Published August 22, 2006
Every year, campuses and cities across North America hold "Take Back the Night" -- marches and rallies to protest violence against women. But surprising data suggests that men may need to reclaim 'the night' as urgently as women.
On Aug. 10, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released the results of its first national Personal Safety Survey (PSS, 2005). It is the only national survey by a 'Western' country that analyzes a wide range of violence on the basis of a respondent's sex.
Thus, the PSS offers the best snapshot available of the comparative violence experienced by men and women in a society with laws and a culture similar to North America.
The results are remarkable. If valid, they have far-reaching implications for how issues of gender and violence should be addressed.
The current approach basically views women as victims and men as aggressors. The survey's bottom line: Australian men are twice as likely as women to become victims of physical violence or of threats thereof (11 percent of men; 5.8 percent of women). For the population between eighteen and twenty-four years of age, men were almost three times as likely (31 percent of men; 12 percent of women). But men were also three times more likely than women to be the perpetrators of violence.
Violence against men most often took the form of a brute physical attack rather than a sexual assault/threat. When perpetrated by another man, the assault occurred "at licensed premises (34 percent) or in the open (35 percent), however if the perpetrator was female then 77 percent of the physical assaults occurred in the home."
In some categories of violence, such as domestic violence and sexual assault, the PSS shows women as more vulnerable than men. For example, 1.6 percent of women as opposed to 0.6 percent of men experienced either sexual violence or threats in the year preceding the survey.
Overall, however, the PSS offers good news to women. One of its goals was to "expand on the 1996 Women's Safety Survey" and compare violence against women then to now. With one notable exception, violence declined; the perception of being in danger also declined.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported, "A decade ago, more than 21 percent of women felt unsafe compared to just over 13 percent in 2005."
Perhaps predictably, the public reaction of Julie Bishop -- a Liberal member of the Australian House of Representatives who advises the Prime Minister on women's issues -- focused on the negative news for women: violence against older women has increased since 1996. To the extent Bishop acknowledged encouraging data such as the increased reporting of crime, she credited the Women's Safety Agenda, which is tax-funded at approximately $57.5 million U.S. Bishop promised to consider the PSS's findings at an upcoming conference of Women's Ministers' from Australia and New Zealand.
Bishop may be forced to confront changing attitudes toward gender and violence. Shortly after the PSS's release, the New Zealand Herald reported on a new study. "Where only one partner in a relationship is violent, it is more likely to be the woman, University of Otago researchers have found. Researcher Kirsten Robertson, of the university's psychology department, said the finding indicated a change of thinking was required on domestic violence."
Part of that change will come from grappling with the still widely disparate views offered by studies and surveys on how many men versus women experience domestic violence. Many of the differences may be ascribed to nothing more than the methodology employed by various researchers. Despite those differences, however, both the estimates of men as victims and women as perpetrators of domestic violence seem to be rising across the board.
A new approach to gender and violence is likely to hit a brick wall of sexual politics. Much of gender policy in Australia and North America -- e.g. affirmative action, domestic violence and sexual harassment -- is rooted in ideology, in the idea that women as a class are oppressed by men as a class. But if men are twice as likely to be threatened or attacked, then the theory of women's class oppression becomes more difficult to sustain.
Even if men are more likely to be attacked by a fellow-male than a female, that does not change the fact that they are also victims of violence.
And the task of collecting quality data becomes more important because only facts stand a chance of cutting through ideology.
There is some reason to question the quality of data in the PSS.
For example, its summary states "an attempt or threat to inflict physical harm is included only if a person believes it is likely to be carried out."
This asks the 'victim' to ascribe intent to an aggressor and invites subjectivity.
Various figures are identified with "a relative standard error of 25 percent to 50 percent" or "greater than 50 percent"; this makes them unreliable. Moreover, the math in some tables does not add up; that is, when the subcategory totals are added together, the sum total is greater than the parts. (See page 5.)
Without the raw data or more methodological detail, it is not possible to tell why this occurs.
There is no reason to believe, however, that the aforementioned problems skew the data more for one sex than the other.
Other aspects of the survey, however, provide reason to suspect that violence against men could be understated or glimpsed less clearly.
Although the PSS surveyed 16,300 adults, it included 11,800 women and only 4,500 men; this means the data on women should be more reliable. Moreover, the PSS used only female interviewers; this may have encouraged women to open up but it could have inhibited men.
In short, the PSS is neither ideal nor definitive but it is probably the best current picture of gender and violence in Western society. Under that picture, the caption should read "violence is a human problem, not a gender one."
Politically correct feminists sought to define violence, within certain contexts, as a gender problem, because the perception of women as victims of men promoted their ideology that pitted men against women. This view of violence as a gender problem has been sustained because government supported the ideology and its conclusions with money and favorable law. As a result, a false view of the nature of violence and of the relationship between the sexes has been created.
Focusing on women victims is valuable for specific purposes, like counseling female rape victims, but anyone who campaigns to prevent violence against women should vigorously applaud similar efforts directed toward men.
'Take Back The Night' is for everyone.
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.