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Understanding Domestic Abusers

Gender and domestic abuse: Gender and Intimate Partner Violence

When men and women are violent in heterosexual relationships, they usually engage in different patterns of behavior, for different reasons, and with different consequences.74  The relative proportion of men and women who use violence against a partner differs greatly, depending on whether one is looking at situational violence, abuse, or responsive violence.  The following chart summarizes the approximate percentage of men and women who perpetrate different sorts of IPV, estimated by Johnson from prior research.

Forms of Intimate Partner Violence in Heterosexual Relationships
% of Cases Who Does It What It Looks Like Context
Domestic Abuse (Coercive Controlling Violence) 29% 97% men OngoingOne-sided

Often severe and escalating


Fixed imbalance of power

Desire to dominate partner

Responsive Violence 23% 96% women Occasional


Not severe or escalating

Attempt to forestall attack, defend self and others, or control the situation
Fights (Situational Couple Violence) 44% 56% men

44% women


Often mutual

Not severe or escalating

No general pattern of control

Gender and domestic abuse
About 97% of abusers are men who have a female partner.77

Heterosexual men’s domestic abuse is grounded in both inequalities in power and resources between women and men and social rules for male/female relationships.  This context creates entitlement for men and vulnerability for women and makes men’s violence work very well to control their female partners.

Evan Stark points out that the tactics of men who abuse women specifically target aspects of sexual inequality, such as what he calls women’s “default consignment” to housework, caretaking and sexual service.  Coercive control is built on the rules for the victim’s daily conduct as a woman, which makes it hard to tell where the constraints of women’s gender role leave off and coercive control begins.  No parallel thing happens to men, Stark says, even to men with abusive partners.78

Unlike women’s violence in relationships, “male violence is more apt to be a pattern to be repeated in subsequent relationships rather than situational in a particular relationship.”79

Perpetrators who are arrested for DV crimes or the violation of an order of protection are overwhelmingly male, and their victims overwhelmingly female.80

Men are also typically the perpetrators of more serious acts of violence.  For instance, one study81 found the following breakdown in what men and women said their partner did to them:

What partner did Female victim Male victim
Threw something at me 8.1% 4.4%
Pushed, grabbed or shoved me 18.1% 5.4%
Slapped or hit me 16.0% 5.5%
Beat me up 8.5% .6%
Gay men and lesbians

Lesbians and gay men appear to abuse their partners at approximately the same rate as heterosexual men, though accurate statistics are hard to come by.  Their tactics often exploit the victim’s experience of heterosexism and homophobia, as well as inequalities other than gender, such as income or education.

Women with male partners

Any individual can choose to abuse their partner, and some heterosexual women do so, but women’s violence usually takes the form of fighting or responsive violence. The smallest group of women who use violence in their relationship are women who actually abuse their partner.82 There are a couple of major reasons for this:

  • Women’s attempts to dominate men are much more likely to fail, because  “…sexual discrimination allows men privileged access to the material and social resources needed to gain advantage in power struggles.”83
  • Norms for female behavior work against women becoming abusers.   These norms include:
    • Defer to men.
    • Be nice – you can “catch more flies with honey.”
    • Adapt to things you don’t like; endure what you can’t control.
    • Soothe other people’s anger.
    • Shut up!  Keep your feelings to yourself – especially anger.
    • Keep the peace.
    • Keep the family together.
    • Take responsibility for how men treat you.
    • Don’t be too “demanding.”

This does not mean that women can’t be abusive – just that both social power arrangements and their learning histories work against them engaging in coercive control.

Research on gender and domestic abuse

There are two main approaches to studying IPV – crime victimization studies and family conflict surveys. These differ in several ways, so it is no surprise that they produce quite different results.

  • They focus on different populations:  Family conflict research often studies couples in counseling, while crime victimization research studies people using domestic violence services or contacting law enforcement.  Since targets of situational violence usually do not need the services of hospitals, police, and shelters, they are a relatively small minority of individuals in agency studies.
  • They ask different questions: What has your partner done to you? vs. What do you and your partner do during arguments?
  • They begin with different definitions of IPV: coercive control vs. conflict.

Evidence for the predominance of men among abusers comes from crime victimization studies like the National Crime Victimization Survey, in which people are asked about many forms of abuse,84 the context in which it has occurred, the actors’ motivations, and the consequences of the assault.85   These studies tap into coercive control – IPV that is severe, that escalates over time, and that is committed by men 3-10 times more often than by women, depending on the study.

“Data in samples obtained primarily from women’s shelters, court-mandated treatment programs, police reports, and emergency rooms are more likely to report…Coercive Controlling Violence.  It is characterized by power and control and more often results in injuries to women. In these samples, the violence is asymmetric and perpetrated largely by men against their partners…”86

It is possible that the fact that shelters mostly serve women with male partners and abuser programs overwhelmingly are aimed at men who abuse women, makes the proportion of heterosexual male abusers look somewhat larger than it is.  Nonetheless, these results fit with other research showing that men’s overall rates of violence – domestic and non-domestic – are almost 9 times those of women.  Michael Kimmel points out that this difference in rates of violence is the only large, robust gender difference found in the sex difference literature.87

Aren’t there more female abusers and male victims than people think?

The Myth:  The number of female abusers only seems small, because most male victims are too ashamed to contact law enforcement or domestic violence services.

The Reality:  There is little evidence that male victims report abuse significantly less than women do.88 In 2008, for instance, an estimated 72% of IPV against males was reported to police, vs. only 49% of IPV against females.89  When men don’t report an incident to police, they usually say it’s because they see it as a private or personal matter, not that they feel ashamed and embarrassed. Some male victims want to protect the partner who assaulted them – just like female victims do.90

Researchers and service providers have described this state of affairs in various ways:

  • Men readily tell researchers that they are being hit, complain in court about mistreatment during divorce and custody cases, and insist in counseling that they are the ones who are being abused.91
  • A “committed public effort to reach out to [heterosexual] male victims has not resulted in domestic violence programs suddenly discovering they need to rethink their emphasis on serving women.”92
  • We don’t see heterosexual men whose self-esteem is destroyed by abuse, who give up school and career progress, who are forced into unwanted sex, or who flee for their lives.  People intervene in abuse more than they used to, and if those men were out there, someone would have noticed.93

Male domestic violence victims who come to law enforcement attention are more likely to be future suspects for domestic violence than female victims. One study found that:

  • 41% of male victims who were later involved in new incidents of IPV were identified by police as suspects in the new incident, compared with only 26.3% of women.
  • Only 26% of male suspects were later identified as victims, vs. 44% of female suspects.

Similarly, male victims of IP homicides are much more likely than female victims to have previously abused their eventual killers.

Gender and Responsive Violence

Responsive violence is the largest single category of violence by women.  Over half of women’s violence overall is in response to male violence. Only a small percentage of IPV by men is in response to abuse by a partner.

Gender and Fights

In heterosexual relationships, men initiate situational violence somewhat more often than women, but the rates are fairly similar.

“[L]arge-scale survey research…reports gender symmetry in the initiation and participation of men and women in partner violence. This violence is not based on a relationship dynamic of coercion and control, is less severe, and mostly arises from conflicts and arguments between the partners….”

These surveys typically conceptualize IPV as behavior aimed at winning a fight. They typically use a measure of IPV called the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS), which specifically asks about IPV in the context of arguments.

These family conflict studies find much higher rates of violence by both men and women than show up in crime victimization studies, but lower levels of severity.101  Because they ask about arguments, these studies pick up less severe incidents that are not experienced as a crime and would not be reported to a crime victimization researcher. This relatively low-level situational violence usually does not escalate, causes few injuries, and is committed only somewhat more by men than by women.102 This research is often cited, however, as showing that men and women are equally abusive.103,104,105

It is useful to understand violence in the context of arguments, but it is critical not to confound fights with abuse.  The fact that the same term – domestic violence – is used for both fights and abuse has led to enormous amounts of time and energy being spent in fruitless arguments over whether men and women are “equally violent.”  Men and women clearly do not abuse their partners at the same rate.


  1. Adapted from Dutton et al’s (2006) summary of Johnson’s findings.
  2. The remaining few percent are couples in which both parties are violent and controlling.  These are not discussed here.
  3. Dutton et al (2006).
  4. Dutton et al (2006).
  5. Stark (2007), p 368.
  6. Worcester, N. (2001) Women who use force in heterosexual domestic violence: Putting the context (back in) the picture, Education Journal: 20 (1), Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, p 2 – 5, 16 – 17. (p 17 – discussing male abusers).
  7. Klein (2009).
  8. Tjaden, P. & Thoennes, N. (1998). Stalking in America:  Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey. Washington, DC: NIJ/CDC.
  9. Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence.
  10. Stark (2007), p 105.
  11. Belknap, J. & Melton, H.  (2005). Are heterosexual men also victims of partner abuse?, National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women.
  12. Dasgupta (2001).
  13. Kelly & Johnson (2008), p 481.
  14. Kimmel, M. (2000), The Gendered Society, NY & Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press.
  15. Durose, M.R. et al. (2005). Family Violence Statistics. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics., p 6.
  16. Catalano, S. (2007). Intimate Partner Violence in the United States. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Stark (2007), p 97.
  19. Worcester (2001), p 16.
  20. Bancroft (2002).
  21. Friday, P., Lord, V., Exum, M. & Hartman, J. (2006). Evaluating the Impact of a Specialized Domestic Violence Police Unit. Final report for National Institute of Justice.
  22. Starr, K., Hobart, M. & Fawcett, J. (2004). Every Life Lost Is a Call for Change: Findings and Recommendations From the Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review. Seattle, WA: Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.+
  23. DeKeseredy, W.S., Saunders, D., Schwartz, M.D. & Alvi, S. (1997). The meanings and motives for women’s use of violence in Canadian college dating relationships: Results from a national survey. Sociological Spectrum, 17, 199-222.
  24. Kelly & Johnson (2008).
  25. Kelly & Johnson (2008), p 481.
  26. Straus, M.A. (1979).  Measuring intrafamily conflict and violence: The Conflict Tactics (CTS) Scales.  Journal of Marriage and the Family, 41(1): 75-88.
  27. Instructions to people completing the CTS contextualize the questions as follows:  “No matter how well a couple gets along, there are times when they disagree, get annoyed with the other person, or just have spats or fights because they’re in a bad mood or tired or for some other reason….I’m going to read some things that you and your… partner…might do when you have an argument. I would like you to tell me how many times…in the past 12 months…you have…”  Straus, M.A. (1990b). The Conflict Tactics Scales and its critics: An evaluation and new data on validity and reliability, in M.A. Straus & R.J. Gelles (Eds.), Physical Violence in American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence in 8,145 Families, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, p. 33.
  28. The rates of violence identified in crime victimization research may be artificially low, however; because 1) it may miss non-criminal abuse; 2) if the abuser is present during phone interviews of victims, their ability to speak freely is decreased; and 3)  surveys include elderly subjects, whose rate of domestic violence is substantially lower than other age groups.
  29. Kimmel (2001).
  30. For detailed critiques of the CTS, see Belknap & Melton (2005); Dasgupta (2001); Dekeseredy & Schwartz (1998). Measuring the extent f woman abuse in intimate heterosexual relationships: A critique of the Conflict Tactics Scales; and Kimmel (2001).
  31. Straus, M.A. (2007). Conflict Tactics Scales, in N.A. Jackson (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Domestic Violence, New York: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 190 – 197, responds to some of these critiques.
  32. Kimmel (2001).