Toronto Star

Saturday, August 14, 1999

Misogynists misrepresent `violent' women

By Michele Landsberg
Toronto Star

SUMMER is the silly season. In the drowsy dearth of real news, ridiculous or trivial events often fill the void. The second most laughable event of the summer was Conrad Black's fury about being cheated of a lordship - a titular snit, if you will. The first place for the summer's most ridiculous story goes to a front-page revelation in non-Lord Black's own newspaper: that women are more violent and aggressive than men.

This fiction was instantly followed by a national chorus of right-wing editorialists and columnists bemoaning the plight of battered men.

One hitch: The research on which this story is supposedly based shows almost the opposite of the right-wingers' claims. Two University of British Columbia researchers recently looked into a domestic violence survey done 12 years ago in Alberta, and revealed that half the survey results had never been published.

In that 1987 study, men and women were asked if they committed or suffered any acts of partner violence in the previous year. The women had reported committing even more acts of aggression than the men, but these results had not been published. Why? The UBC researchers admitted that the women's so-called violence didn't add up to much more than infrequent and non-injurious acts. The study had not gathered enough information - context or frequency of violence, for example - to shed much light on women's ``relationship violence.''

That didn't stop the National Post from foolishly spluttering about ``equal female violence.''

In other widely reported studies, many women in violent relationships freely report to researchers that they hit back, bite, throw things. Leading U.S. researcher Dr. Lenore Walker said in an interview, ``Women will report any minor act of touching in anger, even non-intentional acts like kicking in their sleep, while men engage in enormous denial.'' This gender difference first showed up in Murray Straus's controversial 1975 ``Conflict Tactics Scale'' study, in which women reported committing as many acts of violence as men. But even Straus noted that women are seven to 10 times more likely to be injured.

``It's a popular but irrelevant argument about who is more violent,'' Walker commented, given that ``two-thirds of family violence deaths are women killed by their male partners, often at the point of separation.''

Ellen Pence, training co-ordinator of Duluth Abuse Intervention Project in Minnesota, chuckled when she heard about the current Canadian flurry around female aggression. ``Well, it's not as though women are on a Higher Spiritual Plane; it's just that women are weaker,'' she said. ``Men are not afraid of women's violence, whereas battering is like organized crime taking over a neighbourhood: It controls its victims through systematic, deliberate intimidation.''

``Battering,'' write University of Washington psychologists Neil Jacobson and John Gottman, ``is physical aggression with a purpose: to control, intimidate and subjugate another human being. Battering is . . . virtually always associated with fear and even terror on the part of the woman.''

Can a man be similarly battered by a woman? Of course. Mary Asmus, Duluth city attorney and part of the domestic abuse prosecutorial team, said that she's seen one case: a wife who tyrannized over a husband in a wheelchair.

The exception illuminates the rule: Battering is a product of a power imbalance. Any woman may (but obviously shouldn't) hit her partner, but he can walk away. She, on the other hand, may be economically dependent because of her children, or may live in realistic terror of being murdered if she dares to leave. The news bears almost daily witness to the truth about who batters whom.

As Ellen Pence warns, ``The next step after this propaganda about women being equally violent is that women start to be charged as aggressors. And the women will up and say it fearlessly - `Oh yes, I hit him' - because they feel justified, knowing it's self-defence and not wanting to be a doormat. Women waited centuries to react against domestic abuse, and within 10 years, it's all turned against us. In some U.S. jurisdictions, as many women as men are charged. They'll plead guilty really fast so they can get it over with and get back to the kids, but the men drag it out, knowing that's how to get off.''

Even Murray Straus, who first recorded aggressive acts self-reported by women, has cautioned that the statistics are likely to be misused by misogynists and apologists for male violence.

That's exactly what is beginning to happen in Canada. The reporting that begins as mischief is capable of causing serious social harm.

Michele Landsberg's column appears Saturday in the Life section and Sunday in the A section.

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