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Battered Men - The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence
Latest Research Findings

Dr. Martin Fiebert

Martin S. Fiebert and
Denise M. Gonzalez

Department of Psychology,
California State University at Long Beach

Why Women Assault

College Women Who Initiate Assaults on their Male Partners and the Reasons Offered for Such Behavior.

Psychological Reports, 80, 583-590 (1997)
Article, table 1997 by Murray A. Straus
Review © 1999 by Bert H. Hoff
Abstract and study credits/acknowledgements - at end of review.
This paper may be cited as Hoff, Bert H., Why Women Assault: Review of Fiebert & Gonzalez, College Women Who Initiate Assaults on their Male Partners and the Reasons Offered for Such Behavior. MenWeb on-line Journal (ISSN: 1095-5240 http://www.menweb.org/fiebertg.htm) Retrieved from Web on Jan. 1, 1999.

 
     
 

Dr. Fiebert's paper makes a valuable contribution to research into domestic violence. A lot of attention has been paid to debates over whether women initiate assaults as often as men, and whether assaults by women are dangerous. Relatively little has been paid to why women initiate assaults. (One reason for this, I suggest, is an "ideology" that women are not violent and that domestic violence is a sign of male oppression of women--see The Duluth Model.)

Prevalence:

The first part is straightforward. Responses from 978 female college women indicate that, within a 5-year period, 29% (n=285) admitted to physical aggression against their male partners. Younger women in their 20s were significantly more likely to aggress physically than women who were 30 years and above. He points out a clear trend from the National Family Violence Surveys (Straus & Kaufman-Kantor, 1994) that indicates that from 1975 to 1992 severe assaults by men toward women have decreased, while the rate of assaults by women have remained the same. While Stets and Straus (1990) reported that women in the 1985 survey were six times more likely to sustain injuries and conclude "when violence is measured by acts women are as violent as men, when violence is measured by injuries men are more violent." McLeod (1984) reported (6,200 cases of domestic assault in Detroit) that women were three times as more likely than men to use weapons. In a similar vein, a look at the type of assault reported in the most recent National Violence Against Women survey (Hoff, 1999) shows that men are more likely than women to experience serious assault by being hit with an object, threatened with a knife or being knifed. When one combines the more serious forms of assault (hit with an object, beat up, threatened with a weapon, victim of a weapon) 96.8 percent of the women assaulted and 90.5 percent of the men assaulted experienced one of these dangerous forms of assault.

When he looked at prevalence of aggression he found women aged 20-30 significantly more likely to initiate violence than women over 30. He found no significant differences in initiation of violence depending on marital status. White women reported less frequent aggression than women of color.

Reasons Given:

The more interesting question, however, is why women initiate assault in an intimate relationship. Fiebert and Gonzalez report on one of the largest surveys conducted to look at this question, involving 978 female college student from southern California. Why is it important? Straus (1999a, 1999b) and Frienze (see Sorting out the reasons couples turn violent, APA Monitor, v. 29, #4, April 1998) express concern that if women feel they can "get away with it," they will slap and hit--but that, sooner or later, the man may strike back. If he does, he may do serious damage even if he pulls his punch.

Murray A. Straus cites this paper in his article on controversy over domestic violence research. There, Straus writes that "I knew I wouldn't hurt him" is one of what he calls "facilitators of assault by women within the family." .

.. many women told me "I knew I wouldn't hurt him" (in the sense of no physical injury as compared to causing pain) reduces inhibitions about hitting the partner and limits fear of retaliation. Statistical evidence consistent with this interpretation comes from a study by Fiebert & Gonzalez (1997). They found that 29% of their sample of 978 women college students reported having hit a male partner. Of the women who had hit, two thirds (62%) checked as one of the reasons "I do not believe my actions would hurt my partner" or "I believe that men can readily protect themselves so I don't worry when I become physically aggressive." The lower probability of injury for assaults by women is probably also one of the reasons why the cultural norms are more tolerant of assaults by women on their partners.

Immediate reasons

In a lot of the literature, we read that women committing domestic violence are acting in self-defense, against physical assault or against verbal abusiveness. Men, we are told, use domestic violence to control the relationship. Fiebert and Gonzalez' data seem to refute that notion.

Fiebert Table 2
Immediate Reasons Women Selected for Initiating Aggression
from Fiebert, Martin S. and Gonzalez, Denise M., "College Women who Initiate Assaults on their Male Partners and the Reasons offered for Such Behavior
Psychological Reports, 1997, 80, 583-90, Table 2. © Psychological Reports, 1997
       
Item # Immediate Reason: Item % n
1 My partner wasn't sensitive to my needs. 46% 128
2 I wished to gain my partner's attention. 44% 125
5 My partner was not listening to me. 43% 119
4 My partner was being verbally abusive to me. 38% 107
3 I did not believe my actions would hurt my partner. 38% 106
Note: One or more reasons could be selected by each participant.

Note that "my partner was being abusive" was one of the less-frequently stated reasons. The reasons the respondents were more ready to agree to were efforts to use physical violence to control the relationship. They would assault a partner if he were not sensitive to her needs, or they wanted to gain his attention, or he was not listening. These are not anomalous results from a few "extreme" women, as the ns show. Of the 978 respondents, 128 (or 13.1%) assaulted their partner for not being sensitive, and 123 (or 12.6%) for not paying enough attention. A young man contemplating a long-term relationship might well decide against it if he stands over a 10% chance of being physically assaulted by a woman seeking to control the relationship. Put another way, it is less risky to be verbally assaultive than it is to not be sensitive to your partner's needs or not paying enough attention to your partner. Only 10.1 percent of the women surveyed hit their partner for being verbally assaultive.

Fiebert and Gonzalez offer, perhaps, a less polemical perspective:

The immediate reasons that subjects offered for thier initiation of aggression of their male partners was in part a desire to engage their attention, particularly emotionally. Tyree and Malone (1991) referred to this motivation as "making contact," a misguided attempt by women to use physical aggression to reestablish emotional contact with their male partners. This rationale for female aggression offers a striking parallel to Bogard's (1988) finding that abusive husbands claimed "... that they use force to achieve a beneficial end such as improved communication" with their spouses. In additions, a number of these college women did not believe they would (or could) seriously injure their partners.

But as Straus points out so well (Straus 1999a), this is a dangerous view. "From a social policy perspective, despite the much lower probability of physical injury resulting from attacks by women, one of the main reasons why "minor" assaults by women are such an important problem is that they put women in danger of much more severe retaliation by men (Feld & Straus, 1989)" (Straus 1999a), in "What is Violence?"

Deeper reasons

In the survey they offered respondents two sets of reasons for initiating aggression, five "immediate reasons" and ten "deeper reasons." Of the 285 women admitting initiating an assault, 280 endorsed one or more of the "immediate reasons." Agreement with each of the five reasons ranged from 38 percent to 46 percent.

Fiebert Table 3
Deeper Reasons Women Selected for Initiating Aggression
from Fiebert, Martin S. and Gonzalez, Denise M., "College Women who Initiate Assaults on their Male Partners and the Reasons offered for Such Behavior
Psychological Reports, 1997, 80, 583-90, Table 3. © Psychological Reports, 1997
       
Item # Deeper Reason: Item % n
11 Other 65% 153
10 I believe that men can readily protect themselves so I don't worry when I become physically aggressive. 24% 56
2 I have found that most men have been trained not to hit a woman, and therefore I am not fearful of retaliation from my partner. 19% 45
8 I believe if women truly are equal to men then women should be able to physically express anger at men. 13% 31
9 I feel personally empowered when I behave aggressively against my partner. 12% 29
7 I learned when growing up that I could be physically aggressive toward my brother and he would not fight back. 10% 24
5 I sometimes find when I express my anger physically I become turned on sexually. 8% 19
6 My mother would, at times, be physically aggressive to my father or my stepfather. 8% 18
4 I believe it is important and healthy to physically express anger particularly in a personal relationship. 6% 15
1 I believe that women are in charge in a domestic situation and have the right to strike their partners if they break the rules. 6% 14
3 I have seen and admired women in the movies, and on TV, who strike their partners. 3% 8
Note: One or more reasons could be selected by each participant.

The "deeper reasons" did not generate that level of agreement. In fact, 65 percent wrote out some other reason, instead. Many of the "other" reasons were similar to the immediate or deeper reasons offered by the researchers, but no content-analysis was attempted. The most common responses were that she didn't have to worry, because men can readily protect themselves (24% of respondents) and that she did not need to fear retaliation because most men have been trained not to hit a woman (19%.) The next most frequent category, "I believe if women truly are equal to men then women should be able to physically express anger at men" received a 13% response, while "I feel personally empowered when I behave aggressively against my partner," received only a 12% response

Critique

Fiebert and Gonzalez constructed the list of "deeper reasons" in consultation with Dr. Warren Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power, and it is not surprising that the "deeper" reasons focused on social views, rather than the respondents' personal life experiences, such as feeling powerless or frustrated in life.

The reasons that the researchers selected were not ones that struck a chord with the respondents, it would appear, since 65 percent of the respondents preferred to write out their own reason and none of the ten "deeper" reasons received a particularly large response.

The unanswered question: Why do Men abuse?

The "deeper" reasons suggested by the researchers appear to focus on social and gender-based roles. Thus, they look at differences between why men initiate violence and why women do. For men, feminist research suggests that domestic violence is an effort to control women, and a sign of male oppression of women. But other, more gender-neutral research on the nature of aggression suggest that fear and powerlessness are major factors in resorting to violence.

It would be interesting to do a survey using reasons that reflect respondents' personal life experiences and situations in life. Perhaps this could be done with a gender-neutral list of factors, including ones we suspect more women will respond to, and ones we think more men will respond to.

Here's a list of some possible questions, that seek to define some (relatively) mutually-exclusive categories of life-experience that may contribute to initiating violence. These have been formulated through content-analysis of the stories that battered men have submitted to MenWeb and by in-depth discussions with experts on relationships, more than on any thorough review of the literature on factors believed to contribute to initiation of violence.

  • I frequently feel frustrated or powerless in life and, frankly, sometimes I take it out on my spouse.
  • If my spouse were different, or treated me differently, I wouldn't feel so frustrated.
  • My life hasn't at all turned out like I expected or hoped it would be.
  • Sometimes it's important to keep my partner in line, or get through to my partner, and hitting or slapping her is one way
  • My partner often goes on and on, and a lot of the times it feels like she's pounding on me. The only way to make it stop, sometimes, is to strike out.
  • Sometimes what he says is so outrageous, he deserves to be slapped to knock some sense into him.
  • I have more difficulty controlling emotional and physical outbursts if I've been drinking or on drugs.
 
     

SUMMARY

Studies of spousal and dating violence indicate that women are as likely as men to assault their partners physically. This investigation examined the issue of the initiation of physical assaults by women on their male partners and the reasons offered for such behavior. Responses from 978 female college women indicate that, within a 5-year period, 20% (n=285) admitted to physical aggression against their male partners. Younger women in their 20s were significantly more likely to aggress physically than women who were 30 years and above. Women stated that they expressed aggression toward their male partners because they wished to engage their partner's attention, particularly emotionally. Also, assaultive women did not believe that their male victims would be seriously injured or would retaliate.

Correspondence and reprint requests should be sent to Martin S. Fiebert, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, California State University, Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Boulevard, Long Beach CA 90840 or e-mail mfiebert@CSULB.edu.

Related research: Gonzalez, D. M. (1997). Why females initiate violence: A study examining the reasons behind assaults on men. Unpublished master's thesis, California State University, Long Beach. (225 college women participated in a survey which examined their past history and their rationales for initiating aggression with male partners. Subjects also responded to 8 conflict scenarios which provided information regarding possible reasons for the initiation of aggression. Results indicate that 55% of the subjects admitted to initiating physical aggression toward their male partners at some point in their lives. The most common reason was that aggression was a spontaneous reaction to frustration) (Summary from Fiebert, Annotated Bibliography.)

You can find out more about Dr. Martin Fiebert and the research he has conducted at his Web site.

     

Return to Latest Research Findings page.
Check out Books for or about Battered Men.
Return to the MenWeb section on Battered Men.
Summary of 32 studies on dating violence, by Rev. Jim & Bunny Sewell. "Studies comparing gender differences in dating violence"

     

Other Resources

Domestic Violence in Washington: 25,473 Men a Year
According to a Nov. 1998 Department of Justice report on the National Violence Against Women Survey, 1,510,455 women and 834,732 men are victims of physical violence by an intimate. In Washington, that's 42,824 women and 25,473 men. That includes 2,754 on whom a knife was used, 5,508 threatened with a knife and 11,016 hit with an object. Here are the data.

Help for Battered Men Practical suggestions, Hotline numbers, on-line resources. Print it out and hand it to a man you think may be battered--your caring opens him up to talking about it.

Men's Stories Here are some personal stories by battered men, and links to sites with more of them. The more we talk about it, the more we tell our stories, the more we increase public awareness that men are battered and encourage battered men to get the help they need. Send us your story, so we can post it here (anonymously, of course, unless you tell us differently.)

What's Wrong with the Duluth Model? The "Duluth Model" is the approach most widely used for perpetrator treatment--but it gender polarizes the "people problem" of domestic violence.. What's wrong with the Duluth Model? It blames and shames men. It's based on ideology, not science. It ignores drinking, drugs and pathology. Only one cause, only one solution. There's no real evidence it works. It ignores domestic violence by women. Women who need help can't get it. It's taught by wounded healers.

Latest Research Findings National Violence Against Women survey shows 37.5% of victims each year are men. Men are at real risk of serious physical injury. Murray A. Straus looks at controversies in DV research. Martin Fiebert examines reasons women give for assaulting men. JAMA emergency room study shows equal number of men, woman victims.

 
     


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