A commonly accepted "truth" about domestic violence is that 95% of the time, women are the victims and men the perpetrators. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Family Violence Survey-as well as numerous other studies-have found that men are just as likely to be the victims of domestic violence as women. But aren't these women just defending themselves against their more violent partners? Straus and Gelles found that among couples reporting violence, the man struck the first blow in 27% of cases; the woman in 24%. The rest of the time, the violence was mutual, with both partners brawling. The results were the same even when the most severe episodes of violence were analyzed. They were also the same when only the woman's version of the events was considered.
Even more interesting are Straus' findings, released earlier this month, that men's violence against women-even as reported by women-has dropped 43% between 1985 and 1992. Over this same period, in contrast, assaults by women against men increased by about 28%. Straus concludes that "part of the reason may be that there has been no effort to condemn assault by wives parallel to the effort to condemn assaults by husbands."
So where did the claim that 95% of domestic violence is initiated by men come from? From the U.S. Department of Justice, which collects data on the number of reports of domestic violence. But as women's rights groups rightfully claim, reports are not always an accurate measure of the severity of the problem. Certainly, some female victims of domestic violence fail to call the police, fearing retaliation by their abusers. But other Justice Department studies have shown that men, too, are reluctant to ask for help, reporting all kinds of violent victimization 32% less frequently than women.
Murray A. Straus, head of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, and Richard A. Gelles, a sociologist at the University of Rhode Island, who have been tracking spousal abuse for over 20 years, have come up with what are widely believed to be the most accurate estimates available-the National Family Violence Survey (NFVS).
Their survey, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, found that 84% of American families are not violent. In the 16% of families that do experience violence, the vast majority of that violence takes the form of slapping, shoving, and grabbing. Only 3-4% of all families (a total of about 1.8 million) engage in "severe" violence: kicking, punching, or using a weapon.
As for the perception that women who murder their husbands are treated harshly by the justice system, Dr. Mann found that few female domestic homicide offenders receive prison sentences, and that those who do rarely serve more than four or five years. These findings were confirmed by a recent Los Angeles Times article. The article, which quoted Justice Department sources, reported that women who kill their husbands were acquitted in 12.9% of the cases, while husbands who kill their wives were acquitted only 1.4% of the time. In addition, women convicted of killing their husbands receive an average sentence of only six years, while male spousal killers got 17 years.