Oct 1 1994

Battered Men? Battered Facts

Husbands are battered as much as wives in the U.S.? John Leo, syndicated U.S. News & World Report columnist, is sure of it.

“There’s no doubt about this,” Leo said as a guest on CNN‘s Crossfire (7/2/94). “It was established in 1980 by a female researcher.”

When co-host Michael Kinsley asked him if it seemed plausible that women were as violent as men, Leo dismissed the question. “We don’t have to cogitate this,” he said. “The evidence is in. All these studies have established this.”

Leo is not alone in insisting on parity between battered men and battered women. Domestic violence “is not either the man’s fault or the woman’s,” Judith Sherven and James Sniechowski wrote in an L.A. Times op-ed (6/21/94). “Both the male and the female are bound in their dance of mutual destructiveness.”

“Why do we protest domestic violence against women and not even know about violence against men?” men’s advocate Warren Farrell wrote in a USA Today column (6/29/94), arguing that women’s violence is as bad as men’s– if not worse.

Alan Dershowitz, part of O.J. Simpson’s defense team, used his syndicated column (L.A. Times, 7/21/94) to argue that spousal murder is “primarily a psychological issue of pervasive familial violence on all sides, generated by the passions of family interaction.”

All these claims and suggestions about “battered men” being as pervasive and serious a problem as battered women are based on studies that are either discredited or taken out of context.

One of Leo’s major sources (U.S. News, 7/11/94) is Richard Gelles, who with Murray Strauss did surveys on family violence. Leo may like Gelles’ work, but Gelles doesn’t like Leo’s: “He takes enough factual statements and twists them so he gets it to come out the way he wants,” Gelles told EXTRA!Update.

The Gelles/Strauss numbers that Leo and others seize on are based on simply asking people whether they have ever hit, pushed, slapped, etc. their partners. They do not reflect the context of family violence. They do not indicate whether violence was used as aggression or in self-defense, or whether violence caused or was intended to cause injury. Using such numbers without qualification results in bizarre conclusions: that children’s violence against parents is a much more serious problem than parents’ violence against children, for example.

Gelles put his research in perspective in a Long Island Newsday op-ed (2/22/94): “In the majority of these cases, the women act in response to physical or psychological provocations or threats. Most use violence as a defensive reaction to violence.”

Those who equate domestic violence against men with that against women either ignore or dismiss the results of the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, which found that 92 percent of those who report being assaulted by an intimate partner are female. They also brush off reports from emergency rooms, where 90 percent of the victims of domestic violence are women.

But statistics are not the strong point of these battered men advocates. Dershowitz claims that a Bureau of Justice Statistics study shows that “women kill almost as often as men do in the context of family murders.” The study actually found that men committed 66 percent of family murders, so apparently for Dershowitz “almost as often” means the same thing as “about half as often.”

Sherven and Sniechowski, in their op-ed, claim that “half of spousal murders are committed by wives, a statistic that has been stable over time.” In fact, according to 1991 figures from the FBI, which has the most comprehensive murder statistics, 71 percent of people murdered by their spouses are women.

While it is true that some men are battered, research that looks at violence in a meaningful way shows that they are a tiny fraction of the number of battered women–perhaps 5 percent. (See Mildred Daley Pagelow, L.A. Times op-ed, 7/3/94.) These men are not helped by pundits who use overhyped, out-of-context numbers to argue that battering is no one’s fault in particular– with the implication that nothing in particular needs to be done about it.