WASHINGTON — It is not just men who hit women. Women hit men, too. And the latest research shows that ignoring the role women play in domestic violence does both women and men a disservice.
There is little doubt that women get hurt more than men. She may slap him. But then he may hit her harder or more often.By not understanding the mutual role they often play, women are at great risk for injury, new studies show.
Still, the newest findings challenge the feminist belief that "it is men only who cause violence," says psychologist Deborah Capaldi of the Oregon Social Learning Center. "That is a myth."
The number of women who hit first or hit back is "much greater than has been generally assumed," Capaldi says. She says she is surprised by the frequency of aggressive acts by women and by the number of men who are afraid of partners who assault them.
Capaldi and two other female researchers call for a re-evaluation of treatment programs nationwide. Such programs focus on men and ignore women. Men are court-ordered into some type of rehabilitation, and their women are told in support groups or shelters that they had nothing to do with the violence, Capaldi says.
"Prevention and treatment should focus on managing conflict and aggression for both young men and women," Capaldi says. Each needs to understand the role both play while still putting a "special responsibility" on the man, who can inflict greater injury.
The three women did different studies but presented them as a team recently to a conference sponsored by the Society for Prevention Research. The National Institutes of Health sponsored much of the work.
The researchers emphasize they are not blaming women. "We are not saying anybody is at fault," says psychologist Miriam Ehrensaft of Columbia University. "But new data is emerging that says women are also involved in aggression. If we do not tell women that, we put them at risk."
Rita Smith of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence is not convinced that men are afraid of abusive women. "That fear is a critical factor in any domestic violence situation. And the abuse is part of an ongoing pattern to control someone else’s behavior."
Murray Straus, co-director of the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire, has found both men and women are involved in physical aggression, but he emphasizes injury rates are not the same. "The likelihood of an injury to a woman requiring medical attention is much greater. Men cause more damage."
The little-talked-about involvement of women in mutual aggression with men is "the third rail of the domestic violence field," says Richard Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work. "Touch it and you get electrocuted." Both he and Straus have done studies that caused fiery controversies.
Gelles says the lifetime risk of a woman being struck by a male intimate partner is about 28%. And "depending upon who is doing the survey and how you measure it, you could get numbers of up to 50%." But he says a man’s lifetime risk of being struck by a woman is also about 28%.
Many researchers’ findings in earlier, government-financed studies emphasize the man’s role.
Patricia Tjaden’s study for the non-profit Center for Policy Research, sponsored by two government agencies, questioned 8,000 men and 8,000 women. She found women three times as likely to be assaulted in some way over a lifetime by a male partner than the reverse, and seven to 14 times as likely to be attacked, including beaten, choked or threatened with a gun.
Different research tools and methods pick up on different kinds of intimate partner violence, Tjaden says. But still, she says, she has "always had trouble with the mutual-abuse argument. Where are all the male victims?" It is women, she says, who are subjected to "systematic terrorism."
The young are particularly prone to aggression. Erika Lawrence of the University of Iowa told the prevention conference that one-third of newlywed women and one-quarter of newlywed men engage in physical aggression.
The subject of partner violence is a minefield. Even defining it is controversial. Some call verbal abuse a form of battering. And all sorts of studies are done in all sorts of ways. Those based on crime statistics and reports from women’s shelters tend to show dramatic aggression by men against women. (Gelles cautions that some men may not realize or admit they have been assaulted by a woman and may not report it as a crime or seek treatment.)
"Family conflict" studies may reflect a broader population, Straus says, and take into account lesser types of aggression that don’t lead to arrests or broken limbs. These studies show about the same rates of aggression by men and women.
It is clear that women suffer physically more at the hands of men than the reverse, says Faye Wattleton of the Center for the Advancement of Women. But still she says it is good to bring new research to public attention. "I applaud the women who had the courage to present these findings. We don’t make progress by suppressing the evidence."