National Post

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Wednesday, July 21, 1999

Domestic violence not a numbers game

Jonathan Kay
National Post

My experience with domestic violence is limited. It consists of a single ugly incident that took place several years ago during a screaming match between me and my then-girlfriend. I had been the one to give up the argument first. But when I turned to leave, my partner thrust her fist into the space between my shoulder blades -- with all the meagre force her 95-pound frame could manage. Naturally, I didn't hit back. I knew where that led -- to a night in a holding cell and a starring role on Cops.

At the time, I did not think of the confrontation as an instance of domestic abuse. The punch stung, but I had not been injured -- or even frightened. Moreover, the incident did not fit the image of domestic abuse I had been conditioned to expect by women's groups and government health agencies. According to that model, I was supposed to be the aggressor, my mate the innocent.

It turns out, however, that my experience as a male "victim" is quite common. Two recently publicized studies -- one Canadian, one American -- have concluded women are at least as likely as men to perpetrate acts of domestic violence.

Although this result surprises many people, it has been widely-reported in the academic community since 1975. That was the year Murray Straus, Suzanne Steinmetz and Richard Gelles, three American researchers, drew the same counter-intuitive conclusion from their ground-breaking National Family Violence Survey.

In the past 24 years, more than 100 family conflict studies have been performed, and every single one of them has confirmed the original NFVS. Yet, these data still spark controversy when they are reported in the press.

One reason for this is that feminists have seized on domestic abuse to advance a political agenda -- and they bristle when researchers portray the issue as anything other than the simple morality play of brutish men beating innocent women. But there is another important reason why they react the way they do that has nothing to with politics: Statistics that equate male- and female-perpetrated domestic violence are misleading -- because they imply, falsely, that husbands and wives inflict an equal amount of physical damage on one another.

Although it is true males and females commit the same number of "serious assaults" (defined as punching, kicking, choking and attacks involving weapons), men inflict seven times more injuries requiring medical attention than women. Both sides may throw the same number of blows -- but the average husband's lands more squarely and forcefully than his wife's. My own experience is telling in this respect. I walked away from the hardest punch my girlfriend could throw with only a bruise. What injury would have resulted had the roles been reversed?

Evidence of the damage disparity is widespread. In the United States, females were responsible for 39% of hospital emergency visits for violence-related injuries in 1994, but they represented 84% of the persons treated for injuries inflicted by intimates. In Canada, the ratio is even more lopsided. Of all the spousal assaults serious enough to have been reported to police in 1996, 89% were perpetrated against female victims. The data provided in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science study reported recently in the Post are consistent with this pattern. Of the studied women who were asked about the consequences of their altercations, 16% reported serious injury, need for medical attention or time off from work. For men, the figure was 0%.

These numbers explain why studies that demonstrate men and women are equally likely to assault one another strike many as flying against common sense. While the results reported may be nominally true, their citation can obscure the fact that the vast majority of deadly and injurious assaults are committed by men -- and that many more wives live in fear of assault than husbands.

On the other hand, while these potentially misleading statistics may anger some feminists, they must accept some of the blame. It was the women's groups, after all, who were responsible for dumbing down the definitions of domestic violence and sexual abuse in an effort to make the problem of violence against women seem more widespread than it really is. A typical government-funded report, Training social workers in a feminist approach to conjugal violence, for instance, reported in 1992 that "violence by men to women is a form of social discrimination which manifests in sexist jokes, pornography [and] sexual harassment."

That sort of reductionist approach has always been unfair to men. Now, it is being applied to the disadvantage of women. We must move beyond labels and broad statistics in the debate over domestic abuse. All assaults are not created equal. I know that for a fact.

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