The Politics Of The Domestic Violence Movement by David Fontes, Psy.D.

© 1998 - David L. Fontes


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It was a tall man who walked into my Employee Assistance Program (EAP) office some four years ago. His manager had referred him to EAP because the employee had missed several days of work due to "family problems." He had a quiet manner when he began to share about his stress at home. He was concerned about the way his wife physically 'disciplined' their children. A week later when his children were brought into my office, showing bruises all over their backs from their mother's punishment, a Child Protective Service report was made. It was then that I asked this man a question that I do not believe I had ever asked a man before, "Did your wife ever hit you?" He put his head down as if in shame and said "Yes."

He then began to share seven years of both physical and verbal abuse from his wife. What was haunting about his story was that I had heard similar stories from women, only this time it came from a man. I realized that day that I had a bias when it came to the topic of domestic violence. All of my training as a counselor and therapist never prepared me to understand that domestic violence is not a gender specific event but a family system problem. Since this experience I began to ask men the same questions I asked women when it came to spousal abuse. I was surprised by the number of men who shared with me their stories of being physically assaulted by their female partners. As an EAP manager I became discouraged at how few services and outreach programs their were for these male victims of spousal assault.

So why are there no outreach programs for male victims of domestic violence in our local communities? Why do so few men talk to others about their secret pain and fewer yet report it to law enforcement? Having completed my doctoral research on this topic and investigating the problem for three years I have come to some possible answers to these questions.

Forty to fifty years ago few people wanted to discuss spousal abuse in this country. Arrests that law enforcement would make between people in the general public were avoided when it involved couples in the home. In the early seventies some courageous women who were physically assaulted by their male partners did begin to speak to others about their painful secret. Feminists groups rallied around these women and gave them their voice and political power to encourage legislators and community leaders to focus attention on this issue. These feminists became strong advocates for these women and were slowly joined by concerned politicians and civic leaders. As a result, funding and services for women and their children were established to help rebuild their lives (VAWA, 1994). Although these feminists have helped thousands of women escape the abuse by their male partner I have come to see that they have only addressed half of the problem.

In general, feminists, especially 'gender feminists' as compared to 'equity feminists' (Hoff-Sommers, 1994), are primarily, if not exclusively interested in showcasing the maltreatment of females by males in society and are not particularly interested in showcasing the maltreatment of males by females, especially in the area of spousal abuse and child abuse. The only domestic violence discourse which we hear from gender feminists is the abuse that happens to females by males and not the other way around.

It should also be mentioned that it was these same gender feminists who for the most part established and later took over many of the domestic violence shelters throughout the world. Erin Pizzey, who founded the world's first woman's shelter, believes that the shelter movement has been 'hijacked' by feminists, (National Post, Nov. 23, 1998). These are strong words from the founder of the first shelter worldwide. It could be said that if it were not for the efforts of feminists there might not have been many shelters today to take care of women. On the other hand, it can also be said that the shelter movement and many shelters across our nation have indeed become havens for feminists to gather and promulgate their beliefs both locally and nationally.

As a result, although some shelters say they work with male victims, what they really mean is that they may work with male victims if they happen to show up at their door. This was not the strategy that was used to help female victims of domestic violence come out of their abuse to safety some twenty years ago.

Back then shelters began active outreach and educational programs which were designed to help women first, recognize their abuse and second, how to receive assistance for themselves and their children. What makes shelter administrators today believe men will come forward as victims of domestic violence until they do the same for them? It is upsetting to hear a shelter worker say, "Well, if we had more men come forward we would have groups and outreach programs set up for them." These shelter workers surely did not take this approach twenty years ago when faced with the challenge of helping women.

It was because of the active outreach programs designed for females by shelters that women began to come forward for assistance. Why do they now believe that men will come forward without first establishing outreach programs designed to educate and assistant the male victim? This leads me to believe that the board members, administrators, and the national leadership within the shelter movement are just not interested in reaching out to male victims or in setting up programs for them. If this is true, then the first question to be asked is why?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that most shelters and domestic violence centers are run by gender feminist types who have strong gender biases, or by women who were victims of domestic violence themselves and only have their personal experience with partner abuse to form their world view. Both equity and gender feminists say they believe in basic civil rights and equal opportunity for women, yet equity feminists tend to focus on ending double standards between men and women, emphasize the similarities between the genders, and believe that equal rights also means equal responsibility for all adults, both females and males.

Gender feminists, on the other hand, tend to emphasize the social and innate differences between the genders. They tend to assert that men and women are from two different planets instead of planet earth, sharing little in common. Because gender feminists tend to strongly emphasize the differences between men and women they tend to embrace new double standards between the sexes. This leads them to support the idea that female offenders of spousal abuse should be treated differently than male offenders by law enforcement, the judicial system and therapists. They tend to make more excuses for the adult behavior of female perpetrators. The bumper sticker that reads "There is no excuse for domestic violence," ought to read for the gender feminist, "There is no excuse for domestic violence, unless you are a woman."

What gender feminists fail to understand, or purposefully avoid, is that whenever you make an excuse for the adult behavior of a woman you are juvenilizing her, treating her like a child or infant. This is the very attitude that equity feminists have been fighting so hard to correct.

To their credit, gender feminists have been very successful in persuading a patriarchal system, that wants to be seen as the protector and provider of women and children, to provide millions of dollars to help the always innocent female victim of male oppression and control. This formula has worked well for shelters in keeping them operating, which in itself is a good thing, but should not happen at the expense of male victims.

Gender feminists focus a lot of their attention on the 'cultural' oppression and victimization of women by men in our society. It therefore makes it very difficult for them to also recognize the victimization of males by females at any level that warrants their public concern or serious attention. They demand that the social spot light remain on the needs of the female victim, not the male victim. Any serious attempt to include men in the services, funding, and outreach or educational efforts is immediately greeted with serious opposition and sexist justification. This opposition comes in various forms.

The first form of opposition gender feminists employ is to ignore or discredit any research data that suggests women and men assault each other at nearly the same rate. Although archival research, (data which comes from hospitals emergency room visits, arrests reports, district attorney cases, etc.) indicate that between 13-15 percent of the victims of spousal assaults are against men (Bennett, 1997; Brown, Dec. 7, 1997; CDJ, 1997; Beaupre, April 20, 1997), most survey research over the past twenty-five years continues to show that between 35-50 percent of victims of spousal assault are male (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998; Straus, 1978; Steinmetz, 1978; Straus, M. A., & Gelles, R., 1986; Elliot, D. S. et al., 1985; Malcolm, G., 1994; Dunn, K., 1994; Coochey, J., 1995; Carrado et al., 1996).

The gender feminist counter these statistics by saying several things. They say that these studies typically do not address injury levels or the context in which the assault took place. They then attack the methodology of the studies themselves, especially the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) which was developed by Straus and his colleagues at the University of New Hampshire and used in many studies. They also like to attack the research credibility of Straus himself, a researcher who has authored or coauthored well over a hundred articles and thirty books. After studying the work of other researchers like Gelles, Steinmetz, George, Elliott, Sommer, I have come to the realization that there are many other researchers that have found nearly an equal assault rate. And although the data does suggest that their are more women who have various forms of injuries than men, this does not mean that men are not as seriously injured by their female partners at a rate worthy of social concern.

Women are almost twice as likely to use an object than men when they assault their partner, which can equalize the level of injury men sustain (Straus and Gelles, 1986). It is amazing that those who only want to emphasize the level of physical injury against women will then go on to say in the next sentence that verbal, emotional and psychological abuse can have even more damaging affects on women than physical abuse. But they never discuss the verbal, emotion, or psychological abuse many men experience from their wives or girlfriends everyday as something worthy of focus.

Verbal and emotional abuse can be the prelude to later physical abuse. Social efforts should not only be focused on the crisis intervention of physical injuries but must equally focus on preventive efforts that start with verbal and emotional abuse of partners regardless of gender. This is why I have come to see that a lot of domestic abuse is more of a dance of violence between two people than simply one person as the victim and the other person as the perpetrator. There has been research which suggest that 50 to 83 percent of spousal abuse is either bidirectional or mutual assault (Langhinrich-Rohling et al., 1995; Straus, 1997). Other recent studies suggest that only 10 to 20 percent of assaults by women are for clear reasons of self-defense (Carrado, et al., 1996; Sommer, 1994).

In the Sacramento Bee (Stanton, Aug. 5, 1998) it was reported that 1 in 3 women treated in hospital emergency rooms had suffered some form of domestic abuse. Yet, a closer look at the actual report (Dearwater, S. R., 1998) shows that only 1 in 50 (2%) women actually came to the emergency department for injuries that they received by their intimate partners. So where did they come up with 1 in 3 women as victims of spousal abuse? It came by asking the women if they had ever been "emotionally or physically abused by a partner in their lifetime?" Thirty-six percent of the women who can to the emergency department answered this question, "Yes."

Two points should be made here, first the study only asked these questions of women who came to the emergency department, not men, which is typical. And second, it is quite conceivable that if they had asked all the men who come to the emergency department if they had ever been "emotionally or physically abused by a partner in their lifetime" that 36% of the men would have also answered "Yes" to this question. This is the problem with research funding that only studies female victims of spousal abuse.

With all the research over the past twenty-five years that has been completed, it troubles me greatly that most shelters and so-called domestic violence 'fact sheets' continue to assert that only 5% of the victims of domestic violence are men. This simply is not correct. These same advocates also fail to recognize that women are more likely to report their victimization than men. One study showed that women are nine times more likely to report their victimization to police and five times more likely to tell a friend or relative who can then encourage them to get the help they need (Stets and Straus, 1990).

What is very disturbing are those who suggest that unless a victim expresses a certain level of fear they are somehow less of a victim. I have heard presenters say that when women are assaulted they express a high level of fear but when men are assaulted by their wives or girlfriends they are more surprised than fearful. Two points need to be made here:

First, it is unfair to suggest that because men do not show the same level of emotional fear as women, they should not be considered as much a victim of spousal abuse. This belief fails to recognize that male children from an early age are taught to suppress their emotions, especially fear, and certainly not show it openly to others. Perhaps this is societies way to insure that there will be a select pool of people in our society who will be better prepared to enter the armed services in the defense of our country. You do not want soldiers on the battlefield with high levels of fear, or tears on their face, while engaging the enemy, but soldiers who can suppress the emotion of fear in order to accomplish their mission. If men are trained from an early age not to show fear, or sadness, or tears, what is left for them to emotionally express that will convince a shelter worker that he is truly a victim of domestic violence?

Second, shelter workers are more likely to greet male victims with suspect instead of respect. Or they are sending out the message that after they question these men long enough they will discover that they are really not a victim but a perpetrator. In doing so they will not build the kind of therapeutic alliance that is needed for the male victim to trust the worker. He will not share his deep shame, fear, and sadness over the abuse he has sustained from his female partner. If shelter workers are commonly trained to see a perpetrator behind most men, and a victim behind most women, their bias will likely miss the fear many men actually have but do not feel safe to share openly with a suspicious, feminist-type intake worker or therapist.

I am extremely glad that women over the past twenty-five years are finally getting the assistance they need when they are faced with a violent relationship. This paper is not meant to minimize the struggles many women suffer every day because they are living with a violent partner.

The problem with the 'domestic violence movement' is that it has become a feminist political movement more than an agency for helping all victims of domestic violence equally and with the same concern. Although feminists have indeed helped many women, they have done so at the expense of men who are also victims of abuse. It reminds me of some religious group who raises money to help starving children then uses the money to not only help the malnourished children but to also indoctrinate the culture with their particular religious beliefs.

At times it seems that some shelters and women's centers use the female victim of domestic violence to gain the political and monetary power they need to help these women but to also train law enforcement, the judicial system, legislators and the community at large with their gender feminist victimology, and their one-sided, sexist representation of domestic violence. In other words, some of them may be using domestic violence shelters and centers as a vehicle to further their gender feminist dogma and beliefs.

Liberal politicians support the feminists because they see them as political supporters and conservatives. Such politicians want to show that they are also concerned about women's issues and find violence against women legislation as a safe agenda to support. Liberals need to understand that by placing men into the category of perpetrators and women into the category of victims they juvenilize women from taking any responsibility for their adult behavior which is what true equity feminist have fought so hard to overcome for the past thirty years.

Conservatives, on the other hand need to understand that in their need to show that they are women friendly they are supporting the furtherance of sexist feminist dogma by not ensuring that funding for domestic violence legislation includes helping all victims of domestic violence regardless of gender.

In the final analysis, whether dad is verbally or physically abusing mom, or mom is verbally or physically abusing dad, the children are learning the wrong message about how to resolve conflict. This places these children at greater risk of becoming abusive and violent to their partner when they grow up regardless of gender. If we are serious about reducing spousal abuse in the next generation and stopping children from witnessing abuse in the home we need to hold both men and women accountable for their violent behavior with the same standard. We need to insure that all victims of spousal abuse, male or female receive the assistance they need. The spot light has been on the female victim of spousal violence for over twenty-five years, it is finally the time to turn on the stage lights and see who else is on the stage and needs our help.


David L. Fontes is a therapist and EAP manager for the California Department of Social Services.

© 1998 - David L. Fontes, Psy.D., CEAP

5050 Laguna Blvd., Suite 112, PMB 400

Elk Grove, CA 95758

Telephone: (916) 685-5258, ext. 8




| EJF Home | Find Help | Help the EJF | Comments? | Get EJF newsletter | Newsletters |

| Domestic Violence Book | DV Site Map | Data tables | DV bibliography | DV index |


| Chapter 9 — Domestic Violence And Politics |

| Next — Marxism and the roots of radical feminism |

| Back — Personal to political |


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Last modified 5/16/18