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The other aggressor in domestic violence

ALLEGATIONS of domestic violence involving celebrities are nothing new, but two such stories in the news in the past couple of months have had a relatively unusual twist: The accused perpetrators were women and the alleged victims were men.


First, there was the lawsuit against Liza Minelli by her estranged husband, David Gest, claiming that the singer-actress had subjected him to repeated physical abuse. Then actor Christian Slater's wife, Ryan Haddon, was arrested on charges of battery after smashing a glass on her husband's head and causing a cut that required stitches. Yet despite such incidents, the public perception of domestic abuse as something that horrid men do to helpless women persists. People who have challenged this stereotype (myself included) have been called everything from anti-feminists to backlash peddlers to apologists for abusive men.

Well, now someone with strong feminist credentials challenges a lot of the conventional wisdom on domestic violence and ways to combat it, and confirms a lot of the things we dissenters have been saying for years. That someone is Linda G. Mills of New York University, a professor of law and social work and author of the new book, "From Insult to Injury: Rethinking Our Responses to Intimate Abuse." Mills, 45, is a feminist who has spent a decade working on behalf of battered women. Moreover, as she reveals in her book, she herself, 20 years ago, was a battered woman -- though she would prefer the more neutral term, "woman in an abusive relationship."

Drawing both on research and on her own experience in the field, Mills concludes that the conventional feminist paradigm of domestic violence as a form of patriarchal oppression is woefully inadequate. It is manifestly irrelevant for abused lesbians and gay men; it also has little meaning for women of color, who do not see the men in their community as powerful oppressors. Even for white women, it is a vast oversimplification of a complex reality. "Years of research, which mainstream feminism has glossed over or ignored, shows that when it comes to intimate abuse, women are far from powerless and seldom, if ever, just victims," Mills writes. "Like men, women are frequently aggressive in intimate settings."

"From Insult to Injury" is full of such heresies. Thus, Mills asserts that women who stay in abusive relationships often do so not just because of "women's socialization within a patriarchal system" but for complicated emotional, familiar, and cultural reasons. In many cases, she says, this decision has to be respected. She claims that policies of mandatory arrest and prosecution in domestic violence cases not only disempower women -- who aren't given any say in the handling of the case -- but actually endanger them, since an arrest may trigger an escalation of further violence. She suggests that mothers' physical violence toward children, particularly male children, plays a key part in perpetuating the cycle of abuse.

Mills does not deny (and neither does anyone else) that male violence toward women is more likely to result in physical injuries than the reverse, and that women in abusive relationships are more likely than men to be in danger. But she argues that this is no reason to disregard female violence, which needs to be acknowledged not only out of fairness to male victims but out of concern for female victims as well: A woman who starts a physical confrontation with her male partner may well find herself severely battered. To understand and prevent male violence, Mills concludes, we must understand female violence as well, whether it's physical assault or psychological aggression.

Where do we go from here? Mills is critical of the current "lock 'em up" dogma; instead, she would like to see a practice of "Intimate Abuse Circles" in which the spouses could discuss the abuse in the presence of other family members, relatives and friends. While she stresses that batterers must be held fully accountable for their actions, she also wants to see more emphasis on healing rather than punishment.

Currently, Mills's plea for reform is unlikely to have much effect. The ideology that views men as wolves and women as lambs is too deeply entrenched, and despite some feminists' claim that the media are eager to leap on any "antifeminist" bandwagon, Mills' thought-provoking book has received little coverage. Her message needs to be heard by politicians, judges, prosecutors and many others. It took the "mainstream" feminists about 30 years to establish their monopoly on the public debate about domestic violence. Mills's book may be the first step in dismantling that monopoly.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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