Book projects – No Fallen Angels: 2: Lies, damned lies and… facts?

Just what is ‘women’s violence’? If it exists, does it matter? Is there really any need to do anything about? How prevalent is it?What comparisons can we make with the prevalence of men’s violence? The statistics, you might think, ought to be able to answer these questions with ease. And the answer seems to be easy: men’s violence is the only real problem, because it’s obvious, from the surface appearance of the statistics that we have, that women’s violence, if it exists at all, is so rarely reported that it’s statistically irrelevant.

Agreed, that’s what it seems at first glance: but even a brief glance at the detail – especially of the context – behind it shows a picture that’s much more complex – and one that gives no cause for complacency on women’s part. All too often, what underlies the surface appearance of ‘fact’ is a great deal of hype and hysteria – and very little else. Everywhere there’s exaggeration, distortion, invented ‘facts’ to fit prejudices, and all the other classic signs of denial and projection: and whilst they’re usually held somewhat in check in descriptions of men’s violence, they’ve been allowed to run rampant, almost completely unchallenged, whenever women’s violence or women’s responsibility have come into question, preventing realistic scrutiny, or often any scrutiny at all. As a result, the scale of women’s violence is suggested more by what’s missing than by what our culture’s prejudices will allow us to see. Beneath the surface, the easy image of ‘it’s all men’s fault’, the picture is far from pretty: but it’s a picture we need to face.

And when feminists do have the courage to face that picture – because they understand just how much it damages women’s cause – the results are even less pretty: the violence unleashed against women who ‘betray’ other women’s denial and projection is probably the worst of all. But even that is rarely reported: all too often it’s casually dismissed as ‘bitching’, rather than acknowledged for the violence that it is. Until we face this, we can move no further.

It’s not easy to do this, though, because of the almost circular way in which our perceptions are fed by the media, and which in turn feed back into the public media. To illustrate the problem, see how one woman journalist attempts to tackle the problem of women’s violence – in this case the female analogue of the stereotypical ‘wife-basher’ – in an article in a major British newspaper. Headlined “Battered by the women of their dreams”, the bulk of the article consists of interviews with two men who’d been on the receiving end of that violence; yet the journalist begins by minimising the issue, stating that women’s situation is by far the more serious problem:

Nobody would dispute the fact that domestic violence usually means men battering women. An average of two women a week in [Britain] are killed by their husbands or boyfriends, while other studies have shown that one in four women has been hit by her partner. But men are not always the abusers…[1]

… and she continues. She’s correct in that the public image of domestic violence usually seems to mean men battering women: but the image of imbalance, of ‘men doing it to women’, is derived from a series of statistical confusions. When we look a bit more closely – and a bit more realistically – we find that this public image, of violent men against defenceless women, is seriously wrong: it does show a truth – an important truth – but it’s often portrayed as the truth, which it most certainly is not. It then becomes interesting to explore just why it’s so wrong…

The first statistical problem is that far too many women’s advocates habitually try to make their arguments sound stronger by exaggerating, or else misinterpret raw statistics and then quote the subsequent misunderstandings as ‘fact’. Journalists and writers, too, stoke the cycle of exaggeration and confusion to make their stories sound more ‘newsworthy’. The result has been that many minor if significant issues have been inflated to ‘urban myth’ proportions. On the few occasions where investigative journalists have bothered to chase down the stream of references to references to references, all the way back to their original source data, a disturbingly large proportion of supposed ‘truths’ about ‘women’s oppression’ have turned out to have only the most tenuous grounding in fact. Consider a few examples:

Example 1: A standard university textbook on women’s studies, “The Information Explosion”, states as fact that 150,000 American women die each year from complications caused by anorexia. The source for this disturbing fact is Gloria Steinem’s “Revolution From Within”; she quotes it in turn from Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth”, who describes these ‘victims’ as “starved not by nature but by men”. Yet that’s a huge number of deaths: it’s almost three times the annual road-death statistics; almost three times the number of American soldiers killed in the entire Vietnam war, when almost every community knew the pain of having their “boy come home in a box”. Too large a number for common-sense. A suspiciously large number. Christina Hoff Sommers chases the trail of quotations back to their initial source, the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association, and finds that yes, there were an estimated 150,000 sufferers of the self-inflicted ailment – which is not quite the same as 150,000 deaths… According to the Association’s own statistics, in 1992 the actual number of deaths – mostly suicides – was fifty-four: not fifty-four thousand, just plain ordinary fifty-four.[2] In a nation of 250 million people, fifty-four personal tragedies, exaggerated by a factor of ‘only’ 3000 times. And not one of those authors bothered to check… why?

Example 2: Steven Fisher, a representative of the Australian branch of Men Against Sexual Assault, gives a lecture on domestic violence to the Trades Hall Council, as part of trade union support for MASA’s annual ‘White Ribbon Campaign’.[3] He reads to his audience a woman’s story of her violent and abusive husband, and continues: “This situation or something similar is occurring right now in one out of every ten Australian family homes.” His source, he says, is the National Committee on Violence, whose publicity leaflets actually cite a “one in three” statistic – one in three women battered regularly by their male partners. The Committee’s source, in turn, is the Australian Bureau of Statistics – who in 1993 reported not 30 percent, or 10 percent, of households suffering violent abuse each day, but 0.6 percent of households suffering any kind of ‘significant’ physical abuse within the year.[4] The Committee’s representative, Kate Gilmore, eventually admits that they’d extrapolated the Bureau’s figures as if every incident applied only to women, and always to a different woman – thus making a lifetime risk-figure of thirty percent – and then re-interpreted that as a continuous pattern occurring every day. This interestingly creative interpretation effectively exaggerates the reported figures by a factor of several thousand – yet no-one seems willing to challenge it. Indeed, with no further evidence than her own guesswork, Ms Gilmore still asserts that this figure is realistic, insisting that “fact is an elusive notion… feminists have no more distorted the truth than any other advocates of disadvantaged groups”[5] – a statement which must be open to doubt, in her case at least…

Example 3: A rather more realistic feminist, Katie Roiphe, attends the Take Back The Night rally on her campus. The Ms. magazine survey is quoted, stating that one in four female students are raped at college. Another student whispers to her that the ‘real’ statistic is more like one in two. Concerned at the disparity between these figures and her observed reality – in which rape is rare, and violence to men far more common than violence to women – Ms Roiphe checks the numbers. She finds that Berkeley University, for example – a campus with 14,000 students, all in the highest-risk age-group – recorded just two rapes in 1990; between 40 and 80 students talked with the campus rape-counselling service. At her own campus, only two rapes had been reported in the previous decade. “Even if we assume”, she comments, just a little too drily for her detractors’ comfort, “that many students don’t report rapes, even to the sympathetic rape-crisis center, the one-in-four statistic would still leave thousands of rapes unaccounted for.”[6] Despite – or perhaps because of – her professionalism and her honesty as a feminist, Ms Roiphe is extremely unpopular in some supposed ‘feminist’ circles…

Example 4: “Why is 99.9% of all violent crime committed by men?”, asks British academic Rosalind Miles, in her book “The Rites of Man”, in which she defines violence as ‘male’, and maleness as violence. “Why do more men consult their doctors about [sexual] impotence than about anything else?” She gives no sources for either statement, so we have to check those figures ourselves. Turn that first statistic around: she’s stating, as fact, that only 0.1% of all violent crime – ‘crime’ as defined by our culture’s prejudices – is committed by women. Yet even according to the National Committee on Violence – which we’ve already seen badly mangling other figures – that’s too small by a factor of ‘only’ 200 for serious crimes[7], by a factor of 400 for adult and post-infant murders, and more like 800 for infanticides – the latter being a special class of murder not usually listed as such because women greatly predominate as the ‘perpetrators’… Oh, and sexual impotence as the ailment most consulted for by men? Only wrong by a factor of a thousand or so.[8] Dr Miles was Britain’s youngest-ever magistrate, is a contributing editor to Cosmopolitan, founder of Coventry Polytechnic’s Centre for Women’s Studies, and a regular lecturer and broadcaster: are these glaring factual errors by such a senior academic really too trivial to ignore?

Example 5: The day before Superbowl Sunday, the ‘big game’ for US football fans. An urgent press conference of women’s advocates warns that domestic violence increases by 40 percent as a direct result of ‘male aggression’ during that day. The story is publicized nationwide, newsdesks repeating the statistic without question, and often adding gratuitous ‘facts’ about the evils of masculinity and men in general. Just one journalist, from the Boston “Globe”, is suspicious enough to check out the figures. The day passes; yet hospitals and domestic violence shelters report no increase whatsoever – if anything, it’s quieter than usual. In the meantime, the journalist tracks down the supposed original source for the statistic – who comments, somewhat naïvely, “I don’t know anything about this either – do you suppose we have one of these myth things here?” Four days after the press conference, the story is proven to have been a complete fabrication, an invention for publicity purposes – and for blame. Staff working in battered-women’s shelters are understandably furious at the way in which the incident “sensationalized and trivialized” the real problems they face. The woman representative from the group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, supposedly present as a media watchdog to verify that all statements were based in fact, admits that she’d known from the beginning that the whole story was a hoax – but said that she didn’t want to challenge the conference spokeswoman, Sheila Kuehl of the California Women’s Law Center, “in front of the media”, and argued “She’s got a right to report it as she wants”.[9] Well, yes, perhaps, but also without any responsibility – especially to other women?

Stop for a moment: check out your feelings in response to these examples above. How easy is it to face the fact that every one of those supposed ‘facts’ about ‘women’s oppression’ bears little or no resemblance to reality? Or is it more comfortable to blame me instead – even though I’m not the one who did the faking?

You might perhaps view these more blatant distortions as aberrations – the kind of minor mistake that anyone could make when they’re over-conscious of an issue – but which still describe the ‘real truth’ about the ‘oppression of women’. If so, examine carefully the facts and statistics which inform your image of ‘women’s oppression’. Where possible, take the effort to trace at least some of the supposedly ‘factual’ statements through their many layers of interpretation and revision, all the way back to their original source. How much does the picture change when you do this? At what points does the story get changed? In particular, at what points do feelings and beliefs become overlaid onto – or even substitute for – the original source data?

Describing those distortions as ‘fact’ helps absolutely no-one. It distracts attention from real problems, and although it initially generates a peculiar kind of urgent energy, the end-result is either a debilitating sense of hopelessness – because nothing seems to change – or, worse, an increasing cynicism. If these activists really wanted to reinforce the old sexist stereotypes about ‘mindless hysterical females’, they could hardly go about it a better way… a fact which does greatly concern those feminists striving for true gender equality rather than a confused gender-domination.[10]

We cannot develop any realistic strategy for facing violence without adequate and accurate information. Some inaccuracies are inevitable, but if the statistics we’re given as ‘fact’ are distorted not by a few percent, but by factors of tens, hundreds or thousands of times, we have no chance of getting it right. Wild exaggeration can be emotionally satisfying, and usually allows their promoter to claim a sense of moral authority through moral outrage: but it isn’t honest fact – nor, usually, is it honest feeling, rather than self-dishonest projection. And real facts and real feelings, not invented emotions or righteous posturings, are what we need if we’re to be able to assess realistic solutions to realistic issues.

Another source of statistical confusion is somewhat more subtle, and probably rather less intentionally wrong. It’s illustrated by this sentence in that newspaper article’s introduction:

An average of two women a week in [Britain] are killed by their husbands or boyfriends, while other studies have shown that one in four women has been hit by her partner.

Two women killed each week sounds like a lot: and it’s certainly two tragedies a week too many. But in a nation of some sixty million people, that’s not much more than the proverbial ‘one in a million’ chance: even at two or three per million, the risk is still far less than the rate at which women die by falling downstairs[11], let alone in a car crash. Yet it seems to be viewed as far more serious than any of these latter realities – for reasons which would certainly seem owe more to emotion than fact. To put it into perspective, a woman’s risk of being murdered by her partner is, in Britain, more than a hundred times less than dying by choking on her food: but have you ever seen a national poster-campaign describing the enormous dangers of eating?

Murder, especially by one’s own partner, is obviously an emotive issue. Emotions are in themselves facts: yet they’re not the only facts. Yet to understand the problems and the risks, and to respond appropriately to them, we have to be ‘realistic’. But what does that mean to you? If ‘being realistic’ requires you to distinguish emotion from physical fact, how do you do this?

In the same way, the ‘one in four’ figure is not so much wrong as misleading. Other studies do suggest a similar kind of statistic – though only if we rephrase it as ‘has been hit by a partner’, not necessarily ‘her current partner’. A study at the Royal Brisbane Hospital, for example, found that one in five women attending its casualty department had ‘some history of domestic violence’ – in other words it had occurred at some stage of their life, but was not necessarily current. A Queensland study on abuse in church communities, asking 1704 women about their life-experiences, came up with a similar figure (22 percent): on this occasion, unlike those mentioned earlier, the journalist was realistic enough to note that “this figure would not mean that one in five women experience violence daily, but that one in five encounter it at least once in their lives.”[12]

And in what was probably the largest-ever survey of violence, Statistics Canada interviewed some 12,300 women in 1993. One in four said they’d experienced violence at the hands of a past or present partner, one in six by their current spouse; one in ten of those (i.e. about 2 percent) had at least once felt their lives to be in danger. As with the Australian surveys, a woman’s average lifetime risk of physical assault at home was about one in five: a significant problem, one that definitely affects those women’s lives – though rather a long way from the claimed figure of a daily risk of one in ten for full-on battery that we saw earlier.

The picture we get from these statistics is still grim: so much so, and so much a ‘specific women-only problem'[13], that the National Committee on Violence now insists that the term ‘domestic violence’ or ‘family violence’ should be replaced by a new term, ‘violence against women’. But that wouldn’t help: in fact it would only confuse the issue still further – because it isn’t a ‘women-only problem’ at all. Far from it…

The reason why it appears to be a ‘women-only problem’ is a result not of the statistics themselves, but the way in which they were collected. The statistics from a survey are always affected by the underlying methodology: the results reflect the underlying assumptions as much as they do ‘reality’. And if the only people asked about their experiences of violence are women, and they’re asked only about violence done to them, and about their own experiences – rather than also those of their partners – it’s hardly surprising that the problem seems so one-sided…

The main reason we get an impression of fact that “domestic violence usually means men battering women” is because the surveys usually don’t ask about anything else. It’s important to understand that, with just one crucial exception, virtually none of the well-known – and certainly of the well-publicized – surveys in Canada, Australia and America bothered to ask about men’s experiences, or even to ask any men anything at all, apparently on the grounds that it was ‘obvious’ that women were more seriously affected.

Before we move on, is it ‘obvious’ to you that women are more seriously affected than men by family violence? If so, on what experiences – of your own, and of those close to you – do you base that assessment? You may have talked with women about their experiences of family violence (including violence in childhood): but have you ever asked men of theirs? If so, what was their response?

It’s not wrong as such to say that “two women a week are killed by their husbands or boyfriends”, but by leaving out the figures of murdered male partners, it gives the impression that there are none. Yet for Britain as a whole, the average is not much less than one a week[14]; and by the time we allow for the far greater number of women acquitted of murder, and include the suicides of those literally hounded to their deaths by their partner’s non-physical violence – a situation which is far more common for men than for women – the numbers almost exactly match.[15] Violence is a real problem: but it’s also a balanced one – a human problem.

This is also illustrated by the exception among the surveys, Straus and Gelles’ mammoth National Family Violence Survey, which was recorded in the US in 1975 and 1985, and in which roughly 10,000 women and men were asked the same questions during random telephone surveys. And from this a totally different picture emerges: one that’s far more balanced than the usual picture of violence as a ‘specific women-only problem’ – even if that ‘balance’ is mostly a balance of terror…

Straus and Gelles found that roughly 16 percent of households had incurred any physical violence in the previous year – ‘violence’ including anything down to a mild slap. In a society acknowledged as one of the most violent in the ‘developed’ world, serious violence had affected less than one-tenth of the percentage that the National Committee on Violence had claimed as ‘fact’ for Australian households. Of the serious violence, roughly half took the form of what Straus and Gelles referred to as ‘mutual brawling’: both partners trading insults and blows in roughly equal proportions. Only one-quarter conformed to the stereotypical picture of ‘violence against women’: a physically abusive man repeatedly attacking a non-responsive woman – ‘non-responsive’ meaning that she had not hit back in retaliation within the year. (In Australia, the National Committee on Violence maintains that women only strike out in self-defence, hence this latter type is supposedly the only form of family violence.) But the remaining quarter was the exact opposite of the stereotype: a physically violent woman repeatedly attacking a non-responsive man, 86 percent of them (according to another US study) with weapons such as knives, saucepans, baseball bats, guns, bricks, steel combs – which could hardly be described as ‘self-defence’…[16]

In every survey in which the same questions are asked of both women and men, women come out at least as violent as men, and often far more. In 1991 Straus and Gelles, responding to indignant pressure from the feminist lobby, recomputed their figures based only on the women’s responses in the surveys – they were informed, in no uncertain terms, that “men always underestimate their own violence” – but the figure for women’s violence still came out somewhat higher than 50 percent. Even the women admitted that they were more likely to hit their partners than their partners were to hit them. As for initiation of physical violence – converting a verbal argument to physical assault – the average ratio from the larger surveys is around three to one: women throwing something, or starting a fist-fight, three times more often than men.[17] (Women do, however, tend come off worst from their own assault, with women somewhat more often ‘significantly’ injured than men – which in itself is a problem.) For adolescents, the ratios are even higher: one San Diego woman schoolteacher, for example, watching student interactions in the playground over a number of years, estimated that girls hit boys roughly twenty times more often than boys hit girls.[18]

And all of this is only for physical violence: non-physical violence, stereotypically ‘female’, and which “can be far more hurtful than physical violence”, wasn’t even looked at in these studies…

The immediate response to these figures, of almost every woman I’ve spoken with, has been “I don’t believe it! It can’t be true!” What’s your response? Why? What experiential information, from both women and men you’ve talked with personally, influences that response?

Even if you don’t believe it, imagine for a moment that it is true – that women are at least as physically violent as men. What feelings, what fears, come up in response to this? What happens to your image of women? of men? your own self-image? What aspect of yourself would you not want to face if this were true? Or would there be a sense of relief – perhaps of not having to hide any more?

Much the same applies to sexual violence. No-one would doubt that some men do assault some women, sometimes in horrific ways. Rape is a serious crime; in its legal definition as ‘forcible sexual penetration’ it is, in effect, a male-only crime; and it’s one of which women are understandably afraid. Yet if we stick to that legal definition of rape, it is, fortunately, rare[19]: I’ve only ever known one woman who’d suffered that kind of assault – though for her, strangely, it had happened on three separate occasions… In the legal sense, it is not common at all: the claim that rape is common, that “rape is nothing more nor less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” is, to say the least, stretching the evidence. And yet there are all those surveys which claim that one woman in four, one in two, more, women, have been raped – so where do all these figures come from?

The short answer is: “by changing the rules”. The Ms. survey, for example, used a very broad definition of rape, far beyond the legal definition – which, unsurprisingly, gave them far higher figures. The researchers even defined, as rape, many incidents which the women students in the survey had themselves expressly said was not – a point that became obvious when the raw data showed that a very large proportion of these supposed ‘rape victims’ had sexual involvement with the same man on at least one or more subsequent occasions.[20] In effect, the definition of ‘rape’ is expanded to include virtually any sexual activity which, at any time whatsoever after the event, is considered to have been inappropriate. When outsiders decide what is deemed appropriate or not, without any reference to the context or to those actually involved, the definitions can become more than a little extreme:

Rape is all the sexual assaults, verbal and physical, that we all suffer in our daily contact with men. These range from being “touched up” or “chatted up” to being brutally, sexually assaulted with objects. Throughout this book we use ‘rape’ to describe any kind of sexual assault.[21]

Andrea Dworkin goes even further, and defines all male heterosexuality as rape, regardless of the woman’s intentions, desires or choices.[22] With a definition of ‘rape’ as broad as that, almost every woman would have to say they’ve been ‘raped’ at some stage of their life. But so could almost every man: we cannot use that generalised definition of sexual assault and still describe it as ‘male-only’ violence. Once again, as soon as we bother to ask both women and men the same questions about sexual abuse, the answers turn out to be remarkably similar. Like all other forms of violence, sexual coercion is something that people do to others: not just men to women, or men to men, but also women to men, women to women – and also, disturbingly, to children.

As it happens, I know more men who’ve suffered serious sexual assaults from women than I do women who’ve been seriously assaulted by men: though, as those men themselves said, we cannot extrapolate that to the larger scale, to claim on the basis of this alone that it applies to more men than it does women – no matter how much women’s advocates tend to do so… But at the less serious end of sexual assault – badgering a partner into sex when they didn’t much want to do so – we can say for certainty that it’s no ‘male-only’ fault. For example, one Australian survey of university students noted that, whilst fourteeen percent of the women reported agreeing to sex under pressure from a male partner, a slightly greater number – fifteen percent – admitted making “persistent physical attempts to force their [male] partner into intercourse”. In a parallel, but much larger, survey in the United States, sixteen percent of men reported having been forced into unwanted sex – a larger percentage than the women in the Australian study.[23] Some women do coerce their partners into sex – just like some men.

Have you been coerced into sex which you didn’t particularly want? If so, what were the circumstances? What choices did you have? Why did you acquiesce? If you felt that someone’s behaviour was intrusive, how did that feel?

Have you coerced someone else into sex which you knew they didn’t particularly want? How did you do this? (include manipulation and any other kind of premeditated ‘scene-setting’.) Why did you do this? Notice the reflex to rationalise and to project the responsibility onto them: “they wanted it really…”. Just notice this… don’t judge…

If you can, ask several men about their experiences of unwanted sex. It may take a little work to get them past the standard macho blustering, because that’s what most men have been taught to say for ‘public consumption’… just keep them talking, keep them focussed on feelings, and keep listening. What do you hear that you hadn’t heard before? How similar is this to what you know of women’s experience? In what ways – if any – is it different?

All of this tells us three things: first, that it’s important to ask everyone the same questions if surveys are to be in any way valid; second, that it’s patently obvious that violence is a human problem rather than a gendered one; and third, that there is a huge disparity between the ‘obvious’ concepts of sexual violence, or family violence, and the practical reality. Under the circumstances, the childhood injunction hammered into every boy’s head, that “you can’t hit a girl, no matter what”, does seem to hold remarkably well…

But if this is the case, why do we so rarely hear anything about this other side of the story? Part of the reason comes from exactly what we would expect when there’s a lot of denial and projection going on: it’s suppressed. Actively. Violently. By the very people who claim not to be violent… Professor Straus commented that he’s experienced “bomb threats, accusations that I beat my wife, that I sexually harass students… Many of my colleagues simply avoid the issue by not obtaining data, then they don’t have the embarrassing problem of not being able to publish it.”[24] This violence isn’t only aimed at male researchers: when Dr Suzanne Steinmetz, director of the Family Research Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University published a article on “The Battered Husband Syndrome” in a small research journal, she was harassed by phone, suffered a bomb threat at a speaking engagement, received threats to harm her children, and discovered later that her colleagues had also been lobbied in repeated attempts to get her removed from her research post.[25] Another woman researcher was pointedly ‘dissuaded’ by Professor Rebecca Dobash from doing research on female violence [26] – which might, however, have something to do with the fact that Dobash’s own study, “The Myth of Symmetry in Marital Violence”, co-authored with her husband, is often promoted as the key source of ‘proof’ that family violence is “a specific women-only problem”…

And so on, and so on: one of the central reasons why we see so little of the other side of the story is not because it isn’t there, but because strenuous efforts are made to deny that it exists at all.

Why? What is there to hide? Who would benefit from promoting an illusion that men are almost the only abusers? Consider some probable reasons for a while.

Another important reason is that men greatly under-report women’s violence – whilst women not only report actual violence against them by men, but also a very large amount of imagined or invented violence, in order to use threatened or actual intervention by police as yet another weapon their armoury. For example, one man watched in horror as his partner picked up a kitchen knife in an argument, stabbed herself in the arm with it, then phoned the police to say that he’d attacked her – and only withdrew charges against him the following morning, having effectively ‘won’ the argument.[27] In Australia, police prosecutions for false accusations of rape – not merely those arising from a similar kind of domestic row, but those which the police considered actively malicious – approach the number of actual prosecutions for rape: yet that fact is tucked away in the crime statistics under the completely different and innocuous heading of ‘deliberate misuse of police time’.[28] And although the National Committee on Violence routinely quotes the proportion of men charged – not convicted – for domestic violence as proof that men are always the ‘perpetrators’, this statistic is somewhat distorted by the fact that current standing orders to police on handling domestic violence are that the man should always be charged, regardless of the circumstances – orders which were authored in part by the Committee itself…

This last point sometimes causes horrendous miscarriages of justice, which also further distort the figures. I spoke with one Australian man about this only a few days ago: three months earlier, horrified at seeing his children once again “cowering in the corner” from his wife’s assaults, slapped her precisely once in a desperate attempt to stop her from hitting the children. She immediately called the police, and he promptly found himself under arrest when she claimed he’d been the one abusing the children – and her. In the time it took him to demonstrate that this was not true, she left the relationship, taking the children with her; and later, apparently on the advice of feminist ‘supporters’, she alleged he’d been sexually abusing the children, which – as in the vast majority of cases – had no foundation whatsoever, but for which, groundless or not, social workers may (and, in far too many cases, do) legally prevent him from seeing his own children, or from living with any partner ever again.[29] False accusations are a classic type of non-physical violence – and an interesting example of the use of others to carry out a violent act, thus making the original abuser, and the original abuse, almost impossible to detect.

Even worse, many battered men report having called the police to protect either themselves or their children from their physically violent spouse, only to find themselves arrested and charged for their partner’s violence – a situation which is almost unheard-of for women.[30] In one well-known American example, a man named ‘Skip’ finally reported to the police that he’d been repeatedly attacked by his wife not just with fist-blows but with scissors, knives and other domestic utensils – yet he was the one who ended up being ordered by the court to attend an abusers’ programme, whilst his wife went to a programme for battered women.[31] Men are also highly likely to receive verbal and other abuse, both from women and from other men, if they admit to having been abused – which is what happened to ‘Skip’ when he appeared on a television chat-show on domestic violence, organised by the politician Jesse Jackson. The ‘audience participation’ on that programme was not a pleasant thing to behold…

Domestic violence still remains one of the most under-reported types of crime. We know this: several reports on violence against women, such as that of the National Committee on Violence, use an arbitrarily-chosen factor of three to allow for it. We don’t have figures – or even serious estimates – for the under-reporting of violence by women against men: but we do know that the under-reporting factor will be at least as much. A careful look at the statistics, though, suggests that the under-reporting factor for women’s violence against men is higher than for men’s violence against women: not just somewhat higher, but much higher. It’s this difference in reporting rates which creates the illusory picture of domestic violence as ‘a specific women-only problem’.

Even from the barest of figures, women’s violence certainly cannot be described – as did one spokeswoman from a (San Francisco) Bay Area battered women’s shelter – as ‘statistically irrelevant’. In Texas the male percentage of the total of reported incidents was 10 percent[32], whilst in Britain in 1993 the average was 11 percent and rising fast[33], and in Victoria (Australia) it was 16 per cent in 1992-93 – in other words one man for every five women reporting – and also rising fast.[34] (The latter point was also noted by Straus and Gelles, who’d seen in their surveys that whilst violence against women fell between 1975 and 1985, violence against men by their partners actually increased). In one much-quoted case study of a hospital emergency-room in downtown Detroit, in which 22 percent of attendees were victims of domestic violence, 38 percent of these were male – not ‘all female’, as almost every subsequent report has either stated or assumed.[35] And when they do present in hospital, men’s injuries tend to be much more severe: “Men were lacerated or punctured by knives far more frequently than women, especially to the head and arms.”[36]

Even though men are often physically tougher than women, the injury ratio in that case-study was close to two to three, compared to the reporting ratio of around one to eight. This suggests that men report serious physical assault against them by their partners around six times less often than women, although the actual assault rate is much the same – which seems to concur with the findings of both-gender studies such as Straus and Gelles’, which suggest that women are physically violent at least as often as men. The statistics aren’t wrong: but it’s very easy to misinterpret them – unintentionally or otherwise – in a way that most certainly is.

You may still not believe that women’s violence against men is anything other than ‘statistically irrelevant’, but you may even so be willing to explore the differences in gendered response to inter-gender violence – to see at least one reason why women’s violence appears to be so much less of a problem than it probably is.

Look at the women around you; ask the women around you. If they were assaulted by a man, would they report it to the police? If they felt too frightened to do so, would you report it on their behalf? If you or they did so, what would you expect the result to be? What would you expect other people’s attitude to the injured woman to be? What have you seen the result to be?

Look at the men around you; ask the men around you. If they were assaulted by a woman, would they report it to the police? If they felt too frightened to do so, would you report it on their behalf? If you or they did so, what would you expect the result to be? What would you expect other people’s attitude to the injured man to be? What have you seen the result to be?

What differences do you note? What do you expect – or sense in yourself – that the sources of these differences might be? And what effects would you expect them to have on the reported statistics for domestic violence?

Given that the ratio of actual reports is around one man to every eight women, or less, and given what you’ve just seen in this exercise, does it still seem likely that women’s violence against men is so rare as to be ‘statistically irrelevant’? What are your feelings about this?

Whatever the reasons, men report all forms of violence against them far less than do women – which gives the illusion that men are far less affected by violence. If anything, we know that the opposite is true: in overall terms, far, far more men are physically abused than are women, and often far more severely. Much of this is, undoubtedly, a male problem: to paraphrase the beginning of the article with which we started this chapter, “nobody would dispute the fact that violence usually means men battering men”. Perhaps partly as a result of this, our society’s impression is that violence against men doesn’t matter – and that only violence against women does.

Katie Roiphe, for example, noted that assaults and robberies of male students at her university occurred about six times more often than to female students – yet despite this fact, it was the women who were believed to be more at risk.[37] I’ve been told that it’s been proven that women are far more fearful than men[38]: whether that’s true or not, it’s certainly true that women are encouraged (if that’s the right word) by some feminists to express their fears at every opportunity, which gives the impression of constant, imminent danger. But men are actively discouraged from expressing fears of any kind – whether in danger or not: which may well lead in some cases, especially in young men, to dangerous behaviour in order to simulate ‘fearlessness’ – and to further violence against other men.

The excessive abuse of men by men has been used by some feminists such as Rosalind Miles in order to define violence as ‘male’. It’s by no means as simple as that, no matter how convenient it may be to those theorists – although it does have important truths behind it. We do know, for example, that many young men do go through a ‘wild’ stage: the statistics do show us that 15-25 year-old males are most at risk of being both perpetrators and victims of physical assault. But we also know that this developmental stage – which most men do, quite literally, grow out of – is at least in part hormonally driven: in other words it cannot really be described as entirely in their control. Yet our society prefers to blame those young men for this – rather than taking it into account and trying to design support services around it, as we do for women suffering from puerperal depression or ‘baby blues’, who are by far the most common killers of young children. The violence of the “reckless and fist-happy young males” is publicly visible and violently opposed; whereas the mothers’ tragic violence is almost invisible – to the extent that it’s not even called murder, but ‘infanticide’ – yet in Britain at least it is the single largest category of murder.[39] A youth who kills another in the hormonal frenzy we describe as ‘adolescence’ is likely to be locked up for a decade or more; whereas a young woman who kills her own child in a similar chaotic confusion is likely to be pitied and pardoned. This can hardly be described as ‘equality before the law’, no matter what Rosalind Miles might say…

Behind every statistic is a human story; behind every act of violence is a human tragedy. People’s lives are not statistics; they’re real experiences and, all too often, real pain. To distort statistics, however unwittingly, is to deny the reality of those people’s lives: as such it is, unquestionably, an act of violence. To set out deliberately to falsify the facts for nothing more than political propaganda, as some feminists have done and have taught others to do[40], is not only an act of violence but an act of treachery – especially given that ultimately it is other women who suffer most. We desperately need honesty: and to challenge those would who prefer, for whatever reason, to hide their own dishonesty in a tangled web of “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

The first challenge must always be to ourselves, and to acknowledge the facts, rather than the wishful delusions, of our own lives. We need to face our own denial, our projection of our own problems onto others, and our attempts to export our issues to others. It’s not a comfortable process: but since the only person we can ever really change is ourself, it’s the only place from which constructive change can start.

The first stage of this self-challenge is to move away altogether from statistics about other people, and ground our ‘knowing’ in our own experience rather than in a pre-filtered, predigested summary of some unknown, unknowable ‘other’.

What is your own experience of violence? Re-assess your own history of violence, from childhood, through school, adolescence, young adulthood and beyond. Include all forms of violence, physical and non-physical – “any means, in any form and at any level, by which the illusion of empowering the self was created by disempowering any other”. Note carefully how much easier it is to acknowledge violence done to you than done by you: be careful to include as much of the latter as you can face.

It’s never comfortable to face violence – especially our own. Other than my sister’s late-adolescent rampages, with curses and crockery flying everywhere, I’ve not suffered much physical abuse from women since my childhood days – though no shortage of non-physical abuse… But I’m forced to acknowledge two incidents in which I was the abuser, no matter how much I’d much rather deny them. In one I put my hands round my ex-wife’s throat after she’d been mocking me for my ‘inadequacy’ – in hindsight, it was obvious that I was too overloaded emotionally to understand fully what I was doing, because she happened to be driving my car at the time – and in the other I slapped (exactly once) the face of a woman who’d been following me round my house for almost twenty minutes, screaming in my face, trying to get me to break down. I can’t remember hitting a man as an adult – though I can remember slapping a friend’s teenage son in futile frustration; my only really serious experience of intentional, rather than accidental, violence from a man was one I mentioned earlier, in which the ex-boyfriend of a former housemate smashed me to the ground and tried to gouge my eye out, to hurt me in her stead. It’s not a lot in a quarter of a century, certainly by comparison with what I know some of my acquaintances have experienced or created: it’s also nothing to be proud of. Yet I accept that I’m human: and these are some of the things that result from that fact.

And while it’s always difficult to answer the question “Who started it?”, it’s still an important question. If, as the dual-sex surveys suggest, women do initiate physical violence far more often than men, then we need to understand that in itself as an additional form of violence. If women really are using men’s own self-control as a weapon against them, the concept of ‘men’s patriarchal power over women’ – so common in feminist analyses of violence – collapses in a heap: the woman is, quite literally, attacking someone they expect to be defenceless – and hence don’t have much right to complain about the times when they discover he’s not… It’s essential to be honest with ourselves in this.

One way to test this out is to use one of Warren Farrell’s examples.

Count on the fingers of one hand the adolescent and adult relationships, if any, in which you were hit first more often than you hit first. Count relationships (any type of relationship – heterosexual, homosexual, sibling or whatever) in which this occurred, not incidents within relationships. Include anything which you would consider as violence if done to you, such as a slap, or objects thrown at you, or whatever; include non-physical violence if you wish.

Count on the fingers of the other hand the relationships, if any, in which you hit first more often than you were hit first. Use exactly the same definition of violence as you used for violence done to you; be rigorously honest with yourself, no matter how embarrassing it may be.

What do you see on your hands? What’s the difference between the hands? These are the statistics of your own life… the only real ‘statistics’ you know.

If possible, ask some friends to do the same: preferably equal numbers of men and women, and preferably at least five of each. For everyone’s sake, and to increase the chances of honesty, it’s probably best to get them to do it anonymously; but do keep the results from the sexes separate. What differences do you find?

There can be huge disparities when we compare results to that question from both sexes. In one experiment in which I was involved, and in which the results were collected anonymously, four women said they’d been hit first more often, whilst three admitted hitting first more often – seven women out of thirty experiencing violence with men in adulthood, or rather less than one in four. One in three men (out of a hundred) had experienced violence with women: three men admitted hitting first more often, but thirty said that they’d been hit more often. The women here indicated violence by them and against them as roughly in balance; the men indicated an imbalance against them of roughly ten to one. Something doesn’t add up…

Part of the disparity there may have been due to the nature of that particular audience, though the lecturer said that this matched the average from a total about 15,000 people with whom he’d done the same experiment over the past few years.[41] Feminists can reasonably accuse men of underestimating their own violence, but are not quite so reasonable in their tendency to blame the entire disparity on men: they rarely seem to notice that women, being human, are just as likely to underestimate – especially given the long tradition of what Gerda Lerner calls ‘the dance of deception’ in women’s lives.[42] Deliberate dishonesty may perhaps have been useful as a survival tactic, as Lerner claims: but ultimately, as self-dishonesty, it hurts us at least as much as it hurts others – especially if the one we’re deceiving is ourselves… So if we assume that each gender is equally human – equally likely to deceive themselves to the same degree – and hence that the disparity between the sexes in that example should be divided equally, we end up with women apparently initiating physical assault roughly three times more often than men – which is the same as the average in the two-sex surveys that we saw earlier. If this really is true, then what’s surprising about men is how much they don’t hit back, rather than how much they do…

The stereotyped image of ‘the violent man’ is so strong in our culture that it’s very difficult to see past it, no matter how little connection it may have with reality. The feminist researcher Shere Hite once commented that she’d received literally thousand of letters from men which started with the words “I’m not a typical man, but…” – which perhaps indicates the extent to which men expect to be typecast in someone else’s statistics, and struggle to be acknowledged at all as human. The ‘typical man’, like the ‘typical woman’, simply does not exist: but humans, all of us similar, all of us different, most certainly do. It’s essential to acknowledge individuals as individuals, not as statistics: without that grounding in practical, everyday humanity, we’ll soon lose track of what is real and what is not – and then a retreat into ‘objective’ analysis, or into careless credulity, becomes almost inevitable.

Everyone can fall prey to those delusions: but it’s bleakly amusing to see how some feminists, in particular, manage to avoid facing the blatant disparity between everyday reality and the ‘violent man’ stereotype they’re promoting as ‘fact’. “The standard Western male is rendered incapable of being comfortable with emotional expression… being quite incapable of understanding what it is like to be someone else”, wrote British columnist Janet Daley[43]: that’s certainly true of some men, just as it’s equally true of some women, but I’ve yet to find any man or woman whom I could honestly describe as ‘the standard’ – and neither, I suspect, could she…

One of the more common evasions is to define an absolute stereotype of ‘maleness’, which somehow doesn’t apply to any known male. In a television interview, for example, another writer let loose the statement, “I think men are pretty useless, to tell the truth” – but then expressly excluded her husband from this otherwise absolute condition.[44] Likewise, on another television programme, Rosalind Miles stated that “it was essential to the development of [women’s] feminism to recognise that their true enemy is not an ideological ‘ism’ but is, in fact, the individual man in their lives” – an interesting assertion, but one that was immediately contradicted by her agreement with her interviewer that their respective husbands, and indeed most men they knew personally, should be excluded from the ranks of this ‘true enemy’.[45] If, as she’d argued, ‘maleness’ itself was the ‘real’ problem, the source of all violence, it must affect all males, not just ‘the others out there’…

“All men are rapists”, I heard one woman comment: when I challenged her on this, asking her to specify exactly how she knew this to be fact – for any man she knew, let alone all of them – she backed down and argued instead that “all men are potential rapists, then”. Well, yes, perhaps, but that tells us nothing: it has exactly the same truth – and lack of truth – as saying “all women are potential child-murderers”…

What generalisations do you make about ‘all men’, or ‘all women’? Do they truly apply to every man or woman that you know? If not, why do you assume that they’re valid for every – or any – other?

If and when you generalise in that way, what are you hiding from yourself? Why does it seem easier to generalise than to face the individualness of each distinct person?

If we’re to get anywhere in understanding violence, we need to break free from the generalisations we’ve derived from statistics – especially as many of the statistics have been badly distorted. What the statistics do show us is that male violence is still a problem – a huge problem, and one that does not seem much to be improving. What the statistics don’t show us, until we look at them quite a bit more carefully, is that women’s violence is also a huge problem: yet it’s one that’s barely acknowledged at all, let alone seriously addressed. We might perhaps suggest that a key reason why the first is not improving is because the second is so much ignored. Another reason would seem to be that most the ways in which we tackle male violence are themselves violent – and hence only compound the problems, rather than resolve them. It certainly won’t help if we try to tackle female violence in the same way…

But before we can face female violence – and tackle it more realistically than we currently do male violence – we need to understand why it’s so much ignored. As I see it, one of the key reasons is the notion, endemic in all aspects of our society, that women are ‘innocent angels’ in need of constant protection. It’s a notion that’s correctly been identified by many feminists as sexist, and one that, as Katherine Dunn put it, “robs an entire gender of a significant spectrum of power, leaving women less than equal with men and effectively keeping them ‘in their place’ and under control”.[46] Yet at the same time as complaining about it, some feminists (though not Ms Dunn) actually promote it as ‘women’s rights’ – because it assigns responsibility for women’s safety, and for almost every other ‘women’s’ issue, onto men.

The resultant chaos, often promoted as ‘feminist empowerment’ but more accurately described as ‘feminist violence’, is in danger of destroying virtually every feminist gain since the 1960s – and hence is something we urgently need to challenge. The myths behind what we might call ‘the Angel Factor’ are doing women’s cause an incalculable amount of damage – and trapping many women in an increasing spiral of self-inflicted powerlessness and self-created violence. If we truly wish women to be powerful, and to acknowledge women and men as each others’ true equals, the Angel Factor has got to go.

[1] Beverly Kemp, ‘Battered by the women of their dreams’, in “The Independent” [London], 22 July 94.

[2] Christina Hoff Sommers, “Who Stole Feminism?”, p.?.

[3] Steven Fisher, Men Against Sexual Assault; address to Trades Hall Council, Melbourne, Australia, 1 Sept 94.

[4] See Karen Kissane, ‘Battering truth from domestic violence’, “The Age” [Melbourne], 24 Sept 94.

[5] Quoted in (ibid.).

[6] Katie Roiphe, “The Morning After”, p.54.

[7] Naomi Wolf quotes a figure of 32 to 41 per cent of all woman in jail in the United States are serving sentences for violent crimes – see “Fire With Fire”, p.235.

[8] For a detailed assessment of these and other statements of Rosalind Miles’, see Neil Lyndon, “No More Sex War”, pp.24-39.

[9] Quoted in Christina Hoff Sommers, “Who Stole Feminism?”, p??.

[10] To give one example, Katie Roiphe’s comment from the introduction to her book “The Morning After”: “This book comes out of frustration, out of anger, out of all the names I’ve been called, out of all the times I didn’t say something I was thinking because it might offend the current feminist sensibility. … It is out of the deep belief that some feminisms are better than others that I have written this book.”

[11] Fashion-designer Laura Ashley and folk-singer Sandra Denny are two well-known examples of the 350 or so women each year in Britain who’ve met their deaths in this way.

[12] Karen Kissane, op. cit.

[13] Ann Sherry, quoted in an interview with Caroline Milburn, on her departure as head of the (Australian) Office of the Status of Women: ‘Moving on without caving in’, “The Age” [Melbourne], 10 Sept 94.

[14] According to Home Office murder figures for England and Wales – roughly two-thirds of the British population – the average is roughly 20 per year, compared to 60 women.

[15] For African-Americans, even the direct murder figures almost exactly match, let alone the indirect ones: the last reported ratio I’ve seen was 53 percent female to 47 percent male.

[16] References from Katherine Dunn, ‘Media beat-ups conceal truth on female violence’, “The Australian” [Sydney], Jul 94; Karen Kissane, ‘Battering truth from domestic violence’, “The Age” [Melbourne], 24 Sept 94; Armin A. Brott, ‘We are the target’, “Penthouse”, 1994.

[17] This includes a Reader’s Digest survey of 2075 men and women: 3 percent of men admitted having hit their partner, and 6 percent having thrown something, compared to 10 percent and 20 percent respectively of women – see David Thomas, “Not Guilty”, p.203.

[18] See Warren Farrell, “The Myth of Male Power”, p.??.

[19] {current official statistics needed here}

[20] The average, in a large group of sexually active female students, was 4.5 subsequent occasions; for more detailed analysis of the structural distortions in the Ms. survey and others, see Christina Hoff Sommers, “Who Stole Feminism?”, p??-??, and Katie Roiphe, “The Morning After”, p.??-??,.

[21] London Rape Crisis Centre, “Sexual Violence: The reality for women”, quoted in David Thomas, “Not Guilty”, p.166.

[22] {xref in Hoff Sommers}

[23] Findings from a survey by Professor Nathaniel McConaghy, School of Psychiatry, University of New South Wales, published in “Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry”, 1994, quoted in ‘Men coerced into sex, study finds’, in “The Sunday Age” [Melbourne], 23 Jan 94; the findings were based on two small surveys of 120 and 200 students in successive years; the unnamed US study involved “nearly 4000” students.

[24] Quoted in Karen Kissane, op. cit.

[25] Quoted in Katherine Dunn, op. cit., and Armin A. Brott, op. cit.

[26] See David Thomas, “Not Guilty”, p.200.

[27] See Beverly Kemp, op. cit.

[28] {ref from Terry Lane}

[29] See, for example, the case of Brian Keys, described in Alasdair Palmer, ‘Guilty when proved innocent’, in “The Spectator” [London], 14 August 93. False accusations of sexual abuse are now becoming disturbingly common as a weapon in divorce cases: one study (referred to in ???) stated that the proportion immediately identified as malicious was at least 55 percent.

[30] For examples and analysis, see the chapter ‘Battered Husbands’ in David Thomas, “Not Guilty”, pp.188-219, and Armin A. Brott, ‘We are the target’, in “Penthouse”, 1994.

[31] See Armin A. Brott, op. cit.

[32] See David Thomas, “Not Guilty”, p.201: the year was not given, but from the context would probably be 1990 or 1991.

[33] The proportion varied between 7 and 12 percent from area to area, and reported incidents increased by 100 percent between 1988 and 1993: see Beverly Kemp, op. cit.

[34] Report published by VicHealth (Victorian Health Promotion Foundation), 1994.

[35] See Christina Hoff Sommers, “Who Stole Feminism?”, p.201; Sommers also demonstrates that this one survey is the primary – and often the only – source for the chain of references in many well-known feminist ‘studies’ of US hospitalization of battered women, which not only assume that all the in-patients were female, but also generalize the picture from this one highly atypical district to apply to all areas of the States.

[36] VicHealth report, op.cit.

[37] Katie Roiphe, “The Morning After”, p.??.

[38] … or so I am informed by feminist writer Beatrice Faust in a personal communication – though she gave no source for this ‘fact’, nor have I been able to find one.

[39] The 1989 crime figures for England and Wales show 29 murders per million under 1 year, and 12 per million for age 1-4, compared to 16 per million for the supposedly ‘most at risk’ 15-25 year group: for more analysis, see Neil Lyndon, “No More Sex War”, p37-8.

[40] For dozens of well-documented examples, see Christina Hoff Sommers, “Who Stole Feminism?”.

[41] The lecturer was Warren Farrell, at a meeting organised by People’s Equality Network, Melbourne, May 1994.

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