Irish Times

February 8, 2002

Domestic violence is not a women's issue or a men's issue, but a relationship issue

The view that men are more likely to be violent to women is not supported by international research, contends Kieran McKeown

Kieran McKeown
Irish Times

The most recent study of domestic violence in Ireland, as reported in The Irish Times (February 1st), indicates that nearly four in 10 women attending their GP have had some experience of domestic violence.

Although not a prevalence study, this finding indicates domestic violence is a serious problem for a substantial number of women. It is also consistent with the fact that women are more likely than men to present as victims of domestic violence to the accident and emergency departments of hospitals, to refuges for abused women, to police stations, to treatment clinics and to seek legal remedies.

In acknowledging the reality of domestic violence against women, and without minimising it in any way, I also want to question the value of studies like this which, by virtue of focusing exclusively on the victimisation of women, give a quite partial view of domestic violence by excluding the experiences of men, either as perpetrators or as victims.

In fact the widespread view that domestic violence is predominantly perpetrated by men against women, a view also advanced by Dr Michael Kimmel in his two contributions to The Irish Times on this topic (December 4th, 2001, and January 17th, 2002), is not supported by international research on domestic violence.

The findings in Table 1 summarise the most reliable studies of domestic violence available and are based on large representative samples of men and women.

These studies , with one exception, show that men are at least as likely as women to be victims of domestic violence in the past year. These studies also tend to show that about half of all domestic violence is mutual, with the remainder divided almost equally between male perpetration only and female perpetration only. That is true for both minor and severe physical violence.

However, where sexual violence or feeling in physical danger is measured, women are much more likely to be its victims. These studies also suggest a trend over time towards gender equality in domestic violence.

The biggest difference between men and women in the area of domestic violence is that women end up more injured, both physically and psychologically, and are more likely to require and seek outside help. That is a very significant difference, although it does not imply that men are unaffected by domestic violence and the general reluctance of men to seek outside help also needs to be taken into account.

So Dr Michael Kimmel is half-right when he says that domestic violence is "asymmetrical". It is asymmetrical in the sense that its outcomes are considerably more injurious to women but it is "symmetrical" in that it is equally likely to be perpetrated - and indeed initiated - by men and women.

The findings in Table 1 suggest that studies which are based on women's victimisation only are likely to provide a limited picture of the complexity of violence in intimate relationships.

Apart from the findings of international research, it is difficult to see how one could reach a proper understanding of violence in intimate relationships without taking into account the views and experiences of both men and women.

All of this research suggests domestic violence is more complex, and indeed more hidden, than is commonly believed. Domestic violence is a relationship issue, rather than a women's issue or a men's issue.

That also emerged clearly from my own studies of over 1,000 Irish couples who presented for counselling and which found that half of all domestic violence was mutual, with the remainder divided equally between male perpetration only and female perpetration only.

IT IS true that these findings are difficult to reconcile with the fact that women are more likely than men to seek redress and refuge as victims of domestic violence.

To build a bridge of understanding between the two sets of results, it is important to bear four factors in mind:

(1) the most deviant forms of domestic violence - whether of men against women or vice versa - may not be included in representative surveys of the type referred to here;

(2) men inflict more injuries on women than vice versa and this would account for the greater proportion of women victims in services;

(3) male victims of domestic violence may face greater barriers in acknowledging their plight and in accessing services; and

(4) there is a greater range of services for female victims of domestic violence.

In trying to address the tension between these two sets of findings it is important not to dismiss either of them as insignificant but to face the challenge of truth and reconciliation in addressing an issue which undoubtedly brings a great deal of unhappiness to intimate relationships.

It is perhaps also worth remembering, by way of conclusion, that the vast majority of men and women in intimate relationships are not violent to each other.

Kieran McKeown and Philippa Kidd co-authored a report for the Department of Health and Children in 2000 entitled Men and Domestic Violence: What Research Tells Us

© The Irish Times

© 2001