WASHINGTON – When Adele Freeman fired five .38-caliber bullets into her boyfriend in 2000, she contributed to an often-overlooked statistic within the sometimes deadly world of partner abuse: namely, that more than one-third of all homicides each year connected to domestic violence are perpetrated by women.
“Men can be victimized in the same way women can,” said Laura Martin, the Calvert County state’s attorney who helped secure Freeman’s first-degree murder conviction in 2002. “And it’s not just the violence. It’s about control, dominion, power,” she said.
The fact of female abusers and male victims is often lost in the discussion of domestic violence. In fact, women advocates have used selective statistics — the same federally-funded survey that found women are as equally abusive to men — to bolster their plea for funding and services. That absence of attention to the men’s side of the coin has contributed to an imbalance of services for men in abusive relationships.
“This is the best-kept secret on family violence,” said Murray Straus, a sociologist who led the commissioned survey in 1975, and again in 1985 with the same results. “There is a tremendous effort to suppress and deny these results.”
No one disputes that when physical violence occurs, women are prone to more serious injury than men, however, Straus and others caution that this should not “obscure” the fact that about a third of men sustain injuries from partner violence, or homicide.
Bill Hall of Adam’s House, a health and wellness center in Suitland, agreed. He called domestic violence an “equal opportunity” issue that often gets overlooked by the 24 or so women’s advocacy centers throughout the state.
“It’s kind of hard to find programs that cater to men and boys,” he said. “Most of the agencies I know of refer men to us … as abusers.”
Each Monday night, he and his wife, Stacie, counsel two groups of some 30 women and 65 men. Within each group, about 70 percent have been court-ordered to attend the 90-minute-long counseling sessions, aimed at curtailing future violent behavior.
In dealing with those who’ve punched out girlfriends and choked wives, socked boyfriends, stabbed exes and even shot at spouses, both Halls agree that domestic violence is anything but a one-way street of male-on-female violence.
“Most women who abuse in the relationship (do so) because they feel pressured and don’t feel that they can communicate any other way,” said Stacie Hall. “Because he’s just not listening, and (men) are much bigger than we are.”
But other advocacy groups ignore female-on-male violence.
Take one particular bullet point from a brochure sponsored by Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, a state advocacy coalition backed largely by federal funds: “Every 15 seconds a woman is battered in the United States by her husband, boyfriend or live-in partner.”
To Michaele Cohen, the non-profit’s executive director, that statistic sounds about right. “There are male victims, of course, but the majority of victims who come forward are female,” she said.
Cohen said other data suggesting that men suffer from equal rates of violence are unreliable.
“That methodology is very controversial because, you know, you’re saying that every hit is equal and you’re not taking into account context,” she said. “I think you have to look critically at those studies.”
Yet both sides of the debate are actually looking at the same studies: that 1975 survey, updated 10 years later, that revealed nearly identical rates of abuse among men and women.
Cohen did not know of the connection to the statistics in her group’s brochure, but said anecdotal evidence supports their contention.
“I don’t really want to quibble about the particular stats,” she said. Instead, Cohen pointed to the “huge number” of female victims she sees in need of assistance each and every day.
“I’m not relying on statistics. I’m relying on 30 years of experience.”
That reliance on nonscientific data is no shock to Richard Gelles, who co-authored the 1975 and 1985 surveys with Straus.
“People cherry-pick their numbers for advocacy studies,” he said. “This is what advocates do, and that’s not sad. What’s sad is policymakers don’t create evidence-based policy.”
Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, offered up the Violence Against Women’s Act as an example.
Since 1994, the act has doled out some $4 billion to states — dollars aimed at eliminating domestic abuse, stalking and sexual assault through increased financial, legal and housing support to women. The act has also upped the penalties against offenders and more closely knits prosecutors, judges, police and victims advocates to the effort.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last May, Gelles said the law, which is set for reauthorization in 2011, mostly ignores services and resources for male victims of abuse.
“No other federal legislation dealing with an aspect of family violence, including child maltreatment, sexual abuse, and elder abuse, singularly focuses on one sex,” he testified.
Before the law’s passage, The Washington Post wrote a story on the impact the slaying of Nicole Brown Simpson, and the implication of her husband, former football star O.J. Simpson, in her death, was having on domestic violence service providers.
“Battered women and abusive men,” the story said, “are calling area hot lines for help in record numbers.”
In that same story, Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Fort Washington, co-founder and then-executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told The Post that 4 million women a year were abused by their spouses.
But like the brochure, even that number appears to derive from within Gelles and Straus’s own published research, and could mean that men, too, suffer from 4 million cases of abuse each year.
Edwards stated in a telephone interview recently that “There is no credible evidence that there is a 50-50 relationship in domestic abuse numbers. That is so not true.”
Instead, she pointed to an “overwhelming body of research” that shows men perpetrate as much as 95 percent of domestic abuse.
Richard Davis, a retired Brockton, Mass., police lieutenant and author of two books on the subject of family violence, said those figures are inaccurate and outdated.
“There’s nobody outside radical feminism that accepts that 95-percent figure anymore,” he said.
Even the domestic violence network Edwards co-founded avoids the number, instead putting the rate of male batterers at “85 percent.”
That 85 percent equates to 588,490 annual victimizations of women 12 years old and up, according to its source — a 2003 “crime data brief” from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And that’s about 3.4 million victimizations shy of what Edwards told The Post in 1994.
“One of the ironies is that many battered women’s groups use (one-half of) our data to show prevalence rates,” said Straus. “But when trying to show who’s doing the violence, they use crime-survey data.”
For his part, Straus faults feminism as well as colleagues within the academic community for underplaying male victimization rates.
Likewise, Patricia Tjaden, who fielded a 1995 federally-funded survey, said she has drawn criticism from Straus.
“Maybe I am a feminist,” she said. “But I’m also a good researcher.”
Tjaden’s survey, also widely cited by advocacy groups including the Maryland House of Ruth, found that 1.3 million women suffer from physical assaults each year.
What isn’t widely acknowledged, however, are the 834,732 men who her survey found also suffer from abuse each year.
Put another way, about 39 percent of the victims of physical assault each year are men.
While Tjaden stressed that as the degree of violence increases — from slapping and punching, to kicking and knives — men were found to make up a larger share of the more violent violence, she also acknowledged that the majority of estimated cases were only minor in nature, and very few involved guns or knives.
So what of services available to men?
Laura Dugan, a public policy expert and associate professor at the University of Maryland, said you might not know of a need for men based on the services available to them.
“All of these service providers, they do not let men on their premises,” she said, recounting a case she was familiar with in which an alcoholic wife was abusing her husband. “She really abused him. And he had nowhere to go.”
In Maryland, the House of Ruth, one of Maryland’s largest domestic violence service providers, will assist men, but active outreach efforts seem in short supply.
“We also work with men,” said program development director Cheri Parlaman, referring to an abuser intervention program.
According Dorothy Lennig, director of the non-profit’s Legal Clinic, 77 men received some form of free legal counseling or services through the Montgomery County Circuit Court in FY 2010.
That’s about 8 percent of the total 933 people the clinic served during that period.
“We don’t discriminate,” Lennig said.
Yet they don’t advertise services for men.
And that’s a shame, said Stacie Hall of Adam’s House.
“They (women’s advocates) need to realize that men are abused as well — that it’s something that is real.”