Domestic Violence-Time For a Change

Professor Don Dutton

 15th February 2010

 Don Dutton

 What do Chris Brown, Ike Turner, and OJ Simpson have in common? They are all famous men who beat their wives. Chris Brown's case got maximum exposure on Oprah, Ike Turner was vilified in a movie, OJ got all day/every day coverage at his murder trial. Our ability to remember them as examples of "wife beaters" is called the availability heuristic- we develop these associations largely from high profile media events. Since an availability heuristic- the examples of domestic violence we can call to mind-shapes our beliefs and judgments about an issue like domestic violence, the question is raised whether these media examples are representative of typical domestic violence. The answer is that they are not. They mis- represent domestic violence in three ways by making the perpetrators appear to always be black, male and acting alone.


 Reality bites- when large sample victim surveys that ask about domestic violence are done, a very different picture emerges. In the first place, domestic violence is not more common in black relationships than white or other racial groups. Perhaps more surprisingly, the stereotype of the male as a bully and the female as hapless victim is not supported by the data. Surveys from 1989 to 2007 keep finding the same thing; the most common form of domestic violence is two -way- both partners assault each other  at about the same level of severity. Women are hurt somewhat more but only somewhat- men get hurt too for the obvious reason that everyday weapons get used, knives, frying pans, and boiling water, amongst other things.


 Here's another big surprise- "husband battering" (where the woman used severe violence against a non-violent man) is about three times more common as wife battering. A recent large sample survey by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta found this but it had been found before and Canadian surveys by Stats Can also find a relative equality in domestic violence perpetration. The media does treat violence towards men differently- the killing of NFL Quarterback Steve MacNair by his girlfriend was hardly covered at all, same with the death of Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry, the killing of London Ontario Police Detective Dave Lucio by his girlfriend Kelly Johnson (also a police officer) was similarly brushed aside.


The most famous example of media misandry was Wayne Bobbit whose wife castrated him. He became a running joke for late night comedians. Imagine this happening with the genders reversed. Controlled studies find that the same action is viewed differently by research subjects when the genders of the perpetrator and victim are varied. If a man does it (for example- asks his wife where she has been) it abuse or control. If a woman does it it's not. When the first shelter for battered men was set up in New Hampshire, the men reported that when they had called local shelters to ask for help they were told that they were the real batterers. All of these men had been injured. These results are found whether the research subjects are the general public or professional psychologists. When a spousal homicide occurs, the media asks the head of a local shelter why it happens. She will inevitably describe it as another example of violence towards women.


 When Marc Lepine killed women in a mass shooting in Montreal, it was presented as an example of male violence towards women. When Denis Lortie shot up the Quebec Assembly the year before, he was simply a madman. The truth is, they were both psychotic. The gender paradigm that shapes our views on domestic violence is pervasive and affects everything from police responses to custody decisions in family court. The problem is the scientific data do not support these beliefs- they were just a political theory that was wrong when it was written and is even more askew in the present. Time for a change!


Professor Don Dutton

University of British Columbia