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Reid: “Women Aren’t Abusive, Most of the Time”

24 February 2010

Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader, brought up yet one more reason to end the recession: escalating domestic violence rates.  That in itself is nothing surprising, as sociologists have consistently found correlation between unemployment and physical abuse.  What is more unsettling is how Reid chose to lay the problem entirely at the feet of men: “Why [are these rates of violence going up]?  Men don’t have jobs.”

Even though women face higher than normal unemployment rates, Reid explained, “women aren’t abusive, most of the time.  Men, when they’re out of work, tend to become abusive.”  To be clear, Reid’s generalization involves three claims, two explicit and one implicit: 1) unemployed women do not tend to abuse their men, 2) unemployed men do tend to abuse their women, and 3) employed women do not tend to abuse their unemployed men.

The first claim is on shaky ground.  While I am unaware of any major studies that have dealt directly with increased levels of violence in unemployed women, this claim has been made (e.g. Ness, 2004).  However, another study suggests that age is only variable for change in women’s violence patterns (Anderson, 2002).

The second claim should be granted, since it has been established in various studies over the years (e.g. Straus and Gelles, 1990).  Unemployed men, especially in highly patriarchal relationships, are more prone to turn to alcohol and violence to compensate for their economic shortcomings (Melzer, 2002; Macmillan and Gartner, 1999).   

The third claim is unsubstantiated.  Studies have consistently found that women abuse men physically with equal if not greater frequency (e.g. Straus and Kantor, 1994; Cook, 1997; Anderson, 2002).  While men generally have greater physical strength and are therefore more imposing, women are increasingly more likely to use “severe force” through weapons (Kelly, 2003).   On a commonsense level, women hit if they feel justified in hitting, a feeling they are more likely to have if they conclude that a man is not “living up to his side of the bargain” financially.  Moreover, since most domestic violence is mutual (Anderson, 2002), physical violence perpetrated by unemployed men will usually be reciprocated by the wife or girlfriend, regardless of her employment situation.   But I’m curious – does anyone out there know of a study that has been done on this matter?

In any case, Reid’s comments are an unfortunately propagation of stereotypes about intimate violence.  Such assertions are better left to daytime talk shows.

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