A Hidden Side of Domestic Violence

In a recent podcast called “Save Me From Myself,” which is about the use of commitment devices, we discussed one such measure that’s intended to protect victims of domestic violence. It featured an interview with Brown economist Anna Aizer, co-author of this paper on the topic. A listener named Jay Turley wrote in:

This episode was very interesting, as usual. But the whole “domestic violence” section really irritated me.

As a male victim of domestic violence from a woman, I found it surprising that people such as yourselves completely bought into and promoted the now-disproved tenet that domestic violence equals male-on-female violence.

There’s a ton of research data on this subject that has come out in the last decade-plus, and I’m sure if you are interested you can track it down with little effort. Even the Department of Justice’s own yearly summaries clearly show that there is a small percentage – not zero – of reported female on male violence.
But here’s one of those nuggets of fact that you guys like to throw into your stories to make one think:

Out of the three basic dyadic sexual/romantic relationships — male-female, male-male, and female-female — which one has the lowest incidence of domestic violence? Male-male. Lesbian relationships experience domestic violence on par with male-female relationships. 

Additionally, though it’s not totally proven, initial results suggest that about half of all domestic violence is instigated by women. The classic sexist feminist view is that it’s to get the beating over with — to “puncture the balloon” before it gets too big.

But just like the propaganda you were espousing on this episode, it’s not true. Many times it’s because the female is the abuser. Anyway, I’m sure that if you decide to actually take a look at the data, you will find — at a minimum — that domestic violence is a control and power problem that is not exclusive to the male gender.

Jay is correct in that our episode might give one the impression that domestic violence is exclusively a male-on-female problem; and he is of course correct that both men and women can be abused, and that both women and men can be abusers. So what does the distribution really look like?

Studies have consistently found that the majority of domestic violence victims are female, and the majority of perpetrators are male. According to the CDC’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, one in four women and one in seven men have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner. 

Female victims often experience domestic violence in multiple forms, including physical violence, rape, and stalking. The vast majority of male victims, meanwhile, experience physical violence only. And the impact of such abuse is more severe for women: 81 percent of women who experienced rape, stalking, or physical violence reported significant short- or long-term impacts such as injury or PTSD symptoms, compared with 35 percent of men. 

Domestic violence is of course not limited to heterosexual relationships either. But violence among same-sex couples is both under-reported and under-studied. Many surveys do not report the gender of the perpetrator or the sexual orientation of the victim, and no major recent national studies examine physical violence among same-sex couples.

The landmark National Violence Against Women survey, conducted in 1995-1996, does provide some data. It found that women with male partners experience the highest levels of violence (20.3 percent), followed by men with male partners (15.4 percent), women with female partners (11.4 percent), and, finally, men with female partners (7.7 percent).

A few smaller studies, however, provide conflicting data (see herehere, and here). And data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization survey suggests that the majority of victimization for both women and men happens at the hands of an opposite-sex partner.

Regardless, it is true that male victims of domestic violence often have less access to support groups and resources like shelters — and, considering that the standard definition of domestic violence may not include them, may be less likely to report.

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  1. BL1Y says:

    If one member of a couple verbally or psychologically abuses the other, and that other responds with physical abuse, who is counted as the instigator and who is counted as the victim?

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    • BrianK says:

      Very well written reply, freakonomics. I really appreciate you taking the time to research the issue and link to articles backing up your claim. As the spouse of someone who works to educate the public on all the aspects of domestic violence and sexual assault, it’s nice to see such a thorough, brief summarization of the situation.

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    • Nick says:

      This is an excellent point/question. If abuse is the cause of pain, then both attacks are immoral, though physical abuse is a more overall abusive, as it causes both physical and mental pain. Either way, abuse, whether physical or emotional, begets abuse; to recover (ie leave or repair the relationship), that cycle must stop.

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    • Jake says:

      In the US, there is something called the “predominant” aggressor that’s been in place cince VAWA was passed. The predominant aggressor is determined by things like physical size, the amount of fear they can instill in their partner, actual injuries suffered, etc. in addition to instigating. In all but a few rare cases, the predominant aggressor is determined to be the male. If a woman psychologically abuses a man and he responds with force, criteria like injuries, fear, size, etc. will make him the predominant aggressor. If it’s the other way around, the man could still be considered the predominant aggressor if he is large, threatening, yells loudly, or if he supposedly exhibits other types of controlling behavior.

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      • BL1Y says:

        Given that the ability to instill fear is going to mostly be a product of physical size and strength, and size and strength are strongly correlated with gender, the “predominant aggressor” principle really looks just like a way of defining abuse as male-on-female.

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  2. Ruth says:

    Thank you for having an open discussion about this topic – which is often brushed over or ignored completely. Until this is treated as a community problem, not an issue to be dealt with in private, victims will continue to suffer – regardless of gender, sexual orientation, economic status, immigration status, etc.

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  3. BeenThere says:

    I’ve been there.
    My wife was suffering from a terrible post-partum depression and she attempted to physically hurt me many times, in addition to daily verbal abuse. I’m bigger and stronger than her, but how do you deal with a person that tries to punch or kick you like a madman, and you know that if she gets a smallest bruise herself, she would probably file domestic abuse charges. All I could do is to block the blows, or grab and hold her until she calms down.
    I never called the cops – I was afraid that they would never belive me, especially if my wife claims that I’m the abuser (and she threatened that she would).
    I probably should have ended the marriage, but I didn’t want to see my child every other weekend. I’m sure that California family court in its infinite wisdom would have granted my wife near full custody, even despite her attempts to hurt our child (I had to physically restrain her several times).
    Fortunately, eventually I convinced her to talk to a shrink. Therapy and medication have helped her a lot and things are MUCH better now.

    So I’m wondering, how many husbands are afraid to call the cops, because they are afraid that nobody would believe them?

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    • MooCow says:

      I have been in EXACTLY the same position. When my daughter was born my wife went into a SEVERE postpartum that lasted 2 years. Massive depressions, many days I had to either leave work early or not go at all because she refused to get out of bed. I pulled her out of the bathtub one night after she took too many pills and almost drowned. And she would get screaming angry at me for the slightest thing.

      And one particularly bad night when I asked if she wanted to go to the hospital she said “I’ve you put me in the hospital I’ll … I’ll .. I tell them that you touched our daughter sexually” to which I responded “But I’ve never! I would never!” and her response was “Yeah, but your a man, who do you think they would believe”.

      So yes I know EXACTLY how you feel. Knowing that at her whim I could not only be arrested for something I didn’t do, but loose access to my child. I stayed despite desperately wanting to leave after consulting with multiple lawyers who all basically told me to assume I would be lucky to get every other weekend with my daughter.

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      • Here too says:

        Been there, and MooCow…. I’ve been in a similar situation myself and know exactly how you feel. A man has little recourse to assistance, because it will more than likely backfire and make things much worst. I would hazard a guess that the incidence of non-reporting is a lot higher among men.

        So, the question becomes, what good are the statistics when a whole lot of stuff goes unreported and unadmitted to by anyone? And, if you draw conclusions from incorrect data, your conclusions can only be wrong.

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      • Survivor says:

        My ex used to scream at me day and night for years before she started to up it to the level of physical abuse. After awhile I started using my cell phone as a shield in that I’d say if she laid a hand on me I’d call the police. It wasn’t too long before she started saying “Who do you think they’ll believe? You know if you dial that phone you’re the one going to jail.” The few times I started dialing she just took the phone from me and threw it at the wall. I finally moved out when she was on a business trip. We’ve been apart now for nearly 3 years and I still have nightmares of her screaming at me and just feeling powerless to stop it. Never called the police once because I knew she was right.

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      • Addison says:

        What you could do if this is happening is set up an audio recorder in the kitchen. Record all of her lies as evidence. This would work if it is something that is happening regularly.

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      • Jason says:

        @Addison Unfortunately this is illegal in California (and 11 other states). If my wife were threatening to make false allegations of sexual assault against me though, I’d probably still do it though, as recording is unlikely to get you any jail time and definitely won’t put you on a permanent sex-offenders list.

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      • Angela Salter says:

        My son is going through this at present, and I have no idea how to help. She has just had a daughter by him, and has two older children by a previous marriage. She is physically and verbally violent to him, and calls the child, which she is breast feeding “the parasite”. Mothers in law have a bad name for interfering in these cases, and I am trying to keep a relationship with her, so I dont want to blow it. My son would never hit her back, and it is the verbals that upset him more anyway. I had to leave him last night reduced to tears. He is her third long term partner. All I can do is pray to a God I no longer am sure cares. We have been shocked and horrified by her behaviour, which is so far from anything we have experienced before from any woman, and are seriously worried for my sons safety, and that of the child. We need help, but no one believes you when its the woman being violent.

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      • BeenThere says:

        Most likely she is going through a post-partum depression. She needs to talk to a psychiatrist as soon as possible, but it might be difficult to convience her that she needs help. She likely sees others as a source of her bad mood – the baby or her husband. But it’s worth trying.

        But most importantly you need to explain your son that, as paradoxically as it sounds, it’s not his wife fault. She is doing all these terrible things not because she is a bad person, but because she is sick. Understanding that helped me get throught this. I realized that it was pointless to be upset with my wife, pointless to take all these attacks personally. It didn’t make the abuse stop, but it helped me cope with it.

        Best of luck to you.
        I sincerely hope that her post-partum will go away soon…

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    • bob says:

      Same story with me…she attacked me for 4 years after our child was born. I finally had her arrested and pressed charges. best thing i could have done. took 4 years of physical abuse. Men are victims of this crime as well as woman. she would not go to a shrink.

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    • AmyInNH says:

      Even as a young teenager, I was well aware that if I raised a hand to protect myself, and anything happened to the blind man beating me, I am by default in court no victim.

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  4. Charles says:

    I have known 5 men arrested for domestic violence. The first was beaten with an iron and arrested when the police arrived. The judge released him and issued an warrent for his wife that morning, the second was arrested by base police when his wife through a toaster at his head and when it bounced off him it hit her in the shoulder. He spent 6 mos. in the brig before he and his wife could convince the Navy to drop the charges. Third, a fellow sailor was arguing with his wife when base police arrived, she was hitting him with an aluuminum frying pan to try and prevent him from opening the door for them. When he finaly got the door open she claimed she was defending herself and he was arrested. It took three months for him to get custody of his daughter and have his wife properly charged. The fourth was an alcoholic who, in response to being called a drunk by his wife called her a cunt. She beat him unconsious with a rum bottle then called the police. When they arrived she showed them her badge and had him arrested. A year later they reconciled but to the best of my knowledge he is still a level 5 sex offender for using sexual language during the altercation. The fifth kicked in the door to his girlfriend’s appartment and is just scum.

    None of those men (excluding the scum) reported the emotional and physical abuse they had experienced at the hands of the women in there lives until after they were charged.

    The standard narrative must be rejected until more analysis and indepth study is given to the issue.

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  5. adam says:

    “The vast majority of male victims, meanwhile, experience physical violence only.”

    aside from the likely chronic under reporting of F violence against M, this statement seems particularly apologist of the original article’s bias. has the author never heard of emotional and psychological abuse? is this something which men are also spared from? I know for a fact we are not. and why is the impact worse for women? hello?

    apart from institutionalised abuse of women enshrined in doctrines and cultures around the world (which also damages men I think), I would be surprised to find that, taking all forms of abuse together, there is significant difference between the sexes.

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    • Travis says:

      I think what you say is generally true, but I doubt that sexual violence, such as rape, is remotely as prevalent for Female on Male than the opposite. That isn’t trying to be apologist, but I simply doubt it happens very often.

      On the other hand, if we are talking about psychological, verbal or emotional violence or abuse, I have a feeling it would probably be a fairly even split between male and female.

      Reporting is a huge issue too, how do you classify a “victim?” In the absolute sense, anyone who suffers is a victim, but quantifying victims generally means that the victim has to come forward to some individual, entity or group which makes it very difficult to classify male victims of domestic violence.

      One of the biggest things is that men simply don’t have access to not only the support networks that women have, but the general institutions such as police and the legal system. It almost feels as if the pendulum has swung so far in defense of women that male victims of physical violence can’t defend themselves, lest they be charged themselves with domestic violence, and they literally have no institution to go to for help.

      It’s kind of bleak, and I think it’s a subject that deserves more research.

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      • adam says:

        “I doubt that sexual violence, such as rape, is remotely as prevalent for Female on Male than the opposite. That isn’t trying to be apologist, but I simply doubt it happens very often.”

        agreed – but it’s not relevant to the issue of violence in relationships. i include psychological and emotional abuse within the term violence, but that’s just my preference, as a relationship therapist.

        rape is a specific and different kind of abuse from physical violence. it means nonconsensual sex, whether or not violence accompanies it. in citing the relative incidence between men and women, all you’re doing is making the rather uncontroversial observation that men are physiologically and hormonally predisposed towards penetration, women towards being penetrated, and that forced sex is more likely to be initiated where physical strength permits it.

        i have personally observed many women (of a range of feminist sensibilities) hiding behind the western cultural myth that the fair sex is innocent of abuse – after all, they’re smaller, weaker, and kinder, right? they generally do not like being called on their own violence against their partners, male or female.

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      • Egalitarian says:

        “I doubt that sexual violence, such as rape, is remotely as prevalent for Female on Male than the opposite. That isn’t trying to be apologist, but I simply doubt it happens very often.”

        It’s actually somewhat common if you properly define rape. According to the CDC survey cited in the article, 4.8% of all men have been “made to penetrate” and 79.2% of the perpetrators were women. Examples of “made to penetrate” are: a woman who has sex with a man who is passed-out drunk, or a woman who forces a man to have sex with her through violence or threats of violence. There is some confusion due to the fact that their definition of rape excluded “made to penetrate” and only included men who had been penetrated. That was far less common (1.4% of men) and was mostly perpetrated by men. However, if you include “made to penetrate” as rape, which you should, since it is forced sex, women are a significant percentage of rapists, and the majority of male rape victims were raped by women. Here are direct quotes from the report:

        “Approximately 1 in 21 men (4.8%) reported that they were made to penetrate someone else during their lifetime”

        “For three of the other forms of sexual violence, a majority of male victims reported only female perpetrators: being made to penetrate (79.2%), sexual coercion (83.6%), and unwanted sexual contact (53.1%).”

        The above, lifetime stats do show a lower percentage of male victims (up to 6.2% of all men) than female victims (18.3% of all women) although this is far more than commonly believed. However, if you look at the report’s stats for the past 12 months, just as many number of men have been “forced to penetrate” as women were raped, meaning that if you properly define “made to penetrate” as rape, men were raped as often as women.

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    • R says:

      A huge part of the problem is that emotional abuse, especially when performed by women, is seen (to an extent) as socially acceptable. This is true of other forms of abuse as well (how cliche is it on TV for a woman to smack a man? Would the audience respond the same way if the roles were reversed?), but more so for emotional abuse, since it’s considered ‘normal’ among women.

      Another part is that the vast majority of people don’t recognize emotional abuse as abuse, even though it’s effectively bullying with an intent to cause (psychiatric) harm. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the victims didn’t even know they were being abused in this manner. (Emotional abuse often results in low self-worth, so often the victims don’t realise that they deserve better.)

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    • AmyInNH says:

      And don’t we just love the use of the word only. Violence against men is “only”.

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  6. Tom Stovall says:

    I suspect – albeit strongly – that the data supporting the assertion that “impact of … abuse is more severe for women” are significantly skewed by men’s reticence to “talk about it”. Psych books galore have long called out how males and females deal differently with trauma.

    Are there studies that attempt to normalize this effect?

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  7. Scott says:

    It is curious that economists would overlook the scale of economic violence that women inflict on men in balance of the physical violence in the other direction. Who among us doesn’t know a woman who “cleaned out the bank accounts” as a result of a real or imagined transgression, a husband dispossessed of everything by a sexist court ruling in a divorce case, or the endless jokes dating into antiquity equating expensive gifts with domestic peace?

    While the economic inequality of women and men in the workplace is both real and severe, and the scale of economic oppression in many domestic situations is also bad, this is seldom mentioned or considered.

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  8. twobeef says:

    Kudos to the authors for looking for the facts on this one. It is a serious issue and should be taken seriously, even if it occurs on a lesser scale than abuse towards women. It’s definitely not the same issue, though, in that there’s rarely a symmetry of power there. In the podcast, you brought up allows that prevented women from changing their minds when charging a partner when abuse, in that they might otherwise decide to go back to the partner later and allow the abuse to continue. With abuse towards men, though, the issue is more likely that they don’t report the abuse to begin with.

    Whatever the validity of the case, trying to get your wife taken to jail makes you look like a bully or a sissy. On top of that, men are more likely to be the breadwinners of the family. In a situation where the wife doesn’t work, she might sue for alimony if she accuses her husband and ends the marriage, but an abused husband might withhold his charge for not wanting to put his unemployed wife out on the street without a job.

    Sadly, there’s a downside to discussing this sort of thing on the internet in that it provokes a certain audience, much the same way that any article about Ron Paul will. The comments tend to get drowned in supporters of “men’s rights” groups, who steer the discussion towards the tyranny of feminism and the unfairness of the world toward the married man, much as it appears the letter-writer was trying to suss out. Try to ignore the hyperbole and stick to the facts.

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