The Detroit News

Wednesday, August 11, 1999

Domestic violence issue transcends gender debate

By Cathy Young
The Detroit News

A few months ago, a man who attended a talk I gave told me he found one of my claims just plain improbable: that women assault their spouses and partners as often as men do. Recently, he sent me a magazine clipping with a note saying it looked as if I was right — though, he added, he didn’t mean to imply that he found me less trustworthy than Mother Jones magazine and the Justice Department.

The Mother Jones piece was about a new study by University of Wisconsin psychologists Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, based on interviews with more than 1,000 young people about violence in their relationships. More men than women reported being assaulted by their partners in the past year (34 percent vs. 27 percent) and more women than men reported assaulting their partners (37 percent vs. 22 percent). Nearly one-fifth of the women but only 6 percent of men admitted using severe violence: punching, kicking, biting, choking, using a knife or gun. There was substantial agreement between men and women (with couples always interviewed separately).

These findings won’t surprise anyone familiar with more than 20 years’ worth of research showing that marital and dating violence is most often reciprocal and that, when only one partner is abusive, it is at least as likely to be the woman as the man. The Moffitt/Caspi study, however, is the first to be sponsored by the Justice Department, which lends it more respectability.

For years, battered women’s advocates and other feminists have denounced studies showing domestic violence to be a two-way street as flawed and biased. The researchers have been accused of lumping aggression together with self-defense (even though the evidence shows that women frequently initiate violence) and of colluding in a “backlash” against women (even though women have done much of the research).

All this has less to do with facts than with political taboos, which have plenty of power. University of Pittsburgh psychologist Irene Frieze, a noted expert on violence against women, actually suppressed her findings on women’s dating violence until the university released them last year. The National Organization for Women promptly assailed the data as fraudulent.

There’s a strange doublethink here. Most feminists assert that women are as aggressive as men when it comes to military service or competition in the workplace; yet they insist that on the home front, men are the aggressors, and violent women are only defending themselves.

Women’s advocates demand that batterers be arrested and prosecuted; yet they cry foul when female offenders are caught in the net.

By the way, the Moffitt/Caspi study demolishes some other tenets of orthodox feminist theory on domestic violence — for instance, that battering knows no socioeconomic bounds and is not a result of pathology but of patriarchal norms. Moffitt and Caspi found that nearly 90 percent of male perpetrators of severe violence had a mental disorder, 72 percent had abused more than one illegal drug and 51 percent had attacked nonfamily members. The majority were high school dropouts. Violent women shared many of these traits, albeit to a lesser degree.

What conclusions should we draw from this research? That policy shouldn’t be based on ideological dogma. This does not mean that, in some ways, domestic violence against women shouldn’t be a subject of greater (though not exclusive) public concern; for obvious reasons, female violence against men is not as dangerous as the reverse, though it’s far from harmless. But policies based on the spurious presumption of female innocence — in law enforcement, the criminal justice system or domestic violence counseling programs — should be reconsidered.

Above all, the new Justice Department report confirms what some of us have been saying all along: Morally, domestic violence is not a gender issue but a human issue. To recognize this would be a truly feminist approach: one that insists on equity for men as well as women; one that treats women as human beings with a human capacity for aggression and holds them to equal standards of responsibility, rather than cloak their actions in Victorian sentimentalism.

Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network. Her column is published on Wednesday. Send e-mail letters to

Copyright 1999, The Detroit News