One of the arguments presented in favour of this year’s Bent Spoon award was that the NZ Skeptics increasingly provide an early warning system against strange notions from abroad. For example, Skeptical activities helped New Zealand develop some early immunity to the worst excesses of the “repressed memory” virus. While many members supported the Hitting Home award on similar grounds, some members may have wondered whether Hitting Home was no more than a local aberration and that we were seeing international demons where none existed.
It seems not.
In Massachusetts, USA, a feminist coalition has promoted the view that there has been a widespread epidemic of violence against women in the community and have succeeded in instituting legislative changes in response. But it turns out that the range of violent and abusive behaviour by males which has contributed to the epidemic includes the following:
- claiming the truth
- emotional withholding
- telling jokes
- changing the subject of a conversation.
Given these definitions, it should come as no surprise that abuse against women has reached extraordinary new levels.
The further lesson from Massachusetts is that such extended definitions have significance well beyond boosting statistics and writing reports. They have been applied to the administration of justice through vehicles such such as the Restraining Order legislation, Section 209A which allows a Massachusetts woman “in fear of abuse” to be granted an emergency restraining order against a husband or partner which can:
- order the man immediately out of the home
- order no contact between the man and the woman and any children
- grant temporary custody of children to the victim
- order the man to pay child support
Inevitably Section 209A, which was intended to protect women in genuinely violent and dangerous relationships, has been seized on as a powerful weapon in divorce and custody battles within the civil courts, where they have become weapons of domestic war rather than instruments of justice.
During the Hitting Home debate, several Skeptics wondered what could be the point of extending definitions of violence to include verbal sparring and the like, given that the justice system has no mechanism to intervene in such matters. The Massachusetts experience suggests that we were missing the point. These definitions have found their home in the adversarial legal environment where any weapon is legitimate if it assists the prosecution of the case.
Many of us have taken comfort from the fact that we live outside the culture of routine violence displayed so powerfully in Once Were Warriors. But only a brave, or foolish, man or woman could believe that divorce or custody disputes will never intrude into their family lives. During the public debate the Minister of Justice gave an assurance that Hitting Home (which focused on violence by men against women) was to be followed by similar studies focusing on violence by women against men and on violence within other relationships. The Ministry’s staff, when pressed on the matter, revealed that while this was what they had told the Minister, no funds were available for the job.
So, in the absence of local evidence, we must turn to US statistics and studies to test the common-sense assumption that most domestic violence is committed by men against women.
In 1975 and again in 1985, Murray A. Strauss and Richard J. Gelles led one of the largest and most respected studies in family violence. They concluded that not only are men just as likely to be the victims of domestic violence as women, but that between 1975 and 1985, the overall rate of domestic violence by men against women decreased, while women’s violence against men increased. Responding to accusations of gender bias in reporting, Strauss re-computed the assault rates based solely on the responses of the women in the 1985 study and confirmed that, even according to women, men are more likely than women to be assaulted by their partner.
There is no question that men on average are bigger and stronger than women, and hence they can do more damage in a fist-fight. However according to Professors R.L. McNeely and Cormae Richey Mann, “the average man’s size and strength are neutralised by guns and knives, boiling water, bricks, fireplace pokers and baseball bats.” Their opinion is endorsed by a 1984 study of 6,200 cases which found that 86% of female-on-male violence involved weapons, as compared to 25% of cases of male-on-female violence. (McLeod, Justice Quarterly (2) 1984 pp. 171-193.)
Several other US and Canadian studies reach similar conclusions while the following Justice Department statistics (1994) suggest that men receive no special favours from the “patriarchal” justice system of the US:
|Proportion of murder victims in domestic violence||55%||45%|
|Acquitted for murder of a spouse||1.4%||12.9%|
|Receive probation for murdering a spouse||1.6%||16%|
|Average sentence for murdering spouse (years)||17 years||6 years|
These statistics and data have been collected off the Internet and are subject to bias or even corruption by those who put together the material. However, for what it’s worth, during the time I lived in the United States I was exposed to only one example of genuine domestic violence. A recently married couple living in the apartment beneath me became embroiled in a typical domestic screaming match. The young wife telephoned her mother seeking assistance. Mother drove round to the rescue, wielding a pistol with which she attempted to shoot the son-in-law. Instead she shot her own daughter.
American women turn to guns and knives. The English and Europeans appear to favour poison. How do New Zealand women redress the sexual balance of power? Or have they been conditioned to literally “take it on the chin”? At present we do not know and Hitting Home tells us less than half the story.
For me the strongest lesson of the exercise has been that the scope of such exercises is even more important than the internal integrity of the study itself. Telling half the story may well be less informative — and indeed be more damaging to public policy — than telling no story at all.