Seattle Times

Friday, June 15, 2001

In the gender wars, another flashpoint: battered men

By David Crary
The Associated Press
The Seattle Times

NEW YORK - Battered men. On the front lines of America's gender wars, few phrases are more polarizing.

That such men exist in America, suffering one-sided physical abuse from their female partners, is widely accepted. Almost every other aspect of the topic - including the numbers of abused men and the gravity of their plight - is heatedly disputed.

It's a debate loaded with mistrust between the genders, with activists on each side seeing the issue as a prime example of the other sex grabbing for power, either by inflating the suffering of men or ignoring it.

Advocates for battered men cite academic studies asserting that women, although receiving the overwhelming share of victim-support services, engage in domestic violence as often as men.

Women's groups, and many domestic-violence experts, challenge key aspects of those studies and insist that women are far more likely than men to suffer psychological trauma and serious injuries at the hands of their partners.

Concerns over 'backlash'

"Do women batter? Sure, but not very often," said Bonnie Campbell, who headed the federal Violence Against Women office under President Clinton.

"The more success we have as a society in highlighting violence against women, the more of a backlash we get," she said. "I view a lot of this talk about battered men as a significant part of the backlash."

Campbell, and others in the field, are proud of the huge strides taken over the past 25 years in raising awareness about domestic abuse of women. But advocates for battered men contend that many of the programs have been politicized by feminist groups with anti-male agendas.

"What you have is government-sponsored sex discrimination," said Philip Cook, author of "Abused Men: The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence."

"It was appropriate that domestic-violence services and education primarily be focused on women in the '70s and '80s. But now it's time to turn on the rest of the lights on the stage and see who else is out there."

In Minnesota, a group of men has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, seeking to quash the state's Battered Women's Act on grounds it discriminates against men.

Statistics in conflict

Trying to pin down gender-based statistics for domestic battering is difficult; activists on each side can cite studies and surveys supporting their views.

A major survey released last year by the Justice Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1.5 million American women and 835,000 men are assaulted annually by an "intimate partner" - a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, including partners of the same sex.

However, the estimates in the National Violence Against Women survey, based on 16,000 interviews, don't necessary correlate with being "battered." The assaults included one-time occurrences and acts of self-defense or retaliation.

Richard Gelles, an expert on family conflict at the University of Pennsylvania, was among the scholars whose studies in the 1980s concluded that women and men hit one another in equal numbers during domestic disputes.

Gelles complained later that his findings were misused to falsely suggest there were as many battered men as battered women. He has estimated that 100,000 men are battered each year, compared to at least 2 million women.

Some other statistics: In West Virginia, according to recent state figures, women were arrested in 15 percent of domestic-violence cases; in California, the percentage as of 1998 was 16 percent.

To men like Dave Nevers and Jade Rubick, who have made the unusual decision to go public with accounts of being abused during their marriages, the argument should focus on fairness as well as numbers.

Rubick, 28, says he was targeted with recurring verbal and physical abuse during two years of marriage in his early 20s. At one point, he said, he telephoned to seek help from a domestic violence shelter in Eugene.

"The woman there, I think she was supposed to treat it like a prank call, yet she could tell it wasn't," he said. "She was nice and understanding, but she didn't know what to do with me."

Since then, Rubick has founded an organization called Stop Abuse For Everyone that offers help to male victims of domestic violence. He would like to see greater social acceptance of abused men, accompanied by expanded programs such as help lines, referral services and counseling.

Nevers, 48, a telecommunications consultant from Hillsdale, Ill., has spoken out repeatedly about injuries including burns, cuts and broken bones that resulted in several trips to the hospital. He remains angry that his ex-wife won custody of their children even though he felt there was clear evidence of her abusiveness.

"I get a lot of surprised looks, because I'm a big guy," he said in a telephone interview. "I think a lot more guys have gone through it than have ever admitted it. Where men are at, on this issue, is where women were 25 years ago."

The president of the National Organization for Women, Patricia Ireland, says she can empathize with men who indeed were victimized by their partners.

"If I were a guy who'd been battered and nobody seemed to care, I'd probably have some deep anger myself," she said. "You are injured. You are, culturally, an object of ridicule. The support services are harder to find."

But Ireland said women are overwhelmingly the most frequent victims of domestic violence. She contends the legitimate concerns of battered men "have been hijacked by anti-feminist advocates and policy-makers for their own political purposes."

One of the most contentious aspects of domestic violence is how police officers are trained to handle it.

Cook, the author, says officers and other professionals dealing with domestic violence need "an accurate, balanced picture" so they do not automatically presume men are to blame.

Yet Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, is concerned about an apparent spread of mandatory dual arrests - instances when officers arrest both feuding partners in cases with no overwhelming evidence that only one person is at fault.

"If the man is choking the woman, and she's scratching him to get him to stop - there has to be some discernment," Smith said. "Men choose violence much more often than women; that's a reality that it would be dangerous for the police to ignore."

Smith also contends that some of the impetus behind the battered-men's movement comes from men who have been abusers.

"They're using this issue in custody battles," she said. "Their premise is to make it look like there's all kinds of lying and misrepresentation by women's advocates."

Scholar enters the fray

One of the scholars most deeply entangled in the debate is Murray Straus, a sociologist who co-directs the University of New Hampshire's Family Research Laboratory.

His studies two decades ago - suggesting a high frequency of wife-to-husband violence - led to what he calls his "excommunication" by the women's movement.

Straus says his studies should not be used to suggest women do not deserve a bigger share of victim-support services. But he believes male victims should be treated evenhandedly, so they can seek help without fear of suspicion or ridicule.

"Family violence, no matter by who, is wrong, and should cease," he said. "If women want to be safe, to put it crudely, they have to quit it, too. They regard that as blaming the victim; I regard it as reality."

Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company