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The Debate Over Men’s Versus Women’s Family Violence

Michael Flood
[Citation: Flood, Michael (2006) The Debate Over Men’s Versus Women’s Family Violence. AIJA
(Australian Institute of Judicial Administration) Family Violence Conference, Adelaide, 23-24
The debate over men’s versus women’s family violence is increasingly prominent, both in academic
scholarship and in popular culture. We have always known that both men and women are capable of
using violence, and that both men and women are the victims of violence. At the same time, family
violence has long been understood to be a problem largely of violence by men, against women and
children. Most men are not violent, and in their intimate and sexual relations with women, most men
practise non-violence, consent, and respect. But when women are subjected to violence in families
and interpersonal relations, their assailant is most likely to be male.
However, a very different understanding of family violence is now increasingly visible. Here,
domestic or family violence is seen to be gender-equal or gender-neutral. In this paper, I assess this
claim. I will demonstrate that there is no ‘gender symmetry’ in domestic violence, there are important
differences between men’s and women’s typical patterns of victimisation, and while men often are the
victims of violence, they are most at risk from other men. I identify the political agendas associated
with the claim that family violence is gender-equal, and I offer strategies of response.
A note on terminology
Family violence was first placed on the public agenda through the efforts and activism of the
women’s movements and feminism. The term ‘family violence’ refers to interpersonal violence
enacted in family settings, and is often used interchangeably with the term ‘domestic violence’.
‘Domestic violence’ refers to interpersonal violence enacted in domestic settings, family
relationships, and intimate relationships, and is most readily applied to violence by a man to his wife,
female sexual partner or ex-partner. However, ‘domestic violence’ also can be used to denote violence
between same-sex sexual partners, among family members (including siblings and parent-child
violence either way), and by women against male partners. Definitions of ‘domestic violence’ often
center on violence between sexual partners or ex-partners, while the phrase ‘family violence’ more
clearly includes violence against children and between family members. However, the usefulness of
this phrase is affected by how one understands the term ‘family’ (Macdonald 1998, 10-13).
Both terms have further limitations. ‘Domestic’ violence often takes place in non-domestic settings,
such as when young women experience dating violence in a boyfriend’s car or other semi-public
place. Definitions of ‘domestic violence’, ‘family violence’, or ‘partner violence’ may exclude
violence in relationships where the sexual partners have neither married nor cohabited (Jasinski &
Williams 1998, x). Both ‘domestic violence’ and ‘family violence’ are often understood as distinct
from sexual violence, but sexual coercion is a common element in violence against women by male
partners or ex-partners. Some feminists criticize both terms ‘domestic violence’ and ‘family violence’
for deflecting attention from the sex of the likely perpetrator (male), likely victim (female), and the
gendered character of the violence (Maynard & Winn 1997, 180). Yet the alternative phrase ‘men’s
violence against women’ excludes violence against children or men and by women.
Two other terms commonly applied to some or all of these forms of violence are men’s violence
against women and intimate violence, while newer terms include relationship violence, partner
violence, and gender-based violence. Each term excludes some forms of violence, is accompanied by
certain theoretical and political claims, and is subject to shifting meanings in the context of both

academic and popular understandings. The names chosen to describe and explain forms of
interpersonal violence will never perfectly contain the phenomenon (Macdonald 1998, 36), and any
act of naming involves methodological, theoretical, and political choices.
In one sense, any physical aggression between family members rightly can be named “family
violence”, as this communicates the message that such violence is unacceptable. This approach is
adopted by one school within violence research, “family conflict” studies, in which family violence is
measured using a tool titled the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS). However, as I argue in more detail later
in this paper, this definition obscures important variations in the meaning, consequences, and context
of violent behaviors in families and relationships.
Assessing the claim of gender symmetry in family violence
Debates regarding the ‘gender symmetry’ of family violence are an important focus of recent
scholarship. Rates of domestic violence have been measured using two bodies of data: crime
victimisation studies (based on large-scale aggregate data for example from household and crime
surveys and police statistics), and family conflict studies measuring aggressive behaviour in married
and cohabiting couples. Crime victimisation studies find marked gender asymmetries in domestic
violence: men assault their partners and ex-partners at rates several times the rate at which women
assault theirs, and female victims greatly outnumber male victims.1 On the hand, family conflict
studies find gender symmetries at least in the use of violence (Archer 1999). The contrast between
these findings is the product of differing samples and particularly of different definitions and
measurements of domestic violence.
In popular and policy debates, it is anti-feminist men’s and fathers’ rights groups (Flood 2004) who
are the most enthusiastic proponents of the claim that family violence is gender-equal. These groups
claim that men and women assault each other at equal rates and with equal effects, and that an
epidemic of husband-battering is being ignored if not silenced. However, claims about women’s
violence to men also are made by other men in the community, responding defensively to public
communication campaigns on men’s violence against women (Hubert 2003, pp. 50-51).
To support the claim that domestic violence is gender-symmetrical, advocates draw almost
exclusively on studies using a measurement tool called the Conflict Tactics Scale. The CTS situates
domestic violence within the context of “family conflict”. It asks one partner in a relationship
whether, in the last year, they or their spouse have ever committed any of a range of violent acts. CTS
studies generally find gender symmetries in the use of violence in relationships. There are three
problems with the use made of such studies by fathers’ rights activists.
First, men’s rights and fathers’ rights groups make only selective use of this data, as CTS authors
themselves reject efforts to argue that women’s violence against men is as common or as harmful as
men’s violence against women (Kimmel 2001, 22).
Second, there are serious methodological problems with the Conflict Tactics Scale. The CTS is
widely criticized for not gathering information about the intensity, context, consequences or meaning
of the action. The CTS focuses on counting a series of violent ‘acts’, defining as ‘violent’ a person
who commits one or several of these acts and treating very different acts as similar (Dobash &
Dobash 2004, 330). The CTS does not tell us whether violent acts were a single incident or part of a
pattern of violence, ignores who initiates the violence (when women are more likely to use violence in
self-defense), assumes that violence is used expressively (e.g. in anger) and not instrumentally (to
‘do’ power or control), omits violent acts such as sexual abuse, stalking and intimate homicide2,
ignores the history of violence in the relationship, and neglects the question of who is injured (Flood
For example, the National Violence Against Women Survey, a nationally-representative sample of 16,000 men and
women in the United States over 1995-96, found that 22.1 percent of women and 7.4 percent of men were physically
assaulted by a current or former intimate partner in their lifetime (Tjaden & Thoennes 2000, 25-26).

1999; Dobash & Dobash 2004, 329-332). In addition, the CTS depends only on reports either by the
husband or the wife despite poor interspousal reliability. The evidence is that wives and husbands
disagree considerably both about what violence was used and how often it was used, and that wives
are more likely than husbands to admit to their own violence (Dobash & Dobash 2004, 333; Flood
1999). Finally, CTS studies exclude incidents of violence that occur after separation and divorce. Yet
Australian and international data show that it is the time around and after separation which is most
dangerous for women (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1996: 8; Dobash & Dobash 2004, 329-332).
Studies using the Conflict Tactics Scale often find apparent ‘symmetry’ or ‘equivalence’ in
interpersonal violence precisely because the CTS treats violence in a highly decontextualised and
abstracted way. In other words, this acts-based method actually produces findings of gender equality
in domestic violence, while obscuring the actual patterns, meaning, and impact of violence by men or
women (Dobash & Dobash 2004, 332).
Third, a wide range of other data find marked gender asymmetries in domestic violence. As I have
mentioned, household and crime surveys, police statistics, and hospital data all show that perpetrators
of adult family violence are most likely to be male and victims are most likely to be female.
Feminist and other scholars have worked to reconcile the conflicting findings of these bodies of data.
One important insight is the recognition of different patterns of violent behaviour in couples and
relationships. Some heterosexual relationships suffer from occasional outbursts of violence by either
husbands or wives during conflicts, what some (Johnson 1995, 284-285) call “common couple
violence”. Here, the violence is relatively minor, both partners practise it, it is expressive in meaning,
it tends not to escalate over time, and injuries are rare. In situations of “patriarchal terrorism” on the
other hand, one partner (usually the man) uses violence and other controlling tactics to assert or
restore power and authority. The violence is more severe, it is asymmetrical, it is instrumental in
meaning, it tends to escalate, and injuries are more likely.
CTS studies are only a weak measure of levels of minor ‘expressive’ violence in conflicts among
heterosexual couples. They are poorer again as a measure of ‘instrumental’ violence, in which one
partner uses violence and other tactics to assert power and authority or to restore them when they are
perceived to be breaking down (Johnson 1995, 284–285).
In the typical situation of male-to-female domestic violence, the man’s physical aggression is
accompanied by a wide range of other abusive, controlling, and harmful behaviors. He threatens his
partner with the use of violence against her or their children, sexually assaults her, and intimidates her
with frightening gestures, destruction of property, and showing weapons. He isolates her and monitors
her behavior, which increases his control, increases her emotional dependence on him, and makes it
easier to perpetrate and hide physical abuse. He practises insults, mind-games, and emotional
manipulation such that the victim’s self-esteem is undermined and she feels she has no other options
outside the relationship. Finally, he minimizes and denies the extent of his violent behavior, disavows
responsibility for his actions, and blames the victim for the abuse (Gamache 1990, 74-79). Such
efforts, while certainly not always successful, make it more likely that the woman will follow his rules
and even act against her own best interests.
Recognition of such patterns informs some feminist authors’ argument that domestic violence or
intimate partner abuse can be best understood as chronic behavior that is characterized not by the
episodes of physical violence which punctuate the relationship but by the emotional and psychological
abuse that the perpetrator uses to maintain control over their partner. In fact, many female victims report
that the physical violence they suffer is less damaging than the relentless psychological abuse that
cripples and isolates them.

The Revised Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS2) now includes measures of sexual coercion (Straus et al. 1996).

Contrasts in women’s and men’s experiences of family violence

There is no doubt that men are the victims of family violence. Men experience domestic violence at
the hands of female and male sexual partners, ex-partners, and other family members. A growing
body of research tells us that there are important contrasts in women’s and men’s experiences of
violence by intimate partners. Women are far more likely than men to be subjected to frequent,
prolonged, and extreme violence, to sustain injuries, to fear for their lives, and to be sexually
assaulted (Kimmel 2001, 19; Bagshaw et al. 2000; Belknap & Melton 2005, 5-6; Swan and Snow
2002, 290-291). Putting this the other way around, as a recent Australian study found, when men are
subject to domestic violence by women, the violence is not as prolonged and nor is it as extreme, they
are far less likely to be injured, and they are less likely to fear for their own safety. In addition, men
subjected to domestic violence by women rarely experience post-separation violence and have more
financial and social independence (Bagshaw et al. 2000). It is a consistent finding that men’s violence
has more negative consequences than women’s violence, in terms of physical injury, psychological
harms such as depression, and fear of the partner, whether one examines men and women dually
arrested for domestic violence, in domestic violence treatment programs, or seeking care in hospital
emergency departments (Holtzworth-Munroe 2005, 252-253).
A recent study among heterosexual couples provides a useful example of the contrast in women’s and
men’s typical experiences of intimate partner violence. Using the Conflict Tactics Scale and other
measures including in-depth interviews, Dobash and Dobash (2004, 334) document that “women’s
violence differs from that perpetrated by men in terms of nature, frequency, intention, intensity,
physical injury and emotional impact”;
Every type of violent or threatening act is perpetrated more often by men than women;
Every type of injury is inflicted more often by men on women than by women on men, and men
are much more likely to inflict serious injuries. Other studies identify similar patterns, noting for
example that women are more likely than men to need medical treatment, lose time from work,
and so on (Belknap & Melton 2005, 5-6).
Women and men agree more about women’s violence than men’s violence, with men but not
women tending to underreport their own use of violence;
Women and men agree that women’s violence is far less ‘serious’ than men’s. Women
subjected to violence by their male partners feel frightened, helpless, trapped, and so on, while
men subjected to violence by their female partners are ‘not bothered’, see it as insignificant or
ludicrous or even admirable, and see its impact as largely inconsequential (Dobash & Dobash
2004, 336-341; Belknap & Melton 2005, 6).
As this suggests, there are also contrasts in the intentions, motivations, and nature of men’s and
women’s uses of domestic violence. Women’s physical violence towards intimate male partners is
largely in self-defense, according to studies among female perpetrators (DeKeseredy et al. 1997;
Hamberger et al. 1994; Swan & Snow 2002, 301), men presenting to hospital Emergency
Departments with injuries inflicted by their female partners (Muelleman & Burgess 1998, 866), and
heterosexual couples (Dobash & Dobash 2004, 345). In other words, when a woman is violent to her
male partner, it is usually in the context of his violence to her. It is largely reactive, and self-protective
(Dobash & Dobash 2004, 345). In a study among American university undergraduates, women’s use
of physical violence was more likely than men’s to occur in the context of a partner’s violence to
them. This suggests that women were unlikely to be deliberately using violence to exert control over
their partners, and that their violence is more likely to be bilateral (two-way) or defensive (Cercone et
al. 2005, 215). Various studies find gender contrasts in motivations for perpetrating relationship
aggression. Women are more likely to identify emotional expression, self-defense, or retaliation as
reasons for their aggression, while men are more likely to identify instrumental reasons directed

towards particular goals (e.g. ‘to get her to stop nagging and leave me alone’) (Holtzworth-Munroe
2005, 253). Female perpetrators of domestic violence are less likely and less able than male
perpetrators to use nonphysical tactics to maintain control over their partners (Swan & Snow 2002,
On the other hand, women’s intimate violence can also be motivated by efforts to show anger and
other feelings, desire for attention, retaliation for emotional hurt, jealousy, and control (Hamberger et
al. 1994), and CTS-based studies find significant proportions of couples characterized by female-only
violence (Hines & Malley-Morrison 2001, 78-80). It is inadequate to explain women’s violence
simply in terms of their own oppression and powerlessness, and naïve to assume that women are
immune from using violence to gain or maintain power in relationships (Russo 2001, 16-19).
There is also evidence that there are different predictors for men’s versus women’s perpetration of
intimate partner violence. Men’s perpetration of physical or sexual violence against women is
predicted by hostile and patriarchal attitudes towards women (Heise 1998, 277; O’Neil & Harway
1997, Murnen et al. 2002) and the acceptance of interpersonal violence. On the other hand, some
studies find that women’s perpetration of partner violence is predicted by lesser acceptance of
violence, or depression, or low self-esteem (Cercone et al. 2005, 208).
Both female and male victims may stay in relationships with their partner because of a belief that the
violence will ease, concern for the children, geographical location, familiarity, shame and
embarrassment (Bagshaw et al. 2000). However, battered women are more likely than men to stay
with their abuser because of fear and emotional and financial dependency. Men may stay because of
their commitment to marriage, love, reluctance to lose contact with their children, or reluctance to
adopt a lower standard of living, some of which are similar concerns for women (Hines & Malley-
Morrison 2001, 81; Stockdale 1998, 117).
Both CTS-based and crime victimisation studies rely on retrospective reporting. It has been argued
that men are likely to under-estimate and under-report their subjection to domestic violence by
women, because admitting such victimisation and vulnerability is emasculating (George 1994, 149).
For example, many of the twenty male victims in an Australian qualitative study said that they did not
report the domestic violence because of their humiliation at not being to handle themselves as men, a
sense that as men they had to fix things themselves, and the expectation that police would laugh at
them or be biased towards them (Stockdale 1998, 63).
Men’s under-reporting is cited as one key reason why reported rates of domestic violence do not
substantiate claims for widespread ‘husband battering’. However, it is well documented that female
victims also under-report their victimisation, and there is no evidence that men are more likely than
women to do so. In fact, the evidence is that men tend to over-estimate their partner’s violence (e.g.
because of the masculine norm that violence is only legitimate if in retaliation for violence already
committed) while women under-estimate their partner’s violence (e.g. in normalising and excusing it).
On the other hand, men tend to under-estimate their own violence, while women tend to over-estimate
theirs (because women using violence is a greater transgression of gender norms and thus more
memorable) (Kimmel 2001, 10-11). Currie (1998) too finds that men upgrade women’s violent
behaviour, finding it ‘notable’ and ‘remarkable’, while women discount, under-estimate, downplay
and normalize the violent behaviour of their male partners.
Crying crocodile tears
‘Men’s rights’ and ‘fathers’ rights’ groups are the most vocal proponents of the claims that family
violence is gender-equal and large numbers of men are the victims of violence at the hands of their
wives and female partners. However, this concern for male victims is hollow. Fathers’ rights
advocates shed tears over the male victims of family violence, but these are crocodile tears. The
fathers’ rights movement’s attention to domestic violence against men is not motivated by a genuine

concern for male victimisation, but by political agendas concerning family law, child custody and
divorce (Kaye & Tolmie 1998, 53-57). This is evident in three ways.
The real character of violence against men
First, the fathers’ rights movement focuses on violence to men by women, when the great majority of
the violence inflicted on men is not by female partners or ex-partners but by other men.
Domestic violence is but one of the many forms of violence to which men are subjected. In Western
countries, typically males are the majority of the victims of murder, manslaughter, and serious
physical assaults. Nearly half (44.9 percent) of men in the U.S. have been physically assaulted since
age 18, compared to one-third (30.6 percent) of women (Tjaden & Thoennes 2000, 43). Boys in
schools are subjected to physical and verbal harassment at levels similar to that directed at girls. In
particular contexts such as prisons, physical and sexual violence against males is endemic. Among
these myriad injustices done to males, domestic violence represents only a small proportion of
incidents. From national American data, while two-thirds (64 percent) of women who reported being
raped, physically assaulted and/or stalked were victimized by current or former intimate partners, half
(50.4 percent) of men were victimized by a stranger, one-quarter by an acquaintance, and only 16.2
percent by a current or former intimate partner (ibid, 46). Australian crime victimisation surveys find
a similar disparity, in that less than one percent of violent incidents among men is by partners or ex-
partners, compared to one-third of incidents among women (Ferrante et al. 1996, 104). Similarly, a
four-year study of admissions to the Emergency Department of a Missouri hospital found that among
the over 8,000 men who had been assaulted and injured, only forty-five men were injured by their
intimate female partners or ex-partners, representing 0.55 percent of male assault visits and 0.05
percent of all male visits (Muelleman & Burgess 1998, 867). Australian data finds that men are much
less likely than women to be subject to violent incidents in the home (ten percent versus forty-three
percent), more likely to be assaulted in public places, and their assailants are most likely to be
strangers (seventy-five percent versus thirty-one percent) (Ferrante et al. 1996, 56–61).
While fathers’ rights groups wail over men allegedly battered by their female partners, they ignore the
mounting toll of injury and death among males bashed outside the pub by other males, gay men and
others perceived to be gay who are the victims of brutal hate crimes, and boys and young men bullied
and beaten by other boys in schools.
In the wider context of interpersonal violence then, the victims of violence often are male — and in
the vast majority of cases, so are the perpetrators. Boys and men are most at risk of physical harm,
injury and death from other boys and men. More broadly, violence against women and violence
against men is predominantly male violence (Tjaden & Thoennes 2000, 46). Nevertheless, men are
also subject to domestic violence by intimate female partners, as well as male partners and family
Even if we do focus on men’s subjection to violence in families, we must recognise that this violence
is as likely to be perpetrated by other, often male, family members as it is by a wife or girlfriend. In
families, adult men are assaulted by uncles, brothers, sons, and other family members. Public debates
over domestic violence against men also neglect violence in gay male relationships.
There is a second way in which the fathers rights’ movement betrays the fact that its concern for male
victims of domestic violence is hollow. The fathers rights’ movement seeks to erode the protections
available to victims of domestic violence and to bolster the rights and freedoms of alleged
perpetrators, and this harms female and male victims of domestic violence alike.
Protecting perpetrators and undermining supports for victims

The fathers’ rights movement has sought to wind back the protections afforded to the fictitious
‘victims’ of violence and to introduce legal penalties for their dishonest and malicious behavior. The
Lone Fathers’ Association and other groups argue that claims of violence or abuse should be made on
oath, they should require police or hospital records, and people making allegations which are not then
substantiated, and those who have helped them, should be subject to criminal prosecution. They call
for similar limitations to do with protection orders (Lone Fathers’ Association 2004; Dads On The Air
2005). Fathers’ rights groups also attempt to undermine the ways in which domestic violence is
treated as criminal behavior. They emphasise the need to keep the family together, call for the greater
use of mediation and counseling, and reject pro-arrest policies. Such changes would represent a
profound erosion of the protections and legal redress available to the victims of violence and the ease
with which they and their advocates can seek justice.
Fathers’ rights groups often respond to issues of domestic and sexual violence from the point of view
of the perpetrator. And they respond in the same way as actual male perpetrators: they minimise and
deny the extent of this violence, blame the victim, and explain the violence as a mutual or reciprocal
process (Hearn 1996, 105). This sympathy for and collusion with perpetrators is evident in other ways
too. Fathers’ rights advocates have expressed sympathy or justification for men who use violence
against women and children in the context of family law proceedings. And, ironically, they use men’s
violence to demonstrate how victimised men are by the family law system (Kaye & Tolmie 1998, 57-
58). Fathers’ rights groups also attack media and community campaigns focused on men’s violence
against women, call for the de-funding and abolition of what they call the “domestic violence
industry”, and engage in the harassment of community sector and women’s organisations which
respond to the victims of violence (Flood 2003, 42; Matheson 1996; Young 1996).
Thus, while fathers’ rights groups purport to advocate on behalf of male victims of family violence,
they seek to undermine the policies and services that would protect and gain justice for these same
men. Their efforts in family law and elsewhere are already putting women, children and indeed men
at greater risk of violence and abuse. The fathers’ rights movement has exacerbated our culture’s
systematic silencing and blaming of victims of violence and hampered efforts to respond effectively
to the victims and perpetrators of violence.
Whether female or male, and whether subjected to family violence by men or women, victims of
family violence deserve sympathy, support, and services. This should go without saying. At the same
time, we simply do not have to assume that men are fifty per cent of family violence victims in order
to recognise and respond to male victimisation. The claim that family violence is gender-equal is a
monumental distraction from the very urgent task of responding effectively to victims and working to
change the social conditions which lead to family violence in the first place.
Advocacy on domestic violence by men’s rights and fathers’ rights groups represents a ill-informed
and dangerous response to this issue. However, I should also note that there are other, organised
responses among men to the issue of violence which are more positive. For example, men in
Australia, working in partnership with women and women’s organisations, are running the White
Ribbon Campaign. The White Ribbon Campaign is an international effort to help end men’s violence
against women, focused on the positive roles that men can play in helping to stop this violence. To
find out more, visit the website: I would be thrilled to see an
equally large campaign focused on violence against men – on one condition, that it focus on the
violence that represents the most frequent, pervasive, and urgent threat to men’s well-being, namely,
violence by other men.
How can we respond to the increasingly frequent claim that women’s family violence to men is as
common and as harmful as men’s family violence to women? There are several elements to an
appropriate response. First, we must acknowledge that yes, men are often the victims of violence,

including violence by female partners. Second, reiterate the overarching point, that all forms of
violence are unacceptable. Third, acknowledge male victimisation by female partners in particular.
Note the contrast between women’s and men’s typical experiences of family violence. (And, if
relevant, identify the methodological problems with those studies purporting to show gender
symmetry in family violence.) Fourth, emphasise that men are most at risk of harm from other men.
Beyond all this of course, there is the real work of violence prevention that must be done. We must
work to undermine the beliefs and values which support violence, challenge the power relations
which sustain and are sustained by violence, and promote alternative constructions of gender and
sexuality which foster non-violence and gender justice.

Dr Michael Flood
Postdoctoral Fellow
Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS)
La Trobe University
E-mail: michael.flood[at]
PO Box 4026, Ainslie ACT, 2602
Permission is given for this document to be circulated or posted online.

Further resources and reading

Critiques of ‘fathers’ rights’ and ‘men’s rights’ claims about violence, family law, custody, etc.:

Websites on violence (both national and international)

Articles on articles on men’s work in helping to stop violence against women, here:

Websites on men’s roles in stopping violence against women

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