News that the numbers of women convicted of domestic violence is on the rise was greeted with predictable shock and outrage. The question on a surprising number of lips seems to be: you mean women can be violent too?
Well yes, of course we can. Contrary to what we are taught from the cradle ("sugar and spice and all things nice"), women are as human as men and just as prone to appalling, destructive and downright nasty behaviour.
Apparently, the number of women convicted of domestic violence in England and Wales has more than doubled in the past five years. According to new figures released by the Crown Prosecution Service, 4,000 women were successfully prosecuted in the past year, compared with fewer than 1,500 in 2005.
So why are we so surprised that a woman might raise a hand – or another weapon – to a man? We have all read the stories about violent behaviour amongst young women and probably seen trash TV footage of cat-fighting on drunken Saturday nights up and down the land. But somehow when a woman is found to have attacked a man, we find it far more shocking.
This is absurd. As we know, domestic violence is all about power and very little about physical strength. It also doesn't tend to occur on its own: verbal and emotional abuse, bullying and controlling behaviour tend to be part of the package, often long before any actual violence begins. And again, contrary to what we are taught ("frogs and snails and puppy dogs' tails"), men are just as human as women and just as vulnerable to emotional and physical hurt.
So there's no reason why the dynamics of a relationship cannot be so skewed that even a seemingly physically stronger man cannot be seriously injured by his physically weaker wife or girlfriend. By then he may have been so emotionally beaten down that taking an actual beating doesn't seem so extraordinary.
Added to that is the reality that most people, male or female, want to believe their violent partner when they cry and apologise after an attack and promise never to do it again: police research has found that those who suffer at the hands of an abusive partner will endure 35 incidences before they report the problem – if they report it at all.
What this story shouldn't do, though, is distract us from the reality which is that the vast, vast majority of those whose lives are at risk from domestic violence are women. It's the nature of media priorities that, like "man bites dog", "woman beats man" is more newsworthy than "man beats woman". But in the same way that all those newspaper stories about women falsely crying rape don't alter the fact that women are far more likely to not even report rape than to falsely accuse anyone, these figures shouldn't divert us from the reality that it is women who are being killed on a disturbingly regular basis by men they are close to.
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