Women's Aid Federation Northern Ireland

24 Hour Domestic Violence Helpline
0800 917 1414

homeabout us | services | help4you | domestic violence | help4us | volunteering | publications | useful links | jobs |




Other related pages


» history of Women’s Aid

» facts & figures

» the myths

» dispelling the myths

» the law

» children

» police statistics

» women's aid statistics

» progress

» research

Male Violence: 

Dispelling the Myths

Professor Anthony Clare, Medical Director of St. Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin

The following information was a keynote address from Professor Anthony Clare given at a conference organised by the Foyle Inter-Agency Forum on Domestic Violence in March 1999. The address challenges the current perception by some groups that  domestic violence victims equally affects men and women.

I’m very honoured indeed to have been asked to speak at this conference. I should say at once that, given the nature of domestic violence and the relationship between men and women, I do feel that asking a man to address an audience on domestic violence is a little like asking the tuberclebacillus to give a lecture on tuberculosis to the afflicted. And indeed as I look at this audience, I have a horrible anxiety that actually, what I have to say is for the wrong audience, in that most of what I have to say really is for men to hear. But of course one of the problems in this area, as in many others, is that that those men are too busy doing much more important things!

Domestic violence emerged as an urgent and distinct public concern during the l970s. I tend to agree with the Australian writer Don Edgar that we should probably use the terms ‘spouse bashing’ and ‘child assault abuse’ rather than the term ‘domestic violence’ because, as he puts it, and I quote, ‘The latter trivialises the offence and perpetuates the myth that men can get away with forms of behaviour for which they would be criminally liable if committed against a stranger in the world outside."

At a time when apologies are being sought from the oppressor by the oppressed, from immigrant Australians by the Aboriginals, from immigrant Americans by Native Americans, from the British by the Irish for the Famine, from the Germans by the Jews and others for the Holocaust, by former prisoners from the Japanese on account of inhumane treatment, it’s certainly an arguable and understandable proposition that women are entitled to demand a full apology from men for the way they’ve been treated.

Unlike the other exploitations however, that of women by men continues to this day. I won’t trawl through the centuries of men’s inhumanity against women. Just consider the times in which we live. The World Development Report, launched in 1994, reviewed data from many industrial and developing countries, which revealed that between one fifth and one half of women surveyed report having been beaten by their partner. In many instances the abuse is quite systematic.

In Papua New Guinea, for example, 18% of all urban women surveyed had sought hospital treatment for injuries inflicted by their husband. In the United States, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women of reproductive age. Between 22% and 35% of women who visit emergency rooms do so for this reason. U.S. research also shows that physically abused women are four to five times more likely to require psychiatric treatment as non-abused women and are five times as likely to commit suicide. They’re also more at risk of alcohol abuse, drug dependency, chronic pain, and depression.

By damaging a woman’s physical, mental and emotional capacity to care for her family, domestic violence and rape seriously hurt the health of other family members, particularly young children.

Among the commonest, and most grave forms of physical abuse, are rape and sexual abuse. In one study of U.S. women, a history of rape or assault was a strong predictor of how many times women sought medical care and of the severity of their health problems, including unhealthy habits such as smoking. In a study I conducted with my consultant and psychiatrist colleague Marese Cheasty, one in every three women attending general practitioners in the three practices in the Republic of Ireland which we surveyed, had suffered some form of sexual abuse.

Before I started this study, I was very keen to scrutinise the nature of the abuse that women suffer, because I was aware that it was a loose term, that ‘abuse’ covered everything really, from ‘trivial’ -as some would say - exposure, all the way across to penetrative, assaultative sex. So we designed this study to include the full gamut. One in every three women suffered some form of sexual abuse. And iris not tip to a male such as myself to say what is trivial or what is severe. But one in thirty reported having been raped One in thirty adult women, attending GP’s for all sorts of reasons -vaccinations, immunisations, certificates for their children, certificates for themselves, medical check-ups, physical illness - one in thirty reported to my female, sympathetic investigator, without corn plaint or comment, that they’ had been raped. I hesitate to extrapolate those figures nationally, because it would he - if it were happening to men, an epidemic of such proportions - we’d have a task force set tip, sitting like one of those eternal tribunals, navigating its way through agonised male experience.

All of those who had suffered severe sexual abuse were clearly, at the time we saw them, seriously depressed. The overwhelming majority of these rapes had never been reported. Now for decades, doctors have been vociferous about the public health implications for women from smoking, and drinking, particularly during pregnancy, diet and the twin evils, anorexia and obesity, and insufficient exercise, and excessive stress, not enough work, and too much. Only recently has domestic violence been viewed as a public health issue, as a significant cause of female morbidity and mortality, leading to psychological trauma and depression. injuries, sexually transmitted diseases and murder. Indeed there remains a remarkable reluctance, particularly on the part of men, to admit that there’s a problem at all.

‘Fake for example the response to the publication in January this year of the British Home Office research study entitled ‘Domestic Violence’. What received most publicity was the finding that men are increasingly the victims of domestic violence, and are just as likely as women to be assaulted by their partner. ‘Fhose most likely to he attacked were in their early thirties, unmarried, hut living with a woman. The study reports some 6.6 million incidents of assault in the home each year, evenly split between men and women. The papers loved it, the tabloids in particular. Men getting bashed - the thrill of it.

But the research also showed that women are twice as likely to be injured, and much more likely to suffer repeated attacks. They’re also much less likely to he in a financial position to leave such a violent relationship. the rise in attacks on men by women may he a 1990s phenomenon. In 1995, just over 4% of men and women said they’d been assaulted by a current or former partner in (he last year. But 23% of women said they’d been assaulted by a partner at some time compared to 15% of men.

Women are also at greatest risk of attack after a relationship has broken up, or after they and their spouse have separated. In this case, the Home Office researchers reported that the violence involved pushing and grabbing, but in 47% of incidents the victim was also kicked, slapped or punched. About half the attacks resulted in injury, most commonly bruising, but one in ten involved cuts, and a small minority of broken hones. In about a third of cases, children in the home either witnessed the attack, or were aware of it. Only half of the victims of domestic violence told anyone about it, normally a friend, neighbour or relative. And only in 12% of incidents were the police told.

Now blandly reporting rates of domestic violence against men and women with the implicit assumption, that male and female violence is the same, is somewhat disingenuous and almost certainly misleading. Yet many do claim that violence in marital and cohabiting relationships is mutual, and should he studied and responded to as such. Much research makes little or no distinction between male and female aggressive behaviour within the domestic situation. But given the very real physical disparities that exist between the average man and woman, such distinctions are important. Being punched, slapped and beaten by a physically stronger, heavier and more agile male has somewhat different physical and psychological implications for a woman, than being thumped, having one’s hair pulled or being scratched by a weaker woman might have 

In the Irish Republic, much interest and attention has been paid to the views of Irish journalist John Waters, who was writing in The Irish Times before the release of the British Home Office report hut after the first European conference on male victims of domestic violence, orgainised by the voluntary organisation AMEN, - abused men- and held in Dublin on December 10th 1998. Waters argued that many women are just as violent as men. He quoted Erin Pizzey, founder of the first refuge for women and children victims of domestic violence in the UK in 1971, saying of the first 100 women who came to the refuge, 62 were found to he just as violent as the men they left. She also said that all international research on the subject indicates that domestic assault rates between men and women are about equal.

According to Mr. Waters, Ms. Pizzey claimed that the movement she had founded had been in his words "hijacked by extreme man-hating feminists." Waters continued "If I had one hope for 1999, it is that this would be the year when men finally start to stand up for themselves. I would hope that individually and collectively, men would start to look at the society they are alleged to dominate, and ask themselves, where is the evidence of such domination, in this society that demonises and denigrates them at every turn? Which conspires to steal their children at the whim of mothers and institutions, and which seeks to silence, censor and ridicule any serious attempt to bring these facts to light?" Well, sadly John, there’s no shortage of such evidence, if you prepared to look for it.

I’ve already referred to the World Development Report, published in 1994, but there’s even more recent evidence. Indeed, shortly after John Waters made his impassioned challenge, the National Network of Women’s Refuges in Ireland revealed that the number of women and children fleeing their homes from violent men increased by 35% to almost 5,000 in 1998. Ireland’s 15 refuges gave shelter to 1,579 women and 3,075 children. And the number of distress calls to the refuges was 15,296, a rise of 34%.

And in case Ireland is an aberration, consider the Violence against Women Survey in Canada. 12,300 women interviewed by telephone, 63% responding to enquiries concerning their experience of physical and sexual violence since the age of 16. 29% of those who'd ever been married or lived in a common-law relationship reported experiencing violence at the hands of a current or previous partner. In Australia, the Australian Women’s Safety Survey found that 2.6% of women aged 18 and over, currently married or in a cohabiting relationship had experienced physical assault in the previous year at the hands of their partner. Assault defined as the use of physical force with the intent to harm or frighten. 23% of women who’d ever been married or lived in a cohabiting relationship reported experiencing violence at some time during the relationship.

In the Netherlands the first national survey on wife abuse, conducted in 1986, reported an overall prevalence of physical abuse of married women at 22.6%. That particular study did distinguish between unilateral and multilateral violence - 20.8% of the women had experienced unilateral violence, and within this group, one in five admitted to using defensive violence. Statistics drawn from the National Working Party on Domestic Violence, by the Victim Support Scheme in 1992, indicated that domestic violence accounted for a quarter of all crime, reported and unreported. The same report suggested that only 2% of violent attacks on women were reported to the police. Almost half of all homicides of women are committed by a partner or an ex-partner, and over 95% of sexual abusers of children are male.

It’s not only in the home women are exposed to male violence; consider the workplace. According to the report ‘Violent Times: Preventing Violence at Work’ published in January by the TUG, women are twice as likely to he attacked as their male counterparts. Almost a quarter of women aged 25 to 34 have been threatened with violence while at work, and 11% have been attacked, compared to 6% in the same age group.

I’m not arguing men are solely responsible for the oppression of women, many women as mothers portray macho and aggressive models of masculine behaviour for their sons to adopt and as individuals, others would condone the norms of this male culture that so many other women find offensive. Social and economic factors influence male violence against women and male violence in general. But I do believe men are primarily responsible for the oppression of women. That many men still defend and glorify the denigration of women and until there is recognition of the prevalence and seriousness of male violence against women, there will be no significant examination of its root causes.

J. Archer in 1994 wrote ‘Acts of aggression by women on men cannot be equated with similar acts by men on women. The latter are much more likely to result in serious physical and psychological damage." "Violence," says Adam Dukes in his recent book, Men who Ratter Women, "represents the unacceptable face of male power over women, which is both a demonstration of the ultimate failure of that power, it is the ultimate resource available to all men who wish to wield power over women, and male authority over women, which men believe is acceptable."

One suggested cause, particularly promoted by certain feminist critics, is marriage itself In her book ‘The Battered Woman’, published in 1984, Lenora Walker argued the very fact of being a married woman created a situation of powerlessness that invites husbands to become violent. Susan Schechter was even more explicit: "Although men no longer legally own women, many act as if they do. In her marriage vows today, the woman still promises to love, honour and obey. Battering is one tool that enforces husband’s authority over wives, or simply reminds women that this authority exists." And Naomi Wolf agrees. She says "When I think of pledging my heart and body to a man, even the best and kindest man, within this existing institution of marriage, I feel faint," And not for the reasons we men would so wish.

Recently this argument has received powerful support by the British analyst and writer Adam Dukes. In his recently published book Men who Ratter Women, Dukes equates the so-called traditional marriage in which the man takes much of the responsibility for earning, and the woman, at least in the early stages, for childrearing, with those plantations which ran much better when slavery was commonplace and the slaves were unprotesting, rather than struggling against their subjection. Dukes is responding to arguments, particularly powerfully argued in the United States, to the effect that marriage and fatherhood are effective inhibitors of violence against women.

There is indeed an argument about the extent to which marriage, or legally constituted relationships exacerbate or inhibit male violence. Indeed, violence towards women, especially family or domestic violence, has been of such a quantity down through history, that the argument that the license to marry is a license to batter is certainly an arguable one. Now, however, violent men face legal restraint and punishment but violence against women is not decreasing. Critics in the United States wondered why if marriage is the problem, if it serves to institutionalise and even dignify male violence, given that it is declining, why is there no equivalent decline in domestic violence. More women free from the shackles of marriage should equal less domestic violence, But in fact the opposite appears to be the case. As women lead more separate, more independent lives, they would appear to be in even more danger.

Demographers confirm that the single most important change in men’s lives over the past 30 years is that men, on average, spend more time outside fatherhood, much less time living with their children, and much more time living outside marriage. And at the same time, despite the limitations of the data available, most experts seem agreed that the weakening of marriage has not made the home a safer place for women. As more women are living apart from husbands and fathers, more women are being battered by men. There are those who argue, notwithstanding the facts of marital violence, marriage, or rather, married fatherhood, is the primary inhibitor of male domestic violence. That in a sense, is an argument for another day.

At this stage, it's enough to note the male propensity for violence in general, and their violence against women in particular, does not appear to have been mitigated by recent social trends within modern society. Of course the fact remains that male domestic violence does not exist in a vacuum. The isolated physical attacks - and they are often isolated - can’t be divorced from their context. And this context is invariably one where abusiveness is ongoing, multi-faceted, and relentless. Abusive behaviours have been defined, as any act a woman or a man does, that they do not want to do.

Dukes argues that all abuse relates to men’s capacity for, and their need to, devalue women. If we can stop a man devaluing his partner, he will stop abusing her. Devaluation is defined as seeing someone in negative ways - as not being attractive, as being vicious, dangerous, threatening, ugly, boring, useless, bad. This analysis brings male violence against women back within the general domain of male violence itself. The extent to which the process of dehumanisation - the reduction of the other person to a thing that is nothing, to a valueless nothing, a contemptible nothing, a disposable nothing - has been analysed and explored by a legion of respected students of violence. It’s role in the persistence of violence against women has been less systematically scrutinised though there are welcome signs of change in this regard.

As to explanations founded on the notion of the ‘cycle of violence,’ these do raise certain worrying Issues, not least the danger that not only do batterers and abusers become victims as a consequence of abuse in their own childhood and also victims of male conditioning, they are in fact prisoners of their usually male gender And it is vitally important that within the analytic framework of domestic violence, the real victim, in most cases the woman, does not disappear.

In 1926, one feminist sought to refute the individualising, psychological explanations of male sexual violence that began in the 1920s through a feminist analysis which focused on male power over women. She expressed the connection between prostitution and the other forms of the abuse of women succinctly, when commenting on mass rapes carried out in the brothels of Strasbourg by youths at a youth conference. She wrote: "There is no need to imagine that people who criminally assault young persons and children are mentally abnormal. As what is right to buy, is also right to have without buying, whether it is human beings or any other merchandise."

One of the really alarming things - alarming to men, or it should he, if it isn’t - is that study after study of battering husbands and lovers, of child-abusing men, suggest that they have far more in common with other men than other men would like to believe. Apart from the behaviour itself, precious little exists to distinguish them from men in general.

Today Jeffries and feminist campaigners against violence express a similar idea in somewhat different language by arguing, for example, that the objectification of women lies behind the exploitation of women in rape and the buying of women in prostitution. Rape and prostitution are seen by feminist campaigners against male violence as inextricably linked, unlike the traditional masculine sexual ideologists who argue that prostitution prevents rape by providing men with an outlet for their urges. Consider the research carries out by Strauss and Gelles in the United States. They found that men who had severely beaten their wives were shocked by the question ‘Why didn’t you kill her?' Their response was they never intended or desired to kill their wives, indeed they had stopped short of that outcome, in other words, drunk or not, they appeared to know precisely what they were doing. The violence was deliberately calculated, there was no question of drink obliterating their minds as to what they were about.

‘These men are bastards’ declares Australian commentator Don Edgar, who goes on to argue they are criminals who should be exposed as such. Many of them have become so habituated to violence as a form of control, self-assertion and even pleasure, they are unable to envisage any other way of handling situations whenever they feel threatened or out of control. And I quote:

"They are in fact weaklings who can brook no opposition, who have to prove their manhood at every moment of their lives, pathetic imitation of a confident self If they were to challenge every look of disapproval, every slight to their expressed wishes - ‘the spuds are cold, don’t you contradict me, where’s my ironed shirt’ - seem to threaten their wimpy malehood, and they lash out . Now that’s not my language, it’s Australian, hut it captures the point rather effectively.

Having said that, it has to be recognised that there’s an extensive psychological literature dating back to the sexologists of the 19th century, immensely hostile to the feminist analysis and the concern to end sexual violence. The model of sexuality which these experts promoted was one in which women were expected to respond sexually to men’s sexual initiatives and their preferred practices. And the extent to which that kind of ideology was across the board was reflected in the writings of some quite respected in the field of sexology.

But you can get some idea of what fuses inside the minds of us men when you read Ellis, who as I say is held up by psychiatrists and psychologists as a kind of welcome, fresh air blowing through solid, stolid hypocritical Victorian society. But it was Ellis who wrote this: - he’s talking about rape - There can be little doubt that the plea of force is very frequently seized upon by women as the easiest available weapon of defence when her connection has been revealed. She’s been permeated by the current notion that no respectable woman could possibly have any sexual impulses of her own to gratif5s that in order to screen what she feels to be regarded as utterly shameful and wicked as well as foolish, she declares it never took place by her own will at all."

It’s one thing, I suppose, to survey the extent of male violence against women in general, but particularly in the domestic environment is an epidemic, is a corrosive infection, but it’s another to move from there to argue that in fact, it is just another argument in favour of the proposition that at the end of the 20th century, there is nothing that needs more urgent attention than the status, and the state of masculinity at the present time. I belong to a profession that over the last 30, 40, 50 years has quite explicitly identified women’s health, there’s a huge literature on women’s mental health, a huge literature on women’s issues. Partly in response to the pressures, but partly because a medical profession predominantly male has consciously and unconsciously inherited a 19th century view of women as almost by definition, sicker, iller, weaker, more fragile.

You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see the extent to which extraordinary denial is at work. For virtually any of the same medical measures, I’m afraid it’s men who look the weaker sex. But that’s not the point I’m making, the point I’m making is that in the face of all of this, the striking feature of masculinity is its problem with violence. And it’s a problem with behaviour, despite reminders and warnings that women are catching up, men predominate in prisons and women do not. Men predominate in drug and alcohol abuse and women do not. Men commit acts of violence against themselves and women to a far greater extent than do women. Women commit less offences overall than men. This finding is so consistent, so sturdy. so widespread that some commentators have described it as the most significant feature of recorded crime.

In England and Wales in 1989, for example, a total of 396,500 convictions or cautions for indictable offences were recorded against men compared to 76,200 for women; a ratio of 5:1. The ratio for crimes of violence against the person is even higher: 8:1. For every woman serving a sentence for homicide or attempted homicide, there are 27 men, while the ratio for those serving sentences for other violent crimes is 53:1. Statisticians will tell you these are astonishing discrepancies. They call for a very much more subtle, thorough, sophisticated and thoughtful response than they currently get.

It is an indictment on my sex that at a conference on domestic violence the overwhelming majority of the participants are women. This is a collection of victims while the perpetrators are busy at international conferences trying to sort out the consequences of male violence. In his remarkable poem, simply entitled ‘Peace’, Michael Longley explicitly connects together male violence in general, martial violence on the battlefield with male violence in particular, namely male violence against women.

‘Murder’ he declares, 

got into the bloodstream

as gene or virus so now

we give birth to wars

short cuts to death

The poet like us, yearns for peace, but in a remarkable finale confronts male violence against women, so-called domestic violence, with its regrettable connotations of something minor or irritant, of little consequence when compared with the terror and tragedy of violence on a so-called grand scale and sees it as the dreadful, corrosive dehumanisation that it is. We need a decommissioning of more weaponry than those terrorists alone possess. Us men alone must throw down our arms. I give you Longley’s own words:

then, if there are skirmishes, guerrilla tactics

its only lovers quarrelling,

the bedroom door wrenched off its hinges, a woman in hysterics

hair torn out cheeks swollen with bruises and tears

until the bully boy starts snivelling as welt in a pang of conscience for his battered wife

then sexual neurosis works them up again and the row escalates into a war of words, hit hard

as nails, made of sticks and stones, the chap who beats his girlfriend up

a crime against nature enough surely to rip from her skin the flimsiest of negligees

ruffle that elaborate hairdo, enough to be the involuntary cause of tears

as though upsetting a sensitive girl when you sulk is a peculiar satisfaction.

hut punch-ups. physical violence are out.

you might as well pack your kit bag goose step a thousand miles away

from the female sex.

as for me, I want a woman to come and fondle my ears of wheat

and let apples overflow between her breasts

I shall call her Peace. Michael Longley


Taking on the war that men wage against women and against themselves means that your work is not just for women, it is for all of us. The tide of male violence, from Omagh to Srebenika, from Rwanda to Cambodia, the ghastly total of2Oth century carnage is a litany of male violence. I think it was Houseman who said in ‘The lost boyhood of Judas’ Christ was betrayed. We men have got to look at our violence and we've got to look at each other, because the subject you talk about today is our subject.

I disagree profoundly with John Waters. I accept as a psychiatrist must, that there are indeed occasions when women grossly abuse men, and grossly manipulate and abuse their trust. But this is no competition, and the toll is ghastly and the indictment is solid. Men abuse women. Men abuse children. And men abuse each other. And it is impossible not to conclude, at the end of the 20th century, that men, all of us men, are in the deepest trouble.

back to top


contact us

Contact Us:  129 University Street Belfast. BT7 1HP  Tel:(028) 90 249041 Fax:(028) 90 239296  
General email: [email protected]


Please help keep our website useful by providing suggestions and comments by filling in our feedback form