In her 1970 book Sexual Politics, widely considered a cornerstone of radical feminism, Kate Millett wrote:
Excepting a social license to physical abuse among certain class and ethnic groups, force is diffuse and generalized in most contemporary patriarchies. Significantly, force itself is restricted to the male who alone is psychologically and technically equipped to perpetrate physical violence. Where differences in physical strength have become immaterial through the use of arms, the female is rendered innocuous by her socialization. Before assault she is almost universally defenceless both by her physical and emotional training. Needless to say, this has the most far-reaching effects on the social and psychological behaviour of both sexes.
Like most early feminists, Millett was not a social scientist, a psychologist or a criminologist. She was a literary theorist and sculptor. [She was also a relatively privileged, middle-class white woman, as reflected in the astonishingly frank othering of working classes and people of colour in the first few words of that extract, but I’ll skip over that here]. Millett genuinely believed that women were entirely incapable of inflicting physical violence.
There was no evidence for her assertion, but to be fair there were no evidence to the contrary either, at the time. As John O’Brien pointed out in a 1971 paper, the academic Journal of Marriage and the Family ran for 30 years, between 1939 and 1969, before they published a single title mentioning the word ‘violence.’ It wasn’t just that social scientists didn’t know the extent of violence in the family, they didn’t even think it possible to find out.
Around the same time as Millett’s book was helping to spark feminist activism, a small group of feminist social scientists were beginning the process of developing tools to objectively measure the extent and nature of violence in the family home. Suzanne Steinmentz, Murray Straus and Richard Gelles spent the first half of the seventies piloting and testing survey methods which would eventually become known as the Conflict Tactics Scale. When the results started coming through, they surprised everyone – not least the authors. It appeared that there were previously unimagined levels of violent conflict in a high proportion of US homes and, most remarkably, a significant proportion of it was being committed and instigated by women. Steinmetz coined the (then laughable) phrase “battered husband.” They concluded that much family violence was a consequence not of patriarchy, but of the interpersonal stress created by the systems of the family unit.
There was a theoretical response from pro-feminist writers, notably from Dobash & Dobash (1979) arguing that violence against women is different in extent, cause, effect and societal function to violence against men. It is important to note that many feminist objections to Straus, Steinmetz et al have come from a place of good faith and sincere interpretation of the evidence. Other academic responses, both at the time and ever since, have been anything but honest and ethical.
All of this is well trodden ground, but I revisit it here to make the point that in this debate, those who have argued for the significance of female perpetration are often portrayed as proponents of a whacky theory that flies in the face of the evidence. The truth is the exact opposite. Straus, Steinmetz and Gelles were producing evidence that flew in the face of a whacky theory – that the male alone is psychologically and technically equipped to perpetrate physical violence.
Away from the journals, the attacks on the academics were less subtle. Feminist activists embarked on a campaign of harassment against the pioneers of family conflict theory. Steinmetz was subject to a lobbying campaign to have her tenure and research funding removed. Hate mail and death threats culminated in a hoax bomb threat being called in to her daughter’s wedding. Murray Straus had his lectures and meetings disrupted, and he was falsely accused of beating his wife and sexually exploiting his students by the chairperson of the Canadian Commission on Violence Against Women, no less.
If the atmosphere was hostile within academia, on the frontline of activism and service delivery things were little better. I’ve often had feminists say to me that feminism is not hostile to male victims, that if men wanted to set up services for abused men, there would be no complaints. This claim is simply untrue. Many efforts to acknowledge and address female on male violence, even just to provide support to victims, has been actively opposed and disrupted by feminist activists.
For many years there were systematic attempts to all but deny the existence of male victims. In 1999, Julie Bindel wrote “there are a few cases each year of women battering their partners.” The BCS estimate for male victims that year was 253,000. Worse still, victims, either individually or collectively, have been widely smeared as probable abusers themselves, under the assumption that any attack against them was an act of self-defence. The defamation has even stretched to murder victims.
I’ve long abandoned arguing about the exact proportions and numbers of male and female victims or the nonsensical concept of symmetry. My own broad position is that there is no such thing as domestic violence – there is a range of abusive and violent behaviours that can happen for different reasons and with different consequences, and contradictory findings are largely explained by differing definitions. Whether you agree, it is a fair and important ongoing debate. But what is now beyond any reasonable debate is that male victims are not uncommon and that at least some of them are suffering, at risk of serious harm, and in need of support and assistance. Kate Millett’s assertion that women are incapable of violence has been proved grotesquely wrong.
This series is about widespread male anger towards feminism online. The politics of domestic violence are a vivid illustration that sometimes anger is justified. It is a topic about which I am passionate, and have become downright irate at times. It is also an example of where anger can be effective.
It’s rarely admitted by anyone, but the past few years have seen a significant shift in policy, media narratives and public attitudes. The 2010 Equality Act made it increasingly difficult for service providers to deny help on the basis of gender. The 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act clarified that it could apply to men too. Last year, Respect – the organisation which accredits and supervises intervention programmes in the UK – published information aimed at female perpetrators for the first time. The issue has even crossed the ultimate threshold of “issue politics” – becoming a long-running (and generally well-handled) plot on Coronation Street.
From my own experience, five or more years ago it would prove almost impossible to persuade an editor to run a piece addressing male victimisation. Now they occasionally approach me first. Even Julie Bindel has toned down her rhetoric considerably. Yes there is a long way to go. Resources for male victims in most places are woefully inadequate (as they often are for female victims, it must be said.) Judicial and arrest policies not only create injustices such as male victims being arrested, but may also endanger women (especially those who are not white and middle class) by prescribing solutions that match the ideology, not their circumstances. (Linda G. Mills is brilliant on this point.)
What has brought on these changes? I suspect there are two reasons. The first is that the radical feminist case has simply collapsed under weight of evidence of male victimisation and violence in gay and lesbian relationships. The second is that the counter-arguments, for so long sidelined and dismissed, could be easily and widely disseminated online. (Witness the comment thread on the Libby Brooks piece linked above for an example)
In the long term, anger is usually only as effective as it is just, and on this topic feminist ideology, as applied in policy, has been demonstrably unjust. Men’s anger has won the day. This does not, of course, mean that all expressions of anger are justified. My contempt for the feminists who have actively obstructed efforts to help men is matched by my contempt for those men who seek to actively undermine women’s services with sneering, paranoid references to a ‘domestic violence industry’, or violently misogynistic reactions to any perceived provovation. Two wrongs do not make a right. My own experience has also been that it has been much harder to raise these issues and champion the cause precisely because of the hateful behaviour of some of those who would appear to argue from my side.
The ultimate goal for us all, I hope, is to build policies and social values that provide protection for victims, or better, prevent them becoming victims in the first place. Anger is an energy. Use it well.