Crimes of Violence

Analysis of high-profile crimes of violence of psychological significance

Women’s Shelters and Domestic Violence Services Save the Lives of Men

Find out how women's shelters are saving men's lives

In this day and age of threatened budget cuts for all sorts of public health services, we need to take a look at the social benefits of such services. Domestic violence services provide a safe space for women and their children who have had to flee from a frightening and dangerous situation. While there the women receive counseling and advice toward getting the help they need and establishing a safety plan. In the old days, when there was no crisis line to call, some women shot and killed their husbands, typically when they were asleep or incapacitated by drink.

But men too benefit from the very domestic services that rescue their wives and girlfriends from their violence. Let us look at the statistics and see who is murdering whom. Going back to the 1970s we learn that the domestic homicide rates in the U.S. were about the same for men and for women, around 1,000 such killings per year.

Coming to today, the latest figures available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics provide a comparison of intimate homicide rates for 2005 compared with 1976. Here is the official breakdown for 2005: 329 males and 1,181 females were killed in that year by their intimate partners. Clearly men are much more likely to kill their partners than women are to kill theirs. We know from other research that same-sex homicide is predominantly male, a fact of some significance in the statistical breakdown because some of the male intimate homicide victims are not killed by women at all but by their male partners.

During this period, the African American domestic homicide rate, which had been quite high, dropped by 83% for male victims and 52% for female victims. White women, however, did not experience a comparable decline in their victimization rate. This steep decline in African American intimate homicide rate parallels the decline in the total homicide rate for blacks is consistent with a reduction in the use of crack cocaine in the inner city.

Returning to the discrepancy between the decline in the rates of female-on-male domestic homicide and the male-on-female rates, Statistics Canada (1998, 2005, 2010), and other Canadian sources reveal the same trend has occurred in Canada since the years that the women's movement took shape. For the year 2009, for example, three times as many Canadian women were killed by spouses and ex-spouses as were men.

So what is the explanation for this striking decline in women killing their partners? Researchers including myself attribute the decline to the fact that women who often killed out of fear for their lives now had an alternative avenue of escape thanks to the availability of women's hot lines and domestic violence services, including shelters. (Keep in mind that women who kill their partners are generally battered women, whereas men who kill are often striking out due to a break-up or threatened break-up.)

"Exposure reduction theory" is the term coined by Wells and DeLeon-Granados in a 2004 article to explain this phenomenon of the significant decline in male homicides by their partners. This theory holds that if a woman can escape from a dangerous battering situation, she will do so, and that if she resorts to using lethal partner violence, it is most likely a protective mechanism. In any case, it is a paradox, rarely realized that the proliferation of domestic violence prevention for which women and victims' advocates have fought so hard is saving the lives of battering men more than of battered women. Many of the female victims who obtain help from domestic violence services are eventually stalked and killed.

Over the years the murder rate has gone down for both genders, but as I just discovered in checking the FBI's Uniform Crime Report for 2009, the domestic homicide rate of female victims appears to be climbing back up. For the year 2008, the death toll for wives and girlfriends went from 1,014 the previous year to 1069. In 2009, the number rose somewhat to 1,081. During this time there were only 279 homicides of husbands and boyfriends. Possibly the increase in the male unemployment rates during this period is a factor in this increase in female partner homicide. Support for this argument comes from the charts provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics which show that the murder rate for females living in low income households is well over 10 times that for women living in high income households. So we can conclude that socio-economic status is clearly a correlate of the male-on-female killings. In contrast, the economic factor is less striking in the female-on-male intimate homicide rates. We should also consider the fact that the recent rise in the numbers of murder-suicides and whole family slaughters is correlated with the high unemployment rates for men.

In conclusion, this article supports the argument that greater funding for domestic violence services is crucial in saving lives, but the lives saved are more often those of men than of the women they were designed to help. We need to greatly increase the funding for batterer intervention services and to ensure that the treatment provided is based on the best evidence-informed practices.

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Katherine van Wormer, M.S.S.W., Ph.D., is the author or co-author of 14 books on various aspects of human behavior.

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