Examining the research
The Dobashes’ contention that domestic violence is asymmetrical appears to be borne out by research examining more closely the studies showing high levels of male victimisation.
First, Gadd et al designed a research project to assess the nature and extent of domestic violence against men in Scotland, in the light of the Scottish Crime Survey 2000. The study revealed that some male respondents included in the statistics as victims were not victims at all. In follow-up interviews, one in four denied having experienced domestic abuse. Some indicated that they were referring to vandalism or theft around the home and/or acts of stranger or acquaintance violence when they reported victimisation.
Of course, there were men who did say they had been abused, and there were some who reported life-threatening events. But many of the men described the abuse as ‘rare and relatively inconsequential’. About half of the men interviewed said they were also abusive, although some said this was retaliatory. Only a minority of the men perceived themselves as victims.
Second, Walby and Allen conducted a study examining responses from a questionnaire which was included in the 2001 British Crime Survey. They used a questionnaire based on the Conflict Tactics Scale, but even so, their report does not support the view that domestic violence is symmetrical.
They found that ‘women are the overwhelming majority of the most heavily abused group’. They report that it is largely women who ‘suffer multiple attacks and are subject to more than one form of inter-personal violence’. Of those respondents who had been subjected by their abuser to four or more incidents of domestic violence, 89 per cent were women. Women also outnumbered men when it came to severe injury and mental or emotional harm. Ten times more women than men reported potentially life-threatening violence in the form of being choked or strangled. The number of sexual assaults against women greatly exceeded those against men. Women were more likely to be subjected to aggravated stalking, by an ‘intimate or former intimate’. They were also more likely to suffer post-separation violence, notably in the context of child contact.
Walby and Allen state that far more women then men reported being frightened of threats. And fear, they say, is important ‘in the understanding of domestic violence as a pattern of coercive control’. Fontes, on the other hand, who contends that violence is symmetrical, argues that men are ‘trained’ to ‘ignore or suppress fear’, or do not tell anyone about their plight since they feel ashamed.
Walby and Allen’s research findings do suggest that under-reporting is more common for men than for women, although the picture changes when sexual assaults are included. However, the reasons for under-reporting that Walby and Allen found to be prevalent do not bear out Fontes’s theory. A more plausible explanation is that violence against women tended to be more serious.
First, there is a correlation between disclosure and the frequency and severity of the violence. Because women suffer considerably more repeat violence and the violence against them is more frequently severe, it is not surprising that they disclose more. Second, contrary to the view that men are deterred by embarrassment at higher rates than women, a slightly larger proportion of women (7 per cent) than men (5 per cent) said they did not report because they did not want any further humiliation. Indeed, it seems that the most common reason for not reporting among men is that the incident was not seen as serious: 68 per cent of men compared with 41 per cent of women said they did not disclose because they thought the incident was too trivial. ‘No discernible percentage of men’ and 13 per cent of women said that they feared more violence or that the situation would worsen if they reported to the police.
It seems, then, that on closer scrutiny neither the British Crime Survey nor the Scottish Crime Survey proves gender symmetry. And the most recent research conducted by Dobash and Dobash also demonstrates differences between the prevalence and consequences of violence committed by men and women. Their definition of violence was framed so as to distinguish between physical abuse and what they see as less damaging emotional and financial abuse. Unlike the Conflict Tactics Scale, they distinguish serious and frequent violence from behaviour associated with conflict, such as shouting and acts such as a one-off push.
All the men in the study had been convicted of an offence involving violence against their partners. Just under half agreed that there had been no violence on the part of the woman. Men and women alike reported more male than female violence, and it appears that men perpetrate more of every kind of violent act and that they inflict more injuries. However, men appeared to minimise their violence; a larger percentage of women than men reported their own violence and women reported being subject to more severe and more frequent violence than their partners admitted to inflicting. Nevertheless, men’s violence was perceived by both men and women as ‘serious’ or ‘very serious’, while women’s violence was seen as ‘not serious’ or ‘slightly serious’. Women often said they acted in self-defence or for ‘self-protection’. Only a few used serious or injurious violence, even though they had all been subjected to repeated physical violence from their partners. Also, women did not use the kind of controlling behaviour that characterises the ‘constellation of abuse’.
The study also reveals significant differences in the effects of violence on men and women. Most women said they were usually ‘frightened’, and that they felt helpless, trapped and angry. In contrast, the men mostly said they were ‘not bothered’, or ridiculed the woman. The men found the violence inconsequential and rarely sought protection from the authorities. Only a few felt ‘victimized’; ‘[u]nlike the women, few of the men reacted to the violence in ways that suggested it had seriously affected their sense of well-being or the routines of their daily life’.