Statistics on abuse aren't real

June 29, 1994|By Mona Charen

THE murder of Nicole Simpson has jolted the nation into a re-examination of domestic violence. From every talk show and magazine, we learn that we have been far too tolerant for far too long of men who beat their wives and that this has resulted in an epidemic of battery.

But how much of the new wisdom is really true? There is little doubt that police and prosecutors have, in the past, treated violence against spouses more leniently than violence against strangers. O.J. Simpson's was a case in point. If he had beaten a stranger with the ferocity with which he beat his wife -- in the instance to which he pleaded "no contest" -- he would almost certainly have received a jail sentence. Intimacy is not an invitation to abuse and must never be treated as such by the courts.

But in the wake of the Simpson case, we've been hearing a rehash of some "facts" about domestic violence that are not really facts at all.

One hoary myth is the so-called "rule of thumb." Any number of news articles, commentators (Cokie Roberts on "This Week With David Brinkley," for one) and editorials have referred to the fact that the colloquial expression "rule of thumb" derives from the English common law rule that a man was permitted to beat his wife, provided the stick he chose was no thicker than his thumb. This "rule" is cited as evidence that our cultural tradition has tolerated wife beating for centuries.

But as Christina Hoff Sommers points out in her excellent study of modern gender politics, "Who Stole Feminism?" (Simon and ** Schuster), there is no such rule in English common law. It is not to be found in William Blackstone's 18th century treatise on English common law. Blackstone did say that the "old law" had permitted a husband to give his wife "moderate correction . . . in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or his children . . . But this power of 'Some facts about domestic violence are not really facts at all.'

correction was confined within reasonable bounds and the husband was prohibited from using any violence to his wife." Though the courts had been known to permit the lower classes more latitude, Blackstone noted, "in the politer reign of Charles the Second, this power of correction began to be doubted, and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband."

In the United States, wife beating has been prohibited by law since before the revolution. "Rule of thumb," by the way, derives from carpentry.

Let me stress again that the problem of battered women is serious. Shelters for women (and their children) who have no friends or family to turn to are essential. Emergency-room physicians, 911 operators and police should receive training in how to recognize the signs of battery. And for extreme cases, a program like witness protection may be advisable for women who cannot otherwise be shielded from the abuser.

But we must be wary of the agenda of some in this debate who want to make wife beating a metaphor for all relations between men and women and seek to persuade us that battery is far more common than it is.

As Ms. Sommers documents, leading newspapers and magazines have cited wildly inflated numbers of the percentage of American women who are abused by their husbands or boyfriends. Several major newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, have recently reported that 37 percent of married dTC women are emotionally abused and 3.9 million physically assaulted every year. Those figures were taken from a survey by the Commonwealth Fund that asked 2,500 women whether their spouses had engaged in a variety of behaviors during the previous 12 months. Included among the questions were "Has your spouse or partner insulted you or sworn at you?" or "Stomped out of the room or house or yard?" A "yes" response was taken as evidence of emotional abuse. Other interpretations of the data suggest themselves, like maybe the couple was having an argument.

There is so much phony data -- propounded by extreme feminists who think all men are crypto-abusers -- that finds its way too easily into the mainstream press. A little more skepticism, please.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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