MIDDLETOWN , N.J. — An increasing number of women are being arrested for domestic assaults, and the response to this news shows just how pervasive sexist attitudes still are in our culture.
But this time the sexism is coming from feminists and their allies, who insist that most women arrested must have acted in self-defense. This sentimental insistence on female innocence does no service to women, who should be treated as human beings with a capacity for aggression and held equally accountable for their actions.
In many states, women now account for a quarter to a third of all domestic violence arrests, up from less than 10 percent a decade ago. The new statistics reflect a reality documented in research: women are perpetrators as well as victims of family violence.
A review of 70 studies of domestic violence in which both men and women were interviewed was published in 1998 by Martin Fiebert, a psychologist at California State University at Long Beach.
Usually the violence was reciprocal, the research found, with women not only fighting back but initiating attacks; when only one partner was abusive, it was at least as often the woman as the man.
And while differences in strength put women at higher risk of serious injury or death, men are hardly invulnerable. According to an article to be published next year in Psychological Bulletin, analyzing data from dozens of studies, men incur a third of injuries in domestic combat.
Shouldn’t the growth in female arrests, then, be seen as representing a fairer, more realistic attitude toward gender and aggression? Not according to feminist and other advocacy groups whose ideology equates battering with male oppression of women.
They cry “backlash” and claim that women are being penalized for defending themselves.
Assertions that female abusers are really victims can be based on rather tortured logic.
A 1991 paper by researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin classified a woman as “abused” if she said that her partner had been the first to use violence in their relationship, even if she was usually the aggressor later on.
Women’s advocates also point out that most female offenders are arrested for minor, non-injurious acts like pushing, grabbing or hair-pulling.
But the same is true of most men swept up in the net of strict domestic-violence laws passed by many states in the last 10 years.
Many women who are arrested for domestic assault say they were striking back. But so do many male defendants.
The truth in these situations can be hard to sort out.
Unfortunately, many public officials have been swayed by extreme woman-as-victim arguments.
Some jurisdictions have tried to reduce female arrests by training the police to see violence “in context.” Often, the guidelines instruct officers to decide who is “in control” and who is “in fear” — vague terms likely to be used as code words for “arrest the man.”
Measures intended to get women off the hook violate not only the constitutional principle of equal protection but true feminist principles.
The slogan “There is no excuse for domestic violence” should not end with the exemption “unless you are female.”
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Katie Roiphe is a brave woman. She counters the “Take Back the Night” ideology with what might be tagged “Take Back the Mind.” Specifically, she urges young women to think twice or three times about what they are being urged to endorse in the name of victim feminism. Is there an “epidemic” of rape on college campuses? Are all young men sexual predators just waiting to pounce? Are all women helpless before the vulgar jokes, the sexual metaphors, the “unsolicited ogling” (an actionable offense on many campuses, by the way), the sexual innuendo, the ride “alone” with a man on a first date, the many subtle and egregious ways, so the ideology claims, men make their “power” felt, yea even irresistible, in each and every encounter that involves what used to be called the sexes before we started talking about “constructed genders”? (One shudders, by the way, to recall that “reckless eyeballing” got black men lynched in the Jim Crow South if their eyes wandered the “wrong” way toward a white woman.)
Perhaps the best way for me to introduce Roiphe’s text is to recall a recent experience of my own. I was in Colorado, visiting family, and I picked up the “Welcome Back to Campus” edition of the newspaper of a large state institution in Northern Colorado. There were the usual greetings to students from all the local merchants; the usual upbeat message from the college president; the usual detailed information about registration and the rest. But there was also a full page, put out under the auspices of something called the “Equal Opportunity Developmental Office,” listing some twenty pointers about sexual harassment and date rape. The one that caught my eye read: “Do not believe that if you dress provocatively, drink to excess, and go to a boy’s room you are asking for sex or to blame if sex occurs.”
Say what? Let me see if I get this straight. I dress provocatively. I drink, not a few drinks, but “to excess.” I go to a boy’s room. Then I wake up the next morning and accuse him of rape? Is that the plot line? You bet it is. What is pernicious about this sort of business is that it “constructs” the young woman as a wholly irresponsible agent whose one act of agency consists in accusing
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