The Missing Persons of Domestic Violence: Male Victims by Richard J. Gelles, Ph.D.

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I met Alan and Faith nearly 25 years ago. I was in the process of interviewing men and women on what were then both a taboo topic and an issue that had been treated as an unmentionable personal trouble — violence in the family. I was one of the first researchers in the United States to attempt to study the extent, patterns, and causes of what I then called "conjugal violence," and what today advocates label "domestic violence." There was precious little research or information to guide my study — the entire scientific literature was two journal articles. With the exception of the tabloids, the media and daytime talk shows had not yet discovered the dark side of family relations. Both Alan and Faith discussed their experiences with violence in their intimate relations and marriages. The violence was sometimes severe, including a stabbing and broken bones. And yet, Alan and Faith ended up as mere footnotes in my initial book, The Violent Home. I admit now and knew then that I had overlooked the stories of Alan and Faith. The reason why their stories were relegated to mere notes was they did not fit the perceptual framework of my research. Although I titled my study an examination of family or conjugal violence, my main focus, the issue I hoped to raise consciousness about, was violence toward women. Alan, as it turned out, had never hit his wife. The broken bones and abrasions that occurred in his home were inflicted by his wife. Faith was a victim of violence; her husband, ex-husband, and boyfriends had struck her and abused her numerous times. These events were dutifully counted and reported in my book and subsequent articles. Faith's situation was the focus of my article "Abused Wives: Why Do They Stay?" However, Faith's violence, which included stabbing her husband while he read the morning paper, was reported as a small quote in my book, with little analysis or discussion. In my first study of family violence, I had overlooked violence toward men. I would not, and could not, ever do that again.

My recognition of the issue of violence toward men came about in a strange way. Two years after my initial study of family violence, the American Sociological Association included a session on "Family Violence" as part of the association's annual meeting program. This was the first time this scholarly association had devoted precious meeting time and space to this topic. However, unlike most sessions, which are open to anyone registered for the meeting, this session required a reservation. I wrote the day I received my preliminary program to request admission to the session, and was subsequently informed that the session was "filled." I do not believe I stopped to consider how or why a session could be completely filled as soon as it was announced. I was desperate, however, to link up with others in my field who were interested in the rarely studied topic of family violence. So, uninvited, I went to the session anyway and sat in the back of the room, hoping to hear what was going on, but avoiding being labeled a "gate crasher."

The session was held in a small ballroom, and there were about 20 persons in attendance, all sitting in a circle. The room was far from overflowing. The session was chaired by two sociologists from Scotland who were about to publish their own book on family violence, titled Violence against Wives: A Case against Patriarchy. Much of the session focused on the application of feminist theory, or patriarchy theory, to explaining the extent and patterns of violence towards wives, both in contemporary society and over time and across cultures. Much of the discussion was informative and useful. However, eventually someone raised the question of whether men were victims of domestic violence. The session leaders and many others in the group stated, categorically, there were no male victims of domestic violence. At this point, I raised may hand, risking being discovered as a gate crasher, and explained that I had indeed interviewed men and women who reported significant and sometimes severe violence toward husbands. I was not quite shouted down, but it was explained to me that I must certainly be wrong, and even if women did hit men, it was always in self-defense and that women never used violence to coerce and control their partners, as did men.

Alan and Faith were suddenly no longer footnotes, but I did not fully appreciate the significance of this until two years later.

The research I conducted for The Violent Home was a small study, based on 80 interviews conducted in New Hampshire. That research pointed to the possibility that family violence was indeed widespread and the probability that social factors, such as income and family power, were causal factors. But the study was too small and too exploratory to be more than suggestive. In order to build a more solid knowledge base and understanding of family violence, my colleagues Murray Straus and Suzanne Steinmetz and I conducted the First National Family Violence Survey in 1976. The survey interviewed a nationally representative sample of 2,143 individual family members. The results were reported in a number of scholarly articles and, finally, in the book Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. What surprised my colleagues and me the most was the high rates of violence towards children, between siblings, toward parents and between partners that were reported by those we interviewed. Up until this point, estimates of child abuse and wife abuse were placed in the hundreds of thousands and no higher than one million. But our study, based on self-reports, placed the rates in the one to two million range.

The most controversial finding, as it would turn out, was that the rate of adult female-to-adult male intimate violence was the same as the rate of male-to-female violence. Not only that, but the rate of abusive female-to-male violence was the same as the rate of abusive male-to-female violence. When my colleague Murray Straus presented these findings in 1977 at a conference on the subject of battered women, he was nearly hooted and booed from the stage. When my colleague Suzanne Steinmetz published a scholarly article, "The battered husband syndrome," in 1978, the editor of the professional journal published, in the same issue, a critique of Suzanne's article.

The response to our finding that the rate of female-to-male family violence was equal to the rate of male-to-female violence not only produced heated scholarly criticism, but intense and long-lasting personal attacks. All three of us received death threats. Bomb threats were phoned in to conference centers and buildings where we were scheduled to present. Suzanne received the brunt of the attacks — individuals wrote and called her university urging that she be denied tenure; calls were made and letters were written to government agencies urging that her grant finding be rescinded. All three of us became "non persons" among domestic violence advocates. Invitations to conferences dwindled and dried up. Advocacy literature and feminist writing would cite our research, but not attribute it to use. Librarians publicly stated they would not order or shelve our books.

The more sophisticated critiques were not personal, but methodological. Those critiques focused on how we measured violence. We had developed an instrument, The Conflict Tactic Scales. The measure met all the scientific standards for reliability and validity, so the criticisms focused on content. First, the measure assessed acts of violence and not outcomes — so it did not capture the consequence or injuries caused by violence. Second, the measure focused on acts and not context or process, so it did not assess who struck whom and whether the violence was in self-defense. These two criticisms, that the measure did not assess context or consequence, became a mantra-like critique that continued for the next two decades.

While the drumbeat of criticism continued, Murray Straus and I conducted the Second National Family Violence Survey in 1986. We attempted to address the two methodological criticisms of the Conflict Tactics Scales. In 1986 we interviewed a nationally representative sample of 6,002 individual family members over the telephone. This time we asked about the outcomes of violence and the process and context — who started the conflict and how.

The findings again included surprises. First, contrary to advocacy claims that there was an epidemic of child abuse and wife abuse, we found that the reported rates of violence toward children and violence toward women had declined. This made sense to us, as much effort and money had been expended between 1976 and 1986 to prevent and treat both child abuse and wife abuse. Female-to-male violence showed no decline and still was about as frequent and severe as male-to-female violence.

The examination of context and consequences also produced surprises. First, as advocates expected and as data from crime surveys bore out, women were much more likely to be injured by acts of domestic violence than were men. Second, contrary to the claim that women only hit in self-defense, we found that women were as likely to initiate the violence as were men. In order to correct for a possible bias in reporting, we reexamined our data looking only at the self-reports of women. The women reported similar rates of female-to-male violence compared to male-to-female, and women also reported they were as likely to initiate the violence as were men.

When we reported the results of the Second National Family Violence Survey the personal attacks continued and the professional critiques simply ignored methodological revisions to the measurement instrument. This round of personal attacks was much more insidious — in particular it was alleged that Murray had abused his wife. This is a rather typical critique in the field of family violence — men whose research results are contrary to political correctness are labeled "perps."

Up until now I have focused only on our own research. However, it is important to point out that our findings have been corroborated numerous times, by many different researchers, using many different methodological approaches. My colleague Murray Straus has found that every study among more than 30 describing some type of sample that is not self-selective (an example of self-selected samples are samples of women in battered woman shelters or women responding to advertisements recruiting research subjects; non-select selective samples are community samples, samples of college students, or representative samples) has found a rate of assault by women on male partners that is about the same as the rate by men on female partners. The only exception to this is the U.S. Justice Department's Uniform Crime Statistics, the National Survey of Crime Victims, and the U.S. Department of Justice National Survey of Violence against Women. The Uniform Crime Statistics report the rate of fatal partner violence. While the rate and number for male and female victims was about the same 25 years ago, today female victims of partner homicide outnumber (and the rate is higher) than male victims. The National Crime Victims Survey and National Survey of Violence against Women both assess partner violence in the context of a crime survey. It is reasonable to suppose both men and women underreport female-to-male partner violence in a crime survey, as they do not conceptualize such behavior as a crime.

It is worth repeating, however, that almost all studies of domestic or partner violence, agree that women are the most likely to be injured as a result of partner violence.

Two new studies add to our understanding of partner violence and the extent of violence toward men. First, David Fontes conducted a study of domestic violence perpetrated against heterosexual men in relationships compared to domestic violence against heterosexual women. The "Partner Conflict Survey" sample consisted of employees from the California Department of Social Services. Altogether, 136 surveys were returned out of 200 surveys distributed to employees in four locations (Sacramento, Roseville, Oakland, and Los Angeles). Not only did men experience the same rate of domestic violence as did women, but men reported the same rate of injury as did women.

More recently, a survey conducted by University of Wisconsin-Madison Psychologist Terrie Moffit in New Zealand also found roughly the same rate of violence toward men as toward women in intimate relationships.

Most journalistic accounts of domestic violence toward women and many scholarly examinations include descriptions of the horrors of intimate violence. Reports of remarkable cruelty and sadism accompany reports on domestic violence. Fatal injuries, disabling injuries, and systematic physical and emotional brutality are noted in detail.I have heard many of these accounts myself and reported them in my own books, articles, and interviews.

The "horror" of intimate violence toward men is somewhat different. There are, of course, hundreds of men killed each year by their partners. At a minimum, one-fourth of the men killed have not used violence towards their homicidal partners. Men have been shot, stabbed, beaten with objects, and been subjected to verbal assaults and humiliations. Nonetheless, I do not believe these are the "horrors" of violence toward men. The real horror is the continued status of battered men as the "missing persons" of the domestic violence problem. Male victims do not count and are not counted. The Federal Violence against Women Act identified domestic violence as a gender crime. None of the nearly billion dollars of funding from this act is directed towards male victims. Some "Requests for Proposals" from the U.S. Justice Department specifically state that research on male victims or programs for male victims will not even be reviewed, let alone funded. Federal funds typically pass to a state coalition against domestic violence or to a branch of a state agency designated to deal with violence against women.

Battered men face a tragic apathy. Their one option is to call the police and hope that a jurisdiction will abide by a mandatory or presumptive arrest statute. However, when the police do carry out an arrest when a male has been beaten, they tend to engage in the practice of "dual arrest" and arrest both parties.

Battered men who flee their attackers find that the act of fleeing results in the men losing physical and even legal custody of their children. Those men who stay are thought to be "wimps," at best and "perps" at worst, since if they stay, it is believed they are the true abusers in the home.

Thirty years ago battered women had no place to go and no place to turn for help and assistance. Today, there are places to go — more than 1,800 shelters, and many agencies to which to turn. For men, there still is not place to go and no one to whom to turn. On occasion a shelter for battered men is created, but it rarely lasts —first because it lacks on-going funding, and second because the shelter probably does not meet the needs of male victims. Men, who retain their children in order to try to protect them from abusive mothers, often find themselves arrested for "child kidnapping."

The frustration men experience often bursts forth in rather remarkable obstreperous behavior at conferences, meetings, and forums on domestic violence. Such outbursts are almost immediately turned against the men by explaining that this behavior proves the men are not victims but are "perps."

Given the body of research on domestic violence that finds continued unexpectedly high rates of violence toward men in intimate relations, it is necessary to reframe domestic violence as something other than a "gender crime" or example of "patriarchal coercive control." Protecting only the female victim and punishing only the male offender will not resolve the tragedy and costs of domestic violence. While this is certainly not a politically correct position, and is a position that will almost certainly ignite more personal attacks against me and my colleagues, it remains clear to me that the problem is violence between intimates not violence against women. Policy and practice must address the needs of male victims if we are to reduce the extent and toll of violence in the home.

Richard J. Gelles, Ph.D.,

Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence

School of Social Work

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA 19104

Telephone: (215) 573-7133

Facsimile: (215) 573-2099

Email: Gelles@ssw.upenn.edu

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| EJF Home | Find Help | Help the EJF | Comments? | Get EJF newsletter | Newsletters |

| Domestic Violence Book | DV Site Map | Data tables | DV bibliography | DV index |

 

| Chapter 1 — The Human Problem Of Domestic Violence |

| Next — Lifeline by Charles Corry, Ph.D. |

| Back — If Your Man Knew You Feared His Potential For Violence by Warren Farrell, Ph.D. |


 

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Added September 21, 2007

Last modified 3/26/14