Domestic Violence: It's Not about Gender-Or Is It?

By Johnson, Michael P. | Journal of Marriage and Family, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Domestic Violence: It's Not about Gender-Or Is It?


Johnson, Michael P., Journal of Marriage and Family


Key Words: domestic violence, gender, intimate terrorism.

Ever since Suzanne Steinmetz's 1977-1978 article on "battered husbands," we have been hearing this lament-that the feminists are wrong, that women are as violent as men, that domestic violence is not about gender or patriarchy. As Fergusson, Horwood, and Ridder (this issue) put it, their work "suggest[s] the need for a broadening of perspective in the field of domestic violence away from the view that domestic violence is usually a gender issue involving male perpetrators and female victims and toward the view that domestic violence most commonly involves violent couples who engage in mutual acts of aggression" (p. 1116).

I want to make four major points in my response to the Fergusson, Horwood, and Ridder article, points that are equally relevant to other articles like it that continue to appear in our journals and in the general media suggesting that women are as violent as men in intimate relationships. First, there are three major types of intimate partner violence, only one of which is the kind of violence that we all think of when we hear the term "domestic violence." Second, that type of intimate partner violence is, indeed, primarily male perpetrated and is most definitely a gender issue. Third, Fergusson, Horwood, and Ridder's article is not about that type of violence. In fact, it is hardly about violence at all. Fourth, serious errors of fact, theory, and intervention inevitably follow from the failure to acknowledge the major differences among the three types of intimate partner violence.

THREE TYPES OF INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE

A growing segment of the domestic violence literature demonstrates that there is more than one type of intimate partner violence. I first presented this theoretical and conceptual argument at professional meetings in the early 1990s, with publications beginning to appear in 1995 (e.g., Johnson, 1993, 1995, 1996). Since that time, I have continued to present and publish papers that document the differences among major types of intimate partner violence, types that must not be conflated lest we make serious mistakes in our research, and in the policy recommendations that may follow from it (Johnson, 1998, 2001; Johnson & Cares, 2004; Leone, Johnson, Cohan, & Lloyd, 2004).

The importance of making such distinctions is also supported by other scholars' publications, some of which build upon my framework (Graham-Kevan & Archer, 2003a, 2003b), others of which come to the same conclusion from other perspectives (e.g., Holtzworth-Munroe, Meehan, Herron, Rehman, & Stuart, 2000; Holtzworth-Munroe & Stuart, 1994; Jacobson & Gottman, 1998; Swan & Snow, 2002). It is no longer scientifically or ethically acceptable to speak of domestic violence without specifying, loudly and clearly, the type of violence to which we refer.

In my control-based typology of intimate partner violence, the three major types are distinguished from each other by the control context within which they are embedded. Control context is conceptualized at the level of the relationship rather than the immediate situation and is based on non-situation-specific dyadic information about the controlling and violent behaviors of both partners in the relationship. Briefly, the three types are (a) violence enacted in the service of taking general control over one's partner (intimate terrorism), (b) violence utilized in response to intimate terrorism (violent resistance), and (c) violence that is not embedded in a general pattern of power and control but is a function of the escalation of a specific conflict or series of conflicts (situational couple violence). As I do not plan to say much about violent resistance in this comment, I want to point out here that I purposely do not use the term self-defense. Violent resistance to intimate terrorism does not necessarily meet the legal definition of self-defense, and it is not always seen as self-defense by the women who respond violently to their partner's intimate terrorism. …

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