November 26, 1999
Feminists Play the Victim GameBy CATHY YOUNG
New York Times
MIDDLETOWN , N.J. -- An increasing number of women are being arrested for domestic assaults, and the response to this news shows just how pervasive sexist attitudes still are in our culture.
But this time the sexism is coming from feminists and their allies, who insist that most women arrested must have acted in self-defense. This sentimental insistence on female innocence does no service to women, who should be treated as human beings with a capacity for aggression and held equally accountable for their actions.
In many states, women now account for a quarter to a third of all domestic violence arrests, up from less than 10 percent a decade ago. The new statistics reflect a reality documented in research: women are perpetrators as well as victims of family violence.
A review of 70 studies of domestic violence in which both men and women were interviewed was published in 1998 by Martin Fiebert, a psychologist at California State University at Long Beach.
Usually the violence was reciprocal, the research found, with women not only fighting back but initiating attacks; when only one partner was abusive, it was at least as often the woman as the man.
And while differences in strength put women at higher risk of serious injury or death, men are hardly invulnerable. According to an article to be published next year in Psychological Bulletin, analyzing data from dozens of studies, men incur a third of injuries in domestic combat.
Shouldn't the growth in female arrests, then, be seen as representing a fairer, more realistic attitude toward gender and aggression? Not according to feminist and other advocacy groups whose ideology equates battering with male oppression of women.
They cry "backlash" and claim that women are being penalized for defending themselves.
Assertions that female abusers are really victims can be based on rather tortured logic.
A 1991 paper by researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin classified a woman as "abused" if she said that her partner had been the first to use violence in their relationship, even if she was usually the aggressor later on.
Women's advocates also point out that most female offenders are arrested for minor, non-injurious acts like pushing, grabbing or hair-pulling.
But the same is true of most men swept up in the net of strict domestic-violence laws passed by many states in the last 10 years.
Many women who are arrested for domestic assault say they were striking back. But so do many male defendants.
The truth in these situations can be hard to sort out.
Unfortunately, many public officials have been swayed by extreme woman-as-victim arguments.
Some jurisdictions have tried to reduce female arrests by training the police to see violence "in context." Often, the guidelines instruct officers to decide who is "in control" and who is "in fear" -- vague terms likely to be used as code words for "arrest the man."
Measures intended to get women off the hook violate not only the constitutional principle of equal protection but true feminist principles.
The slogan "There is no excuse for domestic violence" should not end with the exemption "unless you are female."
Cathy Young is the author of "Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality."
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company