Domestic Violence Perpetrated by Men versus Women: Understanding the Differences
By Bernice Connell
In recent years, violence against women organizations have noticed an increase in the number of women being charged with domestic violence. During the investigation of a domestic violence incident, it is important for police to determine who may be the primary aggressor in the situation by assessing risk factors and being aware of any history of abuse involving the couple.
In the majority of situations where women are charged, their violent actions are a result of self-defense. Most of their actions can be summed up as finally resisting the violence and oppression they’ve experienced, often for a very long time. Charges can result from women throwing something like a TV remote, dish, or food that is later identified as a weapon, pushing past a partner to escape, or fighting back after an assault.
These examples are not speculation. There is anecdotal evidence and research available to help us to understand the different dynamics of violence committed by men versus women.
Michael P. Johnson’s work on domestic violence is summarized in A Typology of Domestic Violence: Intimate Terrorism, Violent Resistance and Situational Couple Violence
He describes three types of domestic violence:
1. Intimate Terrorism – violence embedded in a relationship context of general coercive control. This description is where one partner uses violence and other coercive control tactics to take general control over his or her partner. Johnson acknowledges that although it can be perpetrated by either men or women in heterosexual or same-sex relationships, it will be most common in heterosexual relationships.
2. Violent Resistance – this happens when the usual victim of abuse in relationships uses violence in response to the coercive, controlling behaviour of her partner. This is how we would describe the majority of the women being charged in domestic violence situations.
3. Situational Couple Violence – arises from a specific conflict that can turn into an argument, escalating to verbal aggression and ultimately, to physical violence. Johnson argues that the perpetration of this situational couple violence can be committed by both partners and is probably as likely to occur in same-sex as in heterosexual relationships. He further states that male perpetrated situational couple violence involves more incidents, more injuries and produces more fear in the victims than does women’s situational couple violence.
These differences in the severity and frequency of the violence leads us to better understand the risk to victims of male perpetrators versus female perpetrators.
Virtually all risk assessments used in domestic violence cases have been based on male perpetrators. There is no research on risk factors in female perpetrated domestic violence. Given that most female violence can be described as resistant or situational, the male-identified risk factors largely don’t apply.
The biggest indicator and difference in determining risk is to look at the Ontario Death Review Committee’s work. A review of 107 domestic homicides between 2002 and 2016 indicated that 104 were committed by male perpetrators and only 3 by female perpetrators. Historically, the risk of fatal injury by females is minimal and contemporary statistics show the same trend.
The Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses (OAITH) have just released their current Femicide Report. The list is generated from media reports and other available sources and is declared a partial list. The women listed were killed by intimate partners, family members or individuals known by them. The report states that 35 women were killed in Ontario between November 25th, 2018 and November 24th, 2019.
The differences in the frequency and severity of violence perpetrated by men and by women mirror the differences in the ways that men and women respond after violent incidents. Ellen Pence, one of the founders of The Duluth Domestic Abuse Project in 1988, had this to say:
“The law frequently overlooks the conditions that have driven some women to use violence against their partners. Interestingly, in my research, the overwhelming majority of women who had used violence against their partners took clear responsibility for their actions and accepted culpability as ‘wrongdoers’, behaviour rarely seen in male batterers, who generally come from a position of entitlement. Nonetheless, the same women often confronted me with the question ‘I know violence is not the answer, but where were they (legal and social authorities) when he was beating me up?” Ellen Pence (2006)
The 16 Days of Activism are an opportunity to examine these issues more deeply. Until our service systems and communities appropriately understand the differences between violence perpetrated by men and violence perpetrated by women, we will not be in a position to effectively support survivors on their paths to healing or perpetrators on their journeys to change.
Bernice Connell is the Sexual Assault Services Manager at Women’s House Serving Bruce Grey