Asymmetry and Symmetry of Conjugal Violence

Article excerpt


Traditional perspectives on conjugal violence have all rested on the empirical assumption that males are more likely than females to engage in violent activity in conjugal relationships. In fact, the term family violence has been used as a euphemism for wife abuse (Lavinger, 1966; O'Brien, 1971; Lewis, 1982; Ferraro and Johnson, 1983; Dobash and Dobash, 1978, 1979, 1988; MacLeod, 1987; Dekeseredy and Hinch, 1990; Dobash et al., 1992). Recently, Dobash et al. (1992) further emphasize the sexual asymmetry in conjugal violence through a review of evidence from courts, police, women's shelters, divorce records, emergency room patients, hospitals, victimization surveys and self-report surveys (see also Berk et al, 1983; Okun, 1986).

While the dominant theoretical perspective on conjugal violence has rested comfortably on the earlier findings supporting the frequency of male violence, recent research has challenged the efficacy of such assumptions by demonstrating greater symmetry in violent activity and casting doubt on the robustness of the asymmetrical relationship. Primarily through the use of the Conflict Tactics Scale (hereafter CTS), a significant number of studies have found that wives are about as violent as husbands (Straus, 1979; Straus et al., 1980; Steinmetz, 1977; Straus and Gellea, 1986; Shupe et al. 1987; Steinmetz and Lucca, 1988; Brinkerhoff and Lupri, 1988; Kennedy and Dutton, 1989; McNeely and Mann, 1990; Straus and Gelles, 1992).

The literature reviewed above demonstrates quite clearly that there is much debate over the gender distribution of violent activity in conjugal relationships. While some point to a large body of research that indicates significant gender asymmetry (Dobash et al, 1992), the findings of the CTS studies have generally involved larger samples and have been more standardized and wider in scope. Consequently, both sides of the argument have tended to focus solely on gender to the exclusion of other sociologically relevant variables. In this regard, contemporary criminological research has emphasized the importance of incorporating an age-stratification perspective in accounting for patterns of violent activity and the extent to which gender differences in violence vary within the life course (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Hagan, 1989; Sampson and Laub, 1993). Despite this emphasis, the effects of age on gender differences in conjugal violence have not received significant attention in research. Moreover, as perspectives on intimate violence have historically been developed in a relatively independent fashion from other criminological perspectives (Smart, 1976), they have generally assumed a behavioural dissimilarity between conjugal and nonconjugal violence (see for example Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990: 128).


The relationship between age, sex and violent behaviour represents a well-established research area in the field of criminology. Research on crime and delinquency has clearly substantiated that age and sex are important correlates of offending and victimization (Hindelang et al., 1978; Hirschi and Gottfredson, 1983; Nagel and Hagan, 1983; Farrington, 1986, Steffensmeier and Allen, 1991; Sampson and Laub, 1993). Likewise, several studies of conjugal violence have shown the importance of age (Suiter et al., 1990; Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz, 1980; Yllo and Straus, 1981; Stets and Straus, 1989; Brinkerhoff and Lupri, 1988; Smith, 1987, 1990; Lupri, 1990; Brinkerhoff et al., 1992; Lupri et al., 1994) and sex as risk markers for marital violence (see O'Brien, 1971; Dobash and Dobash, 1978, 1979; Hotaling and Sugarman, 1986, Dobash et al., 1992; Brinkerhoff et al., 1994). However, traditional perspectives on conjugal violence have not emphasized the degree to which gender effects are contextualized by age and there is little corresponding research which has simultaneously activated age and sex effects as they influence conjugal violence. …