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Hitting the Wall

After 20 years of domestic violence research, scientists can't avoid hard facts

by Nancy Updike
Mother Jones Magazine
May/June 1999

A surprising fact has turned up in the grimly familiar world of domestic violence: Women report using violence in their relationships more often than men. This is not a crack by some antifeminist cad; the information will soon be published by the Justice Department in a report summarizing the results of in-depth, face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 860 men and women whom researchers have been following since birth. Conducted in New Zealand by Terrie Moffitt, a University of Wisconsin psychology professor, the study supports data published in 1980 indicating that wives hit their husbands at least as often as husbands hit their wives.

When the 1980 study was released, it was so controversial that some of the researchers received death threats. Advocates for battered women were outraged because the data seemed to suggest that the risk of injury from domestic violence is as high for men as it is for women, which isn't true. Whether or not women are violent themselves, they are much more likely to be severely injured or killed by domestic violence, so activists dismissed the findings as meaningless.

But Moffitt's research emerges in a very different context -- namely, that of a movement that is older, wiser, and ready to begin making sense of uncomfortable truths. Twenty years ago, "domestic violence" meant men hitting women. Period. That was the only way to understand it or to talk about it. But today, after decades of research and activism predicated on that assumption, the number of women killed each year in domestic violence incidents remains distressingly high: a sobering 1,326 in 1996, compared with 1,600 two decades earlier. In light of the persistence of domestic violence, researchers are beginning to consider a broader range of data, including the possible significance of women's violence. This willingness to pay attention to what was once considered reactionary nonsense signals a fundamental conceptual shift in how domestic violence is being studied.

Violence in the home has never been easy to research. Even the way we measure it reflects the kind of murky data that has plagued the field. For instance, one could argue that the number of fatalities resulting from domestic violence is not the best measure of the problem, as not all acts of brutality end in death. It is, however, one of the few reliable statistics in a field where concrete numbers are difficult to come by. Many nonlethal domestic violence incidents go unreported or are categorized as something else -- aggravated assault, simple assault -- when they are reported. But another reason we haven't been able to effectively measure domestic violence is that we don't understand it, and, because we don't understand it, we haven't been able to stop it. Money and ideology are at the heart of the problem.

For years, domestic violence research was underfunded and conducted piecemeal, sometimes by researchers with more zeal for the cause of battered women than training in research methodology. The results were often ideology-driven "statistics," such as the notorious (and false) claim that more men beat their wives on Super Bowl Sunday, which dramatized the cause of domestic violence victims but further confused an already intricate issue. In 1994, Congress asked the National Research Council, an independent Washington, D.C., think tank, to evaluate the state of knowledge about domestic abuse. The NRC report concluded that "this field of research is characterized by the absence of clear conceptual models, large-scale databases, longitudinal research, and reliable instrumentation."

Moffitt is part of a new wave of domestic violence researchers who are bringing expertise from other areas of study, and her work is symbolic of the way scientists are changing their conception of the roots of domestic violence.

"[She] is taking domestic violence out of its standard intellectual confines and putting it into a much larger context, that of violence in general," says Daniel Nagin, a crime researcher and the Theresa and H. John Heinz III Professor of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Moffitt is a developmental psychologist who has spent most of her career studying juvenile delinquency, which was the original focus of her research. She started interviewing her subjects about violence in their relationships after 20 years of research into other, seemingly unrelated aspects of their lives: sex and drug-use habits, criminal activities, social networks and family ties, and signs of mental illness.

"I had looked at other studies of juvenile delinquency," Moffitt says, "and saw that people in their 20s were dropping out of street crime, and I wondered, 'Are all of these miraculous recoveries where they're just reforming and giving up crime? Or are they getting out of their parents' home and moving in with a girlfriend and finding victims who are more easily accessible?' So I decided we'd better not just ask them about street violence, but also about violence within the home, with a partner."

What she found was that the women in her study who were in violent relationships were more like their partners, in many ways, than they were like the other women in the study. Both the victims and the aggressors in violent relationships, Moffitt found, were more likely to be unemployed and less educated than couples in nonviolent relationships. Moffitt also found that "female perpetrators of partner violence differed from nonviolent women with respect to factors that could not be solely the result of being in a violent relationship." 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 -- by nature or circumstance -- just as some men may be.

Moffitt's findings don't change the fact that women are much more at risk in domestic violence, but they do suggest new ways to search for the origins of violence in the home. And once we know which early experiences can lead to domestic violence, we can start to find ways to intervene before the problem begins.

Prevention is a controversial goal, however, because it often calls for changes in the behavior of the victim as well as the batterer, and for decades activists have been promoting the seemingly opposite view. And even though it is possible to talk about prevention without blaming victims or excusing abusers, the issue is a minefield of preconceived ideas about gender, violence, and relationships, and new approaches may seem too scary to contemplate.

In domestic violence research, it seems, the meaning of any new data is predetermined by ideological agendas set a long time ago, and the fear that new information can be misinterpreted can lead to a rejection of the information itself. In preparing this column, I called a well-known women's research organization and asked scientists there about new FBI statistics indicating a substantial recent increase in violent crime committed by girls ages 12 to 18. The media contact told me the organization had decided not to collect any information about those statistics and that it didn't think it was a fruitful area of research, because girls are still much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

It's impossible to know yet whether such numbers are useful, whether they're a statistical blip or a trend, or whether the girls committing violent crimes now are more likely to end up in violent relationships. But to ignore them on principle -- as activists and researchers ignored the data about women's violence years ago -- is to give up on determining the roots of violence, which seem to be much more complicated than whether a person is born with a Y chromosome.

What's clear is that women's and girls' violence is not meaningless, either for researchers or for the women themselves. It turns out that teenage girls who commit violent crimes "are two times more likely than juvenile male offenders to become victims themselves in the course of the offending incident," according to an FBI report. I'd like to hear more about that, please, not less. Moffitt's findings about women's violence and the FBI statistics are invitations to further research -- not in spite of the fact that so many women are being beaten and killed every year, but because of it.

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