Globe and Mail

On duelling surveys

Thursday, July 15, 1999
The Globe and Mail

Utter an opinion about men, women and domestic violence and you can be sure of one thing --somebody's going to want to slug you. Either it will be a conservative revisionist (of either sex) claiming men have been painted as monsters for too long, or it will be a liberal feminist (ditto) claiming backlash.

Back in 1993, this newspaper led with the screamer: Fifty Per Cent Of Women Report Assaults. The story reported the results of a big Statistics Canada survey that claimed to find massive evidence of spousal abuse. Last weekend the National Post led with a top-of-page-one screamer of its own: Women Emerge As Aggressors In Alberta Survey: 67% Of Women Questioned Say They Started Severe Conflicts. Another Post headline read: Men And Women Are Equals In Violence. The stories more or less accused various governments and the entire research community of covering up this dreadful fact for the past decade.

What's going on here? Did women get tired of being beaten up all the time and suddenly decide to hit back? And when did Canada become such a conflict-ridden nation? The truth is that both sides in the gender wars should be fined for reckless wielding of statistics and severe abuse of the English language.

The now-notorious StatsCan study was, technically, correct. But it failed to draw a distinction between garden-variety spousal conflict (swearing, throwing things) and behaviour that anyone would describe as violent, such as beating, kicking or threats with a weapon. It also didn't bother to survey what women do to men. Its one-sided, seemingly sensational findings were used for a few years by lobby groups to get governments to spend more on programs for abused women.

The study reported by the National Post appears in the current issue of the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science. It is based on a survey of Alberta couples conducted in 1989. Only half the results, concerning male-to-female conflict, were published at the time. The complete study tells the whole story.

And what is the whole story? The story pretty much repeats all the findings of the past 20 years, as reported in dozens of domestic-violence studies conducted in both Canada and the United States. Contrary to what the Post would have you believe, the findings are no secret at all among social scientists, or even among feminists who think.

Nearly all physical conflict among couples is minor, infrequent, not injurious and mutual. In other words, women grab, shove and slap as much as men do.

The rate of conflict is highest among people who are young and dating and lowest among older, married couples (presumably because they've learned the hard way). In the Alberta survey, a little more than 12 per cent of the 350-odd couples surveyed reported a recent fight involving physical aggression.

"It's important not to confuse the rates of aggression obtained in these surveys with the perception that some people may have of the prevalence of violence and its consequences," Marilyn Kwong, one author of the study, told me. "There are not a lot of men out there who batter their wives." She adds there are also not a lot of wives throwing punches.

The Post headline with the 67-per-cent figure is wrong. What the study found is that of the small number of women who reported any kind of fight that turned physical, two-thirds said they'd started it somehow. Headlines get repeated, so it's good to get things straight.

Just about every study of domestic conflict reports that 3 to 4 per cent of women experience more severe forms of violence, and some of them get hurt. So do a small number of men. The main difference between the sexes is that women get hurt more often and more badly.

What to do? Don't stop writing cheques to the battered-women's shelter just yet. Recognize that violence is unacceptable, no matter who commits it. And cordially ask everyone to stop moralizing. The truth takes an awful beating when they do.


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