Nov 1 1999

Not All Domestic Violence Studies Are Created Equal

Researchers are "advocates" or "pioneers"--depending on what they find

Recent media responses to a Department of Justice (DOJ) study on domestic violence raise an interesting question: What makes some DOJ studies less “scientific” than others? How can the same agency at times be a bastion of impartial science, and at others be a purveyor of questionable, ideology-driven data?

The answer can be found not in the sponsors or the methodology of the studies themselves, but in their results. It isn’t hard to decipher the code: Researchers whose findings show that domestic violence is predominately perpetrated by men to exercise control over their female partners are often “feminist theorists” orchestrating a “myth-making industry” to promote “half-truths based on ideological dogma,” as columnist Kathleen Parker wrote (Orlando Sentinel, 4/14/99, 6/27/99). Conversely, the handful of researchers whose studies find that battery is committed equally by men and women may be labeled as scientific “pioneers” pursuing hard facts and empirically sound data (USA Today news article, 7/26/99).

One such “pioneer” in the “women batter too!” field is University of Wisconsin psychology professor Terrie Moffitt, who recently released a DOJ-sponsored study of a group of young people in Dunedin, New Zealand. She found that 37 percent of women, vs. 22 percent of men, self-reported shoving, shaking, hitting, slapping, kicking or otherwise striking their partners (

Many major news outlets passed on the story, but the publications that chose to cover the study as a news item did so in generally uncritical terms, under such headlines as “Survey Shocker: Women Abuse More Often Than Men” (Madison Capital Times, 7/15/99); “Researchers Scuffle Over Equality of the Sexes: Evidence Grows that Domestic Violence Can Start With Either Partner” (USA Today, 7/14/99); or “A New Study Shows That Women Strike Out, Too–and Not Solely in Response to Violent Men.” (Greensboro News & Record, 7/4/99)

“Uncomfortable truths”

In the first major article devoted to Moffitt’s study, Mother Jones health columnist Nancy Updike (5-6/99) set the tone. She described the women-as-batterers findings as “uncomfortable truths” about women’s abusive tendencies, and about the underlying nature of domestic violence. In the article’s first paragraph, Updike praised Moffitt’s work as corroborating “data published in 1980 indicating that wives hit their husbands at least as often as husbands hit their wives.”

Mother Jones gave little credence to a host of studies conducted before and since that time that indicate otherwise. Moffitt’s results differ from the way our culture has grown to understand domestic violence, Updike wrote, because the field has heretofore been “murky,” yielding studies by “activists” predicated on anti-male “assumptions” about gender, and research by “advocates” with “more zeal for the cause of battered women than training in research methodology.”

But those “murky” domestic violence studies–the products of what Updike labels a younger, more naïve movement–weren’t sponsored by “activists” or “advocates.” Rather, they were conducted by officials and academics for the Justice Department and other governmental agencies.

Among the research overlooked by Mother Jones the “National Violence Against Women Survey” (NVAWS), which involved a subject sample of 8,000 women and 8,000 men (roughly 16 times as large a sample as that used by Moffitt). Cosponsored by the NIJ and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the NVAWS found that 25 percent of surveyed women, compared with 8 percent of surveyed men, were raped and/or physically assaulted by an intimate–and that 93 percent of women and 86 percent of men raped or assaulted since age 18 were attacked by male perpetrators ( Also ignored by Mother Jones is a 1994 Bureau of Justice Statistics report on “Violence Between Intimates” that synthesized wide-ranging data from the FBI and the National Crime Victimization Survey, and found that women are 10 times more likely than men to be victims of violence by intimates.

Exact statistics shift from study to study, but results over three decades of investigation by governmental agencies, social service organizations, and women’s health researchers consistently confirm that women are the overwhelming majority of victims of domestic violence–and that men who are victimized are most often assaulted not by women but by other men.

Yet in reviewing Moffitt’s study, Updike–and other news outlets jumping on Mother Jones‘ bandwagon–preferred to dismiss most of this research as “advocacy science,” implying that it was constructed to serve ideas “predetermined by ideological agendas set a long time ago.” In so doing, these outlets unfairly taint the credibility of those working to protect, or provide services for, battered women.

Self-defense not “scientifically correct”

A newspaper in the town where Moffitt teaches (Capital Times, 7/15/99) quoted her as announcing, “Almost everything we thought we knew isn’t true when we use sound scientific methods to examine it correctly.” Scientific methodology is certainly a valid topic of discussion for the press–but that discussion shouldn’t be limited to one scientist’s opinions about the way she conducts her own research.

In coverage of the Dunedin study, little mention was given to the fact that Moffitt based her survey on the CTS (Conflict Tactics Scales), a method which–when used in 1980 and 1988 by researchers Richard Gelles and Murray Strauss–was criticized as misleading for its failure to take into account the context of violent acts (Extra! Update, 10/94).

To Moffitt, studying domestic violence “correctly” simply involves asking male and female subjects direct questions about their experiences within the past year, such as “Did you ever do such-and-such to your partner? Has your partner ever done such-and-such to you?” Moffitt freely acknowledges in the study itself and to reporters that “the data do not include who started each incident or if some of the acts were in self-defense,” but still claims that “it is clear that in most cases of partner violence in this age group, the parties are involved in mutual violence” (USA Today, 7/14/99, 7/26/99).

By failing to examine why subjects acted violently (i.e., as a responsive means of self-protection, or an aggressive move to inflict fear or pain on their partners), Moffitt effectively eliminates the context of domestic violence. Since acting in self-defense cannot be considered abusive behavior, there is little validity to Moffitt’s insistence that partner violence is “mutual.” Since the Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that 3 of 4 female victims of partner violence defend themselves (“Violence by Intimates,” 3/98), you’d think reporters would at least question whether this was a motivating factor for the large numbers of women who told Moffitt that they had in some way acted violently toward their partners.

But rather than exploring the ramifications of Moffitt’s methods, news outlets typically highlighted her claim that “one of the first lessons learned in the Dunedin study is that there are no tidy and distinct groups of victims or perpetrators” and that men and women “use violence” equally in their intimate relationships (USA Today, 7/14/99; Associated Press, 7/15/99; Capital Times, 7/15/99). To lend scientific credibility to this claim, reporters turned to Richard Gelles, who had earlier used the CTS to make dubious claims about male/female equivalence in battering: “The domestic violence movement has emphatically tried to ignore the fact that women hit men,” he told USA Today (7/14/99).

Journalists covering the Moffitt study drew conclusions that the data simply could not support. Mother Jones’ Updike, for instance, wrote: “Her research disputes a long-held belief about the nature of domestic violence: If a woman hits, it’s only in response to her partner’s attacks. The study suggests that some women may simply be prone to violence…just as some men may be.” Moffitt’s study, of course, could not possibly offer such insight, since she failed to ask study subjects about initiation, motivation or self-defense. Other outlets made the same leap, such as USA Today (7/14/99) claiming that Moffitt’s study offers insights into “why” partners hit one another.

The Dunedin study acknowledges that men’s assaults on women tend to be far more severe and injurious than the reverse–but journalists didn’t spend much time analyzing this point. Nor did they include in their analysis an understanding of the patterns of battering, wherein the perpetrator “uses” physical, verbal, and emotional abuse to intimidate, injure and control the victim (who may resort to physical retaliation as a means of survival). When journalists reported Moffitt’s results in terms of women “using violence”–while discounting the significance of self-defense–they betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of partner abuse that still plagues the media.

Why ask “why”?

Despite numerous descriptions of previous domestic violence researchers as ideologues, FAIR could find no articles which questioned whether or not any “ideological agendas” motivated Moffitt–described as neutrally as a “researcher,” “psychologist” and “professor” (Associated Press, 7/15/99; Detroit News, 7/14/99; USA Today, 7/14/99). For Mother Jones (5-6/99), Moffitt’s study was described more pointedly as “not a crack by some anti-feminist cad” but the product of a responsible developmental psychologist with a “willingness to pay attention” to new interpretations of women’s violent behavior. But Moffitt’s work–and skewed media coverage of it–certainly serves the ideological agendas of conservative pundits who wear the anti-feminist label with pride.

One such writer is Amy Holmes, policy analyst with the right wing Independent Women’s Forum, who used Moffitt’s study as the basis for an op-ed (USA Today, 7/23/99) reinforcing well-worn feminists-as-man-haters cliches, such as “the feminist community…insists that domestic violence is fueled by testosterone poisoning.”

Another is ubiquitous conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, who for years has been publishing diatribes against “feminists fudging the truth” to prevent the public from learning that “domestic violence is a two-way street and, apparently, it’s gender neutral” (Orlando Sentinel, 5/7/97). Parker was delighted to read Mother Jones’ account of Moffitt’s work. “It gives me immense pleasure to say, ‘I told you so,'” she gloated (Orlando Sentinel, 6/27/99).

To Parker, the Dunedin study is evidence that “women…often initiate the violence that leads to their injury or death” (Arizona Republic, 6/25/99). Campaigns about battered women’s experiences, then, “amount to propaganda” by greedy feminists wishing to protect coveted (yet unnecessary) funding for women’s programs. Parker feels vindicated by the praise given to Moffitt’s work in “Mother Jones–the left-leaning, pro-feminist magazine widely recognized for its journalistic integrity and careful reporting.”

But one would expect a careful reporter, arguing that a study should transform our understanding of partner abuse, to make sure that its findings would be applicable to a broad range of American men and women. This is hardly the case with Moffitt’s work. While most outlets did mention that the research was conducted in New Zealand with approximately 1,000 subjects, key omissions about the study are telling. Though Mother Jones claimed Moffitt’s research offers “a broader range of data” than previous studies, neither Mother Jones or other outlets covering the study mentioned that Moffitt’s subjects were all 21-year-olds born between April 1972 and March 1973–or that fewer than 7 percent identified as non-white (and these were generally Maori or Polynesian). A sample group basically homogeneous in terms of age and race has a dubious relationship to the diverse American public–yet FAIR found no stories that mentioned this limitation.

Mother Jones claimed that, before Moffitt’s study, “we haven’t been able to effectively measure domestic violence because we don’t understand it.”

It’s not clear to whom “we” is supposed to refer. Hospital workers understand domestic violence: The Bureau of Justice Statistics notes women are 84 percent of those seeking emergency room treatment for an intentional injury by an intimate partner. Law enforcement agencies understand the problem: By 1996, women were three of every four victims of murder by intimates.

Overworked staff at women’s shelters and abuse crisis hotlines who provide daily services to thousands of battered women and children certainly understand who is most adversely affected by partner abuse. Almost all domestic violence researchers–including Moffitt–agree that women in abusive relationships suffer far more severe physical injury than do men.

Perhaps the real misunderstanding lies with reporters and editors who choose to give equal or more credibility to a controversial study of a small, homogeneous group of young New Zealanders than to decades of data illustrating the true severity of male violence in America. The effects of this misunderstanding cannot be underestimated. As a USA Today article (7/26/99) about “prestigious but contradictory” domestic violence studies acknowledges, “Which particularly study catches the public’s eye truly matters, experts say: The statistics influence policy decisions, such as the funding of women’s shelters.” In their coverage of Moffitt’s work news outlets have contributed to myths about domestic violence that jeopardize the safety of American women.

Research assistance by Glennda Testone.