There are two competing discourses on domestic violence. One says that women perpetrate violence just as much as men. Another says that while some men truly are survivors of intimate partner violence, the vast majority of abuse is perpetrated by men. As might be expected, the first discourse appeals to men’s rights groups and those who oppose policies specifically meant to protect women. The second is more likely to be promoted by feminists and women’s rights advocates. Both positions have research support, but I feel justified both theoretically and empirically to personally adhere to the second position.
Let me explain.
Michael Johnson, in a 1995 article published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, showed how the two perspectives are the result of different methods of measurement. The article is cited often in academic journals, but, unfortunately, is not as well known outside of academia. Johnson’s article focuses on heterosexual couples and therefore so does this post, even though important and sometimes surprising work has also been done on LGBTQ couples. With these important background points made, let’s move to what Johnson said.
Qualitative research (such as interviews) with survivors of abuse indicates that, typically, men are the perpetrators. Quantitative research (based on large population surveys) seems to indicate that women perpetrate violence at about the same rate as men. Two factors lead to these seemingly contradictory findings. First, these types of violence are substantially different. Surveys often ask about much less severe forms of violence than what is experienced by survivors of abuse interviewed by social researchers. To use Johnson’s terms, women and men enact less severe “common couple violence” at similar rates, but men are typically the perpetrators of more extreme, controlling, and degrading abuse, or what Johnson called “patriarchal terrorism.” The second factor leading to these seemingly contradictory findings has to do with survey response. Johnson persuasively argued that extreme forms of violence are underrepresented on large surveys because of such things as fear and embarrassment.
In summary, women and men seem to engage in “common couple violence” at about the same rate, but “patriarchal terrorism” is a very different form of controlling and degrading abuse typically perpetrated by men.