Bitter Scholarly Controversy about Domestic Violence

face of a prisoner

Whether domestic violence should be addressed in terms of gender stereotypes has been extraordinarily controversial among scholars for more than three decades. Consider, for example, Current Controversies on Family Violence, published in 2005. It included an article entitled “Women’s Violence Toward Men Is a Serious Social Problem.”^ That article was matched with another, more aggressively titled article, “Men’s Violence toward Women Is the Serious Social Problem” (relevant emphasis added).^ In 2011, the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior issued with the subtitle Current Controversies on the Role of Gender in Partner Violence. Its editorial preface observed:

Forty years of research, social activism and practice in the field of partner violence (PV) have created a certain amount of consensus but have mainly led to controversies. … The collection of papers presented here reiterates the conflict-ridden environment in which the understanding of PV emerges.^

The controversy centers on competing frameworks. The gender-stereotyping framework sees the problem of violence as the problem of men attacking women. The holistic framework takes seriously social-scientific evidence of approximate gender equality in the perpetration of domestic and partner violence. The holistic framework views domestic violence as a complex and multifaceted interpersonal problem.

The gender-stereotyping framework has overwhelmingly dominated domestic-violence research and policy. The scholarly field of domestic violence research is largely a horrifying, repulsive spectacle of irrationality, gender animus, and symbolic violence. Objective, social-scientific study of domestic violence has had little public significance.^ Given the importance of family law and the criminal justice system, caring persons should not avert their eyes and close their ears to the intellectual brutality of domestic violence and partner violence scholarship.

Symbolic violence in the field of domestic and partner violence research has a long history. It began in 1975 with the pioneering National Family Violence Survey. Using a broad measure of physical violence, that survey found that roughly 12% of both men and women physically assaulted their partners.^ One lead author of the study, who identifies himself as a feminist^, ignored the implications of these statistics and initially focused on male domination of women as the cause of partner violence.^ His female scholarly colleague, however, in 1977 wrote a scholarly article, “The Battered Husband Syndrome.” That article explored the characteristics of men victims of partner violence. In response to her article, the author received a deluge of scholarly abuse, as well as a bomb threat at her daughter’s wedding.^

All three lead authors of the 1975 study suffered-long lasting personal attacks as result of their finding of gender symmetry in domestic violence. One of the lead authors more than two decades later observed:

our finding that the rate of female-to-male family violence was equal to the rate of male-to-female violence not only produced heated scholarly criticism, but intense and long-lasting personal attacks. All three of us received death threats. Bomb threats were phoned in to conference centers and buildings where we were scheduled to present. {The female lead author} received the brunt of the attacks—individuals wrote and called her university urging that she be denied tenure; calls were made and letters were written to government agencies urging that her grant funding be rescinded. All three of us became ‘non persons’ among advocates. Invitations to conferences dwindled and dried up. Advocacy literature and feminist writing would cite our research, but not attribute it to us. Librarians publicly stated they would not order or shelve our books.^

Despite the attacks, one of the lead authors persevered. He became a leading scholar in objective, social-scientific study of family violence. In 2011, at age 85, he wrote the lead review article for Current Controversies on the Role of Gender in Partner Violence. He declared:

The high prevalence of PV {partner violence} by women, either minor violence or clinical-level violence, is not perceived by the public and is often denied or concealed by academics. The denial and concealment is documented in {references}. It is crucial to change academic denial and public perception because ending PV by women is morally, legally, and therapeutically necessary. It is also an essential step in reducing violence against women because, as {reference} found, “…a woman’s perpetration of violence was the strongest predictor of her being a victim of partner violence.” Similar conclusions follow from the longitudinal study of {reference} and {reference}’s meta analysis of risk factors for victimization. The effort to end PV by women must include attention to psychological aggression and minor violence by women such as slapping and throwing things at a partner because those behaviors are harmful themselves and because they tend to evoke retaliation and escalate into more severe attacks by both parties {references}.^

In 2010, in a scholarly article entitled “Thirty Years of Denying the Evidence on Gender Symmetry in Partner Violence: Implications for Prevention and Treatment,” he made a similar argument:

It is time to make the effort to end all family violence, not just violence against women partners, because this is morally and legally necessary and because it is crucial to protect women. This must include PV {partner violence} by women, which is widely viewed as mostly harmless {reference}, because physical injury inflicted by women is more rare than physical injury inflicted by men {reference}. On the contrary, even when attacks by women result in no physical injury, ending PV by women is a basic prevention step to reduce violence against women and all other humans.^

Acronyms, jargon, and numerous scholar references make these journal articles unappealing reading for ordinary persons. Nonetheless, close reading of the above passages reveals symptoms of a long history of abuse. Note that the above text makes no direct reference to violence against men. The concluding reference to “reduce violence against women and all other humans” shows the male scholar’s wounded sense of self. From his female colleague’s explicitness in describing “the battered husband,” he withdrew.

Evincing the social power of the label “feminist,” supporters of gender-stereotyping domestic violence have attacked studies showing gender symmetry as being the work of anti-feminists or pseudo-feminists. In Current Controversies on the Role of Gender in Partner Violence (2011), the leading review article is entitled, “Gender symmetry and mutuality in perpetration of clinical-level partner violence: Empirical evidence and implications for prevention and treatment.” The abstract for that article begins:

This paper addresses the contradiction between the conceptualization of partner violence as almost exclusively perpetrated by men and over 200 studies with data on both men and women which found “gender symmetry,” i.e., that about the same percentage of women as men physically assault a partner.

Apart from its conclusion and addenda, the article has eight primary sections:

  1. “The gender symmetry controversy”
  2. “Method”
  3. “Results”
  4. “Does the high rate of female assault result from self-defense?”
  5. “Asymmetry in effects: the basis for denial of symmetry in perpetration”
  6. “Limitations”
  7. “Theoretical implications”
  8. “Prevention and treatment implications”

This article concludes:

Although denial and concealment of gender symmetry in perpetration describes the current situation, recognition of the symmetrical and predominantly mutual nature of PV {partner violence} perpetration is starting to happen, as indicated by a growing number of articles and books which recognize the importance of gender symmetry in PV {references} and new journals that explicitly recognize that PV is perpetrated by both men and women (Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, and Partner Abuse). These publications are part of a process that is likely to ultimately end the present ineffective ideological approach to PV and replace it with evidence-based approaches that do not deny the overwhelming evidence on the prevalence and importance of female perpetration of PV. If this continues, it is likely to open the way to more effective prevention and treatment of PV.^

The author of that article elsewhere described himself as a feminist.^ Nonetheless, the subsequent article in that issue is entitled, “Gender and types of intimate partner violence: A response to an anti-feminist literature review.” Apart from its introduction and conclusion, this scholarly article has two primary sections:

  1. “A feminist perspective on domestic violence”
  2. “The anti-feminist backlash”^

This article places social-scientific study of domestic violence within a battle about feminism. It organizes that battle under the banners “feminist” and “anti-feminist.” A third article in Current Controversies on the Role of Gender in Partner Violence joined the battle. It is entitled “Feminist contributions to understanding woman abuse: Myths, controversies, and realities.” Apart from its introductory section, it has three primary sections:

  1. “What is feminism?”
  2. “Myths and realities about feminism”
  3. “Studying woman abuse: academic apartheid or the genuine sharing of knowledge”^

Academic apartheid seems to refer to rigid separation between work labeled “feminist” and work labeled “anti-feminist.” That’s a socially constructed, ideological division. The article describing it also documents its social construction. Even in scholarly work, division between “feminist” and “anti-feminist” dominates division between tendentious ideology-pushing and objective truth-seeking.

Ideological fear has been at the core of the criminal justice system’s development of domestic violence policy. Consider a scholarly article published in a prominent law review in 2004. Apart from its introduction, a tendentious historical section, and its conclusion, the article has three primary sections:

  1. “The Critique from Within: Criticism of Domestic Violence Criminal Justice Policy by Battered Women’s Advocates”
  2. “The Attack on the Changes in Domestic Violence Policy from Outside the Battered Women’s Movement”
  3. “Progressive Strategies”

This article associates findings of gender symmetry with men’s rights groups and pseudo-feminists:

The primary goals of both the men’s rights groups and the pseudofeminists’ attack on the conception that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of intimate violence have little to do with domestic violence policy. Their critiques of the numbers and the policy changes are simply support for their arguments that women are violent, men can be victims, and feminists are liars who distort data to suit their agenda.^

An apparently threatening claim of parties labeled “men’s rights groups and “pseudofeminists” — the claim that men can be victim of domestic violence — hasn’t been sufficiently influential to overcome unequal services for male victims of domestic violence or pervasive gender-stereotyping of domestic violence. Moreover, the scholar expressing these ideological fears played an important role in shaping the New York judicial system’s response to domestic violence. She served as Deputy Director of the Center for Court Innovation, a public-private partnership with the New York State Unified Court System. As the Director of Domestic Violence and Family Court Programs at the Center for Court Innovation, she was closely involved with the development of the influential Felony Domestic Violence Court in Brooklyn. Ideological fear of “men’s rights groups and “pseudofeminists” is deeply entrenched in the dominant public response to domestic violence.

Scholars expressing concerns about domestic-violence policy have sought to allay ideological fear with expressions of support for women’s rights and feminism. One social-scientific scholar, who described himself as “a supporter of women’s rights on any issue from abortion to workplace equality,” declared:

I resent the self serving argument that the gender paradigm group somehow represent women’s interests and are the only “feminists” and take a moral higher ground associated with women’s rights. I say that IPV {intimate partner violence} is not an issue of women’s rights but of couples with dysfunctional conflict management styles or psychopathology. The gender paradigm thinking has led to criminal justice practices that do not protect women or men {references} and obfuscate focus on serious high risk offenders of each gender. My critiques of the gender paradigm grew not from gender politics but from a review of the domestic violence literature I was doing for the third edition of my book The Domestic Assault of Women. In so doing I discovered a voluminous literature indicating that the modal form of IPV was bilateral matched for level of severity. More disturbingly, I also discovered a series of studies that had serious flaws in sample selection, extrapolation from criminal justice or shelter samples to the general culture (without identifying the selection factors that initially created the sample), cherry picked data, and conclusions that did not fit the reported data. These were not random errors; they all lay in one direction—to support the gender paradigm. I reported these solecisms and re-titled the book Rethinking Domestic Violence.^

Another scholar described an alternative approach to helping female victims of domestic violence. She described her work as part of a larger project of saving progressive feminism:

the conventional wisdom seems to be that there are two opposing progressive groups that address women’s issues—feminists and those who have receded from feminism. To many, this apparent fracture is exemplified by theorizing about domestic violence, where mainstream feminists supportive of harsh punishment of abusers square off against scholars who criticize feminism for compounding the problems faced by people of color. This article argues that, to the contrary, much of the newer scholarship on women’s issues, particularly with regard to domestic violence, does not recede from the feminist mission, de-emphasize women’s subordination, or abandon the majority of traditional feminist ideology, but rather it represents a new method of feminist theorizing. This paper is the first to systematically catalogue the specific traditional feminist views to which many modern feminist scholars object and distill the uniting principles of this new feminist or “neo-feminist” scholarship. Using the lens of domestic violence law and policy, the article demonstrates how neo-feminist theorists continue to prioritize women’s empowerment, despite their critique of certain law reforms associated with traditional feminism. For example, many of today’s domestic violence scholars reject mandatory arrest and prosecution policies in favor of recognizing battered women’s autonomy and addressing reluctance to separate through socio-economic reforms.^

This article doesn’t address the large number of studies indicating gender symmetry in the perpetration of domestic violence.^ This article doesn’t directly recognize that domestic violence policies have been central to the development of U.S. mass incarceration. Instead, it suggests that domestic violence policy hasn’t served well female victims of domestic violence. It argues that supporting a harshly punitive, gender-biased approach to domestic violence isn’t necessary to keep feminism alive. That’s the sort of scholarly argument that’s acceptable in elite legal discourse.

The long, brutal scholarly battle over domestic violence shows little shared movement toward truth and reconciliation. Consider, for example the Blackwell Companion to Criminology. This prestigious scholarly volume, published in 2004, is part of the Blackwell Companions to Sociology. That series describes itself as an “authoritative series” for “those studying sociology at advanced undergraduate or graduate level as well as scholars in the social sciences and informed readers in applied disciplines.” The preface to the list of volumes in the series states:

Essays in the Companions tackle broad themes or central puzzles within the field and are authored by key scholars who have spent considerable time in research and reflection on the questions and controversies that have activated interest in their area.

Within the Blackwell Companion to Criminology, a scholarly article entitled “Managing ‘Men’s Violence’ in the Criminological Arena” begins:

When men’s violence against women and children is made the object of analysis — say, the focus of scholarly attention or the focus of an undergraduate criminology module — all hell breaks loose. Even calling men’s violence “men’s violence,” thereby pushing home responsibility for that violence to men, can provoke uproar. It has even led to some sections of the academy in the United States, and now in the United Kingdom, to argue that, contrary to feminist claims, women are equally if not more violent than men and that there is a “sexual symmetry in marital violence”^

To the phrase “sexual symmetry in marital violence” the author appended a dated scholarly reference (from 1992) to a scholarly article supporting gender stereotypes in partner violence. The situation at the time of his writing was actually even more disordered. By 2004, at least 155 scholarly articles had found that women were as physically violent or more physically violent towards their partners than men were.^ By 2010, that count had risen to at least 271. Moreover, these scholarly article ranged far beyond the United States and the United Kingdom.^

The scholarly author in Blackwell Companion to Criminology displayed intense anxiety about what he apparently perceived as overwhelming, hostile symbolic forces besieging him and his most cherished values. He declared:

One thing’s for sure – naming men as the main perpetrators of most forms of violence, especially violence against women and children, is still not culturally permitted in non-feminist forums. Saying, without qualification, that men have responsibility for most forms of serious violence in Western jurisdictions is tantamount to declaring war on the civilized discourses of erasure and denial in which criminology and related disciplines couch the question of men’s pervasive violence against women and children. … The task at hand is to combat the discursive wizardry of the apologists as they try to flee again from the overwhelming evidence of men’s widespread and extraordinarily brutal violence against women in the “civilized” world.^

This analysis highlights men perpetrators of violence, effaces men victims of violence, and highlights men’s violence against women. Men in fact account for the majority of victims of violence. Moreover, the share of men victims is higher for more serious forms of violence.^ While ignoring men victims of violence, the scholarly author in Blackwell Companion to Criminology deploys broad martial imagery and fighting language: “declaring war,” “combat,” and the symbolic enemy fleeing. He seems to be a man engaged in violence against men. That’s the most common sexed pattern of violence.

Insult to Injury: Rethinking Our Responses to Intimate Abuse, a book on intimate partner violence published in 2003, has a more irenic orientation. But it also describes enormous harm:

What is appallingly apparent is that we have refused to address the role of women in the dynamic of intimate violence. The reasons for this are numerous. Perhaps the most important is that some feminists fear that talking about and addressing these issues reinforces the stereotypical assumption that women are somehow to blame for the abuse inflicted upon them. In my view, the research on women’s violence and the numerous studies that have clearly indicated that women are no less physically violent or emotionally abusive toward men than are men toward women creates an opportunity. It allows us to address women’s responsibility in the dynamic of abuse without blaming them for the violence inflicted back.^

Responding domestic-violence scholars aggressively placed this book in the context of battering and abuse. A law review article, entitled “Surviving the Battered Readers Syndrome…,” declared that the book’s author is “singularly ungenerous to her opponents.”^ While the book’s author identifies herself as a feminist, another law review article declared that the book’s arguments are very similar to those of “men’s rights groups and the pseudofeminists.” The review’s author fretted that the book’s author “who has a bona fide record of work with battered women, represents a potential opening to the battered women’s movement for these groups.”^ Another domestic-violence scholar asserted that Insult to Injury “reflects an inadequate understanding of feminist theories, research and policy proposals.” He warned, “her book will definitely be used and promoted by neo-conservatives, as well as members of the mainstream media.”^

The vicious scholarly battle about domestic violence mirrors failures in public communication. Since the early 1990s, false claims that domestic violence in the leading cause of injury to women in the United States have been prevalent in public discourse. In her book Framing the Victim: Domestic Violence, Media, and Social Problems, a professor-author observed:

One of my students who was taking my domestic violence class said that at the beginning of the semester he wondered how we could ever spend the whole class talking about just domestic violence. How complicated could it be? He said that he found out that there was so much more to the problem than he ever realized. I hope that this book helps others to realize how complicated social problems are and that media stories do not give us the whole picture.^

This book largely frames domestic violence through anti-men gender stereotypes and political abstractions. It illustrates the problem it describes. Taking a semester-long college course dedicated to domestic violence is not necessary to learn that domestic violence is a complicated social problem. Taking a semester-long college course isn’t necessary to learn that domestic violence policy has systematically failed to serve fully truth and caring for human hurt.

Good facts and good arguments for not viewing domestic violence through gender stereotypes have been readily available for decades. They have had little public effect. Instead, grotesquely false domestic-violence factoids supporting criminal suspicion of men have been prominent in public discussion of domestic violence. More domestic violence research and more education about domestic violence aren’t likely to solve the underlying social-communicative problem.

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