The 180

Men are victims of domestic violence more often than you think

We tend to think of domestic violence as abuse enacted primarily by men, against women — sometimes that assumption even guides policy. But Sarah Desmarais says it's wrong. The forensic psychologist studies partner violence, and joins us to explain what the research shows.
The issue of domestic violence has resulted in numerous public education campaigns, like this one which was backed by Halifax police. The campaigns often focus on male-to-female violence. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
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Domestic violence as often treated as abuse enacted primarily by men, against women — and sometimes that assumption even guides policy. But Sarah Desmarais says it's wrong. The forensic psychologist studies partner violence, and in this interview, explains what the research shows.

What are the real numbers on domestic violence between men  and women? 

Based on the rates that we looked at across studies published over a ten year period, it looks like the average rate of violence perpetrated by men in intimate partner relationships is about 22 per cent, and by women it was actually found to be about 28 per cent, That is in terms of the rate of perpetration, but when we flip that and look at the rate of victimization, about 23 per cent of women reported that they were victimized in relationships, whereas the rate was about 19 per cent for men. 

So not much difference? 

No, and I think that's really what the surprising finding always is in this area of work, is that the rates are much more similar than they are different. 

Now how confident are you that these numbers are reliable, because I imagine a lot of domestic violence isn't reported, either by the victim or the perpetrator?

There's a few reasons why we think these numbers are fairly reliable and valid. The first is that this is from research, not from nationally reported crime statistics. So these are studies in which men and women are reporting, usually to researchers, on the rates of violence that they're experiencing or engaging in in their own relationships. The other reason is that these numbers are fairly consistent across studies, and even across countries. 

So if a little over 20 per cent of women say they've been the victim of domestic violence, and a little under 20 per cent of men say the same thing, why do you think it is that we just simply assume that domestic violence is a one-way street, from men to women? 

Well I think, historically, the dialogue has always been, or at least in recent years, about this perpetration of violence by men against women. And the narrative that's often told is about men's use of power and control in relationships, and that violence is one way to gain that power and control, but I think what we fail to look at here is that there are many different motivations for violence and that it is certainly possible that women are using violence in relationships as well. 

Now when we compare violence committed by men in relationships and violence committed by women, are we comparing apples to apples here?

Well that's a really good question and one unfortunately we were not able to tease apart in this review of the work. What we do seem to find is that even though the rates are similar, they are different in terms of their severity and also the likelihood that they're going to inflict injury. And that's not to say, for example, that a woman couldn't engage in severe violence that resulted in injury against a male partner, but the reality is for some pretty obvious reasons that women also are just more likely to be victimized. They are usually smaller than their male partners and men are usually using more severe forms of violence.

So then it is theoretically possible that we're comparing apples with oranges?

It certainly is. I think one of the things that is very fuzzy in this area of work is exactly what it is that we're calling violence.

If we're making wrong assumptions as a society, what's the harm in that?

Well I think the harms are multiple. We could be looking at a lack of services available. Even if men are indeed perpetrating more severe forms of violence and our research suggests they can also be the victims of violence, there are much fewer services available, and also legal action that can be taken by a male that is being victimized. 

The idea that men are as likely to be victims of domestic violence is part of the message that you hear from "men's rights groups" all the time, and those messages are often not taken seriously. Should we be taking those messages seriously?

I think we absolutely need to be focused on what we know in the research as a foundation for our understanding of what's going on in relationships. And I think part of the problem that happens when an advocacy group gets behind a certain position is people want to dismiss that position with these sorts of advocacy or "rights" groups. But that really does a disservice to the reality, that it looks like there seems to be fairly comparable rates in terms of the perpetration and victimization.

Sarah Desmarais is Canadian, and an Associate Professor in Psychology at North Carolina State University.

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