A Problem as Old as Intimacy

July 17, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Every big issue produces a backlash. If the O.J. Simpson murder charges have churned up interest in domestic violence against women, the attention has also brought new publicity to arguments that women victimize men as often as men victimize women.

''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?'' asked Judith Sherven and James Sniechowski in a widely distributed opinion piece (reprinted June 24 in The Sun). They cited a number of studies showing that women and men were physically abusing and killing one another in roughly equal numbers.

Their argument suggests that the attention devoted to domestic violence against women ignores the plight of battered men. Yet it doesn't take a radical feminist to wonder why a society that sometimes seems awash in victimology has not produced shelters for these victims in cities around the country. Are thousands, even millions of seriously abused men left hiding their injuries and their shame?

Ms. Sherven and Mr. Sniechowski describe the ''dance of mutual destructiveness'' that becomes domestic violence and deplore the tendency, as old as Adam, to seek to label one party good, the other bad, villain and victim.

They have a point, but a limited one. Many women, like many men, resort to violence rather than walking away from an argument or finding another way to settle it.

But the idea that the problem hurts men as much as women is not supported by a deeper look at the research. Even the author of a 1985 study often cited to prove the equal culpability of the two sexes punctures that notion. In an interview with the New York Times in 1992, Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire's Family Research Laboratory pointed out that differences in size and strength mean that a man's assault on a woman is far more likely to cause serious injury than a woman's assault on a man.

Good public policy has to take into account the results of violence, not just the fact that it occurs. Some jurisdictions that have instituted mandatory arrest procedures in domestic violence cases have failed initially to make that distinction. One result: A police officer confronted with a badly bruised and bleeding woman and a man with a scratch on his arm ends up arresting them both.

Like many issues related to women, domestic violence sometimes gets caught up in ideology. And like many such debates, this one conjures up thoughts of the old curse about ''Lies, damned lies and statistics.''

In its November-December 1987 issue, the journal Social Work carried an article entitled ''The Truth about Domestic Violence: A Falsely Framed Issue.'' The authors, R.L. McNeely and Gloria Robinson-Simpson, argued that by not taking into account the prevalence of violence committed by women against men in domestic disputes, public debate and policies are being built on an unfair picture of men. They cited much of the research alluded to by Ms. Sherven and Mr. Sniechowski.

The March-April 1988 issue contained a swift reply. The author of this retort, Daniel G. Saunders, argued that the ''truth'' about domestic violence is far more elusive than the earlier article suggested. Considerable research suggests that, while women do act violently toward men, calling them abusers stretches the evidence. Dr. Saunders contended that ''most of the wives' violence is in self-defense and that size and strength differences mean the women will be the most victimized.''

Dr. Saunders also noted that studies finding roughly equal rates of homicide by women and men also showed that in 60 percent of cases in which wives killed husbands, they were responding to violence. That was true in only 9 percent of cases in which husbands killed wives.

In the notes written before his arrest, O.J. Simpson referred to himself as a ''battered husband.'' It's entirely believable that Nicole Simpson kicked or scratched or pummeled him during their raging arguments. But did she ever wound him badly enough to send him to the hospital or make him fear for his life?

Intimacy requires deep reserves of virtues like patience, forbearance and forgiveness, and those reserves often run out. If those virtues sound old-fashioned, so is the lack of them.

Domestic violence -- especially violence against women -- is as old as intimacy and can happen as often as intimacy transmutes XTC into obsession. It can happen even without the kind of obsession that seemed to bind O.J. Simpson to his former wife. Domestic violence is also a power game, an especially destructive one.

The only thing new about this particular power game is that society, at last, is beginning to rule it out of bounds. That's progress.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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