Domestic Violence Is a gendered crime
(Recently, the Stop Abuse Campaign received an email addressed to Barry Goldstein from a man who said he is a victim of domestic violence. He expressed support for our work but objected to Barry’s approach that considers gender an important factor. Here was our response.)
I am sorry to hear how you and your children are suffering. In my first book with Dr. Hannah, we had a chapter about the Courageous Kids that included a story about a protective father mistreated by the courts. We certainly recognize that this could happen, but the research tells us this is the exception and not typical. The fact that your experience is different from what the research demonstrates is the overwhelming problem does not negate your experience. Let me explain what the research shows.
For many years, battered women and domestic violence advocates have said DV is a gendered crime, but they were not listened to because they usually had no advanced degree; they were mostly women, and there was no research to confirm their experience. Professionals wanted to focus on issues like mental health or substance abuse as the cause of abuse. The research is now clear that mental illness and substance abuse reduce inhibitions so that any assaults would be more severe and thus more memorable, but it is not the cause. Otherwise non-abusive men do not abuse their partners when they are under the influence. Unfortunately, financial interests encourage professionals to rely on ineffective responses.
If you read news articles about men committing the most horrific DV crimes, inevitably you will find quotes from friends, family, or colleagues saying what a nice guy the killer was; how peaceable; and all the good deeds he performed. They are telling the truth, but the killer acted very differently in public than in private. Similarly, many abusive fathers who kill their children were found by mental health professionals to be mentally healthy.
At the same time, about 98% of familicides are committed by men. Men and women both suffer from depression and sometimes this results in suicide. So why is it that it is almost always men who also kill their partners and children? There is a long history of husbands being allowed and even encouraged to control, discipline, and assault their wives. There is no equivalent history of wives being encouraged to abuse their husbands. Many men believe they have a right to make decisions for their family and this can apply even to murder-suicide. The laws have changed, but many men continue to believe they are entitled to control their partners. There are less frequent cases in which a wife assaults or mistreats her husband, but this behavior is not supported by society so is more of the exception.
Most child custody cases, like any litigation, are settled more or less amicably. The problem is 3.8% of cases requiring trial and often much more. Between 75-90% of these cases involve fathers who believe she has no right to leave and therefore are entitled to do whatever they have to in order to regain control or punish her for leaving. These are the cases in which women and children are murdered. The Bala Study found that in contested cases, mothers make deliberate false reports less than 2% of the time. Fathers make deliberate false reports 16 times more often than mothers. At first, this seems off because I certainly do not believe women are 16 times more honest than men. But that is not what Bala is saying. His research only applies to contested custody so overwhelmingly it is the abusive fathers who believe she has no right to leave who are making frequent false reports.
40 states and many judicial districts have created court-sponsored gender bias committees. These committees have done their work using a variety of approaches over a few decades and found widespread bias against women. Most commonly, women face higher standards of proof, are given less credibility, and are blamed for their normal reaction to their partner’s abuse. The recent Meier Study confirmed that we still have done nothing to prevent this gender bias. Meier found that when courts believe fathers’ claims of alienation it gives them a big advantage but when courts believe mothers’ reports of alienation it doesn’t affect the outcome of the case.
Lynn Schafran wrote a great article, “Evaluating the Evaluators,” that helps explain why gender bias is so hard to overcome. A new psychologist was asked to evaluate a young family. The father’s apartment was a complete mess with no food in the refrigerator. The evaluator wrote the father lives in a typical bachelor apartment. The mother’s apartment was somewhat messy but not as bad as the father’s. She had food in the refrigerator but not as much as preferred. The evaluator wrote the mother lives in a messy apartment with inadequate food. The evaluator had a supervisor because she was inexperienced and the supervisor asked if she could see what she had done. The evaluator could not believe her mistake and quickly corrected it. This story is so valuable because the evaluator was acting in complete good faith and was even a woman and still engaged in gender bias.
Some researchers without an understanding of domestic violence create a false equivalency between men and women by trying to just count the hits. The problem is that they miss important considerations that encourage misunderstandings. Men are usually bigger and stronger and so hit harder and cause more serious injuries. Men and women hit their partners for different reasons. Men assault their partners to maintain control, enforce their rules, and punish their partners for “misbehaving.” Women hit their partners in self-defense and to try to stop their abuse or mistreatment. The researchers fail to consider sexual abuse which is overwhelmingly something men do to women. Most important, women often do what their partners want because they are afraid he will kill or seriously hurt them, but this is rarely if ever true of men. I have generalized in this paragraph, but what I said is usually true. In 21 years of teaching batterer programs, I have heard men afraid she will call the police, but never that he will do what she wants because he is afraid of her. Murder statistics are particularly reliable because there is a body. Men are three times more likely to kill their female partner than the reverse. Regardless of whether it is the man or woman killed, in almost every case there is a prior history of the man abusing the woman.
This discussion takes place in the larger context of the huge advantages men have in our still sexist society. We pay more attention to what men say and treat men’s statements as if they are more valuable. One reason is that we treat women as if their value is mostly about their beauty, body parts, and having sex. This means when women are speaking some in the audience will be focused more on her appearance and clothing than the substance of what she is saying. Women are paid less than men for the same work. In influential fields, most of the leaders are men. These men make decisions that influence the lives of women. As one example, if women had anywhere near the influence of men, we would long ago have created a more reliable and affordable system for child care.
Male supremacists point to the fact that mothers are more likely to gain custody than fathers. This is because the parents often agree that the mother should have custody. In our still sexist society, mothers continue to provide most of the child care, especially for very young children. This means the children benefit from living with their primary attachment figure and loving fathers are willing to sacrifice their interests for the well-being of their children. In contested custody cases that mostly involve reports of domestic violence, the Meier Study confirms that allegedly abusive fathers win a large majority of the cases. Mothers make deliberate false reports of abuse less than 2% of the time which means courts are not just favoring fathers, but favoring abusive fathers.
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Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.