Domestic Violence Against Men: Turning the Tables (…again)

dv men again

The Incidence of Domestic Violence Against Men: Turning the Tables (…again)

The Australian “One in Three” campaign clearly intends their website to be shocking. “One in Three? Really?” reads the header of page describing their mission. Like most groups challenging the “arguably sexist premise” that domestic violence against women is more prevalent than domestic violence against men, the One in Three campaign claims to be fighting for gender equality. Citing statistics* that show that one in three victims of domestic violence are male, they assert that the fact that a number of state services (to say nothing of restraining orders) serve mainly female victims is nothing less than gender discrimination.

*We’ll talk about those statistics in a minute.

The One in Three group is joined in their indignation by the BBC, which recently concluded a major feature on domestic violence in the United Kingdom. The article ran under the headline, ““Women’s Convictions for Domestic Violence ‘Double’”, joining earlier groundbreaking stories such as “Domestic Violence Against Men in Scotland Up by 167%”, “Sharp Rise in Number of Women Guilty of Domestic Violence” and “A Hidden Crime: Domestic Violence Against Men is a Growing Problem”. The article discusses the “almost 4,000 women successfully prosecuted in the past year” and provides commentary from the experts about a “growing culture of violence among women.” It’s not until the last line that we learn that some men happen to be perpetrators as well: “men remain by far the main offenders, with the numbers convicted increasing from more than 28,000 in 2005 to just over 55,000 in 2010.” Essentially, that means that there were likely more than 55,000 women victimized by men in the UK in 2010. I guess that’s not newsworthy, though.

In fact, the article uses the very disparity in numbers of convictions between men and women as evidence that men aren’t treated fairly by the system: “…some organizations still fail to recognize that men can be victims of domestic abuse too.” Nonetheless, they do air the numbers of both male and female offenders. Because it’s important to tell the whole story; you need to show both sides.

It’s only fair.

The Long History of Women Being Seen as “More Equal” Than Men…Or Something.

And fairness, of course, is something that’s been lacking in our treatment of domestic violence for a long, long time.

Or has it? Interestingly, the thing that would probably most surprise the One in Three campaign is how many people already agree with them. As early as 1992, a researcher noted that the field of domestic violence study was becoming increasingly gender neutral, finding that between 79 and 82 recent studies had used intentionally gender-blind language. In 1997, 20/20 aired a report on battered men entitled “The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence”; a more recent expose on ABC was called “Turning the Tables.” This is a common theme when the topic of dv against men is brought up; the issue is always considered “hidden,” “ignored,” the “dark underbelly” of domestic violence (is there a bright side?).

Perhaps these people are not aware that the most famous scale for measuring dv, which was first developed in the 1970 and is still the most popularly used measurement of intimate partner violence today, deliberately ignores gender differences. On the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS), aggression level depends entirely on the behaviors used by the participants—if a man hits a woman and she tries to push him away, both have committed one violent behavior. Conversely, if a woman hits a man and he tries to push her away, the result is the same.

Unsurprisingly, considering that people being hit tend to fight back in self-defense, the CTS found that both partners in a relationship used roughly equal amounts of violence. These results were shocking in the 1970s—“battered women,” it seemed, weren’t so battered after all. “Battered women” were batterers themselves. The results garnered a massive wave of media attention. Experts raised concerns about the validity of the scale. The CTS relies on participant self-reports of abuse, which are in turn dependent on memory. This is particularly worrying following a series of studies in the early 1990s that documented gender differences in reporting aggression: “men tend to underestimate their use of violence, while women tend to over-estimate their use of violence. Simultaneously, men tend to over-estimate their partner’s use of violence, while women tend to under-estimate their partner’s use of violence.” In fact, contrary to the assertion that men, afraid of seeming weak, keep their victimization hidden, men are more likely than woman to call the police and to press charges, and are less likely to drop charges than are women.

One explanation for gender discrepancies in reporting lies in the motivation for the violence, which is not considered by the CTS. Assume that both participants want the relationship to continue (as the CTS does—more on that later). Because male violence tends to be control-oriented (82% of homicides in which “possessiveness” was cited were committed by men), men have a strong motivation to minimize the harm done and women have motivation to minimize it as well (“It wasn’t a big deal, I shouldn’t have upset him”). Because female violence tends to be defensive (despite perpetrating far fewer homicides than men overall, women commit 83% of self-defense motivated homicides), she has motivation to maximize the damage she did (“He wasn’t really doing anything, I definitely overreacted in hitting him—no wonder he got upset”) and he has motivation to maximize it as well (“She was getting violent—I had to do it”). In short, ignoring motivation while depending on self-report causes the CTS to dramatically underestimate the gender gap in use of violence.

But regardless of concerns about the validity of the scale, let’s assume that its conclusions are correct; let’s assume that violence does indeed emerge as the result of mutual combat in the relationship. If this is the case, why aren’t so-called domestic disputes handled this way—assigning blame to both partners—by the police?

Setting the Record Straight

In fact—perhaps, again, to the surprise of men’s campaigns—they already are. For years in this country, domestic violence wasn’t handled by law enforcement at all. Marital violence was considered within the private sphere, for the participants themselves to work out. What this meant, of course, was that they were at the discretion of the man, the legal representative of the household, to resolve. In fact, it wasn’t until 1883 that Maryland became the first state to pass a law against wife beating. Of course, we’ve come a long way since then.

Or have we? In the 1970s and 1980s, domestic violence cases were almost universally “resolved” without an arrest. The cops would show up—well, maybe—and warn the participants that it wouldn’t be wise to make him come back, and then leave again, perhaps after telling both of them that they should cool down, and advising the man to take a walk around the block (there is some evidence that this continues today—most incidents of dv, one officer noted in a recent news article, “end peacefully, without an arrest” ). The main threat the police officer offered was that if he had to come back, “someone” would get arrested. Which was not a very encouraging response for victims of abuse.

So basically, what was happening was that men were taking that walk around the block, and then coming back and beating their partners worse. To address this, districts began to pass mandatory arrest policies, requiring that officers either make an arrest in domestic violence calls or file a report explaining why they hadn’t felt an arrest was necessary. Unfortunately, in many cases the passing of this legislation led to officers simply arresting both participants upon arrival. In response, women’s groups, whose clients were being arrested merely for calling for rescue from abuse, pushed for another policy change: officers were to arrest only the “primary aggressor” in a domestic dispute.

This, of course, must be where it started getting bad for men. No doubt those police officers, brainwashed by society’s insistence that men are always the ones responsible for the troubles in a relationship (…wait, what?), began automatically arresting men without stopping to hear their side of the story.

One problem: as the Women’s Justice Center reports, in some districts the proportion of women arrested in domestic violence calls is as high as 30-40% . A 1999 New York Times feature on the issue revealed that in New Hampshire and Colorado, 35% and 25% respectively of domestic assault arrests were of women . Another study, from the UK, shows that while men are far more likely to offend for domestic violence (92% of calls were about a male perpetrator), in any given instance of violence a woman offender was three times more likely than a male offender to be arrested. This was despite the fact that men were far more likely to offend multiple times; 81% were repeat offenders, while 62% of the women were first-time offenders. It seems that law enforcement officials are actually very willing to believe that women can be violent just like men, and that domestic violence involves two people (in a University of Michigan study, officers presented with a hypothetical situation in which the woman sustained visible injuries nonetheless arrested her 15% of the time. These officers also tended to believe that dv was justified in some scenarios, such as infidelity ).

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, the tendency to treat dv as a mutual crime extends to the media. This insistence on “neutrality” continues to lead to some fairly ridiculous headlines; for example, last week, two people “began to have a domestic dispute,” to the point that “both fled the scene in cars.” Upon closer inspection, we learn that she fled the scene first, presumably to get away from him, considering that he was armed with a gun and “fled” after her in order to continue shooting at her.

A recent Washington state-based study reviewed 230 newspapers on domestic homicide and found that less than 22% of the articles specifically labeled the incident as domestic violence. For example, in case of Kathleen Anderson, who was stabbed over 100 times by her boyfriend, the “domestic dispute escalated.” There was a “conflict.” A “troubled relationship.” As the author of the article cited writes, to call these assaults “domestic disputes” is as ridiculous as calling a robbery a “commercial dispute.” These are not disputes, they are crimes, and the majority of them occur against women.

But the CTS Says…

And, so here, it seems, is where I diverge from men’s groups, who I presume would have no problem with the above stories, focused as they are on telling “both sides” of the story.

Because what about the numbers? What about the CTS? What about the studies that show that the responsibility for violence is shared equally by both partners, regardless of the admitted disparity in the amount of harm done? What about all the things these scales tell you?

Frankly, from a public policy standpoint at least (which is what, incidentally, “sexist” bodies such as The Office for Violence Against Women research and create), what is more important is what those scales don’t tell you.

For example, the CTS doesn’t tell you about the pattern of violence that may have been going on for years before before the measurement was taken, or the violence that occurs after the relationship ends. This leaves out a massive amount of harm, considering that 70% of harm to women from domestic violence is done while the partners are separated. Ironically, most of the “domestic disputes” I see would not fall under the classification of the very scale that paved the way for them to be labeled domestic disputes. In fact, most kinds of severe violence—where a victim becomes afraid enough for their life that they attempt to leave the relationship—are not measured by the CTS because the participants are no longer a couple. Divorced or separated women—for obvious reasons disqualified—are actually the group at highest risk of harm from intimate partner violence.

The CTS also doesn’t tell you about homicides, because in conflicts in which one partner dies the participants are, for equally obvious, if somewhat more morbid, reasons, no longer a couple.

Until recently, it excluded sexual assault, and it still excludes stalking , crimes which are overwhelmingly conducted by men against women.

As mentioned before, the CTS doesn’t even tell you what actually happened. It tells you what participants think happened, or what they want to think happened. Fact: the concordance between husband and wives reports’ of the abuse is no more than chance. Fact: the concordance between husband and wives reports’ of severe abuse—“beat up,” for example—is actually below chance. Who do you believe? The CTS says both, because using aggressive behavior means they’re both aggressors, because self-defense is not relevant to the measurement of domestic violence. After all, in a “dispute” or “conflict,” both parties are at fault.

What happens when you treat domestic violence as a crime? It turns out that you get dramatically different results than the ones that advocacy groups fighting against “inherently sexist” policies parade around. You get results such as these, compiled from crime data gathered by the National Institute of Justice:

• 85% of victims of IPV are women
• As many as 40-50% of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner (in comparison, 5% of male victims are killed by an intimate partner.) Women are 8x more likely to be killed by an intimate partner then men. In 70-80% of intimate partner homicides, regardless of who was killed, the man physically abused the woman before the murder.
• 78% of stalking victims are women
• More than 90% of “systematic, persistent, and injurious” violence in intimate relationships—the type of violence that characterizes an abusive relationship—is perpetrated by men.

These are surveys that measure harm. They are valid. They are not dependent on victim’s perceptions of the power dynamics in their relationship.

And they show that women are dramatically more at risk of being seriously hurt or killed by IPV than men. They show that in the vast majority of cases, women are the ones who need protection, both during and—importantly—after their relationships. Because that’s what social services are for, aren’t they? They are meant to provide protection for people who need it. As crime data shows, those people are overwhelmingly women. (Ironically, men are most at risk from women who are at risk from men as well. Since the introduction of support services for battered women—shelters, hotlines, etc.— the number of female victims of domestic homicide has stayed about the same, but the number of male domestic homicide deaths has decreased by 70%).

Acknowledging that men and women are victims of domestic violence at different rates is not the same thing as saying that men cannot be victims of domestic violence. Acknowledging that the mere fact of being a woman is a risk factor for being a victim of domestic violence is not engaging in discrimination. And distorting these facts in a misguided attempt at “equality” or “gender blindness” is not fair, true, or justifiable.

Frankly, it does an injustice to all victims of domestic violence, male and female alike.


For one thing, it says that victims are partially responsible; it encourages people to ask the question, “Well, what did she/he do?” Remember, the “One in Three” group proposes that we accept that most domestic violence is mutual. That in “many” cases of domestic violence, men are merely reacting to the coercive behavior of their partner. That in fact, “a woman’s perpetration of IPV is the strongest predictor of her being a victim.” Essentially, that men only hit women who hit them back. Or, in other—perhaps more familiar—words: she asked for it. The fact that the only way to make that case is by using statistics that ignore the massive amount of harm—vandalism, assault, sexual assault, death—that take place outside of the relationship speaks volumes.

In a world in which one in three women will be in an abusive relationship, in a world in which the vast majority of violence against women occurs at the hands of men, and men they know, we have the responsibility to give these victims a better answer than, “statistically, it is likely that you in fact deserved it.” Pretending—as the media does, as these groups do, as abusers do, as victims themselves do—that violence justifies other violence;that taking a phone is an equal act of aggression to kicking down a door ; ultimately, that women aren’t overwhelmingly the casualties in this “war” between the genders perpetuates the same misperceptions that have flawed the system for thousands of years.

Women are always told, “Don’t be a victim.” Men’s groups now want to tell us that we’re really not victims, but in fact equal (or more than equal) instigators. Wouldn’t it be great if that were true? If merely by us making an effort to stop causing arguments to “escalate”*, dv crimes, which are conducted primarily against our gender, would stop as well. If the fact that 85% of domestic violence is conducted against people with two x chromosomes doesn’t even have anything to do with the fact that we’re women; if that was just a crazy coincidence. (Maybe we all just happen to be really hard to live with.) If domestic violence were not a major threat, in some ways the major threat for women, the cause of three American women’s deaths per day, of more deaths than cancer, mugging, rape, car accidents. If your gender did not affect your likelihood of being a victim.

But right now?

Men can be victims of domestic violence. Women can be perpetrators of domestic violence. In fact, nearly 4,000 women in the UK were successfully prosecuted on domestic violence charges.

There were at least 55,000 incidences of domestic violence against women in the UK last year alone.


*Step one: be sure not to leave your abuser. That should cut domestic homicides against women by about 75%! Well done, ladies.


Measuring Intimate Partner Violence: National Institute of Justice: NIJ Overview of statistics on IPV, and why Family-violence studies such as the CTS tend to underestimate the gender gap.

Male Victims of Domestic Violence: A Substantive and Methodological Research Review: An overview of the literature on the CTS compared to crime data in measuring IPV.

One in Three The One in Three campaign’s website.

Marital Spat with a Weapon?: Quoted story on DV coverage in the media

Two additional fact sheets referenced: and

We would be happy to provide further citations upon request.