The target of campaigns against domestic violence is not men, but intimate relationships, argues Tiffany Jenkins
Imagine the character Grace Mitchell in a popular soap opera losing control and beating her husband. Or think about a high-profile campaign based on the battery inflicted on a vulnerable new husband by his wife Paula Gascoigne. Could you see Ken Livingstone or Frank Dobson dominating the headlines with their stories of being on the receiving end of marital strikes? These images of violent women assaulting male partners would be out of place in the sea of abusive male characters we see on our screens, in the press or in court.
As domestic violence has moved to the fore of public concern, books and articles published in America and Britain argue that official bodies have suppressed the extent of women's violence against men. There are proliferating accounts of biting, stabbing, hitting and bitching by women. The men's movement is eager to show that women are more violent, and that they, the sufferers, are worse off: 'the real statistic is that a woman is assaulted by her mate every 18 seconds, while a man is similarly assaulted every 15 seconds!' (Philip W Cook, Abused Men: the hidden side of domestic violence)
Critics of domestic violence campaigns and policies argue that a 'gender bias' turns all interpretation of events against men and in favour of women, showing men as violent and women as vulnerable. This often seems to be the case. But does substituting a male gender bias for a female one tackle any of the problems with domestic violence campaigns?
A recent Home Office report states that '4.2 percent of women and 4.2 percent of men aged 16 to 59 said they had been assaulted by a current or former partner in the past year' (Domestic Violence: findings from a new British Crime Survey self-completion questionnaire). This has been hailed as proof that women are at least as violent as men. But when figures gathered in the same way, by the British Crime Survey (BCS), show women as victims of violence more than men, the research is criticised as flimsy. Those keen to show that men are victims too cannot have it both ways.
What both sides of the 'gender bias' fail to deal with is that the research is flawed - whichever sex seems to come out the more battered. BCS research is subjective and elastic, taking at face value what the respondents offer and reporting the perception of a crime. The reports are not subject to any corroboration or interrogation. In this survey, for example, 4.2 percent of men and women reported an 'assault' in the past year. Under the definition of assault supplied, no injury has to be demonstrated; it is a very low level of conflict that is reported. So this figure is not a reliable indicator for either sex of serious violence, and only shows the claims of individuals who say they have experienced average, if not harmonious, incidents.
The problem here is not a 'gender bias' so much as a grossly inflated representation of the extent of domestic violence. Domestic violence can now be defined as anything from a black eye (physical) to a sarcastic comment (emotional), and what constitutes domestic violence is seen not to be a particular incident, but how the 'victim' feels about it. The spotlight on domestic violence often leads to an attempt to highlight the scale of the problem - even if the figures come from self-reported studies like the BCS, which measure what people say they have experienced with no corroboration of events. This ever-expanding definition of domestic violence is highly problematic, but it is not something the 'masculinists' will criticise.
Instead there is a struggle over the moral highground of the assaulted. In the drive to show that the other sex is as capable of degraded behaviour, the important point about the rarity of domestic violence is lost. The desire to highlight female violence has encouraged tales of unpleasant bickering and arguing to be inflated to the status of serious assault. When every interaction between men and women is seen as potentially violent, the small number of cases of serious assault are undermined and obscured.
The consequence of domestic violence campaigns is an increased intervention by the authorities into intimate relationships. More than ever before, police and interagency partnerships examine interpersonal relationships, asking about abuse and violence. The push to find, counsel about and even prosecute anything remotely conflictual in a relationship means that both partners are treated with contempt. In a pilot project in Fulham called 'Standing Together', if the woman decides not to press charges against her partner the police take the case forward anyway, overriding her consent. Her 'voice' may have been hampered by her partner, but how is it heard if the police don't listen?
The ultimate target of campaigns against domestic violence is neither men nor women, but the private relationships couples have - which are being redefined as inherently vicious. As Straus and Gelles, two of the first writers to look into incidences of domestic violence by women, argued: 'the American family is more violent than any institution, with the sole exception of the military, and only in the time of war.' (Behind Closed Doors: violence in the American family) The struggle over which sex is more assaulted does not get us any closer to a balanced discussion of the problem, or even question anti-male sentiment. It simply increases distrust between the sexes, which does nobody any good.
Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000