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There is no gender symmetry when it comes to domestic violence

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In Canada, domestic violence accounts for one in four crimes reported to the police. Males are the dominant aggressor in 83 per cent of the cases. Spousal violence is most prevalent amongst 25 to 34 year olds. Fewer than 25 per cent of victims of domestic violence report to police. Every six days a woman is killed by a current or former partner accounting for 16 per cent of all homicides in Canada. 

But, domestic violence is not as straightforward as these statistics lead you to believe, especially when abusive men manipulate a variety of systems put in place to safeguard their victims.

Toronto Police Services define domestic violence as any physical, sexual or psychological harm caused, or attempted, between persons involved in an intimate relationship. Officers responding to a domestic dispute are to determine the dominant aggressor in the situation. Where there are reasonable grounds to believe an offence has occurred a mandatory charge must be laid.

Mandatory charging means the perpetrator can be charged with threatening; assault; attempted assault; assault with a weapon; aggravated assault which results in injuries; or murder. Often officers receive only basic domestic violence training leaving them ill-equipped and unable to discern the history of ongoing domestic abuse that causes women to use violence to escape their entrapment. When misinterpreted, this use of defensive force can result in her wrongful arrest resulting in some very serious, long-term consequences.

Janet Mosher, associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in York University, maintains that "A great deal of complexity is involved when a woman living with domestic violence uses force."

According to Mosher, women charged with assault using a weapon are using empty tape dispensers, empty water bottles, or cell phones as a means of defending themselves against their abusers. However, the fact that a "weapon" was used makes this a more serious charge than simpler charges of assault or attempted assault. 

By comparison to women, men are more likely to be charged with common assault, and this may be due to the fact that men are usually larger and stronger than their female victims. Post-separation crimes including criminal harassment, uttering threats, and murder are almost exclusively perpetrated by men. This is not surprising because abusers need to maintain power and control over their partners especially after separation.

In 2005, the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto conducted the study Women Charged with Domestic Violence in Toronto: The Unintended Consequences of Mandatory Charge Policies. Researchers interviewed 19 women who were charged with abuse of their intimate partners. Seventeen participants stated they had a history of physical, emotional and sexual abuse by the same male partner. Women in this study felt fearful, coerced, controlled, isolated, dominated, as well as being physically, verbally, and sometimes sexually abused. Ten of the male partners had previous domestic violence charges filed against them. Six of the women called police for protection from their male partner, but instead were arrested.

The physical acts used by the women included pushing a partner; throwing a plastic bottle or phone; biting an abuser while being held down; and in one case using a knife. Six of the women were charged with assault using a weapon. In all cases, force was used in self-defense.

The study found abusive male partners manipulate the legal system to make it appear that their female partners were the dominant aggressor. Tactics used ranged from inflicting an injury on themselves to simply blaming their partner. In situations where men had a better grasp of English than their partners, they were able to control and influence police interviews.

Other research reveals that abusive men are also adept at exploiting the family law system to exert more power and control over their intimate partners. Women have reported partners using fraudulent reports of welfare abuse or false allegations that led to investigations by child and family services.

Women often feel pressured to plead guilty to false charges because they don't have the money to hire a criminal lawyer. They may also plead guilty believing it will speed up the legal process and they'll be able to return to their children sooner.

Unfortunately, pleading guilty can lead to a whole host of unexpected consequences. A guilty plea makes it impossible to get a valid criminal records check that's often needed to find or keep employment. In many instances, pleading guilty has serious repercussions in family court not the least of which is the children may continue to reside with the abuser. 

The Canadian Association for Equality (CAFÉ) created quite a stir when it claimed that half of all victims of domestic violence are men. During 2015, the group used a billboard at the corner of Davenport and Avenue roads to disseminate, in a misleading manner, data taken from Statistics Canada's General Social Survey: An overview, 2009 (GSS) published in 2011. 

The survey, conducted by phone, included men and women identifying as 15 years of age and older. A total of 1900 respondents from 10 provinces were asked to complete the 45 minute survey. Approximately 62 per cent complied. The survey is conducted every five years to collect information about spousal violence in Canada. 

The GSS includes questions that ask respondents whether, for example, they have been hit or pushed, by a current or former intimate partner. Roughly the same number of men and women responding to the survey reported that they had. This is the basis on which it is sometimes claimed that there is gender symmetry.

But as Mosher explains, "This ignores several critical additional findings from the GSS: females are more likely to experience violence on multiple occasions, to report having been sexually assaulted, beaten, choked, or threatened with a knife or gun, and to report injury, fear and disruption of daily activities."

Moreover, there is much that the GSS does not capture. For example, it doesn't capture whether the violence was aggressive or defensive. The intentions of the male aggressor are not considered or used to frame the use of force or violence by abused women. Admitting to using force, even in self-defense, does not take into account the fact that her aggressor may have been trying to kill her or convinced her that he intended to kill her.

And of course, there is a tremendous amount of invaluable information that is not likely to be disclosed during a phone conversation with a stranger. Let's start with the simple oversight that women in abusive relationships must have access to a phone to be part of the survey. Women working and volunteering in the gendered violence sector will tell you that some men are so controlling their partners may not have access to a phone. 

In other situations, women may not agree to participate in the survey because they may have to account for the unknown number that shows up when their partner checks the call history. It's much easier to end the call quickly and say that it was a wrong number than to have to explain an extended call from an unfamiliar number. Women in abusive relationships often can't speak on the phone without consequence.

Women living with domestic violence may be, for good reason, very suspicious. How can she verify that she is in fact speaking with someone from Statistics Canada and not a friend or acquaintance of her controlling partner? These women would also need to know, and trust, how the government plans to use the information provided. Moreover, it takes the average abused woman a minimum of ten counselling sessions to build trust with a trained counsellor. Only when trust is established will she begin disclosing details of her abuse.

Women involved with the police, criminal court or family court system know that disclosing abuse means child and youth services will be contacted. Again, disclosure is probably not going to happen during this phone conversation in order to protect their children's safety.

Abusive men have tremendous emotional and financial power and control over their victims especially when children and animals are involved. A woman who is financially or emotionally dependent may well not divulge the details of domestic violence to a stranger on the telephone. 

Men on the other hand may be more than happy to answer questions about so called 'abuse' because they are not faced with the same limitations. Generally, the violence they may have experienced is not in the context of coercive control, does not result in lowered self-esteem, does not leave them fearing for their lives, and usually doesn't result in serious injury. 

The GSS, as a telephone survey, cannot address the barriers and risks women face when disclosing abuse. It isn't able to tell us who the dominant aggressor is in domestic violence situations, as it ignores the motivation and intentions that drive the abuser. Historical damage and ongoing violence are never addressed. At its most basic level, the GSS gives equal weight to a woman pushing a man in self-defense and a man punching a woman in the face to exert dominance and control. 

Making the claim that half of all victims of domestic violence are men is not simply a misleading statement, but an outright falsehood. The damage caused by circulating this highly inaccurate claim is vastly compounded when police, lawyers, and judges accept it as fact to build cases and substantiate judgments simply because Statistics Canada is considered a highly credible source.

This statistic should never have seen the light of day and needs to be remedied before it causes any further collateral damage.


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