Bringing Gender into the Equation of Domestic Violence

“What is missing, oddly, from these claims of gender symmetry is an analysis of gender. By this, I mean more than simply a tallying up of which biological sex is more likely to be perpetrator or victim. I mean an analysis that explicitly underscores the ways in which gender identities and gender ideologies are embodied and enacted by women and men. Examining domestic violence through a gender lens helps clarify several issues.

For example, both women and men tend to see their use of violence as gender nonconforming, but the consequences of this nonconformity might lead women and men to estimate their use of violence and their victimization quite differently. Women are socialized not to use violence, and as a result, they tend to remember every transgression. As Dobash, Dobash, Cavanagh, and Lewis (1998) wrote,

Women may be more likely to remember their own aggression because it is deemed less appropriate and less acceptable for women than for men and thus takes on the more memorable quality of a forbidden act or one that is out of character. (p. 405)

Men, however, might find it emasculating to reveal that their assumed control over “their women” is so tenuous that they are forced to use violence to keep them “in line.” They may find it difficult to admit that they cannot “handle” their wives. Thus, men might underestimate their violence, and women might tend to overestimate theirs.

Furthermore, in addition to overestimating their own violence, women may also tend to underestimate their partners’ violence given the norms of domestic life, which frequently find women discounting, downplaying, normalizing, or even excusing their partners’ violent behavior because they (the women) “deserved” it. By the same token, in addition to underestimating their own violence, men may overestimate their partners’ violence for the same norms of masculinity. American men, at least, believe violence is legitimate if used as retaliation for violence already committed (see, for example, Kimmel, 1996; Mead, 1950). The expression “having a chip on one’s shoulder” actually has its literal origin among young, southern White boys after the Civil War, who would place a piece of wood on their shoulder and dare someone to knock it off so they might legitimately fight and prove their manhood. Initiating violence is never legitimate according to the norms of traditional masculinity in America; retaliating against a perceived injustice with violence is always [perceived as] legitimate. As a result, men will tend to overestimate their victimization and women will tend to underestimate theirs (see also Archer, 1994; Bograd, 1990; Bowker, 1998).

In response to the notion that men would be too ashamed or humiliated to call the police or go to the hospital if they were beaten by their wives, available empirical evidence suggests a very different picture: Men who are assaulted by intimates are actually more likely to call the police, more likely to press charges, and less likely to drop them (Ferrante, Morgan, Indermaur, & Harding, 1996; Rouse, Breen, & Howell, 1988; Schwartz, 1987). This makes sense in the terms outlined previously, as women would be more likely to forgive being hit and normalize it with statements about how he really does love her. Another study found that men underreport the violence they perpetrate against women by 50% (Edleson & Brygger, 1986; see also Browning & Dutton, 1986; Brush, 1993; and especially Dobash et al., 1998). Dobash et al. found a useful measure of the gender asymmetry in reporting: Women’s narrative descriptions of the events of their experiences are far longer and more richly detailed, entering the narrative at a much earlier point in the unfolding drama and extending the narrative to include injuries and other consequences.

If men underestimate their own violence and overestimate their victimization while women overestimate their own violence and underestimate their victimization, this would have enormous consequences in a survey [the Conflict Tactics Scale by Murray A. Straus] that asks only one partner to recall accurately how much they and their spouses used various conflict-resolution techniques.”


Kimmel, Michael S. 2002. ““Gender Symmetry” in Domestic Violence.” Violence Against Women 8(11): 1332-1363. DOI: 10.1177/107780102237407 [From the section, “Bringing Gender into the Equation,” pp. 1344-1346. References in the text reproduced below with hyperlinks added].


Archer, J. (Ed.). (1994). Male violence. Boston: Routledge Kegan Paul.

Bograd, M. (1990). Why we need gender to understand human violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 5, 132-135.

Bowker, L. (Ed.). (1998). Masculinities and violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Browning, J., & Dutton, D. (1986). Assessment of wife assault with the Conflict Tactics Scale: Using couple data to quantify the differential reporting effect. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 48, 375-379.

Brush, L. D. (1993). Violent acts and injurious outcomes in married couples: Methodological issues in the National Survey of Families and Households. In P. B. Bart (Ed.), Violence against women: The bloody footprints (pp. 240-251). Newbury Park, CA: Sage. [See the article in Gender & Society here.]

Dobash, R. P., Dobash, R. E., Cavanagh, K., & Lewis, R. (1998). Separate and intersecting realities: A comparison of men’s and women’s accounts of violence against women. Violence Against Women, 4, 382-414.

Edleson, J., & Brygger, M. (1986). Gender differences in reporting of battering incidences. Family Relations, 35, 377-382.

Ferrante, A., Morgan, F., Indermaur, D., & Harding, R. (1996). Measuring the extent of domestic violence. Perth, Australia: Hawkins Press.

Kimmel, M. (1996). Manhood in America: A cultural history. New York: Free Press. [Introductory chapter here.]

Mead, M. (1950). And keep your powder dry. New York: William Morrow. [Click here for a review.]

Rouse, L., Breen, R., & Howell, M. (1988). Abuse in intimate relationships: A comparison of married and dating college students. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 3, 414-419.

Schwartz, M. D. (1987). Gender and injury in spousal assault. Sociological Focus, 20, 61-75.

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