New DOJ Domestic Violence Study Undercounts Male Victims

By Michael McCormick and Glenn Sacks

The Department of Justice’s highly publicized new findings on domestic violence are good news. Domestic violence appears to have declined by more than half from 1993 to 2004. Unfortunately, misleading press reports and the study’s limited methodology have served to further minimize the often-ignored problems faced by male victims of domestic violence.

The department’s National Crime Victimization Survey was conducted by interviewing members of a representative sample of households regarding crime, including domestic violence. Respondents were asked, "Has anyone attacked or threatened you?" "Did you call the police to report something that happened to you which you thought was a crime?" and "Did anything which you thought was a crime happen to you, but you did not report to the police?" Although these are reasonable questions, male victims of domestic violence are far more likely to answer "no" to them than female victims, thus skewing the survey’s results.

Research shows that male victims are far less likely than female victims to report such attacks to the police. Many men feel, with some justification, that officers will not take their claims seriously, or that once they report violence in their families, their female abusers will claim abuse, and the women will be believed. Perhaps most important, fathers trapped in abusive relationships do not want to report abuse because it may create a divorce or separation, and they fear losing custody of their children to the abuser.

Survey respondents were told that they were being asked "crime questions," yet research demonstrates that men are less likely to see the abuse they suffer as a "crime" or a matter for public intervention, and often don’t mention domestic violence in crime surveys. Also, seeking outside help because of a spouse’s violence – or even complaining privately about it – is seen as unmanly and cowardly. And men tend to see a female partner’s attacks or threats of violence as isolated examples of her being "angry," "hormonal" or "moody," instead of as part of a pattern of violence.

That women are frequently the aggressors in domestic combat cannot be reasonably denied. The National Institute of Mental Health funded and oversaw two of the largest studies of domestic violence ever conducted, both of which found equal rates of abuse between husbands and wives. Professor Martin S. Fiebert of California State University, Long Beach maintains an online bibliography summarizing nearly 200 academic studies that conclude that women are as physically aggressive in their intimate relationships as men.

Women often employ the element of surprise and weapons to compensate for men’s greater strength. An analysis of 552 domestic violence studies published in the Psychological Bulletinfound that 38 percent of the physical injuries in heterosexual domestic assaults are suffered by men.

Last year, more than 50 domestic violence researchers and treatment providers signed a letter urging the California legislature to stop the state’s policy of excluding male victims and their children from domestic violence services. Signatory John Hamel, author of the book Gender-Inclusive Treatment of Intimate Partner Abuse: A Comprehensive Approach, told legislators: "Men account for half of all DV [domestic violence] victims and incur a third of DV-related injuries. Ignoring female-on-male violence inhibits our efforts to combat domestic violence."

The Justice Department survey has also been the subject of misleading reporting. For example, the most widely published news article on the report states that in intimate relationships, "women are far more likely than men to be battered or assaulted. While crimes at the hands of an intimate partner represented nearly one-quarter of violent assaults against women in the period of the study, they accounted for 3 percent of such incidents against men."

This is misleading. According to the Justice Department, the survey found that "males experienced higher victimization rates than females for all types of violent crime except rape/sexual assault." Domestic violence inevitably constitutes a much smaller percentage of the overall violence men experience. The survey found only a 3-to-1 ratio of abused women to abused men, not 8-to-1, as the article implies.

Press reports have also focused on the legitimate possibility that women in the survey have significantly underreported the domestic violence committed against them. Yet no major press report has even mentioned what is not simply possible but instead very likely: The survey undercounted male victims.