The Violence We Ignore

Mcnair Tragedy Underscores Fact That Men Are Often Victimized By Wives And Girlfriends

July 16, 2009|By Ned Holstein and Glenn Sacks

Police recently concluded that former Baltimore Ravens star Steve McNair was shot dead in his sleep by girlfriend Sahel Kazemi in a murder-suicide. Yet while there are more than 10,000 media entries on Google News for "Steve McNair," only a few of them mention the phrase "domestic violence."

Violence by women against their male partners is often ignored or not recognized as domestic violence. Law enforcement, the judicial system, the media and the domestic violence establishment are still stuck in the outdated "man as perpetrator/woman as victim" conception of such violence. Yet more than 200 studies have found that women initiate at least as much violence against their male partners as vice-versa. Men make up about a third of domestic violence injuries and deaths in heterosexual relationships. Research shows that women often compensate for a disadvantage in physical strength by employing weapons and the element of surprise - just as Ms. Kazemi did.

The most recent large-scale study of domestic violence was conducted by Harvard researchers and published in 2007 in the American Journal of Public Health. The study, which surveyed 11,000 men and women, found that, according to both men's and women's accounts, 50 percent of the violence in their relationships was reciprocal (involving both parties). In those cases, the women were more likely to have been the first to strike. Moreover, when the violence was one-sided, both women and men said that women were the perpetrators about 70 percent of the time.

New research from domestic violence researcher Deborah Capaldi, a social scientist at the Oregon Social Learning Center, shows the most dangerous domestic violence scenario for both women and men is that of reciprocal violence, particularly if that violence is initiated by women.

There are solutions to protect all parties affected by domestic violence. For one, just as we've properly stigmatized men who hit women, we need to encourage women not to attack their men. Ms. Capaldi believes the best way for women to be safe is to not initiate violence against their male partners, adding, "The question of initiation of violence is a crucial one ... much DV is mutual, and initiations - even that seem minor - may lead to escalation."

Second, when it is safe to do so, the domestic violence system needs to treat violent couples as violent couples, instead of shoe-horning them into the "man as perp/woman as victim" model. Counseling services for violent couples are rare. Domestic violence authority Lonnie R. Hazelwood says that the misguided domestic violence establishment "has been very effective in passing laws to prohibit couples counseling and eliminate programs which use gender-inclusive strategies."

Third, establish services and help for male domestic violence victims. Denise Hines of Clark University found that when an abused man calls the police, the police were more likely to arrest him than to arrest his abusive female partner. This is partly the result of laws such as Maryland's primary aggressor law. Primary aggressor laws encourage police to discount who initiated and committed the violence but instead look at other factors (such as size and strength) that make them more likely to arrest men. When the men in Ms. Hines' study tried calling domestic violence hot lines, 64 percent were told that they only helped women, and more than half were referred to programs for male DV perpetrators.

Fourth, work to ensure that male domestic violence victims will not lose their children in child custody proceedings. Ms. Hines found that the biggest reason male victims hesitate to leave their wives/girlfriends is concern for their children. If they leave, their children are left unprotected in the hands of a violent mother. If they take their children, when they're found, the children will be taken away and given to the mother.

Perhaps none of these policies would have saved Steve McNair. But domestic violence by women isn't rare, it isn't trivial, and ignoring it harms couples and their children.

Dr. Ned Holstein is a public health specialist with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the founder of Fathers & Families. Glenn Sacks is the organization's executive director. Their Web site is www.FathersandFamilies.org.

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