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Newer Perspectives on Domestic Violence

Newer Perspectives on Domestic Violence

COMMENTARY

Domestic Violence (DV) and all its consequences is a terribly sad, troubling, and potentially destructive part of our national life and identity. DV not only poses physical dangers but also takes a terrible toll on families and the important relationships of our lives. One would have thought that we, as a nation, would use reason, science and logic to solve—-as much as full solution is possible—-this scourge. Perhaps naturally and understandably, considering how emotional these issues are, science, perspective, study, and thoughtfulness have often been put aside while warring camps, political concerns and emotions have carried the day. Domestic violence can be seen in many different ways but certainly a medical/scientific approach is warranted, with much to offer if real solutions are to be found.

A variety of women’s groups have seen it as central to their mission to highlight domestic violence, and have generally couched the issues in a gender specific way. Women, in their view, are the victims of DV; and men, the perpetrators. By extension, the more radical of these groups saw all men as potential abusers, waiting for certain conditions before striking. (“All men are potential rapists and that’s all they are”, said Marilyn French, author of The Women’s Room). 

In the view of such groups, there was no room for studies of varying motives, circumstances, or perpetrators. The act was criminal, and the motivation was assumed to be exclusively the patriarchal attempt at dominance over women. By extension, since these were criminal acts, they should be dealt with through the criminal justice system; eg, by means of arrests, restraining orders, and the registration of males accused of being “batterers” (accused, not proven). Furthermore, in this view, these alleged batterers should be removed from their homes, their mates, and their children. Increasing criminalization was thus seen as the means of preventing and coping with DV.

Men were seen as hopelessly aggressive by nature -- predatory, and controlling. Many men reacted by joining the cause and becoming the “enforcers”--outdoing women in their zeal to protect womanhood and rid society of batterers at all costs. Other men reacted passively, unaccustomed to being adversarial toward women. And still others reacted sympathetically, but were outraged by the attack on civil liberties and constitutional rights such branding of men as batterers entailed, often with minimal due process. (“Men who are unjustly accused of rape can sometimes gain from the experience” said a Vassar College Assistant Dean of Students). Many men felt themselves, as a group, being degraded and bashed, much as blacks had been a generation before-- when, if you were black, you were a priori deemed capable of any crime, any aggression. Men felt themselves discredited--many of whom had fought for years, and through their families, for generations, for equality and justice for all.

In this climate, there were always a very few who did not view DV as gender specific at all, but rather, as part of the difficulties in relationships that develop in life, especially when we are most vulnerable.1-3 But their voices were muted and unheard, and their influence small. And then, with one monumental and very well conceived study, everything changed. For in May 2007, in the American Journal of Public Health, a well respected and peer reviewed journal, a study appeared by Daniel Whitaker and his colleagues Tadesse Haileyesus, Monice Swahn, and Linda Saltzman.4 In this beautifully executed study, the authors sought to examine the prevalence of reciprocal (ie, perpetrated by both partners) and nonreciprocal intimate partner violence (IPV), and to determine whether reciprocity is related to violence frequency and injury. All in all 18,761 respondents were studied.

The results showed that almost 24% of all relationships had some violence, and half were reciprocally violent. In non-reciprocally violent relationships, women were the perpetrators in more than 70% of cases. Reciprocity was associated with much more frequent violence among women, but not men (adjusted odds ratio 2.3 for women and 1.26 for men). Regarding injury, men were more likely to inflict injury (adjusted odds ratio 1.5 and 1.1), and reciprocal intimate partner violence was associated with greater injury than was nonreciprocal IPV, regardless of the gender of the perpetrator. The authors discuss a recent meta-analysis with the finding that a woman’s perpetration of violence was the strongest predictor of her being a victim of partner violence. And included in the conclusions of the study was the very important finding that the context of the violence (reciprocal vs nonreciprocal) is a strong predictor of reported injury. As one of its conclusions the authors state that prevention approaches that address the escalation of partner violence may be needed to address the reciprocal violence (Italics mine). The authors further state they were surprised to learn that with violence that was not reciprocal, women were the perpetrators in a majority of cases.

Other groups set out to replicate or refute the conclusions of the Whitaker group. A recent article in the current issue of the Journal Violence and Victims reported research funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health and conducted by researchers affiliated with the University of Washington’s Social Development Research Group.5 This group reviewed the social and antisocial behavior of more than 800 participants. Their findings:

o Nearly twice as many women as men said they perpetrated domestic violence in the past year including kicking, biting, or punching their partner, threatening to hit or throw something at their partner, and pushing, grabbing, or shoving their partner.
o A link was found between chronically aggressive adolescents, male or female, and domestic violence at later periods of life.
o Though most investigators find a positive correlation between alcohol/substance abuse and DV, this study did not substantiate that.
o A diagnosis of an episode of major depression was significantly related to committing DV.
o Being on welfare was significantly related to committing DV.
o Having a partner who used drugs heavily, sold drugs, had a history of violence toward others, had an arrest record, or was unemployed was significantly related to committing DV.
o Disorganized neighborhoods where attitudes toward drug sales and violence were favorable also increased person’s likelihood of committing DV.

In their conclusions, the authors state that “The take home message from this study is that it may be possible to prevent some forms of domestic violence by acting early to address youth violence. Our research suggests the earlier we begin prevention programs, the better, because youth violence appears to be a precursor to other problems including domestic violence.”

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