Home Law Enforcement Breaking Down Barriers: New Research Suggests Women Are Just as Likely as Men to be Perpetrators of Domestic Violence

Breaking Down Barriers: New Research Suggests Women Are Just as Likely as Men to be Perpetrators of Domestic Violence


By Michael Pittaro, assistant professor, criminal justice, American Public University

Over the past few decades, criminal justice researchers, practitioners, and public policymakers have dedicated a considerable amount of time, effort, and resources to the study of domestic violence, particularly in creating and implementing programs geared towards its prevention (Pattavina, Hirschel, Buzawa, Faggiani & Bentley, 2007).

Prevention efforts often entail protecting victims from further abuse, which includes the punishment of perpetrators in an effort to deter future incidents and, in many cases, break the intergenerational cycle of familial abuse (Pattavina et al., 2007). Researchers who study crime have historically deliberated and debated on the relational connection, if any, between the offender, typically a male, to the victim, traditionally a female (Muftic, Bouffard & Bouffard, 2007).

Domestic Violence - male victimsNot surprising, the research pertaining to domestic violence is no exception. Historical and cultural gender roles within our patriarchal society have personified the notion that men are aggressive and violent; thereby, reinforcing the traditional notion that men are dominant gender, whereas women are passive and submissive (Muftic & Bouffard, 2007).

Early criminological research studies especially when combined with arrest data, overwhelmingly support and strengthen this long-established cultural belief that domestic violence incidents disproportionately involve male offenders who batter female victims. After all, men are the primary perpetrators of violent crime in the United States (Swatt & He, 2006).

Defining Domestic Violence
Although definitions vary, domestic violence is defined within the criminal justice / criminological literature as physical, sexual, psychological, or emotional abuse, or threat of abuse, by a current or former spouse or partner (Williams, Ghandour & Kub, 2008). A partner is described as being in a heterosexual or homosexual relationship with the perpetrator to include those who are married, dating, family, friends, or cohabitants (Drijber, Reijnders & Ceelen, 2013). As such, domestic violence has been increasingly identified and acknowledged as a public health concern that spans the globe (Drijber et al., 2013).

Criminal Justice System’s Response to Domestic Violence
Prior to the 1970s, the criminal justice system assumed a hands-off approach when responding to incidents of domestic violence because, at the time, they were considered a private matter (Menard, Anderson & Godbolt, 2009). The imposition of pro-arrest policies originated from the tireless efforts of crime victim advocates, mostly feminists, who demanded that police take action by arresting and removing the perpetrator, a male, from the home in order to protect the victim, a female, from further abuse.

Advocacy efforts considerably strengthened in the 1980s when national attention was redirected to the outcome of several successful civil liability lawsuits, namely involving the 1984 case of Thurman v. the City of Torrington in which the victim, Tracey Thurman, sued the City of Torrington for failing to protect her and was awarded a large settlement (Menard, Anderson & Godbolt, 2009). The Thurman case ignited a number of subsequent suits against police departments for failing to provide adequate protection from the abuser despite victims’ repeated calls for police assistance and protection (Menard et al., 2009).

The lawsuits, when coupled with the results of the Sherman and Berk (1984) landmark study, which focused on the effects of arrest on domestic violence recidivism, provided the catalyst for change in arrest policies. The study called for the implementation of mandatory or preferred arrest policies with domestic violence suspects even though replicated studies failed to produce the same results (Menard et al., 2009). An outgrowth of these pro-arrest policies has been “dual arrest” practices found in many jurisdictions. That is, when responding officers cannot determine who the primary aggressor is, there is a tendency to arrest both members of the couple (Menard et al., 2009).

Since police officers typically arrive on the scene after the abuse has taken place, they must determine what occurred based on a snapshot of the incident; thereby, making it difficult to identify the primary perpetrator of the conflict (Hughes, Stuart, Koop-Gordon & Moore, 2007). As a criminal justice educator and practitioner, the research supports the contention that the male will oftentimes erroneously be identified as the aggressor in most domestic violence incidents simply because they are male (Hughes et al., 2007).Consequently, women are less likely to be arrested as the perpetrators in these cases.

An Ever-Growing Body of Research
Until recently, the research had assumed a victimology approach when studying female involvement in domestic violence and a criminology approach when studying male involvement in domestic violence, thereby creating an interesting, yet frustrating dichotomy between perception and reality (Straus, 2006).

Nevertheless, contemporary studies, which are contributing to this growing body of research, suggest that men and women are equally likely to be both perpetrators and victims of domestic violence (Muftic & Bouffard, 2007). Moreover, some studies have concluded that women are more often the perpetrators of violence, whereas men are more often the victims of domestic violence, especially when the abuse is less serious / violent (Williams, Ghandour & Kub, 2008; Muftic & Bouffard, 2007).

Despite the growing body of scholarly evidence indicating that females are capable of such abuse, the criminal justice system continues to ignore these issues (Shuler, 2010). In the commonly referenced study, Hines, Brown, and Dunning (2007) described the experiences of 190 callers to the first ever domestic abuse hotline for men, established in the U.S. in 2000. This study offered a preliminary understanding of the experiences of male victims.

A common theme within the findings centered on having been re-victimized by a criminal justice system set up solely to help and protect female victims, including “being treated with suspicion, disbelief, and even being accused of being a perpetrator when seeking help” (Hogan, Hegarty, Ward & Dodd, 2012). While men’s use of violence is evident within the literature, the negative effects of domestic violence perpetrated by women should not be minimized. Women’s use of violence results in negative outcomes for men, including physical injury, fear, anger, sadness, shame, depression, humiliation, stress, and even death (Stuart, Moore, Koop-Gordon, Ramsey & Kahler, 2006).

Male victims of domestic violence continue to be secluded victims in our society even though collaborative professions to criminal justice such as nursing, social work, counseling, and psychology have openly acknowledged female-perpetrated domestic violence involving male victims (Frazer & Miller, 2009).

Therefore, criminal justice researchers and practitioners need to conduct further empirical research that can be applied to police training, which focuses on handling domestic violence cases involving male victims (Frazer & Miller, 2009). It is also advised that judges receive up-to-date training and education on male victims of domestic violence to ensure equitable action in the form of sentencing and treatment. As society becomes more accepting that domestic violence is not exclusively limited to female victims, but can affect male victims in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, agencies that currently serve female victims will likely expand their services to include male victims (Wallace, 2014)

About the Author: Professor Michael Pittaro has 25 years of criminal justice field and administrative experience working with juvenile and adult offenders with extensive histories of addiction as well as psychological and sexually deviant-related disorders in relation to criminal offending and victimization. Professor Pittaro has been teaching criminal justice, criminology, sociology, and psychology courses at the college / university level for the past 11 years (online and on-campus). He has authored more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate book and/or scholarly journal publications as well as the United States’ first and only criminal justice quick study reference guide (28,000 + copies sold to date). His first publication, Crimes of the Internet, an anthology of cybercrime research, has sold worldwide and led to the development of an undergraduate cybercrime course via Savant Learning.


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  1. Some interesting comments made by Professor Pittaro though there seems to be a lack of information provided in his conclusions.
    For example report mentions 190 callers from 1st ever Domestic Violence hotline for men.

    • Over what period of time were these calls?
    • How many calls, in total, were received?
    • Were these calls ALL from men in heterosexual relationships, thus the perpetrator being female, or were they in a homosexual or family relationship where the perpetrator may still have been male?
    • During this same period how many calls were received from women who were victims of Domestic Violence?

    I submit that as society continues to grow and evolve there will be an increase in the number of relationships where the female is the dominant partner and uses this dominance to control and abuse their ‘male’ partner. (We must remember that Domestic Violence/Abuse is all about power and control)

    There will however continue to be a significant imbalance between the number of male and female victims of Domestic Violence.

    In many areas around the world the emphasis has been, and continues to be support of victims. I have always maintained that to just support victims without taking steps to change the behaviour of the person who is offending (be they male or female) does nothing to reduce the level of Domestic Violence in society or address the enormous cost to the economy.

    There has been an overabundance of ‘research’ into this area. Perhaps more time and effort should be spent on addressing the problem rather than ‘researching’ it.

    1. Hello Ken –

      First of all, thank you for responding to my article. You’re absolutely correct in that some information is missing! Unfortunately, I had to keep this particular article to 1,200 or less words. However, I plan to publish the entire article in the very near future to address the questions you posed along with additional information pertinent to this topic. In the study I cited, they were men in heterosexual relationships and the female was the aggressor. Sadly, the research pertaining to this topic (males as victims / females as perpetrators) is quite limited suggesting that we need more information since research outcomes are inconclusive. I would definitely be interested in delving further into domestic violence within homosexual relationships because this is also an area ripe for evaluation.

      I recently presented a paper at the February 2014 ACJS conference on female sex offenders who target children. Like you mentioned, men tend to be the dominant aggressors with domestic violence situations and sex offending, but my interest is in shedding light on the fact that women are also capable of such violence; therefore, we cannot erroneously assume the male is always the aggressor in a DV situation even though the majority of offenses typically involve the male as the initiator of such violence.

      I agree that we focus predominantly on the punishment of offenders as opposed to rehabilitation and reformation. One of my other research interests pertains to the division between the research sector and the public policy sector. Many public policies are emotion driven without sound scientific research. That is why I wanted to start a dialogue on this particular issue. If I publish solely in an academic journal, chances are, only academics will read it, but if I branch over to sites that cater to both the practitioner and scholar, we may make some headway into changing the way we view victims and offenders.

      – Mike

  2. This is a very timely study and I am hopeful that a complete article will be published as you suggest. The stereotype of domestic violence has led to no-negotiation prosecutions, the immediate separation of spouses (some with relationships spanning decades), no-communication orders, seizure of firearms collections in every case and limits on child access. There is no effort made to rehabilitate the relationship although in many, but not most, cases this is not realistic. In may cases, mediation and counselling might solve the disfunction in the relationship.

    The bail restrictions placed on people charged with a domestic incident are often worse than any sentence that would ever be imposed following a conviction. It is time as well for some research as to the usefulness of the so-called no-negotiation prosecution model that was started in the United States and followed in Canada.

    1. Happy Friday Len!

      Thank you for your comments. Greatly appreciated!

      Yes, I do plan to continue my research and publish the completed article in one of two peer-reviewed journals that have shown an interest in my research. Therefore, my goal is to have this article and one other (Female Sex Offenders who Prey Upon Children) published by November or December of this year.

      I agree wholeheartedly that this is an area that warrants considerable attention and reform, and once again thank you for your comments.

      Thanks again!

      Mike Pittaro

  3. I watched helplessly as a newly 19 yr old boy pled guilty to DV about one yr ago. His girlfriend broke in his window and was biting him. He called me for help, & had me on his speaker phone. I told him to leave and call the police, but he reported he was in his boxers. The girlfriend was pushing him out of his own room tgat she’d broken in to from the Windows. He pushed back on his door, & the police used that in their report as part of his DV charge. As I got into my car to head down to help them he hung uo from me monetarily and called the police. He called me back stating they where on their way. At this point tge girlfriend was still going after him. I tokd him to take in tge pain because even striking back in self defense would land him a DV charge. Well the police arrested them both. Both where charged with assault and DV. Of coarse the arraignment was the same time as the plea. Both took the deferred sentence as too scared to go back to jail and even scarcer to have the assault charge originally filed by the police. This was so manipulated that I can’t believe it happened. Its disgusting!

  4. Mike, I am glad to see that you found information in the article I published last year useful for this blog posting. I hope to expand upon the earlier research that I did on this topic by looking at the issue in states other than California in the near future.



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