When I started writing this post, I was not too sure what domestic violence might be. Such uncertainty is common in higher education, where students are often taught that people can use terms in whatever way they wish. Professors seem to feel entitled to say something like, “I define ‘domestic violence’ to include A, B, and C.” People may question the specifics of the proposed definition, but everyone seems to consider it useful to toss around idiosyncratic definitions according to individual taste.
This way of proceeding does not necessarily resonate with the lay public. Even other intellectuals tend not to be current on the latest definitional conceits indulged by experts in a given area. In terms of the philosophical distinction cited by Gupta (2009), lay people and intellectuals alike typically seem to believe that they are working with real rather than nominal definitions. They don’t think they are merely playing games with words. In the particular area of domestic violence, they want to explore (or assume, or expostulate on the basis of) empirical facts about who actually commits what kind of violence to whom, and how, when, and why.
Definitions of Domestic Violence
One way to define domestic violence is simply to accept what the law says. Of course, legal definitions tend to be negotiated, and in that sense can have a political dimension; yet that very dimension, involving the approval of legislators and their supporters, may tend to make them less arbitrary or extreme than the versions preferred by some professors or advocates. In particular, the Violence Against Women Act offers a definition of domestic violence, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 13925(a)(8). In that definition, domestic violence essentially consists of “felony or misdemeanor crimes of violence” committed by present or former boy/girlfriends against their intimate partners.
That differs substantially from the approach taken by the U.S. government’s Office on Violence against Women (OVW). It appears that OVW, a federal office, does not proceed on the basis of the federal law’s crime-based definition (above), but rather prefers an expanded definition encompassing various forms of abuse. This post goes through OVW’s definition in some detail. (Note: this post’s analysis of OVW was developed independently, on the basis of this writer’s own knowledge, experience, and research; it was then verified that OVW, like most governmental agencies, does have its critics.) The definition offered by the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) likewise focuses on types of abuse rather than on criminal arrests or convictions.
Similarly, some non-governmental organizations prefer definitions of domestic violence extending well beyond criminal violence. Like OVW, the Women’s Aid definition says that “domestic violence is physical, sexual, psychological, or financial violence that takes place within an intimate or family-type relationship and that forms a pattern of coercive and controlling behavior.” Women’s Aid admits that, in this inflated interpretation, “Domestic violence may include a range of abusive behaviours, not all of which are in themselves inherently ‘violent.’” The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) further develops this approach with a claim that domestic abuse may include “lying . . . confusion . . . craziness . . . jealousy . . . depression . . . self-medication . . .”
Difficulties in the Definitions
Remarkably, the NCADV document containing that language immediately follows it with this assertion: “In all cultures, batterers are most commonly male.” This is obviously incompatible with the definition just given (NCADV uses “battering” and “domestic violence” interchangeably); women do lie, display jealousy, and engage in other behaviors listed by NCADV.
Why would NCADV contradict itself thus? Sometimes people just don’t notice self-contradiction, however obvious it might be. It is possible that the writers were not very self-critical – that they got on a roll, started ranting about various ways in which they feel they, or their acquaintances, have been mistreated by men, and just did not stop to think that their words might apply to women as well. Another possibility, which will come up again in this post, is that the writers could see perfectly well what they had written, but felt that women must somehow be privileged or exempt, such that nobody could make any such accusations in reply.
Another question: why would NCADV, OVW, and others inflate domestic “violence” to include palpably nonviolent acts? The answer appears to be that, in these overpoliticized times, sensationalism is a major part of advocacy. It is not good enough to state the realities; one must hype them, in hopes of catching people’s attention and manipulating their feelings. The advocate or professor needs to generate anger and anxiety so that people will buy books, attend conferences, join organizations, fund research, or otherwise facilitate the speaker’s continued fixation on his/her pet peeve. Domestic “violence” is not the only example; another is the concept of so-called “hate” speech that does not incorporate actual hatred. It is as if speakers were saying, “Hate and violence sound bad; we are supposed to be against them. Never mind the details.” It is unfortunate that intelligent people would not only lower themselves to such stupid expressions, but would corrupt the formerly cautious and critical academic environment in the process. Such behavior impairs the credibility of academia. Indeed, academia now threatens students and faculty members who would dare to question such exaggerated terminology.
While NCADV’s list of acts of domestic violence is exceptionally long and strange, with its references to things like “confusion” and “craziness,” there are problems of nonsensicality in the lists produced by others as well. For instance, CDC characterizes its preferred concept of intimate partner violence (IPV) as something that “occurs on a continuum, ranging from one hit that may or may not impact the victim to chronic, severe battering.” This seems odd. If there is no health impact or victimization, why should CDC be involved? CDC apparently does not want people to hit each other, even if no harm is done. So there had better not be anyone in America who would tap someone on the shoulder to get their attention.
As another example, CDC claims that IPV can include “withholding information from the victim.” To say that it can include such withholding is not, of course, a firm statement that it does. It is just enough to support an accusation or demand. But if withholding information can be abusive, surely demanding information can be as well. And what amount of withholding or demanding qualifies? It seems there is a threat of accusation hanging over the very attempt to talk to one’s intimate partner. One might as well say that serving dinner can constitute IPV: it can, if the food is poisoned, or if the sausages or grapefruit are served with unflattering comparisons to the other party’s sexual characteristics.
In other words, it would be ridiculous to make “serving dinner” a permanent part of the definition of abusiveness, and the same is true for this remark about “withholding information.” Such a definition invites people to fault their partners for what may be perfectly reasonable behavior. In this and other instances, the reader can get the sense that such definitions of domestic abuse are written by people who have already concluded that the relationship cannot be saved; all that remains is the attack, the victory, and the use of unfair accusations to humiliate the supposed abuser.
OVW’s Definition in Particular
As noted above, this post focuses particularly on the definition of domestic violence provided by the federal government’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW). A threshold consideration, based on several points elaborated below, is that no such office should exist: it presumes that women are so disproportionately victimized as to require an unabashedly sexist response, when that is simply not true; and whatever its founding intent, it functions not merely in the defensive role implied by its name, but in an offensive, attacking capacity against men. There is the additional suggestion that, if a federal office is going to exist, at least it should function competently.
OVW’s webpage says, “We define domestic violence as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.” A pattern cannot exist with a single act. OVW’s implicit advice seems to be, make that first punch count.
In addition, dictionary definitions suggest that a pattern entails something regular or recurrent. Examples in the area of domestic violence might be, “He ignores me on Wednesdays, yells at me on Thursdays, and hits me on Fridays” or “It always starts when she drinks. She wants to fight, and it goes on from there.” If OVW intends a pattern in this sense, then its definition would find no “domestic violence,” even in the event of multiple acts of actual violence, if the acts lack regularity (see Walker & Gavin, 2011, p. 5).
OVW’s definition looks for abusive behavior “in any relationship.” An office for violence against women thus considers itself concerned with relationships between men or, for that matter, between dogs. OVW does clarify that it is concerned with a spat between Rover and Fido only if it is used for purposes of power and control between (human) intimate partners. The point here is simply that OVW is speaking nonsense: clearly, it does not define domestic violence as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship.
OVW condemns the party who seeks power and control over another. Suppose Sally and Angelina are lovers. Sally is a complete brute; Angelina is totally bullied. To try to balance things, Angelina develops a scheme to gain power over Sally. The scheme fails, and in fact Sally beats Angelina for even thinking of it. In OVW’s definition, the steps that Angelina took in that scheme would qualify as domestic violence, even if her “pattern of abusive behavior” consisted of simply “attempting to coerce” sexual contact that, for once, was not so harsh and painful.
Truly, it is frightening to contemplate that the people who wrote OVW’s definition of domestic abuse may be shaping federal policy pertaining to what people do in their intimate relationships. And yet this analysis has only begun to identify the dimensions of the problem.
OVW’s definition is focused on intimate partners. But what is an intimate partner? Suppose a guy in a bar is interested in me, but the feeling is not mutual since I am not gay: is he committing domestic abuse if he insists on buying me a drink (“forcing alcohol” on me, in OVW’s definition)? What if it’s a woman whom I’ve never seen before? What if I’ve seen her before, but we’ve only talked? What if we kissed once, three years ago? What if I’m the one buying the beer?
These may seem like legalistic questions. But it is a little late to voice that concern. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) became law in 1994. The question, at this point, is whether OVW is performing its assigned duties in an appropriate fashion. OVW’s Factsheet says that OVW “was created specifically to implement VAWA and subsequent legislation.” It was not created to implement notions that somebody at OVW dreamed up on a Monday afternoon. As noted above, VAWA conceives violence against women in terms of specified criminal acts. Courts and legislators have been honing the definitions of those acts for hundreds of years. Those definitions contain none of the vague concepts introduced in OVW’s definition, such as the focus on a “pattern” of behavior oriented toward “control.” Those may be the kinds of terms that OVW employees use when talking with their friends. The lack of specificity in such terms may be what makes them useful in such conversations. And yet that is precisely what makes them dangerous, for purposes of formal accusations against people who do not see things as one’s friends might.
OVW does not cite any legal basis for its definition of domestic abuse – any source, that is, that would explain why it seems to have departed dramatically from its responsibility for implementing VAWA and subsequent legislation. The sources OVW cites on its definition webpage are as follows: “National Domestic Violence Hotline, National Center for Victims of Crime, and WomensLaw.org.” These are rather different from legal citations to, say, 42 U.S.C. § 13925(a)(8) or Jones v. McWilliams. In a phenomenon that will be of interest later in this post, it appears the office in charge of implementing the law is instead passing around secondhand impressions. This is the authority by which OVW justifies its decision to abuse the public’s trust that Congress delegated to OVW.
It is not as though OVW had no alternative. There are many possibilities for legitimate activism in the area of domestic violence. For instance, there may be additional behaviors that need to be criminalized; there may be a need for scrutiny of law enforcement, so as to insure more thorough detection of, and effective responses to, acts that are already criminalized; there may be acts that, criminalized or not, call for empirically supported treatments not requiring involvement of the legal system. Given its law-oriented mandate, OVW should be presenting a definition of domestic violence that would function at a legal level of competence – not something that looks like it was sketched out on a dinner napkin.
There certainly is a lot of anti-male ideology in OVW’s definition, as we shall see. That is unfortunate. Governmental offices are expected to take a mainstream approach that serves the public as a whole, drawing upon experts rather than ideologues. In this case, the failure to do so has amounted to reinventing the wheel, with all the likelihood of wasted time and inferior results that one would expect from such an enterprise. In other words, OVW should have started with the statutory crime-oriented definition developed by its own employer (i.e., the U.S. government), and should then have built up a body of work reasonably clarifying, expanding upon, and advocating for plausible revisions in that foundation.
Control and Servitude
Within OVW’s definition of domestic abuse, the concept of “control” is particularly interesting. Further criticism of that concept may be useful, not only to underscore the impropriety of OVW’s approach, but also to point toward workable alternatives.
There seems to be some confusion, at OVW, about the logical difference between “and” and “or.” When you require A and B and C, you reduce the number of applicable situations. So, as already noted, requiring not only abuse but an actual “pattern” causes the definition to miss instances of actual abuse. The same is true of OVW’s “control” requirement. According to OVW, if your spouse pummels you without controlling intent (because e.g., s/he is suffering from Alzheimer’s, Tourette’s, or delusions), no domestic violence has occurred. Again, a nonsensical result from OVW’s decision to fly blind.
If OVW wanted to invent a coherent and yet expansive definition of domestic violence, it needed to rely more heavily on or – to anticipate, that is, that there might be multiple independent roads to the destination. As noted at the outset, the concept of violence is distinct from other behaviors mentioned in OVW’s definition. It is distinct in law, and it is distinct in common usage. OVW’s attempt to call everything “violence” does not change the wording of VAWA; it remains focused on criminalized acts that do not necessarily involve control, a pattern, or other elements in OVW’s definition. Criminalized physical acts are already taken care of in VAWA. OVW’s definition should not have tried to complicate or overturn VAWA in order to inject an additional control element. Control raises different problems and requires different legislation.
The first thing to recognize about control is that OVW is largely mistaken in treating it as something bad. When one moves beyond the lingo shared among fellow complainers, one may discover that the struggle for control is a pervasive fact of existence. Parents control children; teachers control students; employers control employees. Contracts control the parties thereto and police control hooligans, not to mention that we use things like faucets, antidepressants, and bug spray to control myriad aspects of our physical existence.
The question OVW raises is whether struggles for control can and should be prohibited in intimate relationships. It seems to be the sort of question that would occur to a person who has never had such a relationship. Since the time of Aristotle, it has been suggested that some people are actually more comfortable in the role of controller, while others want to be controlled. Be that as it may, it is understandable that a person would want to be able to let down his/her guard in some areas – instead of maintaining constant hyperindividualistic vigilance, to be able to relax and trust in the safety of another person’s physical or financial capacities, deep experience, emotional balance, or steadfast love. Such strengths are apt to yield reciprocal opportunities for control that, in a successful relationship, will be worked out and balanced as developments require or permit.
In fact, intimate relationships tend to be extensively shaped and steered by controls devised and/or enforced by partner, parents, church, community, and culture. As the song says, “They may call you Doctor, or they may call you Chief / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” For religious reasons or otherwise, some relationships depend upon traditional arrangements in which the husband controls the household; some incorporate a non-negotiable understanding that the mother retains control over most matters involving her children. Partners cede control to one another in innumerable ways (e.g., “She handles our finances”; “He doesn’t want the kids to watch TV”). A person who complains about being controlled by members of the opposite sex may essentially have decided, instead, to be controlled by the opinions of professors, peers, or magazine writers. Without denying the potential for clarification with the aid of related terms (e.g., power, influence, persuasion), there may be no such thing as an intimate relationship in which neither party exercises any direct or indirect control over the other.
These observations may have long since been obvious to the people at OVW. They may have acquiesced in the definitional sloppiness critiqued above, not because of stupidity or laziness, but because of a more or less clear recognition that things become too complicated, for an anti-male agenda, when you try to define your terms carefully and focus on specifics. It may have been more profitable to keep things loose, cynically playing on vague stereotypes and horror stories about men. No doubt the majority of women have encountered at least a few instances of truly egregious male behavior; manipulations evoking those experiences may be enough to maintain the attention level, the funding, and the political support.
In short, violence and control are separate concepts. There can be objectionable and/or nonobjectionable control within intimate relationships, with or without violence. Binding together the concepts of control and violence within a definition is not helpful, because they are not bound together in reality. And at any rate, control per se is not the issue. It is too vague; it means too many different things. Clarification would require a book. Better to start over with a different and more specific concept.
One alternative concept worth considering is that of involuntary servitude – of being put into a position of serving another against one’s will. It is a legal concept based in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In an intimate partner context, Jackson (2007, p. 918) distinguishes simple criminal assault, constituting domestic violence, from egregious control of another human being. Regarding the latter, she says, “Scholars have advocated for basic Thirteenth Amendment protections in the context of abusive marriages for many years.”
In other words, the Violence Against Women Act has its merits; but as a piece of sexist legislation that presidents must periodically reauthorize, it is no substitute for the bedrock of a constitutional amendment emerging from a four-year civil war. One might ask whether the political capital devoted to that Act might have been more fairly and effectively invested in development of laws applying the 13th Amendment to domestic abuse (see VanderVelde, 2007, p. 860, n. 33). To illustrate the potential difference in effect, such an investment might have enabled a source like the Women’s Aid webpage to replace its weak statement that domestic violence “can include forced marriage” with an emphatic reminder that forced marriage is a form of involuntary servitude prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. In short, there do exist legal and social concepts that can offer more precision and greater persuasiveness than OVW’s vague interest in “control,” and it would probably be better if OVW sought to add them to the law that it is supposed to be developing, rather than treating that law as an impediment.
While OVW’s definition of domestic violence seems to treat “control” as the core issue, the elaboration of that definition suggests that OVW may consider it equally important to list objectionable acts. OVW provides the following description of kinds of abuse:
- Physical Abuse: Hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, hair pulling, etc are types of physical abuse. This type of abuse also includes denying a partner medical care or forcing alcohol and/or drug use upon him or her.
- Sexual Abuse: Coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact or behavior without consent. Sexual abuse includes, but is certainly not limited to, marital rape, attacks on sexual parts of the body, forcing sex after physical violence has occurred, or treating one in a sexually demeaning manner.
- Emotional Abuse: Undermining an individual’s sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem is abusive. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one’s abilities, name-calling, or damaging one’s relationship with his or her children.
- Economic Abuse: Is defined as making or attempting to make an individual financially dependent by maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding one’s access to money, or forbidding one’s attendance at school or employment.
- Psychological Abuse: Elements of psychological abuse include – but are not limited to – causing fear by intimidation; threatening physical harm to self, partner, children, or partner’s family or friends; destruction of pets and property; and forcing isolation from family, friends, or school and/or work.
There are some advantages to such lists. It can be convenient, for some purposes, to clarify that an objectionable act was of a physical, or psychological, or economic nature; it can be informative to see that a certain kind of act is indeed considered abusive. At the same time, such lists can be very problematic.
Consider, for instance, OVW’s claim that “Hitting, slapping, shoving . . . are types of physical abuse.” This is false in, for example, a game of tag, where it is essential to hit the other person; it is false in an ill-advised drinking game that allows one party to slap another; it is false in many instances of sexual contact where one person shoves another into a desired position. In other words, one must generally take account of the circumstances. Few acts are intrinsically bad regardless of context.
As another example, OVW defines sexual abuse as including attempts to coerce any sexual contact. The definition is not limited to physical or emotional coercion. OVW makes clear that it views economic pressure as a way of exerting control. Hence, to OVW, paying a prostitute qualifies as sexual abuse. The sexual relationship commonly found in prostitution is not a very intimate or enduring one, but OVW specifies that its concept of domestic violence applies to “any relationship,” and there certainly is a relationship between a prostitute and his/her one-time or returning customer. OVW’s implication is that women should not be free to choose prostitution as a way to make a living.
OVW further prohibits “attacks on sexual parts of the body.” OVW does not qualify that statement with an option of consent. This appears to accuse a sex partner of abuse when s/he may merely be complying with his/her partner’s desire to be spanked. OVW’s writers have not described the base of experience and research that qualifies them to prohibit assorted consensual sex acts.
OVW says that economic abuse includes “attempting to make an individual financially dependent” by such means as “withholding one’s access to money.” By this definition, intimate partners commit economic abuse when they prohibit their partners from making a living via prostitution. They also commit economic abuse when they opt for a traditional arrangement in which one party is the breadwinner while the other stays home and takes care of the kids. The breadwinner cannot escape the accusation by budgeting a certain amount for the stay-at-home parent because, according to Wright (2013, pp. 469-472), putting the partner on an allowance also constitutes domestic abuse.
Wright’s views provide further insight into the apparent mentality at OVW. She cites various sources for the propositions that domestic abuse occurs when an intimate partner sulks, stomps out of the room, or makes the partner feel guilty. It is as if the people who invent such notions had no knowledge of American life and cultures. If Woody Allen and others are to be believed, entire religions would be prohibited by a rule against making people feel guilty. Evidently Wright’s sources have no experience with people who “sulk” because they feel bad, or whose stomping out of the room constitutes a real achievement not involving violence against anyone, or who put their partner on an allowance to prevent them from blowing the rent money. These may not be common choices or situations within the privileged world of an academic or a bureaucrat; but in everyday America, people often find it necessary to patch together some sort of less-than-ideal solution. Far from precluding negotiation, such behaviors may actually be elements within a party’s negotiating strategy.
Such remarks highlight the irony that OVW, Wright, and the people she cites are claiming a nonconsensual right to permit or forbid behaviors – to develop and implement laws and policies – that will control what people can do in their intimate relationships. In principle, we have a democracy so that people in positions of power, including those at OVW, are not free to indulge unchecked personal taste or wanton caprice at the expense of others. There is some entertainment value, that is, in the fact that this sort of ambition is unfolding for the alleged purpose of preventing inappropriate exercises of control.
As a separate issue, OVW’s list repeatedly betrays a biased intent to favor women, as one would expect from the agency’s very name. For instance, OVW has seen fit to condemn single physical acts of shoving and grabbing, in which men are typically assumed to be predominantly culpable (see below); but there is no such condemnation of single verbal acts of criticism, nagging, or economic belittling (e.g., making unflattering remarks about one’s chosen career or success therein), which would snare many women; OVW finds a problem only if the criticism is “constant.” The point may be clearer if one imagines a similar qualifier for the physical acts: that, for instance, only “constant” hitting would constitute physical abuse.
OVW appears not to have considered ways in which its words could be used to accuse women. Consider, for instance, the claim that sexual abuse includes coercion of sexual behavior without consent. A woman’s refusal to have sex compels the man to engage in abstinent behavior regardless of his consent. OVW’s definition implies that women worldwide commit sexual abuse on a massive scale.
Similarly, one might weigh the implications of OVW’s prohibition against damaging one’s relationship with one’s children. The situation is easy in the case of overt words and deeds. But perhaps a better guide to the existence of such damage emerges from children’s parental preferences. It is common, in the U.S., to assume that children are naturally closer to their mothers than to their fathers. But this may be an artifact of social arrangements that have typically compelled the father to leave the home, day after day, throughout those years of childhood, while allowing the mother to spend countless hours with the children. Even if mothers were naturally closer to their kids, the appropriate social response would seemingly be to institute remedial measures so that neither parent is disadvantaged or made an inferior party in his/her own home and family. In OVW’s definition, women who perpetuate this self-serving advantage or superiority in the eyes of their children seem to be engaging in emotional abuse.
Another problem with the list of kinds of abuses on OVW’s webpage (and elsewhere as well) is that the categories (e.g., physical, sexual, emotional) are not necessarily sensible or helpful:
- The laundry list of abuses tends to put them on the same level. That is, OVW does not print RAPE!!! or BEATING WITH A STEEL ROD!!! with capital letters, red ink, or exclamation marks. It is as though an attempted murder and a slap are somewhat similar, in the sense that each would qualify as a kind of physical abuse on that list. One gets the impression that the list has been drawn up by someone who has little familiarity with any such experiences. It would seem more appropriate to prefer a discussion format, demonstrating some sensitivity to the enormous differences between torture and tickling.
- The categories overlap confusingly. Consider: OVW indicates that physical abuse includes grabbing, sexual abuse includes rape, emotional abuse includes undermining an individual’s self-esteem, and psychological abuse includes threats of physical harm. Taken together, such definitions suggest that a single act of forcible rape would tend to constitute an act of physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse – not just sexual abuse, as OVW says.
- The overlap among categories can generate an impression of redundancy. For instance, the examples of sexual abuse provided by OVW are all of a physical or psychological nature. If categorization must occur, the creation of duplicative categories would seem to facilitate exaggeration and/or double-counting – contributing, that is, to an impression that OVW’s list is less about rational description and more about hype and emotional venting.
- Some of the overlap among categories apparently reflects an unsettled state in the academic literature. For instance, Wright (2013, pp. 465-467) indicates that experts disagree as to whether domestic violence consists solely of “physical, sexual, and psychological” abuse or instead includes an economic component, and that some also disagree as to whether psychological abuse is distinguishable from emotional and verbal abuse. OVW’s definition takes a position on one side of these learned disputes, without necessarily possessing the expertise to justify that decision. The distinction between the emotional and the psychological appears abstruse and tenuous: for instance, how can one be sure that, as OVW would have it, “undermining an individual’s self-worth” is not a psychological matter, or that “fear by intimidation” is not an emotional matter?
- The categories appear arbitrary in the sense that an entirely different categorization would be not only feasible but perhaps superior. One notes, for instance, that there is no category for “social abuse,” and yet social elements appear in several of the extant categories (e.g., damaging one’s relationships with others, forcing isolation from friends).
Taken together, the foregoing remarks suggest that, in a more workable formulation, single acts of domestic violence may qualify as abusive (alternately, “aggressive”); that such acts can be thought of as occurring within or across physical (including sexual), psychosocial (including emotional), and economic and legal arenas; and that a series of abusive acts can comprise or contribute to an attempt (alternately, a “struggle”) to subject the other party to involuntary servitude. Such determinations should be informed by context-specific facts, not compelled by preconceived notions of what people are permitted to do.
Some Remarks on Physical Violence
Among commonly cited types of abuse, physical violence is often considered particularly egregious. There are good and bad reasons for this. A good reason is that physical violence can curtail the victim’s very survival. A bad reason is that physical violence is, or is often perceived as, an issue primarily for the lower classes – as, in other words, a matter on which, in social work and elsewhere, the elite can feel entitled to deliver moralizing lectures. Because of the deserved and in some regards undeserved primacy of the topic of physical violence, it may be appropriate to devote particular attention to its role in struggles for relational control.
Humans are limited. While context is essential for understanding an act, there are limits to the amount of contextual material that we are likely to gather and process. Inevitably, we abstract discrete events from their backgrounds; we take things out of context to some degree. We are especially likely to do so when the act in question seems to speak for itself – when it appears that the act would continue to seem remarkable, regardless of context.
So, for example, it seems to go without saying that a person cannot just go around shooting people. A single bullet shot into the forehead of another individual is so extraordinarily offensive and unacceptable as to call for urgent and harsh punishment. And yet this is obviously not what Americans believe, else we would not entitle thousands of 18-year-olds with high school educations to put on Army uniforms and spend their days doing exactly that to the members of an opposing military.
Well, but surely rape is an example of something that can be condemned categorically, without concern for context. Yet even a quick glance suggests that this is probably not true. Rape is more complicated than some would let on. For instance, there are people who have rape fantasies. There are people who have had orgasms during rape; there are people who have fallen in love with and married their rapists. For that matter, there are statutory rapists, intoxicated rapists, underage rapists, retaliatory rapists, confused or misinformed rapists, coerced rapists. It is safe to say that rape calls for very close scrutiny and a comprehensive and appropriate response including criminalization. It would be quite another thing to say that every rapist should be thrown into prison for 20 years, circumstances be damned.
People who fixate upon discrete acts might consider a relationship between a person who is very oriented toward control and one who is not. The control-oriented person might engage in a series of manipulations, attacks, and other behaviors not conducive to a mutually beneficial relationship. Now suppose some event provokes the non-controlling individual to a spontaneous reaction: suddenly s/he slaps the manipulative partner, or throws his/her things out the window, or engages in some other physical response. A simplistic focus on discrete acts might emphasize the wrongfulness of that single action, when in fact the provocation, and the greater damage to the relationship, to its parties, and to affected third persons (e.g., children, friends, employers), may come from the ongoing machinations of the control-oriented individual. It seems, in other words, that an analysis preoccupied with highly visible acts can yield misunderstanding and poor guidance.
Some of this may seem obvious. Regrettably, it is not yet obvious to the authorities. The law tends to find that certain acts are impermissible; and as long as a prosecutor can obtain a conviction based on the raw fact of a prohibited act, s/he is not necessarily too concerned with why it occurred. The prosecutor’s decision reflects public thinking as sketched above, with its frequent indifference to details, and in turn the public almost invariably acquiesces in the prosecutor’s conclusion. The authorities have spoken; the slap (or whatever it was) was the wrong thing to do; and there does not seem to be much more to say about it – even if, in fact, this is the tail wagging the dog. The law commonly declines to take a position on all sorts of terrible wrongs – on betrayal, lying, cheating, humiliation, and other behaviors that judges and legislators are not typically too willing to get mixed up in. A slap can be a crime and yet may be the least terrible act in a series of deplorable domestic interactions.
Discrete acts provide grist for many statistical analyses. For example, in a report published by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), Catalano (2012) provides insight into crimes of physical violence among intimate partners in the United States. That report focuses on “rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault committed by an offender who is [characterized by the victim as] the victim’s current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend” (p. 9). For both men and women, rates of intimate partner victimization (IPV), so defined, fell dramatically (by almost two-thirds) between 1994 and 2010 (p. 2). Women continued to be far more frequently victimized, however, at a rate more than five times as great as that for males.
(Catalano’s report stimulates several side observations, noted but not explored here. First, the gross figure of female victimization conceals a stunning divergence between married and single women. In the best case, married women without children seem to have experienced IPV at rates comparable to those of men, while single women with children experienced rates more than 25 times higher. Such findings suggest paradoxical possibilities in which those men and women who most need the domesticating and protective effects of marriage may be least likely to have them. Another question not investigated here is whether the entry of children into the intimate partner equation generates violence-related complexities or provocations (e.g., exposing divergences in some male and female concepts of the purpose or focus of marriage, or differences in the parents’ acceptance by their children). Catalano further indicates that, as of 2010, instances of IPV against females had converged into two distinct age groups. Those in the 18-49 age range were victimized at rates roughly eight to ten times higher than those who fell outside that age range. Presumably that divergence is much influenced by whether females live with or are otherwise intensively involved with intimate partners; girls and older women are probably less likely to have such options. For purposes of avoiding victimization, an optimal solution for women in the 18-49 age group (especially those who do not desire frequent male companionship) would apparently be to use men (or to seek alternatives) for sex, money, and procreation, as needed or desired, but otherwise to keep men at something of a distance. That statement could be taken to characterize some current social trends. It remains unclear whether this would be an optimal solution for affected men, and ifn ot, what rights they would have in the matter, or what social policies might be implicated.)
Catalano’s BJS report, and its predecessors, have contributed to a widespread perception of male abusiveness and female defenselessness. It is often assumed, even by researchers who should know better, that the data speak for themselves. A reader not seeking ammunition in support of preconceived views may however be interested in certain caveats. For one thing, Catalano does not distinguish among forms of IPV crimes, but rather lumps together the risks of extreme (e.g., rape) and minor (e.g., simple assault) crimes. Yet among criminal acts of IPV, simple assaults (involving criminal charges for acts as minor as slapping and even tickling) outnumber rapes and other sexual assaults by more than ten to one (Statistical Abstract, 2012, p. 202, table 318). It seems likely that the divergence would be vastly greater if women were as likely to file criminal charges for tickling as for sexual assault.
The point is not just that ideologues might deceptively use an accumulation of predominantly minor assaults to falsely imply a tidal wave of horrendous physical violence against women. It is that there is a gender skew in this regard, insofar as men significantly underreport their own experiences of IPV victimization – especially but not only tickling and other minor forms of victimization – for various reasons, including expectations that they are supposed to be tough and fears that the police will laugh at them or may assume them to be at fault (see Cook, 2009, p. 4). National research by CDC and the Department of Justice (2012, p. 38; see Hoff, 2012, p. 156), based upon survey data rather than police records, indicates that, as of 2010, rates of physical IPV against men were actually higher than those against women. It has been suggested, moreover, that males are more likely to accrue serious injury in physical altercations, due to women’s greater tendency to use weapons (Cook, p. 22), and that in the specific context of nonreciprocal violent relationships, women are the perpetrators of violence in more than two-thirds of cases (Whitaker et al., 2007, p. 943). (One might note, incidentally, that OVW’s definition of physical abuse (above) fails to mention the act of “throwing things” that characterizes much of the serious female violence against men.)
Finally, Catalano (p. 12) finds that, in the large majority of cases, the intimate partner who victimized a woman on one occasion was the same person who had victimized her previously. That is, it appears that a select and relatively small set of people (predominantly but not exclusively male) accounts for the lion’s share of acts of physical IPV. It is not clear to what extent the men who commit IPV against women are also those who commit violence against other men.
Identification of Abusive Behavior
Earlier, this post spoke positively of a definition of domestic violence based on criminal acts. As indicated there, the perceived advantage of such a definition is its relative freedom from arbitrary assumptions and intellectual idiosyncracies. While the law can and does overreach in such matters as the criminalization of tickling, it is very clear that acts of serious physical violence are not appropriate for intimate partner relationships.
Such remarks pose a question of what should be criminalized. American criminal law was largely shaped in prior centuries, when men were the primary actors and objects of focus in society. It would not have made sense for lawmakers to preoccupy themselves with the customary doings of women, if women were virtually invisible and powerless and if the things they did were considered unimportant, or if attention to such matters would imply male weakness. Hence there may be a built-in bias against men, in research like that by BJS (above), because a focus on criminal charges may tend to fault forms of misbehavior associated with men (especially lower-income men) while ignoring misbehavior by women.
Of course, women can misbehave as men do. Discussions of female physical violence explore that dimension. But do women also misbehave in ways that are not customary for men, and that may thus have been overlooked by the criminal law? A search for forms of peculiarly female misbehavior might begin with the assumption that women are not inclined toward renegade acts by unruly individualists. If one message has emerged in the business press in recent years, it is that women enjoy superior prospects in the 21st century economy due to their better communication skills (e.g., Hall, 2013; Nixon, 2012; Eriksson et al., 2012) and socioemotional capabilities (e.g., DiPrete et al., 2009; Collignon et al., 2010). We are often told that women tend to be more collaborative. They are better at working with people, and more inclined toward group processes. If these messages are correct, then one might suspect that women would be inclined to abuse power by consensus, as a team, with most people (or at least most of the powerful people) on board, enforcing strict compliance with group expectations, and (where possible) co-opting divided individuals or weak groups arising in opposition.
Those words seem to match the present reality. First, women have long since achieved dominance in intimate partner physical violence. That statement will seem absurd, to those who focus on instances of one-on-one violence in isolation. The preceding remarks have suggested some reasons to recognize that it is not absurd, even in that setting. Women do account for a respectable share of instances in which one or both persons engage in physical violence against their intimate partners.
But that is not what gives women dominance in intimate partner physical violence. One-on-one violence rarely occurs in a setting of genuine isolation, where the male’s superiority in strength or violent propensity might be assumed to yield a decisive advantage. In most cases where the battle is obscured from the attention of authorities, friends, and neighbors, it is because both parties choose to keep it private. This post cannot go into that phenomenon in depth, but it appears to stem from a combination of factors, including the possibility that the physically disadvantaged party derives certain perceived advantages from a retention of privacy. For instance, a battered individual may simply not trust or share in the objectives and mindsets that motivate aid workers or police; s/he may correctly or incorrectly perceive, based on personal experience and on the comments of others, that their involvement will be ineffective or counterproductive for his/her purposes.
What gives the vast majority of American women dominance in intimate partner physical violence is that, despite such caveats, they do generally retain the option of calling immediately for massive reinforcements; most are not deeply averse to doing so; and when they do so, they generally enjoy an overwhelming capacity to inflict physical harm by proxy on their intimate partners.
It has been advantageous, that is, to operate on psychological and legal levels as a meeker, gentler sex. There are shelters for battered women; there are laws specifically prohibiting violence against women; there have been women who have deliberately provoked physical violence, so as to frame the man for larger purposes. In domestic relations courts, false accusations of male violence have long been a standard tool of the attorney for the female party. The potency of such accusations depends, of course, upon the willingness of judges to give them credence. Such a willingness has appeared, not only among female attorneys who have fought their way into judicial positions against the tide of a predominantly male profession, but also in the self-serving mentality of many male judges – a mentality that naturally strives to suppress potentially competing (i.e., non-subservient) males while generating gratitude and other positive reactions from potentially available females.
Powerful men and ordinary women have now constructed a society in which the average man lives on probation. He is one step away from criminalization and other relegation to formal second-class status. Among other things, in any brush with law enforcement, the man is considered vastly more deserving of physical responses ranging from a trip downtown or an impromptu beating to the occasional police murder. There are also extralegal realities: one scream – indeed, one complaint – will often suffice to attract all sorts of vigilantes, ready to distinguish themselves with violent action on behalf of a damsel in distress. By themselves or with others, many men and some women are willing, even eager, to threaten physical measures against a man who can be construed as speaking offensively to a woman in public; but few women and virtually no men will do so to a woman who speaks offensively to a man in public. Female physical dominance is so pervasive that even an absurd complaint by a woman can subject a man to surveillance, restrictions on movement and activity, police harassment, and criminal charges entailing possible imprisonment. Women do not face even a remotely similar set of physical threats.
In addition to direct physical violence inflicted by proxy upon men at the behest of their female intimate partners, men also endure significant risks of indirect physical violence in response to those partners’ spoken and unspoken expectations. It is not that every woman will bluntly accuse a man of cowardice if he fails to rise to a physical challenge posed by another male, such as when the latter insults or makes a play for the female; it is that the man must recognize that she may consider the question of her man’s cowardice, share it with her friends, or store it for possible airing in some later dispute. The male role in America – for which women are neither solely responsible nor entirely innocent – leaves men far more likely than women to be victims of violent crime.
For other reasons, too, the male role entails a significantly shorter life expectancy. It is symbolic that the female complaint about unequal pay for equal work commenced in an industrial era when, not uncommonly, the man would die ten years before the woman. One certainly cannot begrudge women those pennies on the dollar. Still, it takes only a brief tour of a graveyard to stimulate reflections on the outrage that would have poured forth if the physical risks had been reversed. Again, one must doff one’s cap to the set of social skills that persuade not only women, but also many men, to clamor for rectification of women’s pay inequity, while men continue to hold dangerous jobs and fulfill other expectations that result in premature death for so many. We’ve got women worried about women, and men worried about women; it’s too bad we don’t have a third sex that would care about everyone equally.
That is an initial sketch regarding female physical dominance. It may suggest that there are abusive female practices that could be criminalized; it may also suggest that, despite its relative clarity from a definitional perspective, criminalization may inevitably convey a very incomplete and distorted impression of modes of abuse. It appears that a full accounting of physical abuse in an intimate partner context should include not only the individual-blaming approach that seems effective against isolated males, but also a recognition of disproportionate role-based physical abuses that cultural expectations impose upon intimate partners.
It is perhaps not necessary to go on at similar length about nonphysical forms of female dominance. A number of the preceding remarks may illustrate the nature of that dominance in, for instance, the economic arena. There, again, there are role expectations, legal biases, and other factors tending to underscore a rather remarkable history. To cite one example, it seems those relatively long-lived women of the 1960s felt oppressed with their duties at home and in the community (while their husbands were yoked to typically nongratifying jobs) – a form of “oppression,” with its relatively relaxed pacing (i.e., not squeezed in around a full-time job), that many men and women of today wish they could attain – and proceeded to seek divorces that awarded them a continuation of the income, in alimony, without a continuation of the corresponding obligations. It ceased to be necessary to have a good reason for the divorce; sheer opportunism was adequate. Again, there are many permutations on the story, and no attempt here to represent them all; the point is simply that development of such life-enhancing opportunities at men’s expense, in what was supposedly a man’s world, is testimony to women’s skills to achieve economic dominance via effective communication and collaboration.
Similar observations may apply in the area of sexual abuse. To cite one example, we have reached a point at which OVW can convey the impression that, in the view of the U.S. Department of Justice, it is abusive to coerce sex, but not to refuse it. Such a statement may inspire the question of whether men should or would coerce sex if that were permitted; but there, again, one notices a discrepancy: nobody asks whether women should refuse sex when that is permitted. There is a potential social sanction for either party (i.e., his/her partner may eventually stray); but only the man incurs a criminal penalty as well. Likewise, in OVW’s area of psychological abuse, the national study by CDC and the Department of Justice (2012, p. 46) found that men were significantly more likely than women to have been victims of psychological aggression by intimate partners during the preceding year. But this is not a point likely to be emphasized in most social work classrooms.
In short, women have come to dominate not only the discussion, in the areas of abuse listed by OVW, but also the most powerful means of forcing the outcomes they prefer. Men will be treated as the instigators of the overwhelming majority of instances of intimate partner abuse – while being harassed, abandoned, arrested, convicted, injured, and killed at excessive rates and in unjust conditions – and if social work education teaches one thing, it is that second-wave feminists will tend to consider that appropriate. This is the nature of a helping profession that claims to serve millions of males – and yet, again, neither the university nor other institutions typically question such absurdity.
Female Approaches to Intimate Partner Abuse
This post presents a male perspective on topics related to domestic violence. Within that perspective, it seems appropriate, not only to acknowledge skill advantages possessed by many women, but to explain why some men may be unwilling, rather than unable, to develop such skills.
One might consider, first, the ballyhooed female ability to work well within existing structures. For men and women alike, such an ability often implies corruption; it implies, that is, a willingness not to rock the boat. Men and women who fail to exercise courage in the face of institutional or group pressure tend to contribute to, and make excuses for, abusive behavior by the group or institution. In short, social interaction skills are not an absolute good, but rather must be kept in balance with other priorities.
In particular, the arguments presented in this post suggest that balance in places like OVW, and in schools of social work, requires inclusion rather than exclusion. Universities and other bureaucracies tend to be most tolerable for, and tolerant of, those who practice a sly self-centeredness. As the saying has it, one must go along to get along: personal success requires willingness to accept and even to facilitate the evils wrought by the leaders of such entities. From this perspective, the sources cited above seem to portray the economy of the 21st century as hostile to people who prioritize critical thinking, ethicality, and other tendencies incompatible with groupthink. By contrast, a belief in balance seems to call for an earnest effort to include these characters who paradoxically consider their own inclusion less important than the principles that motivate them. The typical organization’s refusal to seek these intellectually diverse individuals tends to entail a toxic environment for them. In short, the argument in favor of superior social skills can simply mean that people who will do anything to succeed are especially likely to do what the organization counts as success.
Intellectual independence may or may not be more typically male than female. Parsing of that question may call for some attention to the claim that the average woman has superior social skills: there may be many significant female departures from the norm. There is, however, an additional factor that may suppress intellectual independence in women more than in men. That factor is the phenomenon of “relational aggression,” defined as “a type of indirect aggression for which the goal is to harm peer relationships through social exclusion, gossiping, rumor spreading, and other relationship variables” (Basow et al., 2007, p. 86; see Spieker, 2012, p. 2). According to Keenan et al. (2008, p. 86), the concept “was designed to capture a type of aggression that is particularly important for females.” Such aggression can have profoundly deleterious effects. According to Klomek et al. (2009, p. 259), “Relational victimization has been found to have a greater impact on mental conditions (e.g., depression, loneliness) than overt victimization” (see also Walker & Gavin, 2011, p. 7).
One scenario, then, is that male authorities tend to enforce conformity tyrannically, while females enforcing conformity tend to use more comprehensive or invasive group processes. In a mixed environment, junior males may display more independence if they are relatively less vulnerable to consensual aggression. So, for example, the people who can stand to remain on the faculty of a school of social work or other organization rife with relational aggression may protect themselves via deep and immediate conformity, with occasional exceptions for unusually beleaguered but entrenched dissidents who have not yet been driven into legal, economic, or physical exile.
It is not clear what sort of mentality may have prevailed at OVW prior to its publication of its badly flawed and obviously biased definition of domestic abuse. The fact that its head is female does not necessarily provide guidance; she may be a dictatorial type who simply told everyone else what to think and say. Nor can one be certain that OVW’s definition of domestic violence was deliberately distorted to avoid giving significant support to men. That does seem to have been the political agenda behind an Office on Violence Against Women. But the explanation for that distortion may just be that the director received a graduate education as poor as the one I encountered in schools of social work.
In other words, it may never have occurred to OVW’s writers that there could be a possibility of social abuse within an intimate partner relationship. That would be remarkable, in the case of an office playing a national role in study and information regarding domestic abuse. But for OVW or for others who have not previously encountered the question, let us ask: how could there be a social dimension when there are only two people? One answer is that, as in the case of physical violence, there is always the potential (and often the actual) involvement of others. For example, even in non-divorce situations, parents can and do convey to their children many negative messages, spoken and unspoken, about the other parent. Men and women are inevitably selective in what they tell their friends and family members about their partners, and what those third parties hear is reflected back in their verbal and nonverbal communications (and noncommunications) with the partner.
So, to sketch one scenario, men can sometimes get the impression that the dominant American female culture has evolved toward a hyperjudgmental posture, in which the decision to enter into an intimate relationship with a male is indefinitely bracketed or held askance, as a sort of experiment conditioned on approval by other females that may never fully eventuate. In other words, third parties who tend to rely (and advise) on what the female tells them may be playing an increasingly active though surreptitious role within intimate relationships. Or perhaps men have widely failed to grasp that some supposed intimate partner relationships have always been to some extent a group enterprise, involving the woman and everyone else whom she might drag along, potentially raising the question of whether the “intimate partner” construct is entirely coherent.
Regardless of OVW’s avoidance of the matter, relational aggression is most certainly a dimension of intimate partner abuse. To some degree, it does not matter whether OVW’s failure to present and discuss it is due to deliberate concealment of the problem or unintentional failure to do even the brief amount of Internet research necessary to discover the concept. Either way, the bottom line seems to be that OVW was ultimately less concerned about identifying and preventing domestic abuse of every kind, and more concerned about working up a biased presentation that would portray men in unfair and negative terms, as the instigators of virtually every kind of intimate partner abuse.
(Ironically, such an inclination, and the tendency of women’s groups to support and adopt it, would provide an illustration of how relational aggression works. A false story is invented and circulated, people are deceived, and the world is changed accordingly – not to resolve a genuine problem in aid to women, but primarily for the purpose of making life worse for the targeted individuals (in this case, men).)
It may be obvious, by now, that relational aggression could do greater damage to a person’s career, relationships, social acceptance – even to his/her decision to continue living – than any slap or tickling episode would ever do. It would stand to reason that lawmakers would long since have regulated such a powerful and potentially damaging form of behavior. Of course, that is not the case. In the outdated and perverse logic of the law, a spur-of-the-moment slap is criminalized virtually everywhere, while even the most premeditated and damaging program of social exclusion is hardly criminalized anywhere.
And that has been the state of matters for decades. What does it portend? One possibility is that the criminal law has been permanently cast as a man’s affair, with its dungeons and tortures deemed entirely appropriate for the stereotypically horrible male criminal, but largely inappropriate for the delicate ladies who quietly ruin lives (see Russell, 1957, pp. 148-156). In other words, there may simply never be much of a legislative response to relational aggression – certainly not enough to set women and men back on par, putting women in prison for vicious gossip and eventually confronting both sexes with threats fearful enough to stimulate prison reform for reasons of empathy as distinct from budgetary convenience.
So that is a pessimistic appraisal for the moment. In the long term, it tentatively appears that male and female styles may best be balanced against each other, both as an antidote to the worst excesses of each and as a way of making it comparably safe to be male or female in American social, economic, and private life. One hypothesis would be that this is the arrangement that humans have gravitated toward over the millennia, and that a substantial disruption of that equilibrium is likely to produce adverse effects. Consistent with such a hypothesis, one might suggest that, just as workplaces and social institutions have been under pressure for some years to change in order to accommodate women’s schedules and preferences, so also the workplaces and social institutions of the future will have to change in order to accommodate uniquely male tendencies that do not necessarily fit with the dominant way of doing things – even if such changes may sometimes fail to conform with business as usual.
Summary and Concluding Inferences
This post has suggested that the concept of domestic violence commonly is, but should not be, inflated to span a welter of patently nonviolent behaviors. Instead, domestic violence is better construed as violence, in the usual (especially if not exclusively physical) sense of the term, particularly in domestic settings. One can narrow that focus somewhat, if desired, by referring to violence in “intimate partner” settings, so as to exclude children, aging parents, roommates, and others who may share a person’s residence. One can broaden the focus, regardless of setting, by looking at “abuse” (as distinct from violence) in its many physical and nonphysical forms.
This post has further suggested a distinction between one-time and ongoing behaviors. Abusive acts may occur once, or may be aggregated into a series of acts. Such a series may consist of the same act repeated, of divergent acts without repetition, or of a combination of repeated and novel acts, and may (but need not) be pursued for purposes of exerting control over the other person. Efforts to exert control over another person occur on many levels, in many ways; they may be well-intentioned or ill-intentioned; they may be desired or undesired, according to various (e.g., cultural) influences and the parties’ own preferences. But the discussion of control per se may ultimately be less fruitful than attention to clearer and more established concepts, notably that of involuntary servitude.
This post has suggested, in addition, that the assumption of male physical violence has been overplayed, in two regards. First, female aggression against males appears to be much more pervasive than some sources prefer to acknowledge. Second, the degree of balance in physical brutality between males and females is virtually irrelevant, given women’s overwhelmingly superior ability to marshal powerful allies for purposes of physical aggression against men.
In physical and nonphysical (e.g., economic, legal, social) spheres alike, it has been suggested, women have parlayed their initial weakness into dominance. The dominance is now so substantial that, in many regards, ordinary American men live as second-class citizens, with the fact or threat of various punishments and other harms constantly hanging over their heads. The truly remarkable thing is that, in these times when men have continued to endure more frequent serious violence and earlier deaths, powerful men and women (in law and in other seats of power, including academia) have continued to agitate for ever more sexist treatment of ordinary men.
One manifestation of that tendency appears in the poorly conceived and absurdly misleading text, purporting to define domestic violence, proffered by an unapologetically biased federal Office on Violence Against Women. Yet there, again, matters are not necessarily as they seem: it appears that the text in question may actually not be intended as a serious definition, but may operate instead as a signal, to be cited for purposes of indicating that one or more females have identified a male whose behavior they disapprove. Such instances of labeling have had an inquisitorial quality, in that women so inclined have enjoyed substantial freedom to decide for themselves what they will condemn, with little chance of being held to account.
While there are no guarantees in national policies and social trends, it often happens that nonsensical ideas do not persevere. That impression supports a belief that the “domestic violence” terminology may eventually come to be associated with an era, running from the 1970s to perhaps the 2010s, during which female misbehavior in intimate partner settings has tended to be downplayed and disregarded, while reasonable male behavior has been ridiculed and criminalized. In this light, the era of so-called “domestic violence” may be understood as the time when second-wave feminism overplayed its hand, generating enormous unnecessary ill will between men and women on the basis of false and misleading statements and presentations, and providing an enduring reminder of the abusive potential of bad female leaders.
For some time now, such leaders have been inflicting experiences of “domestic violence” upon men and women, across America, who are actually trying to make their relationships work. OVW’s approach represents a manifestation of that massive abuse. The public needs and deserves better leadership, and fairer judgment, than the old misandrist cudgel of raw and irresponsible disparagement will ever provide. For purposes of improving the public understanding of intimate partner abuse, the question is when such leadership will arrive.