The scale of the problem
Every now and then, and certainly in recent years, these feminist, and now official, accounts of domestic violence have been challenged. The challenge has come from family violence researchers and it has been enthusiastically taken up by groups campaigning for men. These groups seek to draw attention to men’s victimisation and to construct domestic violence against men as a major social problem, comparable with the problem of woman abuse. At first blush, then, it might be thought that they are the new moral entrepreneurs engaged in revealing a hidden problem of violent women and victimised men, which is not being adequately addressed by the state.
However, these men’s groups tend not to produce, or to produce very little, evidence of the extent of the problem. Some of them rely on American sources; there are websites that provide links to the publications of one American writer, Fontes, in particular. But all of the United Kingdom groups rely primarily on the 1996 British Crime Survey in their literature and on their websites. That survey notoriously concluded that one in four women and one in six men suffer abuse, and it has had the effect that ‘the message that “women do domestic violence too” now has official confirmation’. Other findings reported in the survey, indicating that women are more likely than men to suffer serious injury, to suffer post-separation violence, to be afraid and to lack the resources to escape, have not been permitted to mute this message.
The message, moreover, gains additional support from other research studies that show relatively high levels of abuse of men, such as the Scottish Crime Survey and the 2001 British Crime Survey. There is also some support in the most recent British Crime Survey, which reported that 67 per cent of victims of domestic violence were women and 33 per cent were men.
Findings like these are difficult to reconcile with those reported by feminist researchers, which show an overwhelming predominance of male-on-female violence. One explanation for the discrepancy, which is suggested by Dobash and Dobash, lies in the different research methods used. They draw a distinction between ‘family violence’ research and ‘violence against women’ research.
Family violence researchers claim that intimate violence is ‘symmetrical’, with men and women equally likely to be perpetrators. They have relied mainly on measuring discrete ‘acts’, such as a slap or a punch. In contrast, ‘violence against women’ researchers claim that intimate violence is ‘asymmetrical’, with men as the main perpetrators. They argue that violence cannot be understood unless context is taken into account, and that purely act-based research fails to do this. When violence is considered in the context of a relationship, the evidence suggests that men’s violence is often associated with a ‘ “constellation of abuse” that includes a variety of additional intimidating, aggressive and controlling acts’. This same phenomenon is not apparent in reports about women’s violence against male partners. Women’s violence is normally associated with self-defence or retaliation against men’s violence.