Let's call him "Joe Six Pack." Every Saturday night, he drinks way too much, cranks up the rock 'n roll way too loud, and smacks his girlfriend for acting just a bit too lippy. Or let's call him "Mr. Pillar of the Community." He's got the perfect wife, the perfect kids. But he's also got one little problem: every time he argues with his wife, he loses control. In the past year, she's been sent to the emergency ward twice. Or let's say they're the Tenants from Hell. They're always yelling at each other. Finally a neighbor calls the police.
Here is the question. Are the men in these scenarios: a) in need of help; b) in need of being locked up; or c) upholders of the patriarchy? Most people would likely say a) or b) or perhaps both. In fact, however, c) is the answer that more and more of the agencies that deal with domestic violence--including the courts, social workers, and therapists--now give.
Increasingly, public officials are buying into Gloria Steinem's assertion that "the patriarchy requires violence or the subliminal threat of violence in order to maintain itself." They are deciding that the perpetrators of domestic violence don't so much need to be punished, or even really counseled, but instead indoctrinated in what are called "profeminist" treatment programs. And they are spending tax dollars to pay for these programs. A portion of the money for the re-education of batterers comes from Washington, courtesy of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
To obtain passage of VAWA, feminist organizations like the National Organization for Women and even secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, pelted legislators with facts and figures: "The leading cause of birth defects is battery during pregnancy." "In emergency rooms, twenty to thirty percent of women arrive because of physical abuse by their partner." "Family violence has killed more women in the last five years than Americans killed in the Viet Nam War."
Happily, these alarming factoids aren't true. But the feminist advocacy groups were able to create new bogus statistics faster than the experts were able to shoot the old ones down. And some of the untruths--like the fiction that wife-beating soars on Super Bowl Sunday--have become American myths as durable as the story of young George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.
Still, the problem of domestic violence, even if grossly exaggerated, is horrific enough. So Congress generously authorized $1.6 billion to fund VAWA. Few taxpayers would begrudge this outlay if it actually resulted in the protection of women. But instead there is increasing evidence that the money is being used to further an ideological war against men--one that puts many women at even greater risk. The feminist theory of domestic abuse, like the feminist theory of rape, holds that all men have the same innate propensity to violence against women: your brother and my boyfriend are deep down every bit as bad as Joel Steinberg.
Men who abuse their mates, the theory goes, act violently not because they as individuals can't control their impulses, and not because they are thugs or drunks or particularly troubled people. Domestic abuse, in feminist eyes, is an essential element of the vast male conspiracy to suppress and subordinate women. In other words, the real culprit in a case of domestic violence is not a violent individual man, it is the patriarchy. To stop a man from abusing women, he must be taught to see the errors of the patriarchy and to renounce them. Thus, a position paper by the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women's Network explains: "Battering is a fulfillment of a cultural expectation, not a deviant or sick behavior."
Thus, too, the Seattle-based psychologist Laura Brown, a prominent feminist practitioner, argues that feminist psychotherapy is an "opportunity to help patients see the relationship between their behavior and the patriarchal society in which we are all embedded." As well, feminists have stretched the definition of abuse to include acts of lying, humiliation, withholding information, and refusing help with child care or housework, under the term "psychological battery." A checklist from a brochure of the Westchester Coalition of Family Violence agencies tells women if their partner behaves in one or more of the following ways, including "an overprotective manner," "turns minor incidents into major arguments," or "insults you," then "you might be abused."
With money provided by VAWA, this view has come to pervade the bureaucracies created to combat domestic violence. In at least a dozen states, including Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida, Washington, and Texas, state guidelines effectively preclude any treatment other than feminist therapy for domestic batterers. Another dozen states, among them Maine and Illinois, are now drafting similar guidelines. These guidelines explicitly prohibit social workers and clinicians from offering therapies that attempt to deal with domestic abuse as a problem between a couple unless the man has undergone profeminist treatment first.
Profeminists emphatically reject joint counseling, the traditional approach to marital conflict. Joint counseling and other couples-based treatments violate the feminist certainty that it is men who are always and solely responsible for domestic violence: any attempt to involve the batterer's mate in treatment amounts to "blaming the victim."
The dogma that women never provoke, incite, or aggravate domestic conflict, further, has led to some startling departures in domestic law. Hundreds of jurisdictions have adopted what are called "must-arrest" policies: that is, when local police are called to a scene of reported domestic abuse, they must arrest one partner (almost always the man) even if, by the time the authorities arrive, the incident has cooled off and there is no sign of violence, and even if (as is often the case) the woman doesn't want the man arrested. Many of these same jurisdictions have also enacted "no-drop" policies--meaning that if a woman does press charges, she will not be permitted to change her mind and drop them later.
Under VAWA, $33 million will be spent this year on the "Grants to Encourage Arrest" program, which uses federal money to induce localities to adopt must-arrest policies. Next year, the budget of the "Grants to Encourage Arrest" program will jump to $59 million. Of course, it's hard to feel sorry for men charged with abuse. And there is a satisfying, frontier-justice aspect to the feminist treatment programs: what better punishment for a loutish man than to make him endure hours of feminist lecturing?
The trouble is, domestic violence--as these same feminists constantly remind us--is no joke. And there are virtually no convincing data that this feminist approach to male violence is effective. Indeed, the paternalistic intrusiveness that characterizes so much of feminist domestic violence policy frequently has the unintended consequence of harming the very women it was meant to protect. Judge William S. Cannon, who has handled thousands of domestic violence cases through South Bay (San Diego) Family Court, finds that "about eighty percent of the couples we see in court end up staying together."
Nonetheless, the California legislature has made it mandatory for judges to issue a restraining order separating the parties in all domestic violence cases. "It's ridiculous," the judge says of this mandatory separation, "each situation is different." Sometimes a woman doesn't want the separation, particularly if the threat from her husband is mild. "If the woman feels relatively safe, she might well rather have her kids' father home with the family," Judge Cannon says. In California, however, this option is no longer open to women. As Judge Cannon says, "We treat women as brainless individuals who are unable to make choices. If a woman wants a restraining order, she can ask us for it."
Persuading victims of domestic violence that they need no psychological help or are never to blame can also backfire, because it pushes many women away from seeking counseling that they plainly need. A prosecutor from Southern California, who preferred not to be identified, told me that many of the women he refers to treatment reject his advice. "They're influenced by the prevailing view in the advocate community that tells them they don't need help. Meanwhile, I'm accused of blaming the victim," the prosecutor says.
Some of these women return to husbands who injure or even kill them, when a therapist might have helped them find the strength to stay away. Others end up doing the killing themselves, a tragedy that has happened "more than once on my watch," the prosecutor said. The defense attorneys then claim that the wife is "a victim of battered woman syndrome. They'll say the system failed her because she was never referred for professional help." It is likewise far from clear that must-arrest policies help victims of domestic abuse. Several studies--including one by Lawrence W. Sherman of the University of Maryland, whose early study on mandatory arrest in a single midwestern city actually gave rise to the program's popularity--suggest that mandatory arrest can escalate spousal violence in some men by further enraging them, and causing them to seek revenge on their lovers once they are released from jail.
But the implicit goal of feminist treatment and legal responses is to separate women from their abusive partners--no matter what the circumstances, and no matter how fervently the women wish otherwise. Many shelter counselors interviewed by Kimberle Crenshaw of the UCLA School of Law believe that a batterer is incapable of breaking the cycle of abuse and the woman's only hope of safety is to leave the relationship. In a New York Times Magazine story about spousal abuse, writer Jan Hoffman summed up the advice of Ellen Pence, founder of the much-replicated Duluth Abuse Intervention Program and a staunch believer that all batterers are gripped by a hatred of women: "Ellen Pence's advice to women in battering relationships is simply this: Leave. Leave because even the best of programs, even Duluth's, cannot ensure that a violent man will change his ways." Not very encouraging words from a nationally regarded expert.
Perhaps if feminist treatment of domestic violence recognized some cold truths about women and intimate violence, success rates might improve. For example, contrary to the prevailing view of battered women as weak, helpless, and confused, professor Jacquelyn Campbell reported in 1994 in the Journal of Family Violence, that the majority of battered women do take steps to end the abuse in their relationships. In truth, the average abused woman is not Hedda Nussbaum (the obsessed lover of psychopath Joel Steinberg).
The sad facts, as discussed by Christine Littleton in the 1993 book Family Matters: Readings on Family Lives and the Law, are that many "women who stay in battering relationships accurately perceive the risks of remaining, accurately perceive the risks of leaving, and choose to stay either because the risks of leaving outweigh those of staying or because they are trying to rescue something beyond themselves"--such as their family. And here is the cruelest failure of profeminist therapy. Since many victims of domestic abuse do want to hold their families together, and since they are trying to weigh the risks of staying with an abusive mate, it does them an enormous disservice to put a dangerous man through a program that cannot fulfill its promise to cure him. "The woman thinks to herself, 'Well, now he's changed,' so she goes back to him and drops her guard. Sometimes with devastating effects," says Dr. Richard J. Gelles, of the University of Rhode Island's Family Violence Research Program, a pioneer researcher in domestic violence.
Professor Richard M. McFall, an expert on marital violence with Indiana University, observes that "typically, the man comes out of a useless mandated treatment program no less violent than when he went in, but now he's got a clean bill of psychological health." Furthermore, the woman herself can be swept into the vortex of misguided efforts prescribed by feminists. While her partner is being reprogrammed to challenge his sexist assumptions, the wives are often sent to feminist support groups. Valerie T., a patient of Dr. Virginia Goldner, a couples therapist at New York's Ackerman Institute for the Family, attended such a group. "Valerie came back and told me she'd felt worse about herself ever since joining the group because 'everyone was supposed to hate the men and want to leave them,'" said Goldner.
Cathy Young, author of the forthcoming book, Beyond the Gender Wars, says, "Oftentimes the sole qualification to work with battered women is to be one yourself and, of course, to have an abiding hatred of men." In the course of her research, she said, "I remember Renee Ward, director of a Minneapolis shelter, telling me how the advocates' own unresolved anger at men made it very difficult for them to be helpful to the clients, most of whom very much wanted to be in relationships. But it was unthinkable to ever discuss this tension."
Many advocates are also apparently so blinded by ideology that they are unable to draw distinctions between types of abusers. Some men, for example, are first-time offenders, others are brutal recidivists, others attack rarely but harshly, others frequently but less severely, and many are alcoholics. Such a heterogeneous population cannot be treated with a one-size-fits-all approach. Amy Holtzworth-Munroe, an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University, says, "states are basing rigid treatment policy on rhetoric and ideology, not data."
Take the case of "Don," a senior administrator at a southern university. Arrested once for slapping his wife (they are still together), Don was required to attend a Duluth-model program. About fifteen men sat for three hours on ten consecutive Wednesday nights in a classroom headed by two counselors. "The message was clear," Don told me, "whatever she does to you is your fault, whatever you do to her is your fault. It would have been a lot more helpful if they taught us to recognize when we felt ourselves being driven into positions where we lash out. The message should have been 'recognize it, deal with it, and quit hitting.' But all they gave us to work with was guilt." According to Don, "bathroom and cigarette breaks were filled with comments about the whole thing being stupid. In the sessions, group discussions among participants were not allowed to develop--maybe the leaders were afraid we'd unite and challenge their propaganda." Rather than improve their relationships, Don felt the therapy only helped to increase polarization between men and women. "Wives went to support groups and we went to our groups."
Complementing these biases was an equally great omission: the role of alcohol in domestic violence. Though studies show a persistent correlation between intoxication and aggression in families, Don's group leaders were adamant that alcohol was never a cause of violence. Don claimed, however, that "every man in the room had been drinking when he was arrested." Booze, of course, is never an acceptable excuse for bad behavior, but there's no question that alcohol pushes some people into violence. Feminist theory downplays the relevance of alcohol abuse, and as a particularly foolish result in Don's program, failed to make sobriety a condition of the treatment for domestic batterers.
Glenna Auxiera, a divorce resolution counselor in Gainesville, Florida, attended a training course on male batterers sponsored by the Duluth Abuse Intervention Program. She reports being "stunned" by what she heard. "The course leaders were fixated on male-bashing," Auxiera says. "I was a battered woman, too, and I see the part I played in the drama of my relationship. Hitting is wrong. Period. But a relationship is a dynamic interaction and if both want to change, counselors should work with them." But this, of course, is precisely what state guidelines in nearly half the country now or will soon prohibit as the first course of treatment. They would outlaw, for instance, the kind of help that saved the decade-long marriage of a midwestern couple we'll call "Steve and Lois M." Mr. and Mrs. M. were regarded by their community as a model couple. Mr. M. was in fact a high-profile businessman. But two or three times a year, he turned violent. After their last fight, in which he gave Mrs. M. a fractured arm, she gave him an ultimatum: unless he went with her to marriage therapy, she would take their nine-year-old son and leave. He agreed, and the couple saw Eve Lipchik, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin expert in family therapy.
"One can still deplore the aggression and be an advocate for the relationship when two people want to stay together and are motivated to make changes in the relationship," says Lipchik. "It's too easy to stuff people into boxes labeled villains and victims." Mrs. M. did not feel "blamed" when she and her husband saw Lipchik together for four months with follow-up sessions at six and eighteen months. She got what she most wanted: her marriage saved and the violence ended.
Of course, the happy ending of the story of Mr. and Mrs. M. does not necessarily await every combative couple: spousal assault is a difficult behavior to change. But with a good therapist, difficult change is not impossible. Richard Heyman, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, found that group conjoint therapy (several couples treated together) produced a significant reduction in both psychological and physical aggression immediately following treatment and one year later. This applied when the couple was intact, the degree of violence not severe, and the couple acknowledged that aggression was a problem, and often a mutual one. Of course, joint-therapy is not for everyone. It may even be outright dangerous when the man causes frequent injury or when the woman is afraid of him. Not only will the woman be hesitant to tell the truth in counseling sessions, but her husband might well retaliate for disclosures she makes to the counselor. A woman in such a situation is at real risk and must protect herself though she may find it hard--psychologically and physically--to pull away.
For her, writes Dr. Virginia Goldner, "the ideological purity and righteous indignation of the battered woman's movement is all that protects her from being pulled back into the swamp of abuse." Maybe so, but more often the violence is less intense and, as psychologist Judith Shervin writes, "men and women are bound in their dance of mutual destructiveness.... Women must share responsibility for their behavior and contributions to domestic violence." These contributions are far bigger than feminists are willing to admit.
According to the landmark 1980 book, Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family by Murray A. Straus, Richard J. Gelles, and Suzanne K. Steinmetz, about twelve percent of couples engage in physical aggression. Severe violence such as punching, biting, kicking, or using a weapon is as likely to be committed by wives as husbands--at a rate of about one in twenty for both sexes. Rates of less severe assault such as pushing and grabbing are also comparable, about one in thirteen for both men and women.
At first glance, these data don't seem consistent with those of the Department of Justice's statistics. Its 1994 National Crime Victimization Survey stated that "women were about six times more likely than men to experience violence by an intimate." But this merely reflects the fact that women, unlike men, are rarely violent outside the home. Sometimes their aggression is in self-defense.
A 1995 DOJ report showed that wives committed forty-one percent of all spousal murders in 1988 (the year covered in the report). However, eighty-one percent of the accused wives, compared to ninety-four percent of the accused husbands, were convicted of homicide. The lower conviction rate for wives, the report said, reflected the fact that they were more likely to have killed in self-defense. Even so, the sentences varied dramatically: wives received average prison sentences of six years, husbands sixteen and a half years. But self-defense doesn't explain all female-on-male aggression.
The National Family Violence Survey, developed by Straus and Gelles and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, is a widely respected assessment that taps a representative sample of married and cohabiting couples. The researchers interviewed thousands of couples in 1975, 1985, and 1992. Extrapolating from their 1985 survey of more than six thousand couples, the authors estimate that 1.8 million females are the victims of severe domestic violence each year (with injuries suffered by one in ten), but so were about 2.1 million men. The rates of male-on-female aggression declined between 1975 and 1992 while female-on-male stayed constant.
The surveys also revealed that women suffered actual injury at about seven times the rate of men but that they used weapons such as baseball bats, boiling water, and knives (among other things) to make up for their physical disadvantage. Many of these women freely admitted on the survey that their use of weapons was not in self-defense.
Actually, when it comes to the murder of intimates, as criminologist Coramae Richey Mann documented in her 1996 study of female killers, When Women Kill, murderesses are seldom helpless angels: seventy-eight percent of the women in Mann's study had prior arrest records and fifty-five percent a history of violence.
Lately, Straus has been revising his views. "I [once] explained the high rate of attacks by wives largely as a response to or as a defense against assault by the partner. However, new evidence raises questions about that interpretation," he wrote in his contribution to the 1996 book, Domestic Violence. After reviewing the available research, Straus concludes that twenty-five to thirty percent of violent married and cohabiting couples are violent solely because of attacks by the wife. About twenty-five percent of violence between couples is initiated by men. The remaining half is classified as mutual. This is true whether the analysis is based on all assaults or only potentially injurious and life-threatening ones. (These findings are corroborated by other studies, including the 1991 Los Angeles Epidemiology Catchment Area study, and the 1990 National Survey of Households and Families.)
In fact, among America's rapidly growing population of elderly couples, violence by women appears more common than violence by men. A well-regarded 1988 Boston survey by Karl Pillemer and David Finkelhor found that wives were more than twice as likely to assault an elderly husband as vice versa.
Anyone still inclined to blame domestic violence on the patriarchy and male aggression ought to take a look at the statistics on violence against children. A just-released report from the Department of Health and Human Services, "Child Maltreatment in the United States," finds that women aged twenty to forty-nine are almost twice as likely as males to be "perpetrators of child maltreatment."
According to a 1994 Department of Justice report, mothers are responsible in fifty-five percent of cases in which children are killed by their parents. The National Center on Child Abuse Prevention attributes fifty percent of the child abuse fatalities that occurred between 1986 and 1993 to the natural mother, twenty-three percent to the natural father, and twenty-seven percent to boyfriends and others.
Finally, consider domestic aggression within lesbian couples. If feminists are right, shouldn't these matches be exempt from the sex-driven power struggles that plague heterosexual couples? Instead, according to Jeanie Morrow, director of the Lesbian Domestic Violence Program at W.O.M.A.N., Inc. in San Francisco, physical abuse between lesbian partners is at least as serious a problem as it is among heterosexuals.
The Battered Women's Justice Project in Minneapolis, a clearinghouse for statistics, confirms this. "Most evidence suggests that lesbians and heterosexuals are comparably aggressive in their relationships," said spokeswoman Susan Gibel. Some survey studies have actually suggested a higher incidence of violence among lesbian partners, but it's impossible to know for certain since there's no reliable baseline count of lesbian couples in the population at large.
According to Morrow, the lesbian community has been reluctant to acknowledge intimate violence within its ranks--after all, this would endanger the all-purpose, battering-as-a-consequence-of-male-privilege explanation. Morrow's program treats about three hundred women a year but she wonders how many more need help. Because they are "doubly closeted," as Morrow puts it, women who are both gay and abused may be especially reluctant to use services or report assaults to the police.
Like so many projects of the feminist agenda, the battered women's movement has outlived its useful beginnings, which was to help women leave violent relationships and persuade the legal system to take domestic abuse more seriously. Now they have brought us to a point at which a single complaint touches off an irreversible cascade of useless and often destructive legal and therapeutic events. This could well have a chilling effect upon victims of real violence, who may be reluctant to file police reports or to seek help if it subjects them to further battery from the authorities.
And it certainly won't help violent men if they emerge from so-called treatment programs no more enlightened but certainly more angry, more resentful, and as dangerous as ever. Aggression is a deeply personal and complex behavior, not a social defect expressed through the actions of men. Yet to feminists, it can only be the sound of one hand slapping: the man's. So long as this view prevails, we won't be helping the real victims; indeed, we will only be exposing them to more danger.
Sally L. Satel, m.d., is a psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale School of Medicine. She also serves on the National Advisory Board of the Independent Women's Forum.