In Scientific American, Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz review recent studies on men's and women's aggressive behavior. They conclude that while women do exhibit the much-vaunted "relational aggression" ("spreading rumors, gossiping, glaring, eye rolling, giving others the 'silent treatment,' sending nasty notes or text messages behind rivals' backs"), men are more prone to all types of violence except one: domestic abuse. They cite research by psychologist John Archer and sociologist Murray Straus, writing,
[T]heir analyses demonstrate that men and women exhibit roughly equal rates of violence within relationships; some studies hint that women's rates of physical aggression are slightly higher. This apparent equality is not solely a result of women fighting back, because it holds even for altercations that women start.
Straus's work, at least, has been around for a while, and has its share of detractors. In November, Double X's Kathryn Joyce noted that men's rights groups sometimes use Straus's research to support their arguments "that false allegations are rampant, that a feminist-run court system fraudulently separates innocent fathers from children, that battered women's shelters are running a racket that funnels federal dollars to feminists, that domestic-violence laws give cover to cagey mail-order brides seeking Green Cards, and finally, that men are victims of an unrecognized epidemic of violence at the hands of abusive wives." Joyce quoted Portland State University professor Jack Straton, who says Straus "fails to distinguish between the intent and effect of violence, equating 'a woman pushing a man in self-defense to a man pushing a woman down the stairs,' or a single act of female violence with years of male abuse; that Straus only interviewed one partner, when couples' accounts of violence commonly diverge; and that he excludes from his study post-separation violence, which accounts for more than 75 percent of spouse-on-spouse violence, 93 percent of which is committed by men." But Cathy Young, responding Forbes, disagreed, saying that Straus actually does distinguish between habitual and one-time violence:
Straus' studies measure the frequency of violence and specifically inquire about which partner initiated the physical violence. Furthermore, Joyce fails to mention that virtually all social scientists studying domestic violence, including self-identified feminists such as University of Pittsburgh psychologist Irene Frieze, find high rates of mutual aggression.
In their Scientific American column, Lilienfeld and Arkowitz add an important caveat to Archer and Straus's findings: that women are much more likely to be injured by domestic violence, because men are stronger and more likely to "punch or choke" their victims (women more commonly "scratch or slap"). This is obviously a key distinction, but ultimately, should we really be arguing about which gender commits domestic violence more? Research by Straus and others may be useful for outreach and prevention, but should it be cause for such vitriolic debate?
The answer, as is often the case, lies in how the research is used. If men's rights groups use rates of women's violence to argue that abuse is simply a trumped-up charge by evil feminists bent on destroying men, they are perverting the work of scientists. Really, this is yet another area where men and feminists can forge common ground — by recognizing that damaging gender roles may convince men both that it's okay to be violent and that it's shameful to be a victim of violence. If it's true that women abuse their partners as often as men do, there's no reason for feminists to feel threatened by this information, just as there's no reason for men's rights groups to feel victorious. Domestic violence is a crime, not a political football, and we should be working together to stamp it out, not allowing it to divide us.
Image via JaneDoe.org.
Are Men The More Belligerent Sex? [Scientific American]
Related: "Men's Rights" Groups Have Become Frighteningly Effective [Double X]
Men's Rights [Forbes]