Criminal Suspicion:
Domestic Violence Leading Cause of Injury to Women

face of a prisoner

On July 10, 1994, an article in the Times-Picayune, a major newspaper in New Orleans, Louisiana, led with this news:

You’ve probably seen the fact somewhere now – that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44.

Newsweek used it. The Washington Post used it. CNN and ABC used it.

And you may have heard that more women are injured by domestic violence than by auto wrecks, cancer and muggings combined.

But there’s a problem with these facts: They aren’t true.^

Uncovering this news required nothing more than standard journalistic practices — checking sources, asking relevant persons significant questions, and recognizing the broader context of current events. The journalist interviewed Linda Saltzman, one of the authors of an influential 1992 Surgeon General’s statement on domestic violence. The journalist reported:

With respect to the claim, “domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages 15 and 44,” Saltzman stated: “I spend my life trying to get it unattributed to us because we didn’t say it and it’s not accurate,” Saltzman said. “It’s a very misleading quote, and I don’t know how to stop it.”^

In February, 1995, a government agency with well-established and well-institutionalized statistical expertise published a technical report with summary statistics from a nationally representative survey of hospital emergency rooms. The relevant statistics indicated that violence (not just domestic violence) was the fifth-largest cause of injury to females and accounted for less than a third as many injures to females as did motor vehicle accidents.^ Discerning that domestic violence is far from the leading cause of injury to women doesn’t place large demands on public reason and public information.

Variants of the false claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injuries to women have been widely supported and disseminated in public discourse. From 1996 to 2005, variants appeared at least 70 times in U.S. Congressional records, at least 19 times in judicial opinions (including in U.S. Supreme Court opinions), at least 202 times in law reviews and law journals, at least 105 times in newspaper articles, and at least 178 times in web pages. In 1999, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published an article authored by nine persons, each having an M.D., a Ph.D., or both. The article began by authoritatively claiming:

Domestic violence is the most common cause of nonfatal injury to women in the United States.^

In 2005, Lifetime Television, in conjunction with its fourth annual “Stop Violence Against Women Week,” issued a press release reporting:

young women and men have a much higher “IQ on Violence Against Women” than previous studies have found. … 80% {of 600 persons ages 16-24, surveyed online Feb. 9-16, 2005} knew that, in the US, the leading cause of injury to women between 15 and 25 is battering.^

Across public discourse for more than two decades, influential communicators have encouraged the public to believe a highly damaging, false claim about domestic violence against women.

Support in public discourse for the false claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women obscures the true distribution and scope of human injuries. A compassionate response to injuries focuses first on injuries, not on causes. Men between ages 15 and 44 suffer about 40% more injuries prompting visits to hospital emergency rooms than do women of those ages. Limiting those injuries to only injuries from violence, men suffer 60% more injuries from violence than women do. Limiting those injuries from violence to only injuries from domestic violence, men suffer 40% fewer injures from domestic violence than women do. Injuries to men and women from domestic violence account for about 2% and 4%, respectively, of all injuries prompting a visit to a hospital emergency rooms. Falsely exaggerating injuries from domestic violence against women obscures many injuries that men and women suffer. Focusing on domestic violence against women does not credibly express compassion for human injury itself. The actual, implicit concern seems to be not helping the injured but spurring criminal suspicion of a particular class of persons: men.

Support in public discourse for the false claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women undermines public trust. That false claim devalues men’s love for women and supports the criminal disposability of men from their families and their communities of ordinary life. Trust is a fundamental element of civilization.^ Intimate relations are crucial to human flourishing. Domestic violence has been publicly recognized as a problem long before the late-twentieth century. Public media, however, have become far more powerful than they were in the nineteenth century and earlier. Using historically unprecedented capabilities of public media to mislead intimates into fearing each other is extraordinarily damaging to human trust personally and socially.

Support in public discourse for the false claim that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women supports sex inequalities in criminal fear and punishment. That false claim is one of many sensational, highly exaggerated domestic-violence factoids that have circulated throughout public discourse.^ Highly exaggerated claims of domestic violence against women foster fear for women and criminal suspicion of men. An academic study of criminals and victims found that the “ideal criminal” is male, and the “ideal victim,” female. That study argued that the consequence for women are bad: “Fear of crime is one of the most oppressive and deceitful sources of informal social control of women.”^ The study didn’t consider a severe formal social control: incarcerating persons. In 2010, about ten men were in prison in the U.S. for every woman in prison. Fostering criminal suspicion of men supports highly disparate criminal punishment of men.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *