Women, Too, Are Responsible

June 24, 1994|By JUDITH SHERVEN and JAMES SNIECHOWSKI

LOS ANGELES — Once again, the myth of the evil, brutal male perpetrator and the perfect, innocent female victim is being broadcast and written. The discussion is national. The rage and sorrow, palpable. Only when we come to terms with the fact that domestic violence is the responsibility of both men and women, however, can we put a stop to this horrible nightmare.

Domestic violence is not an either-or phenomenon. It is not either the man's fault or the woman's. Both the male and the female are bound in their dance of mutual destructiveness, their incapacity for intimacy and appreciation of differences. They need each other to perpetuate personal and collective dramas of victimization and lovelessness, and so, regrettably, neither can leave.

This is a very untidy idea for people who have grown up with movies in which the ''good guy'' triumphs over the ''bad guy'' and rescues the damsel from distress. But to tackle the plague of domestic violence, we must alter our perspective. Facts:

* Half of spousal murders are committed by wives, a statistic that has been stable over time.

* The 1985 National Family Violence Survey, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and supported by many other surveys, disclosed that women and men were physically abusing one another in roughly equal numbers. Wives reported that they were more often the aggressors. Using weapons to make up for physical disadvantage, they were not just fighting back.

* While 1.8 million women annually suffered one or more assaults

TC from a husband or boyfriend, 2 million men were assaulted by a wife or girlfriend, according to a 1986 study on U.S. family violence published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. That study also found that 54 percent of all violence termed ''severe'' was by women.

* The Journal for the National Association of Social Workers found in 1986 that among teen-agers who date, girls were violent more frequently than boys.

* Mothers abuse their children at a rate approaching twice that of fathers, according to state child-protective service agencies surveyed by the Children's Rights Coalition.

* Because men have been taught to ''take it like a man'' and are ridiculed when they reveal they have been battered by women, women are nine times more likely to report their abusers to the authorities.

In 1988, R.L. McNeeley, a professor at the School of Social Welfare of the University of Wisconsin, published ''The Truth About Domestic Violence: A Falsely Framed Issue,'' again revealing the level of violence against men by women. Such facts, though, are ''politically incorrect.'' Even 10 years earlier, Susan Steinmetz, director of the Family Research Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University, received threats of harm to her children from radical women's groups after she published ''The Battered Husband Syndrome.''

Why are we so surprised and appalled that men hit and abuse women who are physically smaller when women regularly hit and abuse small children?

Why are we loath to expose the responsibility of women in domestic abuse? Why do we cling to the pure and virginal image of the ''sweet young thing'' and the ''damsel in distress?'' If we are sincere about change, we must acknowledge the truth: Women are part and parcel of domestic violence.

Why does our culture refuse to hold women as well as men accountable for their participation in domestic violence? All of such women's behavior, whether as perpetrator or victim, is understood and passed off as the byproduct of socialization or poor economic status. On the other hand, men are held fully accountable for all of their behavior -- despite the tough-guy stereotype all boys are encouraged to embody and the abuse many bear as a ''normal and loving'' part of their upbringing.

Some will argue that women fall into ''spousal abuse syndrome,'' in which female passivity is explained as the result of the male brainwashing the female into believing that she is the cause of his violence. Consequently, she is powerless to alter the situation. But all females receive some form of the following lessons: ''You must cater to a man's ego,'' ''You're nothing without a man'' and ''It's just as easy to love a rich man.'' Girls often acquire this garbage from insecure mothers who believe they are doing what is best for their daughters. If women are not expected to think and act for themselves, if their self-esteem is in shambles and their dependency is characterized as ''feminine,'' the fault cannot be laid at the feet of men.

None of this is intended to exonerate O.J. Simpson. If he is guilty of the murders with which he has been charged, he must answer for his actions. But in the reaction to this sensational case, we do ourselves a grave disservice to slip into a gender-biased frenzy, vilifying and accusing only men as abusers.

The women's movement claims its goal to be equal rights for women. Then women must share responsibility for their behavior and their contribution to domestic violence. Otherwise, we remain in a distortion that overshadows the truth. Only the truth will show us the way out of the epidemic of violence that is destroying our families and our nation.

Judith Sherven, a clinical psychologist, and James Sniechowski, with a specialty in human behavior, are corporate consultants on gender issues and leadership. They wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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