Husband Battering: A Serious Problem
Billboards, radio, and TVads across the country proclaim that every fifteen seconds a women is beatenby a man. Violence against women is clearly a problem of national importance,but has anyone ever asked how often men are beaten by women? The unfortunatefact is that men are the victims of domestic violence at least as often aswomen are. While the very idea of men being beaten by their wives runs contraryto many of our deeply ingrained beliefs about men and women, female violenceagainst men is a well-documented phenomenon almost completely ignored by boththe media and society.
The first reaction uponhearing about the topic of battered men, for many people, is that of incredulity.Battered husbands are almost a topic for jokes – such as the cartoon image of awoman chasing her husband with a rolling pin. One researcher noted that wiveswere the perpetrators in 73% of the depiction of domestic violence in newspapercomics (Gelles 1974).
Battered husbands have historically been eitherignored or subjected to ridicule and abuse. In 18th-century France, a batteredhusband “was made to wear an outlandish outfit and ride backwards aroundthe village on a donkey” (Langley & Levy 1977). Even those of us wholike to consider ourselves liberated and open-minded often have a difficulttime even imagining that husband battering could take place. Although feminismhas opened many of our eyes about the existence of domestic violence, and newspaperreports often include incidents of abuse of wives, the abuse of husbands is ararely discussed phenomenon.
One reason researchers andothers had not chosen to investigate husband battering is because it wasthought to be a fairly rare occurrence. Police reports seemed to bear this out,with in some cases a ratio of 12 to 14.5 female victims to every one malevictim. But another reason is that because women were seen as weaker and morehelpless than men due to sex roles, and men on the other hand were seen as moresturdy and self-reliant, the study of abused husbands seemed relativelyunimportant (Steinmetz 1978).
In 1974, a study was done which compared male andfemale domestic violence. In that study, it was found that 47% of husbands hadused physical violence on their wives, and 33% of wives had used violence ontheir husbands (Gelles 1974). Half of the respondents in this study wereselected from either cases of domestic violence reported to the police, orthose identified by the social service agency.
Also in 1974, a study wasreleased showing that the number of murders of women by men (17.5% of totalhomicides) was about the same as the number of murders of men by women (16.4%of total homicides). This study, however, showed that men were three times aslikely to assault women as vice-versa. These statistics came from policerecords (Gelles 1974).
The murder statistic was no big news, by the way. In1958, an investigation of spousal homicide between 1948 and 1952 found that7.8% of murder victims were husbands murdered by wives, and 8% were wivesmurdered by husbands. More recently, in a study of spousal homicide in theperiod from 1976 to 1985, it was found that there was an overall ratio of1.3:1.0 of murdered wives to murdered husbands, and that “black husbandswere at greater risk of spouse homicide victimization than black wives or whitespouses of either sex” (Mercy & Saltzman 1989).
The subject of husbandbattering had finally been addressed, but not to the great satisfaction ofanyone. Although it had finally been shown that there was violence beingperpetrated both by wives and husbands, there was no information about relativefrequency or severity, or who initiated the abuse and who was acting inself-defense. Furthermore, some researchers became concerned that the use ofpolice or social services references in choosing subjects to study might bebiasing the results. In short, they recognized that battered husbands might benearly invisible next to their female counterparts (Farrell 1986).
In 1977, Suzanne Steinmetz released results fromseveral studies showing that the percentage of wives who have used physicalviolence is higher than the percentage of husbands, and that the wives’ averageviolence score tended to be higher, although men were somewhat more likely tocause greater injury. She also found that women were as likely as men toinitiate physical violence, and that they had similar motives for their violentacts. Steinmetz concluded that “the most unreported crime is not wifebeating — it’s husband beating” (Langley ; Levy 1977).
In 1979, a telephone survey was conducted in whichsubjects were asked about their experiences of domestic violence. 15.5% of themen and 11.3% of the women reported having hit their spouse; 18.6% of the menand 12.7% of the women reported having been hit by their spouse (Straus, Gelles; Steinmetz, 1980).
In 1980, a team ofresearchers, including Steinmetz, attempted to address some concerns about theearlier surveys. They created a nationally representative study of familyviolence and found that the total violence scores seemed to be about evenbetween husbands and wives, and that wives tended to be more abusive in almostall categories except pushing and shoving (Straus, Gelles ; Steinmetz,1980).
Strauss ; Gelles did afollow up survey in 1985, comparing their data to a 1975 survey. They foundthat in that decade, domestic violence against women dropped from 12.1% ofwomen to 11.3% while domestic violence against men rose from 11.6% to 12.1%. Therate 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 appearedin Social Work, the journal of the National Association of Social Workers onviolence in adolescent dating relationships, in which it was found that girlswere violent more frequently than boys (Steinmetz 1988).
Another report on premaritalviolence found that 34% of the males and 40% of the females reported engagingin some form of physical aggression against their mates in a year. 17% of womenand 7% of men reported engaging in severe physical aggression. 35% of the menand 30% of the women reported having been abused. Also in 1986, Marriage andDivorce Today, a newsletter for family therapy practitioners, reported on astudy done by Pillemer and Finkelhor of the Family Violence Research Laboratoryof the University of New Hampshire. The study based on interviews of over 2000elderly persons in the Boston metropolitan area, found that 3.2% of the elderlyhad been abused. 52% of the abuse victims were men (Steinmetz 1988).
Coramae Mann, acriminologist at Indiana University, studied the case records of all murderscommitted by women between 1979 and 1983 in six major U.S. cities. Her findingscontradicted commonly held ideas about women who murder, and she was criticizedby some people for this. “They would raise the question, ‘Well you havethese poor battered women.’ I said these weren’t poor battered women. Manyalready had violent criminal records. They weren’t weak or dependent. They wereangry.” (Mercy ; Saltzman 1989)
Strauss ; Gellescommented in their 1986 report that “violence by wives has not been anobject of public concern… In fact, our 1975 study was criticized forpresenting statistics on violence by wives.” Yet domestic violence is anissue framed in the media and in the political arena as one of maleperpetrators and female victims. Violence in gay and lesbian relationships israrely discussed, and violence against men in heterosexual relationships lessso.
Legislation about domestic violence is alwaysorientated toward the female victim. For instance, in 1991, Senator JosephBiden again introduced the “Violence Against Women Act” which at thiswriting has passed the senate Judiciary Committee. It has a section called”Safe homes for Women” which specifically allocates funds to”women’s” shelters (Rooke 1991).
Also note actions like that of Ohio governor RichardF. Celeste who granted clemency to 25 women who were in prison for murderingtheir husbands. The reason he gave for this was the “Battered WomanSyndrome” which, obviously, no man can claim as his. There is very littleconcern shown either for the idea of making spousal abuse a capital crime withthe victim as extra-judicial executioner, nor for the idea that perhaps some ofthe men who murder their spouses might be suffering from an analogous”Battered Man Syndrome.” The only shelter for battered men in theentire state of California is run by Community United Against Violence (CUAV)in San Francisco, an organization dealing exclusively with gay men. Evenstraight men that are brave enough to risk the stigma of admittingvictimization are unlikely to turn to a group of gay men for support (Rooke1991).
In some other states,attempts are being made to help abused men. In St. Paul Minnesota, GeorgeGilliland, Sr. the director of the Domestic Rights Coalition, has been tryingto set up a shelter for battered men for a while, although without muchsuccess. Gilliland, whose wife hit him in the head with a board with a nail init, missing his eye by a fraction of an inch, attributes part of the delay toefforts by battered womens groups and other womens organizations to block theproject. In San Luis Obispo, California, David Gross is organizing the AllenWells Memorial Fund for Battered Husbands. Mr. Wells was a battered man whocould not find help and finally committed suicide after losing his children tohis violent wife in a custody battle. Women are still most likely to getphysical custody of children in divorce cases, leading to another reason menare afraid to leave their abusive wives (Rooke 1991).
In conclusion, I think thathusband battering is a serious problem, comparable to the problem of wifebattering. Even if the statistics collected in the last several years arecompletely wrong and only one in 14 victims of spousal abuse are men, these aremen who are hurting and need services that are currently not available.
There is such a strongstigma against being a battered man, carried over from mid-evil times when thebattered man was considered the guilty party, that special attention should bepaid to reaching out to these victims. Simply opening up “Women’sShelters” to men is not enough.
The victims and theperpetrators of domestic violence women and men have been suffering for toolong. As the sharp distinctions between traditional mens and womens rolescontinue to blur, women are more frequently behaving in ways once thought(often erroneously) to be the exclusive province of men. Many experts feel thatthe problem of female-initiated violence must be exposed, legitimized, andaddressed by the media, the mental health and law-enforcement communities, andthe Legislature (Steinmetz 1988).
Resources and facilities to combatdomestic violence are, unfortunately, in short supply due to cutbacks in almostall social services. Perhaps some battered womens groups fear that if societyrecognizes that men are victims too, what little money is available will bediverted. But acknowledging mens victimization in no way involves denying thatwomen are victims. Womens groups that help battered women could also helpbattered men, while mens groups that counsel abusive men could make theirexpertise available to violent women as well.
Continuing to portrayspousal violence solely as a womens issue is not only wrong its alsocounterproductive. And encouraging such unnecessary fragmentation anddivisiveness will ultimately do more harm than good. No one has, or shouldhave, a control on pain and suffering. But until society as a whole confrontsits deeply embedded stereotypes and recognizes all the victims of domesticviolence, we will never be able to solve the problem. Domestic violence is aneither a male or a female issue its simply a human issue.
Farrell, W. (1986). Why men are the way they are.New York: McGraw-Hill.
Gelles, R. (1974). The violent home: a study ofphysical aggression between husbands
and wives. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Langley, R., Levy, R. (1977). Wife beating: thesilent crisis. New York: Pocket Books.
Mercy, J., Saltzman, L. (1989, May) Fatal violenceamong spouses in the United States,
1976-85 American Journal of Public Health,79, 595-599.