Murray A. Straus, whose book with Richard Gelles and Suzanne Steinmetz Behind Closed Doors (1980) led to the first public awareness of the extent of domestic violence, in one sense created the "domestic violence movement." Their research was widely cited to justify the need for public action programs to help women. But when these three researchers began to talk about woman-initiated violence, these former supporters turned hostile. In this paper, Dr. Straus does an excellent job of stepping back from the conflict in which he has been embroiled for 20 years, to offer fascinating and brilliant insights as to what the conflict is about.
In a nutshell, service providers and feminist activists take a broad view of violence, as a symbol of male oppression of women. Withholding money is seen as an act of violence, as is shouting or demeaning women. Researchers concerned about family violence, on the other hand, take a narrower view of violence, limiting their focus to actual acts of physical violence.
The picture gets further confused when we see disparities between family conflict studies, on the one hand, and crime victimization surveys and police reports, on the other. With all the "one hands" and "other hands" going back and forth, sometimes it appears that a shell game is going on, with groups selectively picking the definition of violence and incidence of incidents which best support their cause. Dr. Straus does an excellent job of sorting out this shell game.
Dr. Straus opens with his observations of a short history of the controversy:
In the mid 1970s my colleagues and I made the disturbing discovery that women physically assaulted partners in marital, cohabiting, and dating relationships as often as men assaulted their partners. This finding caused me and my former colleague Suzanne Steinmetz to be excommunicated as feminists. Neither of us has accepted that sentence, but it remains in force. So when Salman Rushdie was condemned to death for his heresy, we may have felt even more empathy than most people because we had also experienced many threats, including a bomb threat.
The vitriolic 20-year controversy had largely subsided by 1997. There are a number of reasons the controversy subsided. One reason is the overwhelming accumulation of evidence from more than a hundred studies showing approximately equal assault rates. Another is the explosive growth of marital and family therapy from a family systems perspective which assumes mutual effects. In addition, research by clinical psychologists such as O'Leary brought psychologists face to face with the assaults by both parties. In November 1997, however, the controversy was suddenly reignited by newspaper headlines declaring "Partners Unequal in Abuse". These headlines were based on findings from the "National Violence Against Women in America Survey" (called the NVAW survey from here on). The NVAW surveyed 8,000 women and 8,000 men representing 16,000 households. The study was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control. The NVAW study found that men physically assaulted their female partners at three times the rate at which women engaged in such behavior.