Battered men calling attention to their plight

April 21, 1992|By Tamar Lewin | Tamar Lewin,New York Times News Service

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, an advocacy 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 ZTC 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 whole situation as comic.

Mr. Straus' study surveyed 6,000 married and cohabiting couples, asking each spouse how often they or their partner used particular tactics, violent or nonviolent, to resolve conflicts.

Women in the study were slightly more likely than men to have slapped, kicked, bitten or punched, hit or tried to hit with something or threatened with a gun or knife. Men were slightly more likely than women 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."

Many advocates for battered women say that despite Mr. Straus' reputation as an early researcher on battered wives, his findings are an outrageous skewing of the truth. It is misleading to speak of men and women as equally assaultive, they say, when it is almost always the women who live with broken bones, visits to the emergency room and a constant fear for their lives.

"Women abused by male partners tend to sustain multiple injuries to multiple sites of the body, an injury pattern not seen in men assaulted by female partners," said Dr. Angela Browne of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The Straus findings also fail to measure whether the women's violence is in response to prior aggression or threats by the partner, Dr. Browne and Ms. Pence say.

Men who have lived with violence, however, complain that though men may dominate, women are wrongly seen as the only victims. Mr. Gilliland likes to tell how he was arrested and charged with domestic assault although he says he never retaliated against the former wife who yelled at him, pushed him and threw hot coffee at him.

"We were having a family argument in 1988, and she said something about calling the cops and getting me thrown out," he said. "I said, 'All right, I'll call the cops.' She ran out and screamed, 'Take me to a battered women's shelter,' and they took me to jail. The system is 100 percent stacked against men."

Even the most ardent advocates for battered women acknowledge that women can be assaultive. Indeed, one of the 13 therapy groups in Ms. Pence's intervention program is for assaultive women. But, Ms. Pence said, in a decade of domestic-violence work she encountered only one man truly battered by his wife and more than a thousand such women.

A major difference between battered wives and battered husbands, she said, is that when men leave the relationship, the violence almost always stops, while when women leave, the violence often escalates, forcing the woman to seek court protective orders, go to a shelter, or flee.

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