Male and Female Perpetrated Partner Abuse: Testing a Diathesis-Stress Model
by Reena Sommer
Table of Contents
Chapter 2 Part 1
Prior to 1970, studies focusing on family violence were virtually nonexistent. The lack of research in this area seemed to imply that violence within the family was “either rare, dysfunctional or a pathology traceable to mental illness or psychopathology” (Gelles, 1979, p.169). Yet, during the past two decades, abuse between intimate partners has become recognized by social scientists as a serious social problem; impacting on all levels of society.
A national U.S. survey on family violence was first conducted in 1975 by Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz (1980). This large scale investigation marked an initial attempt at estimating the prevalence of family violence in American families. In doing so, it has been responsible for raising our awareness about the problem of family violence. Since the publication of its findings, a plethora of literature including empirical and review works in this area has followed, drawing the attention of policy makers, legislators and service providers.
The approach to studying the problems associated with family violence has changed throughout the course of this literature’s development. Early research into family violence assumed that such behaviour could only be the result of a deranged mind. Support for this notion was advanced by society’s belief that the family as an institution, is committed to nonviolence among its members through the maintenance of benevolent and loving relationships. Since that time, sociologically based research has focused on establishing the prevalence, correlates, and social patterns of family violence (Straus et al., 1980). As a result of these studies, we have come to know that abuse within the family is anything but rare.
Distinguishing Between Male and Female Perpetrated Abuse
For the past two decades, while family violence literature has focused on the abuse of children, dating partners, spouses, siblings, and the elderly, the study of spousal violence has become synonymous with the term “wife abuse” (Sommer, Barnes & Murray, 1992). The reason for this misnomer is due to almost exclusive focus of research on husband-to-wife abuse because of the high visibility of females as victims of family violence (Shupe & Stacey, 1987). The shelter movement has also made it possible for researchers to have a ready made sampling base comprised of women who were willing to provide testimonies of the abuse they endured (Ptachek, 1988). The politics surrounding the investigation of female perpetrated violence (Steinmetz, 1977) attests to the controversial nature of this research problem. In a review article on relationship violence by women, Flynn (1990) elaborated on the politics of family violence research by stating “feminists….fear that drawing attention to battered husbands will impede attempts to battle the more serious problem of wife abuse” (p.194). In the report of their findings on family violence rates over two surveys, Straus and Gelles (1986) stated,
“Violence by wives has not been an object of public concern. There has been no publicity, and no funds have been invested in ameliorating this problem because it has not been defined as a problem. In fact, our 1975 study was criticized for presenting statistics on violence by wives” (p.472).
The conclusion that males are more prone to violence may in fact be erroneous (Straus, 1988) because of the existing bias in research to investigate male perpetrated violence and the factors associated with it. Straus’s (1988) conclusion can neither be supported nor disputed till such time as a gender neutral approach to investigations into partner abuse are conducted. Only then can the rates, predictors, and outcomes of male and female perpetrated partner abuse be appropriately assessed and compared.
A consequence of the prevailing bias against research directed at the investigation of violence perpetrated by females is an absence of intervention programs for female abusers and male abuse victims.
The reasons behind the system’s failure to identify female perpetrators of partner abuse have not been clearly established by empirical studies. It may be that men are too embarrassed to report being abused, or they fear they will not be believed if they do.
Currently, studies have not investigated the factors associated with men’s reluctance to come forward. The reasons cited are, for the most part speculative, and are based on testimonials of small numbers men willing to relate accounts of abuse.
Due to the reliance upon data derived from crime surveys, police reports, and medical, civil, and criminal court records, researchers and those involved in providing social services have rationalized men’s greater proneness to violence by asserting that women are more likely to be seriously injured in domestic disputes (Wilson, 1990).
However, this assertion, as well, has not been empirically tested in non-clinical samples of male and female victims of abuse. As a result, the abuse and injuries sustained by men go either unreported or accounted for by other circumstances.
Recent studies examining violence perpetrated by women against men in courtship, marital or common-law relationships have nevertheless, suggested that the rate of female perpetrated partner abuse parallels that of males (Malone, Tyree & O’Leary, 1989; Marshall & Rose, 1990;
Straus & Gelles, 1986; Thompson, 1991). In spite of this, the inherent bias favouring research directed at male perpetrated partner abuse is most evident in policies and intervention programs concerning family violence (Sommer, Barnes & Murray, 1991).
Defining Partner Abuse
An ongoing methodological concern common to social science research has been measurement problems associated with inadequate operational definitions of the variable in question. In order to provide a precise definition of partner abuse in this research, it has been limited to the occurrence and factors associated with “physical” partner abuse. Throughout this paper, the terms “abuse” and “violence” have been used interchangeably. Unless prefixed by the term “severe”, these have been considered synonymous. Both have been intended to refer to “an act (or acts) carried out with intention, or perceived intention of causing physical pain or injury to another person” (Straus & Gelles, 1988, p.15).
Kaplan (1988) noted that a problem in defining and measuring abusive behaviours within intimate relationships has been that many of these behaviours in their benign forms are considered normal within the context of family interactions. The Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) was developed by Murray Straus (1979) as an objective measure of the class of behaviours deemed to go beyond what may be considered “normal”. In its entirety, the CTS measures three factorially separate variables: reasoning, verbal aggression and violence or physical aggression (Straus, 1979). The scale’s brevity and ability to be administered in both interview and self-report format has made the CTS the most widely used measure of intrafamilial violence. Nevertheless, the CTS has been criticized by feminists.
According to Straus and Gelles (1990), they have charged that this quantitative methodological tool is “inherently male oriented and distorts the reality of women’s lives” (p. 11). In spite of objections with the CTS, it has demonstrated both construct and content validity as well as provided adequate reliability (Straus, 1979).
The CTS may be scored in a number of ways in order to provide a maximal description of violent conduct. According to Straus and Gelles (1988), estimates of violent acts can be derived through the analysis of individual scale items. Individual scale items can then be combined in a number of ways to form different indices. For example, when all items are included together, an overall index of violence is achieved. This overall index can be further divided into two other indices to measure “minor” and “severe” violence.
Statement of the Problem
In spite of the progress made in the field of family violence, this area is fraught by several serious methodological weaknesses and limitations. Generally speaking, design and statistical strategies employed thus far, have been primarily aimed at determining the prevalence and correlates of abuse. A brief discussion of the methodological issues facing family violence researchers that are relevant to this study follows.
To date, general population based research examining changes in the rates of family violence have compared the findings of similar, but unrelated studies conducted at two points in time (Straus & Gelles, 1986). Although Straus and Gelles (1986) argued that the methodologies and sampling strategies employed in these studies support the trends demonstrated by the data, it has also been asserted that changes in rates of family violence are a reflection of a cohort effect rather than an actual change in behaviour (Egley, 1991).
Currently, researchers have demonstrated a number of associations linking partner abuse to situational and individual factors. For example, studies that examine alcohol consumption and personality variables as possible risk factors in domestic violence are evident in family violence literature but have been limited to small, clinical samples (Beckman, 1978; Fitch & Papantonio, 1983;
Frieze & Schafer, 1984). The initiation and consequences of violent episodes also remain unclear.
Past research has alerted us to the seriousness and the pervasiveness of this problem. In spite of this, determining what makes some individuals vulnerable to victimization and places others at risk for perpetration still remains to be established. Researchers have also been unsuccessful in finding ways of preventing battering from occurring or stopping it once it has begun. The lack of general population based research investigating predictors of partner abuse has also limited policy makers’ ability to effectively address the problems of partner abusers found outside clinical populations.
There is a need for researchers to go beyond present research strategies through the use of longitudinal data and statistical techniques that can make causal inferences possible. This investigation was designed to overcome these limitations by analyzing follow-up data, making comparisons with our earlier research, and examining the predictive factors related to male and female perpetrated violence.