These days, everything we thought we were doing right about domestic violence seems wrong. Rihanna goes back to Chris Brown after he beats her up. A "Real Housewife" is arrested for hitting her boyfriend. A woman commits animal abuse on her boyfriend's dog.
As feminists, we have been taught to defend women, regardless of what they do, to be understanding of the reasons they act the way they do, and to get women help when they need it. We are taught to judge the men who hurt them harshly. Indeed, to shun them. We are also quick to reject those who do not conform to a "feminist mindset." All of these impulses are laudable, and as a feminist, I often agree with them. Sisterhood teaches us that women (and the few good men who adhere to our beliefs) should stick together because in a world of male power, we will always get the short end of the stick.
The problem with this one-dimensional thinking is that gender dynamics are no longer so black and white. The large majority of women aren't housewives at men's beck and call and men are no longer the sole breadwinners. Much has changed since the 1960's and the birth of feminism.
Prepare yourself for these recent research findings:
- Given the chance to escape their abusers, many women - at least one study reports 50 percent - return to their abusers after a shelter stay.
- Men and women abuse each other at similar rates, although men's injuries are often less serious and they are much more reticent to report them.
- Women frequently strike out at their partners, and not simply in self-defense; in 24% of violent American marriages, the woman is the only abuser.
- Studies of dating violence reveal a disturbing trend about girls' relationship violence: When only one partner is violent, it is more likely - some studies have shown twice as likely - to be the female partner.
- The popular conception of domestic violence in which the female victim lives in terror of her controlling abuser only represents a small fraction of American couples struggling with violence today.
- Violent partners often learn these patterns of relating in childhood from their mothers, fathers and siblings - in time, these experiences influence young people to become the next generation's victims and abusers.*
Many feminist scholars and policy makers have asserted that when approaching domestic violence, these now well-established research findings should be overlooked, repressed, or disbelieved. Perhaps even more disturbing is the public's ignorance of the changing and more nuanced reality of domestic violence. Consider these reactions to recent cases in the news:
When Rihanna returned to Chris Brown after his violent episode, the web was buzzing with comments like:
"I KNEW IT! I KNEW SHE COULDNT STAY AWAY. TALKING ABOUT BEING AN EXAMPLE FOR OTHER WOMEN.... GIVE ME A BREAK!"
"The first time she is a victim. If she decides to stay with him then she deserves every bruise and broken bone she gets."
When Kelly Bensimon, one of the Real Housewives of New York, was arrested for hitting Nick Stefanov, her former boyfriend, we heard:
"This must be a mistake, women don't hit men. Only men are the abusers. I don't believe this, women are not violent!!! No way."
"Come on people! How could this little chic smack up any dude? Well, according to the New York Daily News, Bensimon, 40 years old, punched her girlfriend boyfriend, Nicholas Stefanov in the face. He apparently called cops and reported the incident. What a wuss!"
And finally, when a Colorado woman was reported to have wrapped her boyfriend's dog in tape sticking it upside down on the refrigerator because he refused to get rid of it, the public exclaimed:
"We do not know what her ‘boyfriend' did to incite such a response. What therefore was this woman doing, if not making a call for help! She was calling out to all of us, as the only way to say, hey ‘I am abused, and I have no where to turn.'"
"Men are never abused by women. Never. The victim here is this poor girl, probably verbal abuse, sadness due to male dominance in our society. This was a call for help..."
Obviously some people reacted to these news stories in more reasoned and thoughtful ways than the comments presented here. But the overwhelming majority of people who weighed in seemed to reinforce the idea that the public is deeply misinformed about the true picture of domestic violence today.
Thankfully, this century's feminism provides us with an opportunity to think more broadly about gender dynamics - even domestic violence. After 20 years as a scholar and an advocate in the field, and having survived a violent relationship myself, my own observation is that as feminists we have been too slow to understand this problem fully and to address both partners in a humane and holistic way. We have missed an important opportunity to be helpful to women - and men - and it is time we correct this injustice.
Let me quickly follow for those who are panicking as they read this: As a lawyer, I am fully aware that there's a small minority of extremely violent men and an even smaller minority of women, who have to be imprisoned for the violence they inflict on others. But my claim, and now I speak as a therapist, is that if we base our system of response to violent couples on this small minority, we miss the overwhelming majority of cases in which violence, however deplorable, is an attempt to communicate within a troubled but continuing relationship.
If we start from the end of the spectrum that recognizes that most relationships can be improved even when violence is present - there is tremendous hope for the families plagued by these dynamics.
*Statistics drawn from the following sources: Straus (2008), Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz (2009), Tjaden and Thoennes (2000), Peled, et al (2000), Johnson (2008), and Mills (2008)