Monday, October 25, 1999
Women are at least as violent as men, but the evidence is everywhere being dismissed or ignored, writes Melanie Phillips
Natural aggression: Muhammad Ali's fighting daughter Laila
Photograph: Jim McKnight
The Sunday Times
Mention feminism to most people and the reaction will probably be one of faintly amused indifference. Some men may be irritated by feminist rhetoric; some women might feel their agenda is a little extreme. But the extent to which feminism in its most extreme form has embedded itself within the institutions and thinking of Britain has simply not been grasped.
Feminism has become the unchallengeable orthodoxy in even the most apparently conservative institutions, and drives forward the whole programme of domestic social policy. Yet this orthodoxy is not based on concepts of fairness or justice or social solidarity. It is based on hostility towards men.
The idea that men oppress women, who therefore have every interest in avoiding the marriage trap and must achieve independence from men at all costs, may strike many as having little to do with everyday life. Yet it is now the galvanic principle behind social, economic and legal policy-making.
Buried within this doctrine, though, is an even deeper assumption. Male oppression of women is only made possible by the fact that men are intrinsically predatory and violent, threatening both women and children with rape or assault. Men are therefore the enemy - not just of women but of humanity, the proper objects of fear and scorn.
This assumption runs through feminist thinking as a given. "Most violence, most crime . . . is not committed by human beings in general. It is committed by men," wrote Jill Tweedie.
According to Marilyn French, men used violence both to threaten and control, as well as actually harm: "As long as some men use physical force to subjugate females, all men need not. The knowledge that some men do suffices to threaten all women."
Moreover, it is marriage and family life that expose women most to male violence. According to Gloria Steinem, "patriarchy requires violence or the subliminal threat of violence in order to maintain itself . . . The most dangerous situation for a woman is not an unknown man in the street, or even the enemy in wartime, but a husband or lover in the isolation of their own home".
All this has been enough to turn the stomachs of some feminists, particularly those who love husbands or sons. Novelist Maggie Gee said she once thought the sex war was exciting, but had now concluded it went too far. "Women are giving up on their relationships too quickly. Living with a man I love very much, I keep thinking that all the generalisations about men just aren't true."
These generalisations, however, are now the stuff of public policy. Male violence against women, said the government in June 1999, was no longer going to be "swept under the carpet". Virtually nobody questioned the premise that men were invariably victimisers and women always their victims.
There is no doubt that some men are violent towards women; the evidence of women's injuries is real enough. However, this is one side of the story only. There is another side: the extent of women's violence against men and children. That, though, is a story that almost every official body in Britain and America has successfully suppressed.
There are now dozens of studies which show that women are as violent towards their partners, if not more so, than men. Unlike most feminist research, these studies ask men as well as women whether they have ever been on the receiving end of violence from their partners. They are therefore not only more balanced than studies which only ask about violence against women, but are more reliable indicators than official statistics which can be distorted by factors affecting the reporting rate - women using claims of violence as a weapon in custody cases, for example, or men who are too ashamed or embarrassed to reveal they have been abused.
Many people are likely to be astonished and sceptical about the conclusion drawn by these reports. The idea that women are as violent as men is counter-intuitive and simply disbelieved. So it is important to provide a flavour of the scope and significance of their findings.
A 1994 British study by Michelle Carrado and others, for example, interviewed 1,800 men and women with heterosexual partners. Some 11% of the men but only 5% of the women said their current partner had committed acts of violence towards them, ranging from pushing, through hitting, to stabbing. Five per cent of married or cohabiting men reported two or more acts of violence against them in a current relationship, compared with only 1% of women. A further 10% of men but 11% of women said they had committed one of these violent acts.
Study after study shows women are not merely violent in self-
defence but strike the first blow in about half of all disputes. The American social scientists Murray Straus and Richard Gelles reported from two large national surveys that husbands and wives had assaulted each other at approximately equal rates, with women engaging in minor acts of violence more frequently. Elsewhere, they found more wives than husbands were severely violent towards their spouses.
Moreover, there is now considerable evidence that women initiate severe violence more frequently than men. A survey of 1,037 young adults born between 1972 and 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand, found that 18.6% of young women said they had perpetrated severe physical violence against their partners, compared with 5.7% of young men. Three times more women than men said they had kicked or bitten their partners, or hit them with their fists or with an object.
In any event, the idea that women are never the instigators of violence is demolished by the evidence about lesbians. According to Claire Renzetti, violence in lesbian relationships occurs with about the same frequency as in heterosexual relationships. Lesbian batterers "display a terrifying ingenuity in their selection of abusive tactics, frequently tailoring the abuse to the specific vulnerabilities of their partners". Such abuse can be extremely violent, with women bitten, kicked, punched, thrown down stairs, and assaulted with weapons including guns, knives, whips and broken bottles.
It is true that most women who are the victims of violence suffer domestic assaults. Yet the 1996 British Crime Survey reported that nearly one third of the victims of domestic violence were men, and that nearly half of these male victims were attacked by women. Moreover, if a woman starts a physical fight with a man, even a mild slap might provoke him into retaliating, with far worse consequences. Women who murder violent husbands may be treated leniently because they were provoked; yet men who are violent against women are never granted the same understanding. Provocation, it appears, is a feminist issue.
Moreover, given the greater strength of men, it is particularly noteworthy that so many women initiate violence against them. The fact is that men hold back. The psychologist John Archer has noted that, among female college students, 29% admitted initiating an assault on a male partner. Of those women, half said they had no fear of retaliation or, since men could easily defend themselves, they did not see their own physical aggression as a problem. In other words, far from assuming that men are violent, women take men's non-aggression for granted.
Archer went on to remark on the apparent restraint shown by many men in western cultures. "We might speculate that to some extent a strong norm of men not hitting women enables women to engage in physical aggression which might otherwise not have occurred," he wrote. Male aggression, he suggested, was a kind of default value associated with patriarchal structures.
When these are overridden, as they have been by modern secular liberal values and by the emancipation of women, female aggression increases. "These values will have greatest impact in a relationship that can be ended by the woman at little cost, and where the rate of male aggression is low.
"We can speculate that these represent specific instances of a more general set of circumstances entailing a relative change in the balance of power between men and women."
In other words, as women have become independent of men, they have also become more violent towards them - because men have become dispensable. This unpalatable conclusion, however, has been completely overlooked in a culture that believes infamy is the prerogative of the male.
Much to everyone's astonishment, the Home Office recently produced its own evidence that domestic violence was not a male disease. In January 1999, it reported that 4.2% of women and 4.2% of men aged 16 to 59 said they had been physically assaulted by a current or former partner in the past year. Women separated from their partners were most likely to be victims, with 22% assaulted at least once in 1995.
The public reaction to the Home Office research was almost complete silence. The government, too, appeared impervious to its implications. Shortly after it was published, the Home Secretary opened a domestic violence court in Leeds that was founded on the explicit assumption that only men were violent.
In June this year, the Cabinet Office women's unit launched a campaign to "change the culture" that presented domestic violence as almost exclusively a problem of male crime. It managed to omit another under-reported fact: that most violence against children is committed by their mothers, not their fathers. A study by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children revealed a few years ago that natural mothers, not fathers, are most frequently the perpetrators of physical injury, emotional abuse and neglect. This is not particularly surprising, since mothers generally have much more daily contact than fathers with their children.
There was yet another notable omission: the women's unit material did not differentiate between couples who were married and people who were living together or had irregular lovers.
It therefore omitted a key fact: that the risk of violence increases significantly for unmarried couples. The Home Office study itself observed that marital separation was a "key risk factor". Only 12.6 in every 1,000 married women are victims of violence, compared with 43.9 in every 1,000 never-married women and 66.5 in every 1,000 divorced or separated women.
As husbands are replaced by partners and lovers, therefore, violence against women increases. Marriage is a strong safety factor for women.
Yet this is not said. Instead, the opposite idea is fostered, that violence against women typically takes place within marriage. In November 1998, the women's unit announced a new initiative. Children were urged to report violence against mothers and sisters. There was no mention of abuse against fathers. Instead, a television advertisement showed a husband berating his wife when she told him dinner would be late. That was the violence. It was followed by a helpline number for children to call if a woman in their house had been abused.
This fictional scenario illuminated some remarkable thinking by civil servants and ministers. It had become acceptable, it thus appeared, for children to inform on their fathers to teachers or "helplines" simply for shouting at their mothers. Shouting was now to be classified as domestic violence. If that is the case, then violence happens with enormous frequency in families. Don't women sometimes shout at men?
There was another telling aspect of this advertisement. It featured an "Oxo" middle-class nuclear family. The thinking behind this, according to the then Scottish Office minister Helen Liddell, was that "domestic abuse knows no boundaries of social class or social group". However, not only was this scenario not violence, but the nuclear family is the least likely setting for abuse of women or children. It was no accident, however, that it was chosen. The married nuclear family has to be demonised because it is said to be the vehicle for the oppression of women.
The outcome of all this is that it is now generally accepted that violence is intrinsically male. This is a gravely distorted picture. It is true that most recorded crime is committed by men. It does not follow, however, that most men commit crime. Yet this is the false conclusion that has been drawn, as the result of the suppression or distortion of the facts about violence as well as the message that is constantly promulgated that violence is a problem of masculinity. The evidence suggests that a quite different conclusion should be drawn. This is surely that both women and men are capable of aggression and violence, but that violent men, like violent women, are not typical of their sex.
© Melanie Phillips 1999
Extracted from The Sex Change Society: Feminised Britain and the Neutered Male, by Melanie Phillips, to be published by Social Market Foundation next Monday, £12.99. Copies can be ordered for £11.99 from The Sunday Times Bookshop on 0870 165 8585
Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.