USA Today

Monday July 16, 1999

Researchers scuffle over domestic violence

By Karen S. Peterson, USA TODAY

Who hits first, the man or the woman?

The latest in a list of government-funded studies comes up with a controversial answer. Women hit men at least as often as men hit women, says research funded in part by the Justice Department.

That finding, reported this month, is ratcheting up one of the biggest debates in the field of domestic violence.

Two camps with different agendas are once again glaring at each other, each backed by prestigious but contradictory studies. And the tension will increase today when smaller-scale research is released, showing that girls in middle school are just as aggressive as boys with their partners.

The debate

In one tent are those who stress the greater damage men do when they hit women, regardless of who hits first.

In another are those who say women, especially younger women, hit first about as often as men. And they also must be held accountable, even if they do little physical harm.

"Neither side is motivated to understand the other. Rather, each seeks to impose its perspective because they believe (their) preferred definition is vital to advancing their moral agenda and professional objectives," says pioneering researcher Murray Straus in the chapter he contributes to the new Violence in Intimate Relationships (Sage, $29.95).

Small-scale studies are being presented this month at two conferences on domestic violence. They also show that women - especially young women - may be willing to participate in a literal battle between the sexes.

In a study of 872 students in five Philadelphia middle schools, about 65% of girls and 43% of boys report engaging in some form of physical aggression against a favored member of the opposite sex, researcher Michele Cascardi will tell the International Family Violence Research Conference today at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Cascardi emphasizes that contact basically means pushing and shoving and is considered "no big deal" by the kids - although it concerns those who worry that such behavior could escalate later. Her team is testing a school-based prevention program to heighten awareness among sixth- through eighth-graders and assess risk factors for abuse.

Arresting research

Other researchers have found girls to be physically aggressive, Cascardi says. Sociologists speculate that such behavior often is seen as more acceptable from girls today.

Research presented this month at the Penn School of Social Work's Conference on Intimate Violence concerned the behavior of women. More are being arrested for assaulting their male partners, a result not expected by advocates who support laws to protect women from domestic violence, says Sue Osthoff of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women.

Osthoff says that as more jurisdictions require police officers to make an arrest when answering a call about domestic violence, more women - who may have struck men in self-defense - are being arrested. Her information is anecdotal: Nobody monitors such statistics at a national level.

But landmark researcher Richard Gelles of the Penn School of Social Work says his research shows that women hit men just as men hit women, and it is not surprising that more women are being arrested. "When you set out the nets for tuna, you are going to pull some dolphins in," he says. "And advocates for women will have to wrestle with that."

The Justice Department study does not exonerate women. That project, which lasted 21 years, found that 27% of young women and 34% of young men had been physically abused by a partner, and 37% of women and 22% of men said they had perpetrated the violence.

Nobody - advocates for women or for men, researchers, concerned social scientists - suggests that the results of most physical abuse are the same for men and women.

"This is not an equal playing field," Gelles says. Virtually all the scientific studies show that women are much more apt to be hurt. And they are much more likely to be killed by a domestic partner.

"There are now about 500 male victims a year and in excess of 1,200 females," Gelles says.

For such reasons, advocates for battered women are reluctant to read newspaper headlines saying women and men hit each other at about the same rates.

The day after USA TODAY reported on the Justice Department study, Juley Fulcher of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence called to say, in part, "It is hurtful to people to be able to claim that (domestic violence) is going both ways, that nobody is really to blame."

The public, she says, often only reads headlines and doesn't evaluate the study involved. Battered women, she says, "are much less likely to get assistance if there are people saying this is a two-way street. We hear callous remarks like 'Let them beat each other up.' ... We don't want to give the public an excuse to turn their backs on domestic violence, the way we did 10 or 20 years ago."

The Justice Department study was co-authored by psychology professor Terrie Moffitt, now on sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The research was done with 1,037 young New Zealand adults, 52% of them men and 48% women.

The study didn't include "who started each incident or if some of the acts were in self-defense, but it is clear that in most cases of partner violence in this age group, the parties are involved in mutual violence," Moffitt's report says.

Straus and Gelles say the Moffitt study is sound: Their research shows that women and men attack their partners at similar rates.

Patricia Tjaden also applauds the study, but her research produced a different result: Women are three times more likely to be assaulted in some way over a lifetime by a male partner than the reverse, and they are seven to 14 times more likely to be beaten, choked or threatened with a gun. Her research for the nonprofit Center for Policy Research was sponsored by two government agencies.

Unanswered questions

Why the discrepancies in such heavy-duty studies?

"That is the million-dollar question," Tjaden says. "After 20 years of research in this area, we are now left pondering the most basic questions. How prevalent is partner violence, and is there parity between the sexes?"

Tjaden says that when researchers ask only about being victimized, they get more men as batterers. If researchers ask about being victimized and victimizing others, they get more equality between the sexes. A lot of scholars agree, she says, that "women are just more likely to admit stuff than men are" and will confess to hitting a partner while a man won't. It also is more socially acceptable for a woman to fess up than it is for a man.

Straus says domestic-violence studies are a minefield. The quarrels start over definitions. Some define abuse broadly and include emotional mistreatment. Some include pushing and shoving, while others stick to physical assaults that are intended to cause injury. And some ask about a lifetime pattern of abuse, while others focus on the past 12 months.

Studies tend to fall into two broad categories, Straus says. Those based on actual crime statistics usually show low overall rates of assault, but more by men than women. When an arrest is made, the injury is more apt to be serious and is still more apt to be inflicted by a man.

Also, context matters. When victims are asked in terms of crime, they may not think a slap or kick is serious and won't report it, he says.

But what Straus calls "family conflict" studies focus on a broader definition. They include assaults that don't result in injury. Routinely, he says, "family-conflict studies have found about equal rates of assault by the male and female partner."

The two types of studies, he says, focus on "different groups of people and reflect different aspects of domestic assault." Women's groups tend to focus on crime studies that document battered women, he says, but crime studies might not reflect the population at large.

Both types of studies are valid and needed, Straus says. "Society would lose if either side gives up their perspective."

Which particular study catches the public's eye truly matters, experts say: The statistics influence policy decisions, such as the funding of women's shelters.

Tense confrontations

The confrontation over findings can get ugly.

Straus says one of his colleagues received a bomb threat when she found women to be partners in violence. Some of his graduate students have been told they will never get a job if they work with him, he says, and he and other peers have been booed from speakers' podiums.

Virtually all of the studies have critics. The family-conflict methodology pioneered by Gelles and Straus is "irresponsible and totally flawed," says Joan Zorza, editor of the Domestic Violence Report. The method, she says, intentionally sees violence as part of a family system and therefore tends to find "men and women equally violent."

Tjaden is convinced that "women are the primary victims of intimate-partner violence." But, she says, "I regard myself as a researcher and scientist, not an advocate." Scientists, she says, "don't poke fingers at each other and say, 'My numbers are right, and yours are wrong.'

"It may be we are measuring two different things," she says. "That is where future research has to go."

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