Public Triumph of Gender Stereotyping Domestic Volence

face of a prisoner

Gender stereotyping has overwhelmingly prevailed in public discourse about domestic violence. For more than three decades, domestic violence has been a matter of vicious scholarly battles. These scholarly battles are likely to continue as long as at least a few scholars quixotically seek the truth about domestic violence. Nonetheless, in public discourse more generally and in domestic violence policy, gender stereotyping again and again has powerfully overcome competing ideas and controlled nearly all the deliberative territory.

In the 1970s, Erin Pizzey’s work in England was enormously influential in spurring the growth of shelters for abused women. Pizzey opened Chiswick Women’s Aid, a pioneering shelter for abused women, in 1971. Her book, Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear, was published in England in 1974. It described domestic violence and the response of Chiswick Women’s Aid. In 1977, Pizzey’s book was republished in the U.S. In the afterword to the American edition, an American academic wrote:

Rarely in recent times has a single book had such a tremendous impacts as Erin Pizzey’s Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear. Originally published in England in 1974, its effects rippled over the European continent and across the ocean to North America.^

The American academic’s afterword and subsequent workendorsed gender stereotyping of domestic violence.^ Pizzey’s book did not. Pizzey subsequently became a harsh critic of the anti-men gender bias in the domestic-violence shelter movement. Pizzey is a hero to a small number of publicly marginal persons. Her work, ideas, and experiences are now largely ignored.^

Scholars have argued strongly against gender stereotyping domestic violence since the very beginning of widespread scholarly interest in domestic violence. Suzanne Steinmetz’s scholarly article, “The Battered Husband Syndrome,” published in 1978, was a pioneering work. That work, and subsequent follow-up work, generated for Steinmetz a hostile work environment. Steinmetz’s work has been influential among academics with long-term, empirical research programs on domestic violence. Among the vast majority of persons writing about domestic violence and setting domestic violence policy, Steinmetz’s work has had little influence.

For decades well-informed articles and books, readily accessible to non-specialists, have provided facts and arguments against gender stereotyping domestic violence. Some of these works, in order of publication, are:

  • Bates, R. E. 1981. “A plea for the battered husband.” Family Law vol. 11: 92-94.
  • McNeely, R. L. and Gloria Robinson-Simpson. 1987. “The truth about domestic violence: a falsely framed issue.” Social Work vol. 32: 485-490; follow-up, McNeely, R. L. and Gloria Robinson-Simpson. 1988. “The truth about domestic violence revisited: a reply to Saunders.” Social Work vol. 33(2): 184-188.
  • Shupe, Anson, William A. Stacey, Lonnie R. Hazlewood. 1987. Violent men, violent couples: the dynamics of domestic violence. Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books; follow-up, Stacey, William A., Lonnie R. Hazlewood and Anson Shupe. 1994. The violent couple. Westport, Conn., Praeger.
  • Thomas, David. 1993. Not guilty: the case in defense of men. New York, W. Morrow, ch. 7.
  • Sommers, Christina Hoff. 1994. Who stole feminism? : how women have betrayed women. New York, Simon & Schuster, preface, ch. 9.
  • Cook, Philip W. 1997. Abused men: the hidden side of domestic violence. Westport, Conn., Praeger, second edition, 2009.
  • Pearson, Patricia. 1997. When she was bad: violent women & the myth of innocence. New York, N.Y: Viking. Slightly revised edition, 1998, When she was bad: how and why women get away with murder. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Young, Cathy. 1999. Ceasefire! : why women and men must join forces to achieve true equality. New York, Free Press, ch. 4-5.
  • James, Thomas. 2003. Domestic Violence: The Twelve Things You Aren’t Supposed to Know. Chula Vista, California: Aventine Press.
  • Kelley, Linda. 2003. “Disabusing the Definition of Domestic Abuse: How Women Batter Men and the Role of the Feminist State.” Florida State University Law Review. v. 30, pp. 791-855.
  • Mills, Linda G. 2003. Insult to Injury: Rethinking Our Responses to Intimate Abuse. Princeton, Princeton University Press, ch. 4.

The above works are largely reasonable, irenic, conciliatory, and progressive. Among the vast majority of persons writing about domestic violence and setting domestic violence policy, these works have had little influence.

Hostile and belittling responses to these works have probably prevented many prudent persons from seriously considering them. For example, a well-regarded English columnist responded to David Thomas’ 1994 earnest and detailed description of battered men. The columnist entitled his column “On the myth of the battered husband.” It began with an eminent English author’s ironic description of the myth of Jonah and the whale. The columnist then urbanely transitioned to describing a novel by a highly successful English journalist turned novelist:

Guy Bellamy’s novel The Nudists, published in 1986, was about a penurious young writer who hit the jackpot by writing Battered Husbands, a furious exposé of woman’s inhumanity to man.

To help less sophisticated readers to understand, the leading columnist explained:

Bellamy’s intentions were comic; both Battered Husbands and its author were presented as being entirely risible.

Using a tool of an armchair investigative journalist, the columnist declared:

Why is David Thomas so desperate to persuade us of the prevalence of husband-bashing? Is he merely a disinterested, public-spirited chap who wants to help the police in their duties? I think not.

That was the pull quote for his column. According to this columnist, the real issue was not battered men, but that David Thomas was a “masculinist” telling men that they should stop being “cowed by feminism.” With the classism associated with Eton and Harrow and more than a whiff of homophobia, the columnist declared:

David Thomas has never, thank God, tried to sniff my bottom; and he wears Fendi ties and Versace suits rather than gorilla outfits. But he is just as dedicated a masculinist as those American nincompoops. … To quote Julian Barnes again: ‘We are sophisticated people, and we can tell the difference between reality and myth.’ Oh no we bloody well can’t.^

That final “we” in context quite clearly represents “they,” those risible intellectual and cultural inferiors. The columnist, in contrast, represents the high status, highly successful man in public life.

Public discussion of domestic violence with publicly recognized experts in domestic violence law remains a grotesque spectacle of bad reason. Consider, for example, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article in 2009 entitled, “Myths or Facts in Feminist Scholarship? An exchange between Nancy K.D. Lemon and Christina Hoff Sommers.” Nancy K.D. Lemon has for decades been a leader in teaching domestic violence law. She is the author of the popular textbook entitled Domestic Violence Law and a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. Christina Hoff Sommers is a former philosophy professor, the author of Who Stole Feminism? and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Their written exchange produced no reasoned progress toward understanding.

Lemon and Sommers’ written exchange did not even respect the intellectual value of writing. One item of dispute was Sommers’ prior written claim in an earlier article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Zorza also informs readers that “between 20 and 35 percent of women seeking medical care in emergency rooms in America are there because of domestic violence.” Studies by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, indicate that the figure is closer to 1 percent.^

In their written exchange, Lemon responded:

Sommers also challenged a statement by Zorza in my textbook regarding the high incidence of battered women in emergency rooms. Sommers says she received a message from a statistician at the Centers for Disease Control who stated that the incidence of females in emergency departments because of domestic violence was 0.01 percent in 2005 and 0.02 percent in 2003.

Apparently that statistician has not read the Centers for Disease Control Web site, which stated, when I checked it on July 15, 2009: “IPV,” or intimate-partner violence, “is a major cause of violence-related injuries. Intimate partners were identified as the perpetrators in 36 percent of all emergency department visits by women who suffered from one or more violent injuries.”^

The difference between “1 percent” and “0.01 percent” is a factor of one hundred. Moreover, emergency-department visits from domestic violence as a share of emergency department visits from all causes is a much different statistic from emergency-department visits from intimate-partner violence as a share of emergency department visits from violent injuries. Highly significant differences, fixed in writing, make no difference in expert public discussion of domestic violence.

Another example from the exchange indicates that the fundamental problem is not statistical mis-reason but the failure of writing to support good reason when the subject is domestic violence. Sommers declared in the prior article in the Chronicle:

A few pages later {in Lemon’s textbook, Domestic Violence Law}, in a selection by Joan Zorza, a domestic-violence expert, students read, “The March of Dimes found that women battered during pregnancy have more than twice the rate of miscarriages and give birth to more babies with more defects than women who may suffer from any immunizable illness or disease.” Not true. When I recently read Zorza’s assertion to Richard P. Leavitt, director of science information at the March of Dimes, he replied, “That is a total error on the part of the author. There was no such study.” The myth started in the early 1990s, he explained, and resurfaces every few years.^

Lemon responded:

Apparently the March of Dimes employee was unaware of the research this agency financed. The study Zorza sent me, “Battering During Pregnancy: Intervention Strategies,” by Anne Stewart Helton and Frances Gobble Snodgrass, appears in the September 1987 issue of the journal Birth. The article states at the bottom of the first page: “This work was supported by a March of Dimes grant for the prevention of battering during pregnancy.” The study states that battered women had twice the number of miscarriages than did nonbattered women.

Zorza also sent me a scanned copy of “Domestic Violence, a Women’s Health Issue,” a 1994 report of the N.Y. State Senate Democratic Task Force on Women’s Issues, chaired by Senator Suzi Oppenheimer. That report included a reference to the March of Dimes Protocol of Care for Battered Women, which noted that battered women are twice as likely to miscarry, four times as likely to have low-birth-weight babies, and 40 times as likely to have infants who die within the first year, compared with nonbattered women.^

“The March of Dimes found … ” evoked a response about a study that the March of Dimes financed. Comparing battered women to “women who may suffer from any immunizable illness or disease” shifted to comparing battered women to “nonbattered women.” To determine if that shift matters, one needs to understand the meaning of “women who may suffer from any immunizable illness or disease.” Read literally, that comparator means all women. The share of “nonbattered women” among all women, whether conditioned on pregnancy or not, is a matter of scholarly dispute. On and on such discussion goes. It has been largely fruitless. What specifically is written doesn’t seem to matter to the power and control of gender stereotyping in domestic violence discussion and policy.

More research, writing, and speech isn’t likely to affect the power and control of gender stereotyping in domestic violence discussion and policy. In a book on domestic violence published in 1994, three academic sociologists described the evolution of public understanding of domestic violence. With an approach deeply rooted in the history of sociology, they described stages of social understanding:

  1. the victim-oriented stage: women
  2. the victim-oriented stage: women and children
  3. the male-perpetrator-oriented phase
  4. the systems phase ^

Their 1994 work identified itself with the final, enlightened “systems phase.” They explained:

The findings of Straus and Gelles turned the whole thrust of the victim-oriented and perpetrator-oriented phases full circle. Family violence could involve both female and male victimization. The lines between perpetrator and victim in spousal abuse were no longer so clearly drawn between genders. Earlier, women had demanded that it was men who must take responsibility for male violence. A decade later, Straus and Gelles said, “Women must insist as much on non-violence by their sisters as they rightfully insist on it by men.”^

Professor Murray Straus has been doing careful, objective empirical research on domestic violence for more than three decades. More than 15 years after the sociologists described the final stage of understanding domestic violence, Straus is writing papers such as “Thirty Years of Denying the Evidence on Gender Symmetry in Partner Violence: Implications for Prevention and Treatment” (2010).^ Another leading researcher on domestic violence has recently written:

Abuse {domestic violence} is a human phenomenon, and gender is but one input in a nested ecology of causes. It {gender} says something about reactions to domestic violence but very little about causation. When it is put back in its proper perspective, it will seem as misdirected as John Stuart Mills’s 1869 claim that domestic violence was perpetrated only by “working class males,” a demographic relic reflecting the Zeitgeist of that time.^

The next step in generating an effective societal response to IPV {intimate partner violence} will focus on prevention and early detection of violence prone families. The exclusive focus on “violence against women” will be viewed as an anachronism, and the demonization and otherization of men as an aberration.^

That next step still seems as far away as the utopia of communism. In the U.S. since the early 1990s, grossly exaggerated claims that domestic violence in the leading cause of injury to women have repeatedly been disseminated in newspapers, in Congress, in the Supreme Court, and throughout the judicial system. Gender stereotyping domestic violence has been decisively victorious in the marketplace of ideas. The most important next step is to understand what that means more broadly for the criminal justice system and for the communicative structure of democratic self-governance.

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