The 'Genderedness' of Violence

In the study and teaching of domestic violence, the most controversial aspect is the genderedness of primary aggression, which is a pattern of control and coercion over an intimate partner. It is distinct from 'mere' difficult, uncooperative, or distressing behavior. Anyone with practical experience in the field can verify the statistic that more than 95% of primary aggression is performed by males, and if female same-sex relationships are excluded, the percentage is even higher.

This asymmetry arises out of biology, not the characteristic moral performance or merit of either gender. For 'general' violence, a strong gender asymmetry is well-accepted in public health and criminology. Male gender is not sufficient in itself to produce violence, but it serves as a necessary (nearly) element when combined with other factors. When all men are considered, the percentage that function or have functioned as primary aggressors is hard to know but is certainly in the single digits.

In the field of domestic violence, however, there seems to be an unholy alliance between, on one hand, the blame and other-focus of primary aggressors, and on the other hand, quite ironically, the popular principle of egalitarianism. For primary aggressors this is just deflection and more abuse. For naive onlookers, the sentiment arises that "its only logical" the responsibility rests on both sides.

While the construct of the genderedness of domestic violence has been misused at times to impute moral fault to males in general, (see the discussion below on the construct of patriarchy), it is still necessary to work with this very real gender asymmetry to reach a point of consistent recognition and intervention of high-risk patterns. If one tries arbitrarily to apportion half the primary aggression to women, as some researchers have done, and then define abuse after that, great confusion arises as to the elements of primary aggression. If then, in addition, what men and women are doing in relationships without primary aggression is added to the data pool, the high risk, qualitatively distinct pattern of primary aggression is no longer discernable, yet discerning it is a life and death matter.

As to the small number of men who are the survivors of primary aggression by a female partner, they deserve justice, but they are well-served by the heuristic of genderedness because it actually allows the meaningful definition of the pattern of primary aggression. This small number of men is not well served by the multitude of false counter-claims of abuse by male primary aggressors.

The Myth of Mutual Combat

Mutual combat is a law-enforcement and public safety term used to describe violence when it appears superficially that both parties had equal ability and options to act, and were mutually consenting to coercive tactics. It is believed in those cases that sometimes the best option is to not do anything. Any harm that comes about is the result of "mutual misadventure."

In the past, this thinking was also misapplied to domestic violence. Police work concentrated on limiting the disturbance for third parties, which actually colluded with the goals of the primary aggressor. In fact, in domestic disputes, closer scrutiny almost always shows that one partner is attempting to limit the other partner’s options (primary aggressor), and that the other is attempting to preserve or regain options for themselves (survivors). Most law enforcement and courts have abandoned the idea of mutual combat in domestic disputes, and instead try to identify a primary aggressor.

Care must be taken not to jump from the truism that both partners are distressed and distressing to the erroneous conclusion that partners have an identical role in domestic abuse and escalation. The problem of domestic abuse is asymmetrical and the solution is asymmetrical. Understanding survivor violence is critical to understand justice in this area!

However, most individuals identified as primary aggressors assert that their partner was equally as abusive (which may be sincere or insincere). They resist opportunities to be accountable by an insistence that the partner undergo some treatment etc.. This can come about because of their own misunderstanding about survivor violence, the 'con', or the distorted perception of an assertive female that is part of angry attachment.

In an argument of ideas, it cannot be denied that survivors may have acted cruelly or attempted episodic controlling behaviors. However, an intervention for primary aggression is not a philosophical discussion. It is a public safety and public health initiative. In drug treatment, abstinence is required because any use inflames the addictive process. When a primary aggressor uses the theory of mutual combat to try to insist what the survivor must do, it is an expression of dedication to control of the partner

In the study of domestic violence, the myth of mutual combat has been given some unfortunate steam by an academic product, the conflict tactics scale of Murry Straus.

Conflict Tactics Scale

The conflict tactics scale is a paper and pencil instrument that tallies up acts of violence without any consideration of context or purpose. It is totally blind to the concept of survivor violence. It also classifies violence very crudely in the categories none, minor, and severe. Therefore the attempt to strangle someone to death and the attempt by the person being strangled to gouge the eye of the strangler in order to escape are equated! One act each of severe violence! There is also no consideration of the impact of the act on the recipient. There is no way to report something such as the survivor knowing the primary aggressor 'is capable' of killing her in certain circumstances. Still further, the asymmetry of control in abusive relations can be diluted by the data from the much larger group of non-controlling relationships. Overall, this method, if used to assess for domestic violence (as it unfortunately has been) is like comparing Dickens and Shakespeare by tallying up the frequency at which different letters of the alphabet are used.

The Concept of 'Situational Couple Violence'

Researchers that study family violence not from a public safety or public health point of view but from a more systematic framework, with random (not distressed) samples, have always encountered a confusing gender symmetry in superficially assaultive behavior that, if not understood well, seemed to undermine the clinical concept of primary aggression. Fortunately the academic work of Michael P. Johnson has looked more closely and identified four types of violence: 1) Coercive-Controlling Violence (CCV), which matches the 'primary aggression' described in this website, 2) Violent Resistance, which matches 'survivor-violence, 3) Separation-Initiated Violence, (which is rare and sounds like coercive-controlling violence with an over-controlled primary aggressor, and, 4) Situational Couple Violence, (also called Common Couple Violence) discussed below.

Situational Couple Violence is qualitatively different from primary aggression (domestic violence or intimate partner violence) The two have mutually exclusive features and cannot both occur in the same relationship (of course the majority of relationships have neither.) Situational Couples Violence is marked by unpredictable episodes of symmetrical physical violence which is not coercive in intensity by either side. This violence is meant to be expressive (however inappropriately so) and not controlling. The violence is defined as abuse only by the legal definition, because it does not meet he social or behavioral definition. However, situational couples violence only comes to attention because of systematic assessment of random samples by researchers. These couples do not usually become involved in the public safety or public health arena.

Comparisons of Two Types of Violence

Situational Couples Violence Primary Aggression
Neither partner afraid of the other One partner deeply afraid
Initiated by both partners Initiated by a primary aggressor
Low injury because actions are technically an assault but not full force Higher injury level because force is intended to inflict injury
Stops if partners separated Increases if partners separated
Brief and self-limiting Limited only by exhaustion
Both partners honest about facts Primary aggressor shows strong denial
Does not escalate Escalates over time
No effort to hide Strong efforts to hide

Misconstruing the Data

Quite commonly, primary aggressors attempt to use simplistic statistics to avoid accountability and responsibility. They can be joined in this by other parties without close understanding of domestic violence who are proceeding a priori on a simple mental model of equal responsibility in a relationship. In either instance, this is how it happens: first, using misunderstood data, survivor violence and primary aggression is merged, and second, abusive relationships are merged with non-abusive ones. Overall, the number of 'hitting' incidents is somewhat greater for women, who perhaps are 'freer' to hit as an expression without it being injurious or coercive.

Primary aggression is based on the pattern and goal of the actions, not the gender of the actor. Since the large majority of persons identified as primary aggressors are men, some of those primary aggressors use the misunderstood statistic (or as we say now, "meme") that "women hit more," to insist the process that has identified them is flawed, and that they are not accountable to it. Of course, well informed people know that domestic violence is about far more than 'hitting,' but the power of the legal system to intervene does revolve around the concept of criminal assault.

Hence the myth of mutual combat is hard to dispel. Efforts to combat domestic violence have historically been plagued with confusion between primary aggression and 'couples that just fight a lot.' The difference is easily discernable if armed with a little knowledge, (in this area, clinical moreso than academic.)

The Concept of Patriarchy in the Study of Abuse

The practical struggle and progress against domestic violence in recent decades has been mingled with a larger feminist critique of society. The critique targets inequalities and their perceived root in society's patriarchal organization. At the risk of oversimplifying, as regards men and women, the critique has two salient points: 1) Privilege: men get more and do less at the expense of women because they have power originally taken by blunt force and now maintained by slightly disguised force, and 2) Role Fulfillment: If men behave differently at all than women, it is ultimately only because they have power and wish to maintain the power. Women are taught a submissive role and men a dominant one. That is, gender behavior is only an artifact of being taught a role.

An extreme formulation of this is Andrea Dworkin's statement "All women are raped, and all men are rapists." In the arena of domestic violence, this point of view seems strongly challenged by the fact that assuming a 'traditional  woman's role' is a remarkably unsuccessfully survival strategy if primary aggression is present. Abuse does not stop or even stop escalating if a non-assertive role is taken.

Privilege has been and largely still is possible to illustrate with many examples of inequality drawn from life. It is a stretch though to imply that half the population acts in concert, even subconsciously. The idea of role fulfillment is much more problematical given everyday observation.

However, open discussion in this area has been notoriously difficult. Critiquing the critique of society that is 'patriarchy' can be and often is seen as, in itself, a simple reactionary maneuver to maintain power. If the challenge to the theory comes from a man, it is said to be self-evident he wants to keep his power and privilege. If the challenge comes from a women, she is said to be subjected to brainwashing, which is itself powerful confirmation of the theory. Apart from whether any of this is true or not, the unsatisfying circular nature of the theory should be evident. Efforts to theorize on violence that identify a subset of men at greater risk are viewed an attempt to get the most powerful men at the top of the system, 'off the hook.'

An alternative hypothesis, offered by the author of this website, is that perhaps innate masculine behaviors give an edge to men in gravitating to power in power-based societies, but that these masculine behaviors, where they arise are not nefarious but human. The solution perhaps is not to try to put anyone at war with her or his innate qualities, but rather work for a just (not the same as symmetrical) culture in which asymmetries are the spice of life, not windows to exploitation.


As alluded to above, there is currently a strong debate in our society as to how much gender-identified behavior is taught, and how much is biologically driven. A full discussion of this topic is outside the scope of this web site. However, it has been asserted that masculinity is in itself oppressive and therefore intrinsically productive of abuse.

One position is that gender-behavior is an attempt to live up to gender-roles put forth by a culture. A different. less adversarial position, is gender-behavior is largely innate, and that gender-roles are an attempt, albeit sometimes misguided, to make that behavior safe and predictable for the other gender.

It can be wondered whether pressure or permission to enact a 'macho' role leads some men not otherwise inclined to abuse their partner. This may describe some aspects of male privilege. It may also lead to some cruelty against women. However, the very tenacity and relentlessness of control in primary aggression cannot be attributed to conscious and premeditated efforts.

Clearly, no particular behavior should be required of anyone. Likewise, no non-violent behavior someone finds natural should be forbidden. The questionable premise that masculine traits are intrinsically oppressive to women clouds the study of primary aggression.

Does the Construct of Genderedness Lead to a Bias in Screening for DV?

There is no question that where there is domestic violence, the public safety system, the public mental health system, and the courts all initially treat males differently from females. This has been protested as unfair, unjust, and biased.

Fairness is the idea that it is correct for a society to see to it that people are treated identically. Fairness contains the idea of symmetry. Children quickly understand the idea of fairness, and use it as a foundation for a sense of right and wrong.

Justice is the idea that people should get what they need in order to develop and thrive. Because people and situations are different, justice does not imply identical treatment for everyone. At times, fairness is too simplistic a concept to ensure justice. Domestic abuse is a phenomenon that is by definition asymmetrical. Experience has proven that the effective solution is asymmetrical temporary disempowerment for primary aggressors and empowerment for survivors. That is why distinguishing primary aggressors from   survivors is so important. That is also why justice in this area may at first appear unfair.

Bias is an assumption that certain facts usually occur together, and therefore, a surface fact can stand for a deeper fact during routine operations. For instance, there is a bias that an escalated male at a scene of domestic violence has acted as a primary aggressor. All experts and all expert systems function with bias, it saves time and resources, and with police response to domestic violence calls, it saves lives. The domestic violence community is an expert system that has the bias that males almost always function as primary aggressors. However,it is also an expert system that has definitive tools for determining primary aggression that replace initial bias. If the determination stopped at distinguishing gender, it would not be a legitimate process. The assessment of primary aggression done, for instance, at treatment agencies is based not on gender, but on power behavior.

The disproportion of men ultimately identified as primary aggressors is not the result of bias, but rather the cause of the bias. Bias, however, is a temporary phenomenon, and no lasting sanctions are delivered on that basis.