Deconstructing Self-Defense in Wife-to-Husband Violence
Sarantakos, Sotirios, The Journal of Men's Studies
Over the years, community responses to wives' violence against their husbands have been diverse, although the overall general attitude has been one of both tolerance and dismissiveness. When alleged violence by wives was first reported, many critics dismissed such wife-initiated violence on the grounds that such violence did not (could not) exist. When evidence of such violence increased, its presence was acknowledged, but its nature and prevalence were not considered serious enough to constitute a problem or a type of domestic violence (DV). (1)
This resistance to accept wives' violence against husbands as a problem continued even when irrefutable evidence from many parts of the world showed clearly that wives and husbands assault each other in what seems to be equal proportions (see, for example, Archer, 2000; Cook, 1997; Fiebert, 1998; Gelles & Cornell, 1990; Gelles & Straus, 1988; George, 1994; Sarantakos, 1996; 1997; 1998b; 1999; Scanzoni, 1978; Schulman, 1979; Sorenson & Telles, 1991; Straus, 1993; Tjaden & Toennes, 1997; Tyree & Malone, 1991). The response to this was that wives' aggression was a necessary and legitimate means of defending themselves against abusive husbands. It was also seen as a response to frustration, stress, oppression, and victimhood and a revolt against the manifestation of patriarchal values and the enforcement of male power and supremacy (see, for example, Adler, 1992, p. 269; Hopkins & McGregor, 1991; Kurz, 1993, p. 90; Lazarus & McCarthy, 1990; McGregor, 1990; OSW, 1991, p. 7; OSW, 1992, p. 5; Seth-Purdie, 1996).
When new evidence further weakened the validity of patriarchy as a cause of women-initiated DV (see, for example, Island & Letellier, 1991; Letellier, 1994; Lockhart, White, Causby, & Isaac, 1994; Schilit, Lie, & Montagne, 1990), self-defense became a dominant explanation of wife-to-husband aggression. Simply, some contended that women are neither violent nor abusive but retaliate (hit) in self-defense against the men who abuse them. Despite the lack of sound empirical evidence to support this proposition and the growing evidence supporting the opposite (see Carrado, George, Loxam, Jones, & Templar, 1996; McNeely & Robinson-Simpson, 1987; Pearson, 1997a, b; Renzetti, 1992; Sarantakos, 1996; Sommer, 1994), the defense of self-defense in wife-to-husband violence is very popular, and has also been extensively used to defend successfully women who assaulted or even killed their husbands (for instance, Bradfield, 1998; Hubble, 1999; O'Connor & Ferrall, 1996). Research findings showing that wife-to-husband violence exists even when husbands were never violent in their home are dismissed on the grounds that their research ignores the context of violence, and hence such research can neither explain DV fully or adequately nor refute the validity of self-defense in wife-to-husband aggression.
This paper explores the adequacy of the claim of self-defense further. The guiding question here is whether the context of wives' violence, as others perceive and experience it, is always justified by the notion of the wives' self-defense. In other words, are claims of self-defense by aggressive wives always justified by reason of self-defense?
In addressing this issue, this paper will focus on (a) the presence/absence and nature of aggression by the husbands that allegedly force women to defend themselves; (b) the nature and type of violence employed in the wives' alleged self-defense; and (c) whether the respondents considered that conditions in the violent families in questions support the notion of self-defense.
The size and nature of the sample were influenced by the fact that (a) large-scale quantitative studies on wife-to-husband aggression have already been conducted; (b) the empirical validity of the results of large-scale studies were often questioned on the ground that they fail to consider the construction of violence at the interpersonal level; (c) spouses' accounts of DV often are contradictory, making the identification of the real nature of DV impossible; and (d) the central focus of the research is on the context of DV. …