The lens through which a society views itself plays a critical role in how it identifies, measures, and interprets a social problem, the mechanisms used to disseminate the findings, and the types of programs developed to address the problem. Acceptance of the status quo is jarred when isolated facts that are incongruent with a common view are identified as social problems and gain public attention. The public awareness of battered husbands went through such a transformation. Although most social services and law enforcement agencies were aware of instances of battered husbands, they tended to define the cases that they knew of as unique. It was only after the article on the battered husband syndrome (Steinmetz 1977–78) appeared and drew attention to this phenomenon that it began to be defined as a problem. However, considerable controversy continues to surround this topic, and as a result, services and programs for battered husbands are still very limited.
Denying the Findings
Probably underlying much of the controversy is the fact that the phenomenon of the battered wife has been intricately linked to feminist theory regarding patriarchy. Unwilling to recognize the problem of battered husbands and concerned that attention would be drawn away from the problem of battered wives, some radical feminists attempted to punish those who brought attention to this problem. For example, researchers who had written on battered husbands were verbally harassed and had their characters defamed. Attempts were made to prevent scholars from getting tenure or to rescind their funding. One scholar received verbal threats and anonymous phone calls threatening to harm her children, and when invited to speak at a domestic violence conference sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, bomb threats were received. This is ironic, since the women making such threats were vigorously denying that women could be violent.
After the publication of studies on battered males, numerous articles or letters to journal editors often appeared in which the goal was to discredit the findings—a phenomenon that continues into the start of the twenty-first century. The Conflict Tactic Scales (CTS) were considered to be flawed and especially problematic when all physically violent acts were combined into a single score, possibly camouflaging the more violent acts by men. However, not only are statistics on husband abuse obtained via CTS similar to data collected by other means, there is considerable similarity between husbands and wives when comparing the specific acts of violence. For example, a study of 516 emergency room admissions, using the Index of Spouse Abuse, found that 28 percent of men compared with 33 percent of women had experienced physical violence.
In an attempt to discredit this information, an assumption was made that husbands started the fights and women who used violence did so in self-defense. However, numerous studies found that in about one-half of the couples, both used violence, and in about one-fourth of the couples, only the wife was violent. Studies that specifically asked who started the fight indicated that wives often initiated violence at a rate equal to or, in some studies, exceeding that of their husbands. For example, in their 1985 study, Murray Straus, Richard Gelles, and Suzanne Steinmetz asked couples which partner initiated the violence. Although both males and females reported that wives were more likely to initiate violence than were husbands, reports from women indicated a larger gap (43 percent of male-initiated compared with 53 percent of female-initiated violence).
Even when it was acknowledged that husbands and wives might be victims of similar acts, it was assumed that husbands would experience very little injury because of their greater size, weight, and strength, factors which would also enable them to inflict greater injury. Studies asking about injury (i.e., questions about pain level and injuries requiring medical care) have reported that husbands are injured at equal or greater levels than wives and report similar levels of pain.
Even as the existence of battered husbands became acknowledged, the violence that husbands experienced was seen as inconsequential. For example, one researcher described the abuse of husbands by their wives as relatively modest, because 86 percent of the respondents (wives) in his study never hit their husbands. Another researcher reported that 29 percent of the wives battered their husbands, 15 percent used violence against their spouses when in a battering relationship, and 5 percent continued this violent behavior after they had left that relationship and entered into a non-battering one. This researcher concluded that battered men are not a problem. What makes this last study interesting is that it was based on a sample of battered women, not a large national sample of men and women.
Although battered husbands as an academic topic is barely three decades old at the start of the twenty-first century, accounts in court records, newspaper articles, and preambles to laws suggest that domestic violence in America dates back at least as far as the arrival of the Pilgrims. For example, during the colonial period, Massachusetts law required that cohabitation be peaceful, and yet there were numerous examples that this requirement was not always met. As noted by Steinmetz (1977–1978), these records documented incidents in which both wives and husbands were victims of abuse by their spouses. Examples from the colonial period include the excommunication of Mary Whorten by the First Church of Boston because she defamed and beat her husband and committed other abusive acts. One man in Plymouth colony kicked his wife off of a stool, causing her to fall into the fire. Another woman, Joan Miller, not only cursed and beat her husband, but was also charged with encouraging their children to beat him.
Throughout history, laws were written to give men the power to control their wives by use of violence. However, there were also examples in which society considered the wife justified in using physical force against her husband. One such example was a post-Renaissance custom called charivari. This noisy demonstration was intended to shame and humiliate males who engaged in behavior that was considered to be a threat to the patriarchal community’s social order. In France, the husband who ‘‘allowed’’ his wife to beat him was made to wear an outlandish outfit and ride a donkey around the village. The Britons strapped the beaten husband into a cart and paraded him through booing crowds; they also punished the abusive wife by public humiliation (Steinmetz and Lucca 1988).
There have also been numerous instances of women abusing men in the comics. These comics often depict the husband as deviating from the masculine cultural ideal of strength, self-assertion, and intelligence and assuming the character traits which have been culturally ascribed to women. Therefore, the wife was justified in chastising her husband, even if this took the form of humiliation and violence, because he had not fulfilled his culturally prescribed role. As early as the late 1890s and early 1900s, comic strips such as the Katzenjammer Kids and Bringing Up Father depicted the husband who endured physical and verbal abuse from his wife. The popularity of these domestic-relations comics was most likely sustained because they approximated, in a less serious manner, common family situations. It is also likely that these comics allowed men and women to carry out in the fantasy world those actions which they were unable to carry out in their own lives (Steinmetz 1977–1978; Steinmetz and Lucca 1988).
An examination of twenty consecutive editions of all comic strips appearing in the nine leading newspapers in New York City during October 1950 found that wives initiated more violence (10 percent versus 7 percent) and rarely were the recipients of violence (1 percent versus 14 percent). Saenger (1963) found that 39 percent of wives were victims of hostile attacks and violence compared with 63 percent of husbands who were the victims of these attacks. This was the same era in which the families on television shows such as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver were portrayed as the ideal.
Before providing some statistics on battered husbands, it is important to identify exactly what will be covered in this research paper. It will be limited to acts perpetrated by women that were intended to inflict physical harm or did inflict physical harm on their husbands or male partners. It will not address violence between lesbian and gay partners, lesbian battering, date violence, date rape, sexual violence, female-perpetrated rape, and domestic homicide. For simplicity, both married couples and common-law/cohabiting couples will be referred to as husband and wife.
Across studies of spouse abuse, differences between husbands and wives as victims of the abuse depend on who participated in the study and the questions asked. For example, data collected from individuals residing in a shelter for abused women would reveal a higher percentage of severely abused women compared with the general population. Even among large-scale studies, there are differences that reflect different goals of the studies. Information collected by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey (Rennison 2003) asked individuals about being a victim of a series of violent crimes (rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault). This study found that 3.6 per 1,000 women, compared with 0.5 per 1,000 men, experienced simple assault in which the spouse was the perpetrator. For aggravated assault the differences between male and female victims was considerably smaller (0.7 per 1,000 women were victims compared with 0.3 per 1,000 men). Even though wives were victimized to a greater extent by spouses than were husbands, the phenomenon of battered husbands is clearly indicated as a significant problem even in a general crime survey that does not focus on acts that occurred in a family setting.
How Much Violence
The earliest information on spousal abuse was obtained from smaller studies that did not represent the general population. At a time when wife abuse was just starting to be recognized as a social problem, these studies provided evidence that husbands were also victims. The studies found that husbands were as likely to be abused as wives and that wives frequently used violence more often (Steinmetz 1987). Although these are small samples, the results are similar to larger studies discussed below.
Several large studies using samples that were scientifically selected (Straus and Gelles 1990; Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz 1980) or used sophisticated methodology to enhance the study (O’Leary, Barling, Arias, Rosenbaum, Malone, and Tyree 1989) discovered that not only did the rates of husband abuse often equal or exceed that of wife abuse, but wives used violence more frequently.
The first large-scale national study conducted by Straus and colleagues collected data from 2,143 persons (about half of whom were men) in 1975 (Straus et al. 1980). The researchers found that in just under half of the families, both spouses had committed a violent act (mutual violence). However, in 23 percent of the couples, the wife was the only one who had been violent. Not only did a greater percentage of women engage in violence, they also used more severe violence (wife abuse occurred in 3.8 out of 100 families versus 4.6 per 100 families for husband abuse).
A decade later, in 1985, Straus and colleagues obtained data on over 6,000 individuals and found that while husband abuse showed a slight increase, there was a 21 percent decline in wife abuse. A third national study, of 1,970 families, was conducted by Straus and colleagues in 1992. A comparison of the 1985 and 1992 statistics for wife and husband abuse found that husband abuse remained virtually the same but wife abuse declined by 37 percent.
A longitudinal study of physical violence of 393 couples, conducted by O’Leary and colleagues (1989), obtained self-reports of aggression at three times: a month prior to the marriage and at eighteen and thirty months after the marriage. Data from both husbands and wives were obtained for each time period. Thus, the researchers were able to compare the husbands’ reports of victimization with the wife’s report of perpetrating the violence and vice versa. A summary measure of overall violence computed for one month prior to marriage indicated that 31.2 percent of men and 44.4 percent of women reported that they committed acts of violence against the future spouse. A similar trend was noted at eighteen months after marriage (26.8 percent of men versus 35.9 percent of women), and thirty months after marriage (24.6 percent of men versus 32.2 percent of women). At each time period, wives used more violence than did husbands.
Individual acts revealed a similar pattern. A greater percentage of women reported using less serious acts of violence (‘‘throwing something,’’ ‘‘slapping,’’ and ‘‘pushing’’) at each time they were interviewed. However, they also reported using more severe violence than their husbands at all three time periods. For example, more women ‘‘kicked, bit or hit with their fist’’ than men prior to marriage (12.6 percent of women versus 3.4 percent of men), eighteen months after marriage (10.8 percent versus 3.9 percent), and thirty months after marriage (7.6 percent versus 2.7 percent). No men and 1.1 percent of the women reported that they ‘‘beat up’’ their spouse prior to marriage and 0.4 percent of the men and 1.1 percent of the women ‘‘beat up’’ their spouse at thirty months of marriage. Considering all of the severe acts of violence measured at three time periods, women were more violent in all but one act—0.8 percent of both men and women reported that they ‘‘beat up’’ their spouses at eighteen months after marriage. Furthermore, women were found to engage in violence against their partners even though the partner had never been violent.
Abuse of husbands is not limited to the United States. In a cross-cultural study of domestic violence, battered husbands were identified in Israel, Puerto Rico, Finland, Belize, and Canada (see Steinmetz 1987, Table 6, for a complete listing of the data). The data in this study were based on small samples collected in the mid-1970s. Most were collected from junior/senior high school or college students reporting their mothers’ and fathers’ behavior.
Several trends were noted. First, for most countries the percentages of husbands and wives using violence were fairly similar. Only in Puerto Rico was husbands’ violence nearly double that of wives’ violence. Couples in Finland averaged a fairly low rate of spousal violence—just over 2 percent— being committed by husbands and wives alike. Israeli couples living in cities committed an average of 7.6 and 7.4 acts of violence for males and females, respectively. (However, Israeli couples living on the kibbutzes not only had considerably higher rates of violence, but wives were considerably more violent than were their husbands [9.9 percent for husbands versus 12.6 percent for wives].) Similar results have been found in numerous countries, such as Great Britain, Korea, Mexico, India, Hong Kong, Brazil, and Singapore.
An Australian study of 804 men and 839 women (Headey, Scott, and de Vaus 1999) asked about violence between spouses that occurred in the previous year. They found that a higher percentage of men were victims of all types of violence (5.7 percent of males compared with 3.7 percent of females), although the differences were not statistically significant (i.e., they could have occurred by chance). Interestingly, they also found that 54 percent of respondents who experienced violence reported having assaulted their spouse.
A trend appeared in which it was clear that men and women had different perceptions regarding violence. Just under 2 percent of both men and women reported that the violence resulted in ‘‘pain as bad as hitting one’s thumb with a hammer or worse,’’ but a higher percentage of men reported needing first aid (1.8 percent of men versus 1.2 percent of women) or treatment by a doctor or nurse (1.5 percent of men versus 1.1 percent of women). Although women reported less injury, a higher percentage of battered women called the police or other government authority (1.7 percent of women versus 1.3 percent of men). The authors summarized their study by noting that men and women were as likely to report being physically assaulted by their spouses, and both were as likely to admit being violent themselves.
Data from the 2005 report ‘‘Family Violence in Canada,’’ which is a series produced annually by Statistics Canada, estimated that 7 percent of Canadians in a current or previous marriage or common-law union experienced spousal violence during the preceding five-year period. Women were more likely to experience more serious types of violence from their intimate partner (being beaten, choked, threatened with a gun or knife, or having a gun or knife used against them) than men (23 percent of women versus 15 percent of men) and were more likely to report being injured (44 percent versus 18 percent). Female victims were more likely to express fear for their lives (34 percent versus 10 percent) and to change their daily activities because of the violence (29 percent versus 10 percent). However, 15 percent of the men reported being beaten, threatened, or attacked with a gun or knife by their wives, 18 percent reported being injured, 10 percent feared for their lives, and 10 percent changed their daily activities. The researchers also discovered that although the rates of abused husbands were unchanged since the previous report, wife abuse had declined.
Sommer, Barnes, and Murray (1992) collected data on spousal violence in Canada in 1989–1990 and conducted follow-up interviews in 1991–1992. The researchers discovered that women were more physically abusive than their husbands and were considerably more likely to have initiated various acts of violence. For example, when asked who initiated violence by throwing an object at his or her spouse, a greater number of women had engaged in this behavior (16.2 percent versus 4.6 percent). Likewise, a greater number of wives initiated violence by slapping, kicking, or punching (15.8 percent versus 7.3 percent) or by striking their spouse with a weapon (3.1 percent versus 0.9 percent).
The overall violence measures of this study indicated that roughly 39 percent of husbands were abused compared with about 26 percent of wives. Wives’ use of violence against their husbands has been viewed as acts of self-defense. Abused wives appeared to require medical care more frequently than did abused husbands (14.3 percent of husbands versus 21.4 percent of wives). However, these researchers found that while nearly 10 percent of the women reported that their actions were committed in self-defense, nearly 15 percent of the men reported self-defense as the reason for using violence against their wives.
Why Men Don’t Report
Given the considerable similarity between the use of violence by wives and husbands, why has there been so little attention paid to the problem of husband abuse? One reason, discussed earlier, is that awareness and prevention of wife abuse has become part of a political agenda supported by feminist activist groups, while awareness and prevention of husband abuse has not yet been similarly embraced as an important political or social issue. A study or article on husband abuse often produces an immediate reaction, such as an attempt to discredit the study. Therefore, the media attention that was instrumental in gaining the funding for hotlines, shelters, and programs to help abused women has not been forthcoming to provide assistance to men who have been battered.
Men are less likely to call the police and report the abuse unless medical attention is needed. Since men are expected to be able to defend themselves—especially against women—they are embarrassed to report and fear that they will not be believed. Noting the lack of attention to battered men in the legal field, Kelly (2003) reported that feminist lawyers initially used the battered woman’s syndrome to justify self-defense by women who killed or attempted to kill violent males, but it is now reflected in gender-based laws defining arrests, prosecution, and punishment of batterers. Kelly reported that one study found that when wives called the police because they were being abused, their husbands were frequently threatened with arrest and actually arrested in about 15 percent of the cases. However, no woman in this study was ever threatened or actually arrested when the man called the police. Furthermore, in over 41 percent of the cases studied, the violent husband was ordered out of the home, but no woman who was violent was given such an order by the police. Most surprising, the battered husband was quite likely to be arrested when he called the police, since it was assumed that the male was the perpetrator in the domestic violence incident.
However, another reason why battered husbands do not report violence is that they tend to redefine the actual violence that has occurred. The husband may rationalize that it was his fault—he did something to set off his wife. He may claim that his wife is a very good person and that it was some outside source such as stress at work, mental health problems, or alcohol abuse that caused her to take such actions. The outcome of the violence as defined by the husband may also be rationalized in one of the following ways: ‘‘It was just a few bruises,’’ ‘‘It really didn’t hurt,’’ ‘‘I would leave if the violence got too bad.’’
In the late 1970s, Steinmetz attended a conference shortly after the publication of her article ‘‘The Battered Husband Syndrome,’’ which was receiving a lot of media attention. A family scholar commented that he did not believe there were really battered husbands and then described the violence he had endured from his own ex-wife, including being hit with a board and stabbed with a knife. Not only had he experienced extreme violence, but this family scholar had not considered himself to be a battered husband. When asked about this, he replied that he knew that he could leave when things got really bad—which he did.
Why Men Don’t Leave
Like the family scholar mentioned above, many men ‘‘know’’ (or at least believe) that they can leave their violent wives; to them, this means that they are not ‘‘battered,’’ which they define as being trapped. A review of numerous studies as well as anecdotal reports suggests that many men are clearly under the delusion that they can leave, when in reality they lack a job, a source of income, transportation, alternative housing, and other resources that are needed in the event of a breakup.
The reasons why battered husbands remain in a violent relationship are similar in many respects to the reasons given by battered wives. First are economic concerns. Leaving may mean establishing a separate household as well as providing child support. Concern for the safety of his children, toward whom the wife is also violent, is another reason some men stay. They remain in the home in order to protect the children because they are concerned that if they left, the wife might get custody, putting the children in even greater danger. Finally, in a manner similar to that expressed by battered women, battered husbands may hold out the hope that the violence will end.
The frequent definition or characterization of victimization as a female experience can have a serious impact on the battered male’s masculine identity, making him feel that it is his fault and that he has character flaws. These men also fear further isolation, a fear the abusive wife may exploit in order to maintain control of her husband. This isolation operates on two levels. First, it keeps the matter private from the prying eyes of family, friends, and neighbors. Second, which is probably more destructive, it limits the victim’s contact with others who could confirm that he is actually being abused. This isolation can also be used as a form of punishment. When the victimization that the male is experiencing is revealed to a family member or friend, further contact, even phone calls, are no longer permitted. Thus, he becomes emotionally trapped in a violent relationship.
Studies based on samples of women who responded to an advertisement or are in battered women’s shelters clearly document the existence of wife abuse. However, even in these nonscientific samples of women, battered husbands have been identified. Studies based on large national samples or general statistics collected by various government entities not only support the existence of battered husbands, but find that they are victimized in equal or even greater numbers than wives.
Ignoring the existence of battered husbands results in a lack of resources for men. Moreover, this position also denies women who are violent legitimate access to resources that might reduce the stress and conflict that results from the multiple roles faced by women today. Most important, ignoring husband abuse constitutes a failure to recognize that many of these families have children who witness this violence.
Research in the late 1970s and early 1980s noted a difference in level of injury that women and men experienced. It was estimated that 7 percent of wives but only 0.6 percent of husbands experienced severe physical abuse. Three reasons were suggested for this difference. First, women were socialized to have better impulse control and therefore tend to stop their violent behaviors before causing serious injury. Second is the myth that women instigate the violence by using verbally abusive behavior—they are ‘‘asking for it.’’ Third, men are usually larger and stronger; therefore, even when the same behaviors are reported, e.g., a slap, the level of injury could differ considerably.
A quarter century later, these findings need to be reexamined. First, numerous studies find that women are considerably more likely to use violence on their children and elderly relatives for whom they are providing care. Second, considerable research on violence between lesbian partners further challenges the idea that women have better impulse control and documents women’s ability to use violence. Third, rather than women being physically abused by their husbands as a result of their verbally annoying behavior, recent data suggest that wives are as likely as husbands to initiate the conflict by using physical violence. Furthermore, although wife abuse has declined considerably between 1975 and 1992, husband abuse has remained constant or shown a small increase.
Fortunately, there is a small but growing trend in which feminist scholars and service providers are recognizing that males are experiencing considerable violence, and they are discussing options for addressing this issue. Males are fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons. It is as hurtful for them to experience violence perpetrated by their wives as it is for mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters to experience violence perpetrated by their husbands. Only when violence by all members of the family can be openly addressed will society gain a better understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and be able to develop prevention, intervention, and treatment programs that ensure a healthy, violence-free environment for all families.
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