Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Police recently concluded that former NFL star Steve McNair was fatally shot in his sleep by girlfriend Sahel Kazemi in a murder-suicide. Yet while there are more than 10,000 media entries on Google News for Steve McNair, only a few of them even mention the phrase domestic violence.

Violence by women against their male partners is often ignored or not recognized as domestic violence. Law enforcement, the judicial system, the media and the domestic-violence establishment are still stuck in the outdated “man as perpetrator/woman as victim” conception of domestic violence.

Yet more than 200 studies have found that women initiate at least as much violence against their male partners as vice versa. Men account for about a third of domestic-violence injuries and deaths. Research shows women often compensate for their lack of physical strength by employing weapons and the element of surprise — just as Miss Kazemi is thought to have done.

The most recent large-scale study of domestic violence was conducted by Harvard researchers and published in the American Journal of Public Health. The study, which surveyed 11,000 men and women, found that, according to both men’s and women’s accounts, 50 percent of the violence in their relationships was reciprocal (involving both parties). In those cases, the women were more likely to have been the first to strike. Moreover, when the violence was one-sided, both women and men said women were the perpetrators about 70 percent of the time.

New research from Deborah Capaldi shows the most dangerous domestic-violence scenario for both women and men is that of reciprocal violence, particularly if that violence is initiated by women. Moreover, children who witness their mothers assaulting their fathers are just as likely to assault their intimate partners when they are adults as those who saw their fathers assault their mothers.

There are solutions to protect all parties affected by domestic violence:

c Just as we’ve properly stigmatized men who hit women, we need to encourage women not to attack their men. Ms. Capaldi says she thinks the best way for women to be safe is not to initiate violence against their male partners. “The question of initiation of violence is a crucial one …. much DV is mutual, and initiations — even that seem minor — may lead to escalation,” she says. Ms. Capaldi’s research found that a young woman’s domestic violence was just as predictive of her male partner’s future domestic violence as the man’s own past domestic violence.

c When safe, the domestic-violence system needs to treat violent couples as violent couples, instead of shoehorning them into the “man as perp/woman as victim” model. Counseling services for violent couples are rare. Domestic-violence author and authority Lonnie R. Hazelwood says the misguided domestic-violence establishment “has been very effective in passing laws to prohibit couples counseling and eliminate programs which use gender-inclusive strategies.”

c Establish services and help for male domestic-violence victims. Denise Hines of Clark University found that when an abused man called the police, the police were more likely to arrest him than to arrest his abusive female partner. This is partly the result of primary aggressor laws, which encourage police to discount who initiated and committed the violence but instead look at other factors that make them likelier to arrest men. When the men in Ms. Hines’ study tried calling domestic-violence hot lines, 64 percent were told the hot lines helped only women, and more than half were referred to programs for male domestic-violence perpetrators.

c Work to ensure that male domestic-violence victims will not lose their children in custody proceedings. Ms. Hines found that the biggest reason male domestic-violence victims hesitate to leave their wives/girlfriends is concern for their children. If they leave, their children are left unprotected in the hands of a violent mother. If they take their children, when they’re found, the children will be taken away and given to the mother. Moreover, the men probably would lose custody of their children in the divorce/custody proceeding anyway, again leaving their children in harm’s way.

Perhaps none of these policies would have saved Mr. McNair. However, domestic violence by women isn’t rare, it isn’t trivial, and ignoring it harms couples and their children.

Dr. Ned Holstein is a public health specialist with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the founder of Fathers & Families. Glenn Sacks is the organization’s executive director. Their Web site is www.FathersandFamiles.org.

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