Skip to main content

“Domestic violence” and the “gender (a)symmetry” question

Every few years, and despite evidence to the contrary, there are claims of gender symmetry in domestic violence (that women are just as violent to men, as men to women). These claims have appeared in many countries, including in Finland in recent years. They largely draw upon the simple quantification of certain acts of assault. However, seen in an international perspective, these claims are less convincing.

A few years ago, in response to such claims from a mix of journalists and men’s groups, the Irish Government commissioned Professor Michael Kimmel, the leading US sociologist, to produce a meta-review of what was behind the newspaper headlines. In his review of relevant international studies, he concludes that these claims are based upon “misreporting, misinterpretations and misunderstandings” of data or narrowly defined studies. He notes how those who report that “husband abuse” is as common as “wife abuse” overlook two key facts. First, the greater average size and strength of men and greater aggressiveness means that a man’s punch or other violence will probably produce more pain, injury and harm than that by a woman. Second, nearly three-quarters of the violence by women is done in self-defence.

It is of course possible that Finland is different to most of the rest of the world in this respect, but I doubt it. This is especially so with the high figures of violence from men, by western European comparison, reported in Finnish national surveys of women’s experiences of violence conducted by Drs Markku Heiskanen and Minna Piispa.

To address these issues raises complex questions of how to research violence and how to measure what counts as violence, damage done, and effects of violence. This is not so easy as counting numbers of times people hit or are hit. These questions have preoccupied researchers internationally for over 30 years. The most widely used research measures, the Conflicts Tactics Scale (CTS) in a number of versions, have been shown to be flawed and yet continue to be used – partly because of their relative simplicity, partly for convenience, partly for comparability with earlier studies. Some problems with CTS are clear, such as, it does not include sexual coercion, sexual assault, violence by or to ex-partners, or homicide; some are more technical and methodological.

There are several further important problems in researching and measuring violence. First, not all ‘violence’, or violation that is experienced as intensely violating, is directly physical; second, once violence, especially heavy violence, has been done, there may be “no need” to do it again to obtain the desired result – a threatening look or a raised finger may be enough; third, violence is not a ‘thing’ that happens separate from other everyday activities, such as cooking, housework, childcare, watching TV, sex, partying; and fourth, violence and the experience of violence accumulates and often escalates, so that the meaning of specific acts of violence is made in the context of previous violence, threats of violence, as well as future expected, likely or potential violence. For these reasons, long-term or life story accounts of the experiences of those suffering violence are particularly important. Such methods show the complex interconnections of physical and non-physical violence, presence of violence through threats, interweaving of violence and everyday life, and accumulations of violence over time. Also both men and women may, for different reasons, underestimate men’s violence to women.

Thus, in understanding violence and processes of violence, the most typical form of adult violence within families, households, co-habiting, intimate relationships, and their break-up, remains men’s violence to women and children. Men perpetrate most domestic violence, especially planned, repeated, heavy, physically damaging, non-defensive, non-retaliatory, sexual and multiple forms of violence. The term, ‘men’s violence to known women’, more accurately describes men’s violence to wives, girlfriends, women partners, mothers, women family members, ex-partners, close women friends, neighbours and associates. Naming violence as predominantly men’s is crucial in developing policy and the implementation of effective practice measures.

Men’s ‘domestic violence’ also includes men’s violence to and abuse of children. The connections with men’s violence to known women are many. For example, men’s violence to women and mothers can be accompanied by violence to children, at the same or different times. Witnessing violence both by and to parents can also be scary and violating for children. Abuse of children can be used to also abuse women or children can be used to gain access to women in order to abuse her further. Such links have been demonstrated internationally by many leading international researchers on violence, for example, Professors Liz Kelly and Audrey Mullender.

At the same time, men can be and are violent or abusive to other known adult men, in families, households and close relationships, for example, adult sons to fathers or vice versa, or in gay relationships. Given much legislation, policies and services focus on heterosexual relationships, ‘domestic violence’ in same-sex relationships may be underreported. Gendering policies on ‘domestic violence’ would enhance the debate on, and responses to, gender, sexualities and violence. The UK National Association for Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes (called “Respect”) statement of principles states: “Violence within same sex relationships or from women to men is neither the same as - nor symmetrically opposite to - men’s violence to women.”

Michael Kimmel in his meta-review concludes that violence that is instrumental in the maintenance of control - the more systematic, persistent, and injurious type of violence - is overwhelmingly perpetuated by men, with rates captured best by crime victimization studies. More than 90% of this violence is perpetrated by men. When sexual violence and violence by ex-spouses are considered, the evidence is overwhelming that of gender asymmetry.

Jeff Hearn
Hearn is an internationally renowned and esteemed researcher who has made his mark in the field of gender studies. He has been developing the principles and theoretical basis of critical studies on men and he has had a lasting effect on this field of studies both internationally and in Finland. Hearn has taught and lectured at various universities in Europe, Africa, Australia and North America. At the moment he holds a professorship at the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki. He has published many books on gender and violence and is a member of the Board of Profeministimiehet. He received the "A Man's Work" award in 2009.

In particular, I liked when

In particular, I liked when Kimmel referenced Strauss, 1999 and the idea that approaches to violence should be two-fold, one focusing on violence leading to injury, and which underpin support for victims and programs for perpetrators, and those that are preventative, in that they focus on the act of assault, often not involving injury, but which represents conflict in relationships that presumably involves a great many couples. The later Strauss refers to as 'primary prevention'.

It is well known that those that push for a gender symmetry view of violence also push a political agenda that favours men's rights and seeks to oppose any kind of support for 'feminist' causes. The fact that domestic violence only came to light through the efforts of feminists should not be forgotten. Kimmel mentions that compassion for those that are victims of violence should not be zero-sum, that male victims deserve our sympathy and support, but not at the expense of support for the far greater number of women victims or at the expense of understanding that men use violence in a quite different way to women, to control and to terrorise. Prevention is surely better than 'treatment', but likewise shouldn't come at the expense of treatment.

I'm also surprised that for such an important subject, most of the quoted material dates to the 1990s and earlier.

Keep up the good work PFM.