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Domestic Violence

The first reaction upon hearing about the topic of battered men, for many people, is that of incredulity. Battered husbands are a topic for jokes (such as the cartoon image of a woman chasing her husband with a rolling-pin). One researcher noted that wives were the perpetrators in 73% of the depictions of domestic violence in newspaper comics (Saenger 1963).
Battered husbands have historically been either ignored or subjected to ridicule and abuse. In 18th-century France, a battered husband “was made to wear an outlandish outfit and ride backwards around the village on a donkey” (Steinmetz & Lucca 1988).

Even those of us who like to consider ourselves liberated and open-minded often have a difficult time even imagining that husband battering could take place. Although feminism has opened many of our eyes about the existance of domestic violence, and newspaper reports often include incidents of abuse of wives, the abuse of husbands is a rarely discussed phenomenon.

One reason researchers and others had not chosen to investigate husband battering is because it was thought to be a fairly rare occurrence. Police reports seemed to bear this out (Steinmetz 1977), with in some cases a ratio of 12 to 14.5 female victims to every one male victim.

But another reason is that because women were seen as weaker and more helpless than men due to sex roles, and men on the other hand were seen as more sturdy and self-reliant, the study of abused husbands seemed relatively unimportant.

Research begins to show the reality
In 1974, a study was done which compared male and female domestic violence. In that study, it was found that 47% of husbands had used physical violence on their wives, and 33% of wives had used violence on their husbands (Gelles 1974). Half of the respondents in this study were selected from either cases of domestic violence reported to the police, or those identified by the social service agency.
Also in 1974, a study was released showing that the number of murders of women by men (17.5% of total homicides) was about the same as the number of murders of men by women (16.4% of total homicides). This study (Curtis 1974), however, showed that men were three times as likely to assault women as vice-versa. These statistics came from police records.

[The murder statistic was no big news, by the way. In 1958, an investigation of spousal homicide between 1948 and 1952 found that 7.8% of murder victims were husbands murdered by wives, and 8% were wives murdered by husbands (Wolfgang 1958). More recently, in a study of spousal homicide in the period from 1976 to 1985, it was found that there was an overall ratio of 1.3:1.0 of murdered wives to murdered husbands, and that “Black husbands were at greater risk of spouse homicide victimization than Black wives or White spouses of either sex” (Mercy & Saltzman 1989)]

The subject of husband-battering had finally been addressed, but not to the great satisfaction of anyone. Although it had finally been shown that there was violence being perpetrated both by wives and husbands, there was no information about relative frequency or severity, or who initiated the abuse and who was acting in self defense. Furthermore, some researchers became concerned that the use of police or social services references in choosing subjects to study might be biasing the results. In short, they recognized that battered husbands might be nearly invisible next to their female counterparts.

In 1976, for instance, in a critique of the Curtis report (which found women less likely to assault, but as likely to murder, as men), Wilt & Bannon wrote that “nonfatal violence committed by women against men is less likely to be reported to the police than is violence by men against women; thus, women assaulters who come to the attention of the police are likely to be those who have produced a fatal result.”

Steinmetz uncovers some suprises
In 1977, Suzanne Steinmetz released results from several studies showing that the percentage of wives who have used physical violence is higher than the percentage of husbands, and that the wives’ average violence score tended to be higher, although men were somewhat more likely to cause greater injury. She also found that women were as likely as men to initiate physical violence, and that they had similar motives for their violent acts (Steinmetz 1977-78).
Steinmetz concluded that “the most unreported crime is not wife beating — it’s husband beating” (Langley & Levy 1977).

In 1979, a telephone survey was conducted in which subjects were asked about their experiences of domestic violence (Nisonoff & Bitman 1979). 15.5% of the men and 11.3% of the women reported having hit their spouse; 18.6% of the men and 12.7% of the women reported having been hit by their spouse.

In 1980, a team of researchers, including Steinmetz, attempted to address some concerns about the earlier surveys (Straus, Gelles & Steinmetz, 1980). They created a nationally representative study of family violence and found that the total violence scores seemed to be about even between husbands and wives, and that wives tended to be more abusive in almost all categories except pushing and shoving.

Strauss & Gelles did a followup survey in 1985, comparing their data to a 1975 survey (Strauss & Gelles 1986). They found that in that decade, domestic violence against women dropped from 12.1% of women to 11.3% while domestic violence against men rose from 11.6% to 12.1%. The rate of severely violent incidents dropped for both groups: From 3.8% to 3.0% of women victimized and from 4.6% to 4.4% for men.

In 1986, a report appeared in Social Work, the journal of the National Association of Social Workers (Nov./Dec. 1986) on violence in adolescent dating relationships, in which it was found that girls were violent more frequently than boys.

Another report on premarital violence (O’Leary, et al) found that 34% of the males and 40% of the females reported engaging in some form of physical aggression against their mates in a year. 17% of women and 7% of men reported engaging in severe physical aggression. 35% of the men and 30% of the women reported having been abused.

Also in 1986, Marriage and Divorce Today, a newsletter for family therapy practitioners, reported on a study done by Pillemer and Finkelhor of the Family Violence Research Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire. The study, based on interviews of over 2000 elderly persons in the Boston metropolitan area, found that 3.2% of the elderly had been abused. 52% of the abuse victims were men.

Women’s violence is hard to believe
The idea of women being violent is a hard thing for many people to believe. It goes against the stereotype of the passive and helpless female. This, in spite of the fact that women are known to be more likely than men to commit child abuse and child murder (Daly & Wilson 1988 report 54% of parent-child murders where the child is under 17 were committed by the mother in Canada between 1974 and 1983, for instance. The Statistical Abstract of the United States 1987 reports that of reported child maltreatment cases between 1980 and 1984 between 57.0% and 61.4% of these were perpetrated by the mother. Nagi 1977 found 53.1% of perpetrators were female, 21% male and 22.6% both. Note that because mothers tend to have more access to children than do fathers that these results should not be interpreted to mean that were things equal, women would still commit more abuse).

In addition, a study in a doctoral dissertation by psychologist Vallerie Coleman of 90 lesbian couples, showed that 46% had experienced repeated violent incidents (Garcia, 1991).

Results like these are greeted with great suspicion by those who see domestic violence as a political issue to be exploited rather than a social problem to be solved.

Studies of women who murder
Coramae Mann, a criminologist at Indiana University, studied the case records of all murders committed by women between 1979 and 1983 in six major U.S. cities. Her findings contradicted commonly-held ideas about women who murder, and she was criticized by some people for this.
“They would raise the question, ‘Well you have these poor battered women.’ I said these weren’t poor battered women. Many already had violent criminal records. They weren’t weak or dependent. They were angry.”

Strauss & Gelles commented in their 1986 report that “violence by wives has not been an object of public concern… In fact, our 1975 study was criticized for presenting statistics on violence by wives.”

Yet domestic violence is an issue framed in the media and in the political arena as one of male perpetrators and female victims. Violence in gay and lesbian relationships is rarely discussed, and violence against men in heterosexual relationships less so.

Battered men wonder where to turn
When it is addressed, there is a response. When I became the caretaker of a memorial fund for a male victim of domestic violence, I unexpectedly took on the role of counselor for men calling from all over the country to talk to me at length about their or their father’s victimization. When the subject of battered husbands was raised on British television and the London Times did an article on the subject, hundreds of calls came in from male victims to a special helpline set up by a Women’s Aid group (Rooke 1991).

The terms “wife beating” and “battered women” have become political expressions, rather than descriptions of reality. And because the issue of domestic violence has been substantially taken out of the arena of serious sociological study, and thrust into the political arena, the definitions of spousal abuse, and the proposed remedies to spousal abuse, will be political ones — not necessarily ones which reflect the reality of the existing problems.

In a book on domestic violence, Roger Langley and Richard C. Levy conclude a chapter on battered husbands by saying, “Husband abuse should not be viewed as merely the opposite side of the coin to wife abuse. Both are part of the same problem, which should be described as one person abusing another person. The problem must be faced and dealt with not in terms of sex but in terms of humanity” (Langley & Levy 1977, p. 208). Ironically the book in which this quote appears is entitled “Wife Beating: The Silent Crisis.”

Laws favor female victims
Legislation about domestic violence is always orientated toward the female victim. For instance, in 1991, Senator Joseph Biden again introduced the “Violence Against Women Act” which at this writing has passed the senate Judiciary Committee. It has a section called “Safe homes for Women” which specifically allocates funds to “women’s” shelters (Biden 1991, also see Boxer 1990).
Also note actions like that of Ohio governor Richard F. Celeste who granted clemency to 25 women who were in prison for murdering their husbands. The reason he gave for this was the “Battered Woman Syndrome” which, obviously, no man can claim as his defense (Wilkerson 1990). There is very little concern shown either for the idea of making spousal abuse a capital crime with the victim as extra-judicial executioner, nor for the idea that perhaps some of the men who murder their spouses might be suffering from an analogous “Battered Man Syndrome.”

A frightening case from Ohio
There is only one case I am aware of in which a man was able to use a similar defense. Warren Farrell writes about it in his book Why Men Are the Way They Are (Farrell 1986, p. 231):
Betty King had beaten, slashed, stabbed, thrown dry acid on, and shot her husband. Eddie King had not sought prosecution when she slashed his face with a carpet knife, nor when she left him in a parking lot with a blade in his back. Neither of these incidents even made the police records as statistics. She was only arrested twice — when she stabbed him so severely in the back and so publicly (in a bar) that the incidents had to be reported.

All these stabbings, shootings, and acid-throwings happened during a four-year marriage. During a subsequent shouting match on the porch of a friend’s house, Betty King once again reached into her purse. This time Eddie King shot her. When an investigation led to a verdict of self-defense, there was an outcry of opposition from feminists and the media.

Farrell compares this case, in which “a two-second delay could have meant his death,” to that of the celebrated case made into the television movie The Burning Bed in which the protagonist murdered her husband while he slept.

A serious problem
In conclusion, I think that the available data show that husband battering is a serious problem, comparable to the problem of wife battering. Even if the statistics collected in the last several years are completely wrong and only one in 14 victims of spousal abuse are men, these are men who are hurting and need services that are currently not available.

There is such a strong stigma against being a battered man, carried over from mideval times when the battered man was considered the guilty party, that special attention should be paid to reaching out to these victims. Simply opening up “Women’s Shelters” to men is not enough.


Biden, Joseph “Violence Against Women Act of 1990” (S. 15) 1991.

Boxer, Barbara “A Bill to combat violence and crimes against women on the streets and in homes” (H.R. 5468) 101st Congress, 2nd Session, August 3, 1990

Curtis, L.A. Criminal violence: National patterns and behavior Lexington Books, Lexington MA, 1974

Daly, M. & Wilson, M. “Parent-Offspring Homicides in Canada, 1974-1983” Science v. 242, pp. 519-524, 1988

Farrell, Warren Why Men Are the Way They Are McGraw-Hill, New York, 1986, p. 231

Garcia, Jane “The Cost of Escaping Domestic Violence” Los Angeles Times May 6, 1991

Gelles, R.J. The violent home: A study of physical aggression between husbands and wives Sage, Beverly Hills CA, 1974

Langley, Roger & Levy, Richard C. Wife Beating: The Silent Crisis Pocket Books, New York 1977

Marriage and Divorce Today “First Large-Scale Study Reveals Elder Abuse is Primarily by Wives Against Husbands” December 15, 1986

Mercy, J.A. & Saltzman, L.E. “Fatal violence among spouses in the United States, 1976-85” American Journal of Public Health 79(5): 595-9 May 1989

Nagi, Saad Child Maltreatment in the United States Columbia University Press, New York, p. 47, 1977

Nisonoff, L. & Bitman, I “Spouse Abuse: Incidence and Relationship to Selected Demographic Variables” Victimology 4, 1979, pp. 131-140

O’Leary, K. Daniel; Arias, Ilena; Rosenbaum, Alan & Barling, Julian “Premarital Physical Aggression” State University of New York at Stony Brook & Syracuse University

Rooke, Margaret “Violence in the Home” RadioTimes 16-22 March 1991 p. 8.

Saenger, G. “Male and female relation in the American comic strips” in The funnies: An American idiom M. White & R.H. Abel editors, The Free Press, Glencoe IL, 1963, p. 219-223

Sexuality Today Newsletter “Violence in Adolescent Dating Relationships Common, New Survey Reveals” December 22, 1986 (reporting on a report in Social Work contact Karen Brockopp) pp 2-3.

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