The available evidence does suggest that there are men who are subjected to violence at the hands of their partners or former partners. Nevertheless, it seems clear that it is primarily women who suffer as a result of domestic violence.

The question, then, is what lies behind the campaigns by men’s groups seeking to establish women’s violence against men as a serious social problem. These campaigns would be perfectly understandable if they were designed to draw atten­tion to any unmet needs of male victims. Certainly, that is what groups such as Women’s Aid have done and are continuing to do for women. But women’s organisations have been faced with overwhelming evidence that large numbers of women are abused, that many suffer serious injuries and that women often have no means of escape.

Yet there is nothing to suggest that men’s groups have been confronted with such palpable exigency. Their ‘search for equivalence’[571] in relation to domestic violence appears to be driven primarily by other considerations. This seems to be a campaign based on anecdote, contested research evidence and ‘rhetorical resort to notions of equality’.[572] One of the main grievances appears to be that things have changed and the pendulum has swung too far in favour of women.

A number of writers have suggested that what lies behind the search for equiva­lence is an attempt to obscure or divert attention from gender inequality. Feminist researchers have argued that domestic violence is a manifestation of power and control, and the demonstration of a sense of possessiveness and entitlement. To say that women are equally violent is a way of denying that inequality exists in society or that women are oppressed.

Now what is striking is that when each discovery [of abuse] is made, and somehow made real in the world, the response has been: it happens to men too. If women are hurt, men are hurt. If women are raped, men are raped. If women are sexually harassed, men are sexually harassed. If women are battered, men are battered. Symmetry must be reasserted. Neutrality must be reclaimed. Equality must be re-established.[573]

The equivalence argument means that violence and abuse can again be legitimately analysed in terms other than those of gender inequality.[574] As Worrall, quoting MacKinnon,[575] says: ‘ “All of this ‘men too’ stuff means that people don’t really believe” that women are victims of anything anymore.’[576]

Similarly Forbes[577] argues that the ‘search for equivalence’ legitimates a return to a gender-neutral analysis of abuse. It entails a return to explanations focusing on individual or family pathology and social pressures, rather than those focusing on inequality and the exercise of male power.[578] And the assertion of equiva­lence sends a message to professionals that they ‘can get back to the business of understanding and treating (ungendered) deviant behaviour’.[579]

The equivalence argument may also serve another function: that of rendering men, and fathers in particular, safe. Collier observes that men’s groups complain that men have become the new victims of divorce[580] and that the law has moved too far in favour of women.[581] Their vilification of women and mothers is in part an effort to defuse what has been seen as a ‘crisis of paternal masculinity’.[582] Men’s groups maintain that fathers are crucial to the healthy functioning of fam­ilies[583] but that feminism has ousted the father.[584] In order to reinstate fathers at the centre of the family, it has been necessary to render fatherhood ‘safe’.[585] For fathers to be equal partners in the family, it is important that they do not embody the ‘threat of the undomesticated male’.[586] Familial masculinity, he says, has been constructed as something remote from drunkenness, violence and sexuality.[587] [588]

Feminist research, in contrast, has of course focused on men’s dangerousness and has sought to expose men’s violence in the home. Research into violent men in the 1980s, say Mullender et al,114 painted a picture of men who appeared to reflect little on their role as fathers. More recently, research has drawn links between violence against women and child abuse and has explored the effects on children of domestic violence.[589] This research, therefore, calls into question the fitness as parents of violent fathers.

The equivalence argument can be used to deflect such questions. To assert that women are as violent as men and as likely to abuse their children means that men cannot be singled out as a source of danger to their partners and children. The equivalence argument also enables violence to be seen in terms of mutual combat or simple conflict; something far less dangerous than sustained and overwhelming attacks on a terrified and demoralised victim. Men, therefore, are no worse than, and are as safe as, women. Accordingly, they should maintain a central role in the nuclear or bi-nuclear family.

Finally, the equivalence argument may have the effect of downgrading the importance attached to men’s violence and, to some extent, substituting under­standing for condemnation of it. As Rock says, becoming a victim carries rewards: ‘. .. sympathy, attention, being treated as blameless. .. exoneration, absolution. . . exemption from prosecution, mitigation of punishment.’[590]

An examination of the material produced by various men’s groups and pub­lished on their websites suggests that they are using the equivalence argument in all of these ways. And this argument, along with others,[591] is being deployed in a bid to counter what they see as the ascendancy of feminism and the denigration and marginalisation of men.