Police recently concluded that former NFL star Steve McNair was shot dead in his sleep by girlfriend Sahel Kazemi in a murder–suicide. Yet while there are over 10,000 media entries on Google News for “Steve McNair,” only a few of them even mention the phrase “domestic violence.”
Violence by women against their male partners is often ignored or not recognized as domestic violence. Law enforcement, the judicial system, the media, and the DV establishment are still stuck in the outdated “man as perpetrator/woman as victim” conception of DV. Yet over 200 studies have found that women initiate at least as much violence against their male partners as vice versa. Men comprise about a third of domestic violence injuries and deaths. Research shows that women often compensate for their lack of physical strength by employing weapons and the element of surprise—just as Kazemi did.
The most recent large scale study of DV was conducted by CDC researchers and published in the American Journal of Public Health. The study, which surveyed 11,000 men and women, found that, according to both men’s and women’s accounts, 50% of the violence in their relationships was reciprocal (involving both parties). In those cases, the women were more likely to have been the first to strike. Moreover, when the violence was one–sided, both women and men said that women were the perpetrators about 70% of the time.
New research from Deborah Capaldi, Ph.D., shows that the most dangerous DV scenario for both women and men is that of reciprocal violence, particularly if that violence is initiated by women. Moreover, children who witness their mothers assaulting their fathers are just as likely to assault their intimate partners when they are adults as those who saw their fathers assault their mothers.
There are solutions to protect all parties affected by domestic violence. For one, just as we’ve properly stigmatized men who hit women, we need to encourage women not to attack their men. Dr. Capaldi believes the best way for women to be safe is to not initiate violence against their male partners, adding “The question of initiation of violence is a crucial one… much DV is mutual, and initiations — even that seem minor — may lead to escalation.” Dr. Capaldi’s research found that a young woman’s DV was just as predictive of her male partner’s future DV as the man’s own past DV.
Second, when safe, the DV system needs to treat violent couples as violent couples, instead of shoe–horning them into the “man as perp/woman as victim” model. Counseling services for violent couples are rare. DV author and authority Lonnie R. Hazelwood says that the misguided DV establishment “has been very effective in passing laws to prohibit couples counseling and eliminate programs which use gender–inclusive strategies.”
Third, establish services and help for male DV victims. Denise Hines, Ph.D. of Clark University found that when an abused man calls the police, the police were more likely to arrest him than to arrest his abusive female partner. This is partly the result of primary aggressor laws, which encourage police to discount who initiated and committed the violence, but instead look at other factors which make them more likely to arrest men. When the men in Hines’ study tried calling DV hotlines, 64% were told that they only helped women, and over half were referred to programs for male DV perpetrators.
Fourth, work to ensure that male DV victims will not lose their children in child custody proceedings. Dr. Hines found that the biggest reason male DV victims hesitate to leave their wives/girlfriends is concern for their children. If they leave, their children are left unprotected in the hands of a violent mother. If they take their children, when they’re found, the children will be taken away and given to the mother. Moreover, the men would probably lose custody of their children in the divorce/custody proceeding anyway, again leaving their children in harm’s way.
Perhaps none of these policies would have saved Steve McNair. But domestic violence by women isn’t rare, it isn’t trivial, and ignoring it harms couples and their children.