Domestic violence by women is rising as the balance of power in the home shifts their way

Hitting out: women today have greater economic and sexual freedom, and are more inclined to use violence in a relationship.

At a conference on women and the law at Dublin Castle last weekend, Cherie Blair made a stirring appeal for the law to recognise women’s rights. Recent research, she said, suggested there was an incident of domestic violence every six seconds in the UK, with 80% of attackers being male and their victims female. Women’s rights were thus under assault from men.

The prime minister’s wife was referring to research by Professor Betsy Stanko, the director of the Economic and Social Research Council’s domestic violence programme, which was unveiled by the Metropolitan police at a conference last month. Blair regurgitated Stanko’s statistics as fact.

Without doubt, some women are the victims of serious domestic violence. Yet the evidence strongly suggests that Stanko’s research does not stand up to scrutiny. It lends support instead to a propaganda offensive that demonises men and minimises or conceals the fact that women can be equally if not more violent, a distortion that has cost many men their homes and their children.

The Met’s “snapshot” research revealed that across the UK, the police received more than 1,300 distress calls a day about domestic violence, with 81% being made by women who said they had been assaulted by men. The Met said this amounted to one victim of domestic violence calling the police every minute.

Stanko glossed this further by saying that if the British Crime Survey was used as a guide, the truer picture was that domestic violence occurred every six to 20 seconds. This is because the survey says domestic violence is under-reported by between three and 10 times. The figures, said Stanko, were a powerful indicator of the inequality of women.

Yet it is hard to see how this conclusion can be justified. Statisticians say the Stanko research makes several elementary howlers. The same incident may have been the subject of more than one phone call; the violence concerned may have been directed at property rather than persons; or the claim made in the call may not have been true. In addition, this “snapshot” almost certainly grossly under-represented violence by women against men, who are notoriously reluctant to acknowledge publicly that a woman has beaten them up.

Much domestic violence re-search is flawed because it relies heavily on biased sampling, asking only women in refuges for their experiences of violence, for example, or treating allegations of violence as proof. The fairest and most reliable research asks both men and women whether they have been both the victims and the perpetrators of violence on their spouses or companions.

A vast body of authoritative international research has been done on this basis. And it reveals a remarkably different picture from the feminist stereotype of patriarchal bullies and female victims.

Professor John Archer is a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire and president-elect of the International Society for Research on Aggression. He, too, is critical of the Stanko research. “I don’t see it as a very reliable way of estimating the proportion of domestic violence in the population,” he said.

As Archer has shown in a recent analysis of data from almost 100 American and British studies, wo-men are more likely than men to initiate violence against their spouses or companions and are more likely to be aggressive more frequently. Most violence is tit-for-tat. Nor is it the case that women attack men only in self-defence. Among female college students, for example, 29% admitted initiating assaults on a male companion.

Men, says Archer, actually show restraint and put up with a high level of violence among their wives or lovers. Indeed, he says, women are encouraged to be violent towards men because they can generally be relied upon not to hit the women back. True, when men do retaliate, their greater strength means they are more likely than women to inflict serious injury. Yet even so, Archer found, no fewer than one-third of those with visible injuries from domestic violence were male.

In line with all this research, the British Crime Survey reported in 1996 that an equal proportion of men and women, 4.2%, had said they had been physically assaulted by a current or former spouse or lover in the past year. Only 41% were injured, and although more women than men were hurt, the difference was not that great: 47% of women injured compared with 31% of men.

The 1996 report found male victims of domestic violence were particularly unhappy about the level of support offered by agencies, especially the police. One police officer conceded how even when the police were called to a domestic fight and saw the man bleeding and the woman unscathed, it was the man who was commonly arrested.

One man, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his children, said his former wife set fire to his bedspread while he was asleep and twice attacked him with a kitchen knife, once in the throat. “I didn’t go to the police because it was my home and my family and I didn’t want anyone else involved,” he said. “I couldn’t walk out because she was being violent to the children. But in the end I slept in a locked room with a shotgun.”

He defended himself aggressively and she accused him of violence. After their divorce, one of her boyfriends told him that she intended to return and kill her former husband. In fact, she killed another boyfriend and is now in jail for his murder.

Another man I spoke to, a former airline worker, married his second wife when she fell pregnant. But he claims that from the start of the marriage, she was violent. “She repeatedly punched me in the face and threw chairs at me, and punched holes in the doors.” He never responded with violence, he said, but he would leave the house and return when things calmed down.

One night he left with a bloody face and was stopped by a policeman who advised him to report the attack. But at the police station the desk officer said “these things happen” and took no further action. The husband initiated divorce proceedings, only to find his wife was accusing him of violence. The courts believed her and promptly awarded their house to her.

Of course, such stories may well have another side to them. However, family lawyers say it is common for women to make false allegations of domestic violence in divorce cases. Mark Bowman, a lawyer with London solicitors Alistair Meldrum, said this had got a great deal worse recently after several court rulings and guidance from the lord chancellor laid down that if the courts thought domestic violence had occurred, they may conclude that it was better for a child not to see its father.

“In the last few months, the atmosphere has been poisoned by these rulings,” said Bowman. “They mean that fathers now have to fight every allegation of domestic violence otherwise they will lose contact with their children.” Yet it’s hard to defend themselves as the women don’t have to prove their allegations beyond reasonable doubt, only on a balance of probabilities. And the courts tend to believe them.

“Women have an incentive to exaggerate claims of violence,” said Bowman, “as they can use them to get the man ousted from the family home.” Moreover, he said, the legal aid rules required women who made such allegations to report them to the police as a condition for assistance. So on this basis alone, the police figures are likely to be inflated by these often false claims.

The lord chancellor’s guidance on domestic violence is itself a disturbing document. Although it says that the definition of domestic violence must be “gender neutral” and makes passing reference to evidence that most violence against children is perpetrated by mothers, it is almost exclusively concerned with domestic violence by fathers.

Cherie Blair: getting it wrong Indeed, domestic violence seems to have turned into an obsession among family lawyers. A draft “family protocol” from the Law Society advises lawyers to ask clients leading questions such as “Have you been arguing a lot recently?” or “Do you generally have a lot of arguments?” or “Do you and your partner ever lose your temper?” as a way of sniffing out domestic violence. Even more sinister is its advice that “many forms of domestic violence are hidden and not recognised even by the client”. So domestic violence, it seems, occurs even when the victim is unaware of it.

It’s not just Britain that has fallen victim to the notion that endemic male violence is the symptom of patriarchal power over women. It’s convulsing the legal systems in America, Canada, Ireland and much of Europe, too.

Yet Archer stands it on its head. Modern secular values, he says, have combined with the economic and sexual emancipation of women to enable them to end relationships with little cost and small risk of male aggression. The result is the rise in female violence. The balance of power between men and women has shifted. Why are lawyers and politicians so determined to ignore the evidence?