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Fact & Fantasy: Violent Women

Social Service Agencies Have a Responsibility to Know the Difference

Jeffrey L. Edleson, Ph.D

Published: 1998

Author's Note

This article is taken from the Domestic Abuse Project's June 1998 newsletter. MINCAVA gratefully acknowledges their permission for the use of this article on our website. For additional articles offered by the Domestic Abuse Project, please see their Publications page.

Fact and Fantasy

There is a growing trend toward mandating women into batterer intervention programs. This trend occurs for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, there appears to be a backlash against women that is fed by the myth that "women are as violent as men." This myth is based on simplistic interpretations of data gathered in the National Family Violence Surveys of 1975 and 1985.

These surveys did indeed show that women were reported to use conflict tactics as often as men. However, in looking at the results of these violent interactions, based on data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports and the revised National Crime Victimization survey, it is clear that women are the recipients of far more injurious and more frequently life threatening violence committed by intimate partners than are men.

Women have been found to be the victim of a intimate's violence at a rate six times greater than men. Fifty percent of these women sustained an injury compared to only 3 percent of men, and 28 percent of female homicides were committed by an intimate compared to only 3 percent of male homicides (Bachman and Saltzman, 1995; FBI Uniform Crime Reports, 1992).

The context of t his politically motivated backlash should always be kept in mind when a woman appears at a social service agency having been mandated to appear there for her abusive behavior. This context having been acknowledged, there is a growing recognition and acceptance within domestic violence agencies that some women are indeed violent toward their partners and would benefit from the services of batterer intervention programs that are tailored to their needs. These women include some heterosexual women who are violent toward their male partners (Saunders, 1986) as well as some lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women in same-sex relationships (Kanuha, 1990; Lie, 1991; Renzetti, 1988). While this article focuses on violent women, we should not ignore the fact that bisexual, gay and transgender men may also be victims of an abusive partner (Island & Letellier, 1991).

The key to evaluating these situations is a careful assessment of the woman and her story of abuse. The newly released DAP treatment manual, Women Who Abuse in Intimate Relationships (Hamlett, 1998), offers a categorization of violent women into three groups:

One group includes women who use violence in self-dense to escape or protect themselves from their partner's violence. Saunders (1986) found that this was the most frequently reported motivation for women's use of violence.

In a second group are women who have a long history of victimization at the hands of previous partners as well as during childhood. These women are described as taking a stance in life that "no one is ever going to hurt me that way again" and their violence is interpreted as an effort to decrease their own chances of victimization.

Violent women in a third group are identified as primary physical aggressors who use their greater physical power to control their partners.

The manual stresses that accurate assessment is essential to providing effective intervention in cases of female violence.

Staff of domestic violence programs need to be careful not to fall prey to manipulation by those who seek to "prove" that women are as violent as men by channeling increasing numbers of women into batterer intervention programs. Programs need to be able to correctly assess the women coming to them, to acknowledge the violence they find among some of these women, and to offer services that will help them stop their violent and sometimes controlling behavior.


Bachman, R., and Saltzman, L. (1995). Violence Against Women: Estimates from the Redesigned Survey. Washington DC: Office of Justice Programs, US Dept. of Justice.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (1992). Uniform Crime Reports. Washington DC: US Dept. of Justice.

Hamlett, N. (1998). Women Who Abuse in Intimate Relationships. Minneapolis, MN: Domestic Abuse Project (1998).

Island, D., and Letellier, P. Men who beat the men who love them: Battered gay men and domestic violence. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press.

Kanuha, V. (1990). Compounding the triple jeopardy: Battering in lesbian of color relationships. Women and Therapy 9, 169-184.

Lie, G.Y., Schilit, R., Bush, J., Montagne, M., and Reynes, L. (1991). Lesbians in currently aggressive relationships: How frequently do they report aggressive past relationships? Violence & Victims, 6, 121-135.

Renzetti, C.M. (1988). Violence in lesbian relationships: A preliminary analysis of causal factors. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 3, 381-399.

Saunders, D.G. (1986). When battered women use violence: Husband-abuse or self-defense? Violence & Victims, 1, 147-60.