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Novel Program Treats Women Who Batter Men

Darlene Hilker is an unusual woman. It is not because she was caught up in domestic violence; that's a common crime.

Nor is it because she was the abuser; research increasingly reveals that men are often victims of domestic violence.

She is unusual because, on a judge's order, the Florida woman became one of the first to be enrolled in the Women Who Batter intervention program run by Domestic Abuse Shelter Homes. The 26-week program is being watched as a potential model for use nationwide.

Hilker's case and how it is being handled reveals a shift in the social dialogue surrounding domestic violence. Men are finally being recognized and taken seriously as domestic violence victims. It is about time.

A 2000 National Violence Against Women survey conducted by National Institute of Justice/Centers for Disease Control estimated that 1.5 million women and 835,000 men are battered each year.

The shift also suggests a new danger: men may become the next government-protected group of victims. If so, the politics of victimhood with its demands for class privilege will continue. Victimology as a growth industry for lawyers, social workers, experts and bureaucrats will flourish.

If men become the next 'oppressed group,' it will be in the same manner as women did decades ago. In the 1950s, women who had been raped or battered were often further brutalized by a legal system that dismissed them. Women's just cry to have their bodies and rights equally protected by law became distorted by radical feminists who used political correctness and government enforcement to call for privilege instead.

Perhaps the most blatant distortion: the crusade for equal access to education and employment turned into affirmative action and quota systems.

The swing in society's reaction to domestic violence was no less dramatic. Domestic violence became the black-and-blue symbol of man's oppression of woman, with domestic violence victims being pre-defined as female. For the last decade, the legislation defining domestic violence has been called the Violence Against Women Act.

Even the men who had been undeniably battered were given short shrift. Donna LeClerc, executive director of Women Who Batter, explains, "there's a lack of equality in the justice system. Women [abusers] serve half of the sentence a man does for the same crime, if she serves time in jail at all."

The media coverage of the Hilker case provides another window into how anti-male even relatively balanced accounts of domestic violence have become. The local NBC2 News coverage quoted Hilker on her rage "building up and just getting to the point where it exploded. You never know when it's going to happen. Something just triggers in your head and you do whatever."

In separate coverage of the Women Who Batter program, the Florida Herald Tribune described the 'plight' of batterer 'Mary Smith' (false name). The "seething" Mary suffered verbal abuse from her husband; their 16-month-old son long was allegedly force-fed by him. Then, "finally, when he made another crack about her weight, she took a knife and carved a 17-inch gash in his stomach."

The Herald Tribune quotes LeClerc: "Women, more than men, were more likely to have committed their offense under the influence of drugs or alcohol." Tonine Garbarino, a facilitator with the Women Who Batter program, is reported as saying that abusive females tend to be "reactive and defensive" while abusive males tends to be "proactive and aggressive."

At least two aspects of the foregoing comments are worth comment.

First, research into the abuse of intimates by women is in its infancy. Even now, many of feminist-inclined experts -- upon whose 'research' decades of domestic violence policy and law have been built -- only grudgingly admit that abusive women exist. I doubt the possibility of making accurate generalizations about such a freshly exposed and controversial facet of domestic violence.

Second, whether intended or not, the descriptions sound like excuses. The Herald Tribune and those it quotes seem to be saying that women are driven to violence by men and by bad lifestyle choices, whereas men are violent. Indeed, Garbarino comes close to absolving women of responsibility when she states, "There's a nanosecond where the woman says there's a nothingness. She doesn't remember a thing, but all she knows is she's hit someone or cut someone."

I have rarely seen abusive men described so sympathetically. Indeed, even the articles on Women Who Batter vilify abusive men in comparison.

Nevertheless, the model program in Florida represents progress, as does its partner program, "Men Entitled to Nurturing." This program began functioning in January with such goals as to assist men who are fleeing abuse. LeClerc notes, "There are no safe havens for men to run to with children. And if a man runs off with his child, it's considered kidnapping. The playing field is stacked against [men]…in this situation."

If the foregoing is progress, what constitutes the end point, the ideal?

Ideally, the anti-male bias that first ignored male victims and now treats their abusers with kid gloves will be eliminated. A judge will look at male and female abusers and see no legal difference. Government will get out of the psychology and rehabilitation business that has created "the domestic violence industry" -- a bureaucratic infrastructure of those who make a living off treating victims of, or providing services related to, domestic violence.

Perhaps the bitter lessons of radical feminism will prevail and men's calls for equal treatment will not turn into rage-filled demands for retribution. Perhaps this time, the law will swing toward justice and not so badly overshoot.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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