What’s in a typology and what are the hooks

On Saturday I had the please of listening to Michael Johnson, Associate Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Women’s Studies, and African and African American Studies at Pennsylvania State University, who was presenting at the Women’s Refuge conference in Blenheim. Michael’s work has been in the area of differential populations of men who use abusive practices within their families. For those who have followed my own work over the years, will know that I have been a passionate advocate for better matching in terms of who walks in the door of programmes and the intervention they should receive. It was with great interest that I listened to Professor Johnson talk about his ideas.

There has long been a debate about gender equity in in terms of violence that takes place within relationships. Many of the differences can be attributed to the population studied. In the wider population based studies there appears to be symmetry in terms of abusive practices between men and women. On the surface this seems to undermine a patriarchal understanding of the role that men’s violent to women plays in maintaining gendered power differences. One issue that is not often discussed with population-based studies is the fact that 40% of people who are approached choose not to participate. Violence within the privacy of the home has not always been open to the gaze of the wider community. If a woman is being abused within her relationship, a man is approached who is being abusive, or the family members are weary of intrusive questions by strangers, then these population-based studies will be skewed. The other challenge within the debate is the differential impact of abusive practice has on men compared to women. In terms of injury women are much more likely to sustain serious injury than men as any emergency department at a hospital will tell you.

At the other end of the spectrum studies utilising samples from populations of men and women who are identified by police arrest, use refuge services, or access intervention, will exhibit higher rates of severity and frequency of abusive behaviour. The challenge therefore is to be careful when we hear bold claims made.

Michael Johnson’s work is therefore useful in providing a more nuanced approach to the issues of multiple pathways into abusive practices. He describes three main groups where abusive practice occurs within relationships. These are intimate terrorism, violence resistance, and separation couple violence.

Intimate terrorism what we often think about women and about family violence. It is a really unilateral in its approach and is based upon the use of a number of strategies around to self-control. These include intimidation, psychological abuse, isolation, physical and sexual violence. At the high end of this work has been further differentiated by the work of Holtzworth-Munroe and Stuart who make two further distinctions in terms of antisocial pattern and borderline dysphoric, the latter describing men who are heavily dependent on their relationships and very control.

Violence resistance on the other hand is when a woman finds herself to rise in your own home and fights back rather than being complicit with the abuse she takes a position of resistance. The ultimate resistance is in killing the man who was terrorising the woman. The defining difference in terms of violent resistance is it is not about control, but trying to manage a situation of severe and on-going threat.

Situational couple violence is according to Johnson the most common and typically accounts for 20 to 30% of cases presenting at agencies. This type of violence does not involve any attempt by either party to gain general control over the relationship. The violence is situationally provoked and in many cases is a singular event. According to Johnson the motives for this type of abusive practice very enormously. It may be an extreme reaction to frustration, it may be an attempt to get attention from one’s partner, or it may be a result of accumulated stress or differences of opinion. Situational couple violence can be an enduring pattern of behaviour over time but equally it can be a one-off incident that the couple can pull back from.

Johnson made the point that there are stark distinctions across gender symmetry between the three groups.

Factor                                          Husband                  Wife                  N

Intimate terrorism                          89%                        11%                  81
Violent resistance                          15%                        85%                  61
Situational couple violence            55%                        45%                167

The caution

One of the key challenges to the question of situational couple violence is that this operates within a gendered world. Are we talking the same language, when we talk about men engaging in the use abusive practices? Do we construct this as an individual issue or as men living up to traditional gender prescriptions. There is a risk that we are de-gendering the conversation. We talk about family violence, domestic violence, and intrapersonal violence. This hides a reality that most violence is perpetrated by men against men, women and children. We are effect talking about men’s violence towards women and children. Let’s reclaim the frame of the conversation. Situational couple violence can be co-opted to hide the fact that women will still experience higher rates of injury during these exchanges. As I wrote many years ago, “One man’s violence to one woman is a message to all women, and impacts upon all men.” As men we also pay a price through the activation of patriarchy through violence.

Listen to an interview with Michael and Chris Laidlaw on National Radio 28/10/12

These are my reflections on an interesting and thought provoking presentation. Love to hear your thought.

Published on Wednesday, October 31st, 2012, under Family violence

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