After 15 years of publicity about the plight of battered women, battered men are beginning to demand equal time.
Increasingly, men who say they have been victims of domestic violence are challenging the dogma that all violent spouses are male, and lobbying for changes in counseling, shelters and, above all, public perceptions dealing with domestic abuse.
"We are just beginning to say, 'Hey, men, if you are being slapped, kicked or punched, that's illegal and you don't have to take it anymore,' " said George Gilliland Sr. of St. Paul, Minn., founder of the Domestic Rights Coalition, a group that plans to open the first shelter for battered men later this year. "We want equality. Let the cell doors slam shut behind women just as they do on men."
The statistical underpinnings of this emerging branch of the men's rights movement come from several studies with surprising findings: that wives assault their husbands as often as husbands assault their wives.
But the idea that battered men can be equated with battered women is disputed even by the author of the 1985 study most often quoted for that proposition. Because men are bigger and stronger, says the author, Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire's Family Research Laboratory, their assaults are far more likely to cause serious injury.
"From a policy standpoint, the emphasis should be on battered women, because women suffer by far the most injuries," he said in an interview. "But I am an absolutist against violence, and I think it's important to recognize that women are just as likely to use violence as men. If you're looking at assaults, not at who gets injured, it's one to one, women and men."
For many feminists, those findings, and their use by men's-rights advocates, raise troubling questions about where the quest for equality crosses the line into misogyny, and when the swing of the social pendulum becomes an all-out backlash against feminism.
"It's such a twisting of things to ignore the reality that women live in fear of men and men do not live in fear of women," said Ellen Pence, a founder of the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minn. "Domestic violence against men is just not a social problem."
Men who are victims of domestic violence, however, say they suffer a special stigma. They complain bitterly of the injustice of a system that would punish them harshly for hitting back, but gives them no help in stopping their wives' assaults and often treats the situation as comic.
Mr. Straus' study surveyed 6,000 married and cohabiting couples, asking each spouse how often they or their partner used violent or non-violent tactics to resolve conflicts.
Women in the study were slightly more likely than men to have kicked, slapped, bitten or punched, hit or tried to hit with something or threatened with a gun or knife. Men were slightly more likely to have beaten up their spouses or choked them. Both sexes were equally likely to have used a knife or a gun on their partner. The overall finding that women were as assaultive as men matched that of a similar study Mr. Straus conducted 10 years earlier.
"I was originally very surprised at the numbers on women assaulting men but I shouldn't have been, given the cultural messages that it's OK to slap the cad if he gets fresh, or chase him with a frying pan." Mr. Straus said. "In this society, family relationships seem to be a license for hitting, whether it's women assaulting men, men assaulting women or parents assaulting their children."