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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.