The Sunday Times

Sunday, November 15, 1998

Melanie Phillips

Who will speak for the battered men?

The Sunday Times

One of the most disgusting hallmarks of totalitarian societies is that they get children to inform on parents. Amazingly, the government's newly cosy, don't-frighten-the-WI women's unit, is urging precisely this - but with a twist. Children are being urged to inform not on their parents but only on their fathers, who are apparently uniquely savage, and whose "violence" against mothers and sisters will thus be duly exposed by these Stasi in school uniform.

Totalitarian regimes also disseminate propaganda that doesn't just tell lies but inverts the truth. This is also a feature of Baroness Jay's gender inquisition, preaching an ideology that falsely demonises men as the sole perpetrators of violence and falsely portrays women as always their passive victims. These myths are now so deeply ingrained that people take their professional and social lives in their hands if they dare challenge them. But challenged they must be. For they are simply not true. They amount to nothing other than gender fascism.

The first myth is that one in every three or four women is said to have experienced domestic violence perpetrated by men. This staggering proportion defies common sense. Are a quarter of your women friends beaten up by their men? Of course not. Yet the claim was glibly repeated last week by the Bishop of Guildford, happy thus to demonise the men of Surrey. They have every right to feel aggrieved. The "evidence" for this claim is iffy, to put it mildly. Some of it has been ignorantly extrapolated from studies of atypical women in battered women's hostels. The rest derives from research of dubious quality - including a well-known study on the bishop's own Surrey stamping ground - involving samples that don't stand up to scrutiny.

Moreover, "violence" has been redefined into meaninglessness to include anything that causes anyone displeasure. One study included "feeling threatened" as evidence of violence. Even the Home Office some years back widened the definition to include the slippery "emotional abuse". That now embraces insults or rows. In America it includes an "overprotective manner" or not helping the children with their homework. Yet this kind of thing is the commonplace of domestic life, in which women as well as men play their part. To call it abuse is to batter the language. To equate it with violence is dishonest. To accuse only men of doing it is despicable. To encourage children to "inform" on their fathers for doing it is beyond belief.

Yet this is precisely what a women's unit television advertisement is planned to do. It shows a husband returning from work. Told by his wife that dinner will be a few minutes late, he berates her. That's it. That's the violence. This will be followed by a helpline number for children to call if a woman in their house has been abused. Are we really to have children reporting to their teachers that last night mum was the victim of domestic violence because dad came home and shouted that his dinner wasn't ready? Have ministers gone mad? Don't women ever shout at their husbands, call them names, hurl insults? And if mothers pressure children to get the police to harass their fathers, isn't that in itself a kind of child abuse?

The advertisement, which will be piloted in Scotland, specifically features an "Oxo" middle-class nuclear family. The brilliant thinking behind this, according to Helen Liddell, a Scottish Office minister, is that "domestic violence happens across all social classes". But a) this is not by any stretch of the imagination violence and b) the Oxo family is the least likely setting for it. Most violence against children takes place in disrupted families. And as an NSPCC study revealed a few years ago natural mothers, not fathers, are most frequently the perpetrators of physical injury, emotional abuse and neglect.

The whole rationale of the women's unit, though, is that women are Victims of Life. But the assumption that men are always the villains and women always the victims of domestic violence is the next myth. For every Geoff Boycott, convicted of assaulting his girlfriend, there's a Farrah Fawcett, who attacked her lover and damaged his house and car in a jealous rage.

The 1996 British Crime Survey reported that nearly one third of the victims of domestic violence were men, and that nearly half of these were attacked by women. These figures are bound to be a gross underestimate since men are unlikely to report that they have been attacked by a woman. And many other studies bear this out. In 1994 Dr Malcolm George, a lecturer in neuroscience at London University, interviewed 1,800 men and women in a heterosexual relationship. Some 11% of the men but only 5% of the women said they had suffered domestic violence, ranging from pushing through hitting to stabbing. Five per cent of married or cohabiting men reported one of more acts of violence against them by their spouse, compared with 1% of women. A further 10% of men but 11% of women said they had committed one of these violent acts.

So on this evidence women are more likely than men to be violent in a relationship. American research confirms that women are the aggressors as often as men in domestic disputes. Dozens of studies in America reveal both women and men agreeing this is so. They also show that women aren't merely violent in self-defence but strike the first blow in about half of all disputes. Murray Straus and Richard Gelles, highly respected American social scientists, underline the point. Their findings show that in about half the cases studied both the men and women were violent, in one in four cases only the husbands, while in the other 25% only wives were violent. Yet such insights can wreck careers in America. Kate Fillion, a writer, said research on female aggression is suppressed, academics who publish it are victimised and vilified, and other commentators omit such data from reports. Exactly the same happens in Britain.

The reason is a brand of feminism with which no woman who is decent and truthful would associate herself but which has nevertheless gained a cultural ascendancy. This holds that all abuse of power is an example of patriarchy - or, in other words, It's All His Fault. But abuse of power is gender neutral. Many lives have been ruined under matriarchy, too.

Of course violence against women is a real horror. But pretending that men aren't also victims diminishes all suffering and makes it more likely. Moreover it is men who we should now be worried about - underachieving boys, laddish yobs, depressed or suicidal fathers. Is it any wonder? They've got the message that they are to be regarded as enemies of humanity. Their pain and rage at being thus belittled and demonised are turning dangerous. If there is to be any unit at all it should surely be a men's unit.

Oh, and evidence also shows that lesbians attack each other almost as frequently as heterosexuals. Now there's a fitting cause for the women's unit. When (as in the title of the famous American primer) Heather Has Two Mommies, which mommy will Heather inform on? Perhaps Baroness Jay could let us know.

Copyright 1998, Times Newspapers Ltd.