abuse: A two-way street
Warren Farrell, Ph.D
TODAY - WEDNESDAY, JUNE 29, 1994 - 15A
Farrell is author of The Myth of Male Power, Why Men Are The Way They
Are and The Liberated Man. He is a former director of the National Organization
for Women New York City chapter and has taught at the University of
do women instigate most domestic violence, but they hit men more frequently
and more severely.
Just as bad cases make bad law, so can celebrity cases reinforce old
myths. The biggest myth the O.J. Simpson case is likely to reinforce
is that domestic violence is a one-way street (male-to-female), and
its corollary, that male violence against women is an outgrowth of masculinity.
Given my background with the National Organization for Women, these
assumptions died hard. And an initial check of research in the United
States and Canada seemed to confirm them: More than 90% of domestic
violence reports to the police come from women, not men. But then the
picture became more complex:
About a dozen studies in the United States and Canada asked both sexes
how often they hit each other-, all of them found that women hit men
either more frequently or about as often as the reverse.
Two of the main studies -- by Suzanne Steinmetz, Murray Strauss and
Richard Gelles -- assumed men hit women more severely, so they divided
domestic violence into seven levels of severity. They were surprised
to discover that, overall, the more severe levels of violence were conducted
more by women against men.
A caveat: Men hitting women did more damage than the reverse. But this
caveat carried its own caveat: It was exactly because men's hits hurt
more that women resorted to more severe methods -- like tossing boiling
water or swinging a frying pan into his face. In the Census Bureau's
National Crime Survey, involving 60,000 households every six months
for 3-1/2 years, women reported using weapons against men three times
as often as men acknowledged using weapons against women. Overall, even
the women acknowledged they hit men more than men hit women.
The key issue, though, is who initiates this cycle of violence. Steinmetz,
Strauss and Gelles found to their initial surprise that women are more
likely to be the initiators. Why? In part, the belief that men can take
it -- they can therefore be a punching bag and not be expected to hit
I was still a bit incredulous. I asked thousands of men and women in
my workshops to count all the relationships in which they had hit their
partner before their partner had ever hit them, and vice versa. About
60% of the women acknowledged they had more often been the first to
strike a blow; among the men, about 90% felt their female partner had
been the first to strike a blow.
When 54% of women in lesbian relationships acknowledged violence in
their current relationship, vs. 11% of men and women acknowledging it
in any of their heterosexual relationships, I realized domestic violence
was not only a male-to-female phenomenon.
I still felt violence was an outgrowth of masculinity. And I was half
right. Male-to-male violence is so much an outgrowth of masculinity
we don't abhor it, we applaud it. But male-to-female violence marks
a man as a sissy. That is, when a man hurts a woman, it is seen as a
deviation from masculinity, not a sign of masculinity.
Why the dichotomy? The very purpose of male-to-male violence was to
train young men to die in war so everyone else might live -- even women
who were older. Its purpose was to protect women, not hurt women.
Why do we protest domestic violence against women and not even know
about violence against men? When it comes to protecting women, we unconsciously
expect men to be the disposable sex. That's why neither feminists nor
masculists object to male-only draft registration. That's why we jump
from Simpson's possible murder of his ex-wife to a condemnation of men
and their violence but fail to make the parallel logical leap from Ronald
Goldman's death, most probably defending Nicole Simpson, to thanking
men for their protector role.
Is it fair to blame only men for male-to-male violence? No. Male-to-male
violence is rewarded by female love. Historically, there are no legends
of the beautiful princess marrying the conscientious objector. Today,
when a football player loses his position on a football team, the cheerleader
cheers for his replaceable part. Women fell in love with An Officer
and a Gentleman, not The Private and the Pacifist.
Understanding that domestic violence is a two-way street has opened
my mind to understanding that domestic violence is a momentary act of
power designed to compensate for an experience of powerlessness. I don't
automatically discount O.J. Simpson's "suicide" note that he was a battered
man any more than I would discount that Lorena Bobbitt was a battered
woman. When we understand the powerlessness both sexes experience that
precedes violence, we will focus on communications skills that allow
both sexes to feel listened to and loved rather than frustrated and