woman cannot rape or violate another woman because women do not have a penis (Ristock).”
Tesch et al. (2012) point out that “most States have phrased their domestic violence statutes using gender-neutral lan- guage, which allows jurisdictions to prosec- ute on a case-by-case basis and take into account the severity of the charges. How- ever, this has led to ambiguous and inade- quate protection for SSDV. As there is no overriding legal definition of the crime of domestic violence nor a prescribed punish- ment, law enforcement officers become confused as to how they can best advise victims of SSDV (Potoczniak et al., 2003).
They also argue that “Another problem that may impact how law enforcement officers respond to a SSDV call is that many homosexual behaviours were viewed as illegal behaviour” (Tesch et al. 2012) – or perhaps unethical behaviour. We also cannot discount the stereotypes of Lesbian relationships in the hetereonormative culture in which the police are educated and conditioned.
Following an examination of the literature, Vickers (1996), outlined a number of myths regarding same sex domestic violence, which are still pervasive in 2015:
“1. Domestic violence primarily occurs among gay men and lesbians who hang out at bars, are poor or are people of colour.
2. Lesbians do not engage in violent abuse against their partners because women are not violent.
3. A batterer must be physically bigger than the party abused.
4. Women in relationships together have equal power.
5. Lesbian battering only occurs in S/M or butch/femme relationships.
6. Lesbian and gay domestic violence is about ‘mutual combat’, not power and control by one partner over the other. The violence is an ‘equal fight’.
11. Violence is a normal part of how some same sex relationships work.
12. Men are never victims of domestic violence. It isn’t violence when gay men fight, rather a case of ‘boys being boys’.
13. Lesbian and gay domestic violence is ‘sexual behaviour’, a form of S/M which both parties enjoy.
14. Domestic violence victims deserve what they get because they provoke the violence.”
Heterosexual Domestic Violence
But what about the downtrodden males who suffer under the yoke of female oppression and violence?
“In some surveys, the incidence of domestic violence against men has been
very low, precluding statistical analysis. For example, in one of the most
comprehensive Australian studies of the incidence of domestic violence,
Ferrante et al. (1996) conducted a telephone survey of Perth residents over
18 years of age. The survey asked both men and women a series of
questions about robbery, personal attack, threats of force and sexual assault.
The sample comprised 1,511 males, three of whom reported single incidents
of domestic violence against them. However, the researchers were dubious
about the recalling of these events and state ‘there is evidence that two of the
men may have been witness to an incident or involved in an incident with
someone else’s partner’ (Ferrante et al. 1996, p. 63). The small number of
incidents precluded further analysis.” (Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse, 2005).
ADFVC go on to state that “A further problem for researching the incidence of violence perpetrated against men is that it can be difficult to differentiate men who are perpetrating violence from male
victims. For example, Gadd et al. (2002) conducted in-depth interviews with 22 men
who had disclosed experiences of threats or force by a partner in the 2000 Scottish
Crime Survey. In some cases, the men’s depictions of themselves as victims of
domestic violence were not compatible with details of the abuse that they had
described. The researchers consequently categorised the men into four groups:
primary instigators (n = 1), equal combatants (n = 4), retaliators (n = 8) and nonretaliatory
victims (n = 9). The researchers reported that: ‘…our suspicion was that
at least half of the partners of the men who had experienced some form of abuse or
threat would also have been able to offer accounts of repeat domestic violence
perpetrated against themselves…Differentiating perpetrators from victims in these
cases is an irreconcilably contentious task’ (Gadd et al. 2002, p. 44).”
“Claims are often made about the inaccuracy of data on the incidence of men as
victims of domestic violence. It is commonly argued that men’s under-reporting of
violence is due to barriers such as embarrassment. Whilst there is no doubt that
there are some truths to this, women also under-report violence for reasons such as
fear of reprisals, fear that children will be taken away, and a hope that their partner
will change. It is documented that female victims under-report their victimisation and
the evidence is that men tend to over-estimate their partner’s violence while women
under-estimate their partner’s violence by normalising or excusing it (Flood 2003, p.
4). Men also tend to under-estimate their own violence while women tend to overestimate
theirs (Kimmel 2001, pp. 10-11). Currie (1998) also found that men
upgraded women’s violent behaviour while women discounted or downplayed their
male partner’s violence.” (ADFVC, 2005)
ADFVC (2005) offer a useful snapshot of domestic violence in three Australian states:
“According to a review of police statistics, Ferrante et al. (1996, p. 47) report that
domestic violence constituted 19.3 per cent of all forms of violence against females
and 1.5 per cent of violence against men. However, this did not indicate if the
violence perpetrated against the male victims had been from a male or female
Victorian hospital data
“Some 1.3 per cent of female and 0.4 per cent of male Emergency Department
presentations are the result of an injury inflicted by a partner (Atmore 2002, p. 6).
This also did not look at whether the injuries of male victims were inflicted by a male
or female partner.”
South Australian Phone-In
“This study involved a state-wide phone-in over two days and focus group interviews.
The phone-in invited callers to talk about the experiences and needs of people who
are in abusive or hurtful relationships. Fourteen per cent of callers were male, of
whom three per cent identified as perpetrators of domestic violence. As this was a
self-identifying phone-in, it was not a measure of the prevalence rate (Flood, p.2). In
a finding similar to those of the Scottish research already discussed, the authors
state that ‘although men did identify as victims of violence, there are strong
indications in the statements they make that they have been defined by others as
perpetrators of domestic violence and can be characterised as violent’ (Bagshaw et
al. 2000a, p.78). This highlights the ‘blur’ that sometimes exists between men as
‘victims’ and/or ‘perpetrators’.”
I absolutely agree with ADFVC’s statement that “female violence towards a male partner is an
area that requires further attention” (2005). Because it is unrecognised by our society, men who are victims of this form of violence have difficulty in being believed and in accessing accessing help from legal and community services – just as with women in same-sex relationships. Certainly heterosexual men and heterosexual women require different service streams and access to different protocols to address the physical, mental, and web of issues resulting from such violence. However, we need to be clear that cries of “think of the men” cannot deter us from the issues surrounding female inequality and the prevalence of domestic abuse.
Comparisons of Domestic Violence
In 1995, Tutty, Rothery, Cox & Richardson conducted a study of 18 women in Alberta were randomly selected from 65 women residing in a transition house. Ranging in age from 20-44, two were Indigenous Canadians, two were Asian immigrants, one was a Caribbean immigrant, one was a European immigrant, and the rest were classified as “Canadian-born”. Eleven of the sixteen were rated as in the “clinical range” on the Hudson’s physical abuse scale. Seven reported being sexually assaulted. These women were noted as using very low levels of physical behaviours toward their partners: seven of fifteen reported no violence, three reported aggressive behaviour, and one reported physical abuse as frequent and as serious as the man’s (mutual abuse). Seven of the male partners had a criminal record and nine were violent outside of the home. This study was found to be comparable to the 44,516 women in Canada who sought emergency shelter between 1994 and 1995 (Trudeau, 1995).
As comparison, half of the 18 men in the qualitative studies, “noted that the abuse was mutual, at least some of the time. Injuries occurred, but none of the men sought medical aid. More of the men fit Johnson’s description of “common couple violence” than the women who sought shelter, especially in regard to the low levels of violence and the low frequency of the aggressive incidents described by the men” (Tutty, 1999).
“There is no doubt that some men subjected to domestic violence from a partner will
experience serious abuse that is life threatening and likely to have a long-lasting
impact. However, research collected to date indicates very different experiences of
victimisation reported by men and women within a domestic violence context.
Bagshaw and Chung (2000, p. 11) conducted a review of the available literature and
found the following differences:
• Males reported that they were not living in an ongoing state of fear from the
• Males did not have prior experiences of violent relationships; and,
• Males rarely experienced post-separation violence and, in the one reported
case, it was far less severe that in male-to-female violence.
Male respondents of the Scottish Crime Survey 2000, in general, were less likely to
have been repeat victims of assault, to have been seriously injured, and to report
feeling fearful in their own homes. These factors, coupled with the embarrassment
many male victims felt, helped to explain the infrequency with which male victims of
domestic abuse came to the attention of the Scottish Police (Gadd et al. 2002, p. vi).” (ADFVC, 2005)
Domestic violence is a terrible crime, abuse occurring when victim and aggressor are meant to love, support, celebrate, and cherish each other. All domestic violence,has significant impacts – psychological, physical, social, economic. Domestic violence in any form, must be brought to an end.
However, when rates of occurrence and fatalities are considered, once intersectionality is recognised, and once the historical, social, cultural, political, and economic contexts in which they occur are addressed, it is revealed that cases of domestic violence in which women are the victims, particularly victims of male partners, are not comparable to cases in which men are victims to violence from their female partners.
Lundy, S. ‘Abuse That dare Not Speak Its Name: Assisting Victims of Lesbian and Gay Domestic Violence in Massachusetts’, Symposium on Domestic Violence, (Winter 1993) 28 New England Law Review 275.