I went to lunch with some friends on Sunday. There's one girl who thinks she knows everything and is always peppering us with stories and factoids to show off. Sunday she throws this nugget out: In domestic killings, the number one weapon used is not guns, but frying pans. This can't be true, can it? It sounds like something Saturday Night Live would have the NRA saying in a skit.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
To believe this bogus stat is to give credence to its bogus implications: Number one, that women commit some huge chunk of domestic murders since presumably it’s women swinging those pans. Number two, that when women do kill their partners, a frying pan is honest to God how they do it. We’ll start with implication #2. According to U.S. Justice Department statistics from 1990 to 2004, when American women decide they’ve had it with the man in their life, they address the situation using “blunt objects” only 2 percent of the time. As one might expect, 69 percent of the time they use a gun. In less gun-happy Canada, 63 percent of women who killed their husbands between 1985 and 1994 stabbed them, 22 percent chose firearms, and 15 percent resorted to beatings or “other.” Death by cookware wasn’t broken out as a separate category, but it’s safe to say there wasn’t a lot.
As we get into implication #1, let’s first concede this much: Research suggests women are the aggressors much more often than is commonly believed. In fact, a study published this year in the Journal of Family Psychology indicates that women are more likely than men to commit domestic violence. Of 1,600 straight couples surveyed, 18 percent reported that in the previous year the woman had engaged in one of 11 “violent behaviors” toward the man, versus 14 percent the other way around. What’s more, over 7 percent of the couples reported “severe” female-on-male violence, compared to less than 4 percent reporting severe male-on-female violence. The most common female-on-male acts were “threw something” and “pushed, grabbed, or shoved,” both at about 12 percent. (OK, you can throw a frying pan, but aerodynamic considerations argue for something more compact.)
Not surprisingly, the study has its critics, who point out that it doesn’t take into account the frequency of violent acts or their context, e.g., self-defense. In addition, its findings rely on self-reporting, and these days it may be less socially acceptable for a man to admit abusing a spouse than it is for a woman.
Still, accumulating research suggests the standard portrayal of women as victims is inaccurate. As far back as the 1970s researchers were reporting that wives and husbands seemed equally likely to resort to physical violence in a conflict. A glance through one compilation of close to 150 studies suggests that rates of domestic violence are roughly comparable between the sexes.
That’s not to say men suffer an equal number of injuries. Depending on what you read, men suffer from 9 percent to around a third of domestic-violence injuries, although they’re less likely to report the abuse. What’s also not in dispute — and here we finally take care of implication #1 — is that many more women than men are killed as a result of relationships gone wrong. Among domestic homicides in 2004, 1,159 women were killed by their male partners, while only 385 men were killed by female partners.
How violent are less-traditional housekeeping arrangements? The prevalence of domestic violence among gays and lesbians is hard to measure, since many same-sex couples remain closeted even when the relationship turns violent (called by some the “double closet” syndrome). A review by psychology professor Carolyn West found estimates of lesbian domestic abuse ranging anywhere from 8.5 to 73 percent but says that in most studies 30 to 40 percent of lesbians reported they’d been in a violent relationship. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a gay and lesbian advocacy group, estimates based on the sparse research available that domestic violence occurs in 25 to 33 percent of same-sex couples. Both West and the NCAVP think the rate of domestic violence among gays and lesbians is about the same as among straights.
I’ve focused on the U.S., but the situation in most of the rest of the world is no better and often worse. In India an estimated 40 percent of women are physically abused; according to government figures, 7,000 were killed last year by their husbands or in-laws in disputes over dowry money, and the real tally is almost certainly higher. More than a third of Chinese women have been beaten by their current partner, and in rural Ethiopia about 70 percent of women are abused in their lives — more than 50 percent in the last 12 months.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.