Feminist Theory Of Violence Doesn't Stack Up To The Facts

A PAGE-ONE headline in the Los Angeles Times announces "A New Side to Domestic Violence." This "new side," apparently quite puzzling to the reporter, is that under mandatory-arrest laws, a large number of women are now being arrested after domestic battles. In Los Angeles, arrests of women in such cases have almost quadrupled in eight years. In Wisconsin, the number of abusive men referred by the courts for counseling has doubled since 1989, while the number of abusive women referred for counseling increased twelvefold.

You could sense that the reporter was grappling with a baffling question: How is it that laws intended to protect women are producing so many arrests of women themselves? Luckily, he was able to come up with three explanations: a backlash against women, spiteful action by cops who resent mandatory-arrest laws, and outright male trickery.

Under the heading of trickery came the tales of a man who smashed himself over the head with a brick and blamed his wife; a man who bloodied himself by scratching his own ear; and a man, born with an odd bump on his head, who repeatedly showed the bump to police and got his wife arrested three times.

There is another explanation, one that has nothing to do with lucky head bumps or rogue cops. The explanation is this: If mandatory-arrest laws are fairly applied, we will eventually see roughly equal numbers of men and women arrested, because the amount of domestic violence initiated and conducted by men and women is roughly equal. In fact, women may be ahead.

You haven't read this in your local newspaper, and certainly not in elite papers like the L.A. Times. The reason is that publishing this news would create a severe political problem in the newsroom. To their credit, feminists made domestic violence a political issue. But they shaped the issue around a theory: This violence is an expression of patriarchy as a social force and marriage as a patriarchal institution. It is something men do to women because of the way society is organized.

An enormous amount of evidence from 30 or more studies now shows that this paradigm is quite wrongheaded. But feminists are unwilling to adapt it to reality, and since the modern newsroom is very supportive of feminism, news stories on domestic violence are very carefully crafted, consistently unreliable and often just plain wrong.

Follow the work of the National Family Violence Survey. The original 1975 survey showed rather high rates of female-on-male domestic violence, but these were fitted to the paradigm and explained as understandable reactions to male violence. But the second National Family Violence Survey, in 1985, clearly showed equality in turning to violence: In both low-level assaults and severe assaults, only the wife was violent in a quarter of cases; so was the husband; and in half of cases, both were violent. These findings came from self-reports.

This signaled a split in research: Feminist researchers keep churning out work that fits feminist theory, while independent researchers keep finding equality in the use of violence. Men are more dangerous - ahead by 2-to-1 in the domestic-murder sweepstakes - and more likely to inflict serious damage. But women are just as inclined to be violent with their partners as men are. (The rather high rates of violence in lesbian homes echo this finding.)

The equality findings undercut the feminist theory of partner violence as patriarchy-in-action, with its dark view of men and marriage. Instead, they support the common-sense view that violence between partners has more to do with problems of individuals in a difficult culture than with any vast ideological scheme.

The feminist insistence of using theory to mug facts has had many unfortunate results. One is that a generalized view of men as uniquely violent and dangerous to women ("men batter because they can," "the most dangerous place for a woman to be is in the home") has leached deep into the popular culture. It turns up everywhere. In a recent TV ad for girls' athletics, a young girl says that if she plays sports, she will be more likely to leave an abusive relationship. A recent national list of what children want actually included the wish that daddies would stop hitting mommies.

In fact, children are now more likely to see Mommy hit Dad. The rate of severe assaults by men on women in the home fell by almost 50 percent between the first National Family Violence Survey and the most recent update of data in 1992. It dropped from 38 per 1,000 couples per year to 19. Give the feminists credit for this. They did it mostly by themselves. But the rate of dangerous female assaults on males in the home stayed essentially static over that period - 45 per 1,000 couples - and is now twice as high as the male rate. Give feminists some responsibility for this, too. By defining partner violence as a male problem, they missed the chance to bring about the same decline in violence among women.

Feminist studies of partner violence rarely ask about assaults by women, and when they do, they ask only about self-defense. Journalists, in turn, stick quite close to the feminist-approved studies for fear of being considered "soft" on male violence. The result is badly skewed reporting of domestic violence as purely a gender issue. It isn't.

(Copyright, 1996, John Leo)

John Leo's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times.