I have successfully represented and have great sympathy for women who are subject to domestic abuse from their spouses, former spouses, or former lovers. No one should have to live in fear that an ex-lover will stalk, beat, even possibly kill them. Humans cannot function in a state of perpetual anxiety: stress hormones essentially consume the body. The justifiable fear that many women have is ultimately soul-destroying. The law does not do enough to protect such women.
However many of the studies that show women as the gender (much) more likely to be killed or seriously injured by their male lovers, also determine that women are the gender slightly more likely to be the instigators of physical confrontations with their lovers. This seeming disparity is explained both by the greater physical strength the average man possesses and the much stronger social prohibition against men employing physical violence against women. Men are routinely instructed that it is boorish and unmanly to hit women. I don’t see women being similarly taught not to hit men. Thus women are less constrained in instigating physical confrontations even though they are more likely to be injured by them.
Rooted in the legal concept of “self-defense” is the idea that the guilty party is the one who starts the fight, not the one who “wins” it. Thus reasonable physical self-defense–sufficient to stop or disable the attacker–is legally allowable even if this self-defense results in injury or even death to the instigator. This is a concept I routinely import into domestic abuse defense. The argument “it ain’t who won the fight that matters; what matters is who started the fight” often riles feminist attorneys and female litigants but it is legally correct and I have never hesitated to employ it.
Early in my career I encountered a domestic abuse claim in which my client (the husband) alleged his wife had a serious painkiller addiction. During the midst of an argument over her painkiller use, my client reached into her car’s glove compartment to take and dispose of a bottle of pills. She then proceeded to deliberately slam the car door into his hand and he followed up by punching her in the eye. She filed for domestic abuse and they showed up in court–her sporting a shiner and him wearing braces on his three broken fingers. Throughout the litigation wife continuously portrayed herself as a victim of my client’s domestic abuse, though she was mainly a victim of her own painkiller addiction which first cost her custody of her children and eventually her life when she lost control of her car. Since then I have had nothing but contempt for such women who instigate physical confrontations but proudly wear the mantle of domestic abuse victim. Not only do they unfairly charge their lovers with domestic abuse but they make the legal system more suspicions of, and therefore more cautious in handling, legitimate claims of domestic abuse.
Earlier this week I defended a domestic abuse case that had the usual hallmarks of the self-deluded. There are so many groups advocating for female victims of domestic violence that these claimants are able to appear in court with an entourage that would do a hip-hop mogul proud. However no rapper would finance an entourage that looked like these: victims’ advocate entourages are so dominated by unsmiling, frumpily-dressed women that the lone time I encountered a smiling, well-dressed, impeccably-groomed victim’s advocate I experienced significant cognitive dissonance. Further such groups are unable, or unwilling, to differentiate victims of serious domestic abuse from victims of serious mental delusion.
So we proceeded with the domestic abuse hearing: me with my client on one side of the courtroom and his wife, on the other side, with her seven-women entourage providing the same unsmiling and inexplicable support that the mute, black-suited, bow-tied Nation of Islam “bodyguards” provide at a Farrakhan rally. Both spouses agreed on some facts: they were staying with friends for a few days while changing residences. My client had gone out to get a soda without telling his wife. He returned to find she had taken his X-box in retaliation. He proceeded to take her cell phone. He offered the exchange of his X-box for her cell phone. She demanded the unconditional return of her cell phone.
After that, their accounts differed. Wife alleged that my client suddenly and inexplicable attacked her. My client alleged that she came after him and that he merely tried to restrain her. There were numerous reasons to discount wife’s allegations. She didn’t call the police and required no medical treatment. She claimed this situation was an emergency but waited almost a month to bring her claim and spent nights living with my client in the interim. She had made even more horrific allegations against my client in the past but then entered into agreements with my client that would be inexplicable if such allegations were true.
Even beyond these inherent challenges to her credibility, there were three inherently non credible things in wife’s account of these events. First, wife was clearly the person instigating this confrontation by taking away my client’s X-box. Nothing in her mental processing seemed to comprehend that her action demonstrated an apparent belief that she had an inherent right to “punish” my client the way one might punish an errant child. Such a deeply offensive and disrespectful attitude doesn’t excuse domestic violence but if one wishes to avoid getting hit it is best not to treat other adults this way.
Second, in the midst of this argument husband offered a reasonable method of deescalating the dispute: offering to return her cell phone if she would return his X-box. Wife, in contrast, took a toddlerish approach to conflict resolution: gimme-what’s-mine-right-now and I don’t care about what you want. Toddlers, one might note, use hitting as a method of conflict resolution in a manner unseemly for adults. Again such behavior doesn’t excuse domestic violence but it certainly makes it more likely.
Finally, at the point in which the conflict became physical there was zero apparent motivation for husband to instigate but strong motivation for wife to instigate. Husband wasn’t happy with the status quo but he was still negotiating: return my X-box and I return your cell phone. At no point was Husband demanding the unilateral return of his X-box. In contrast, wife was merely demanding: return my cell phone or else. When a confrontation between a negotiator and a demander turns physical, I suspect it’s the demander who started the physical confrontation almost every time.
The family court eventually dismissed wife’s complaint. I am certain that she and her entourage perceived the proceedings as nothing more than the evil patriarchy of male family court attorneys protecting beaters of women (that the presiding judge was female is likely insufficient to disabuse them of this belief). When I was finally contacted by an attorney on wife’s behalf later that week, her attorney continued the shibboleth that her client was a victim of my client’s domestic abuse–a viewpoint that, given the above analysis, I found highly offensive and mildly humorous.
Women would be better protected and the culture would be improved if women believed it was as boorish and unseemly for them to hit men as men are taught regarding the hitting of women. It is equally disrespectful for each gender to employ physical control of the other. Every physical confrontation a woman instigates with her male partner leaves her at greater risk of injury or death. I’ve instructed my daughters not to hit their boyfriends with the same fervor I would have instructed any sons not to hit their girlfriends. Such instruction should be universal.
Yes this woman was a victim: not of domestic abuse but of a belief system that she could act childishly and demeaningly towards my client, instigate a confrontation and refuse to deescalate it, and likely instigate a physical confrontation, but that the law would come to her aid if her husband resisted. Unfortunately there are women like her (though certainly not very many women) bringing spurious domestic abuse claims to the family court. There’s a tremendous satisfaction is seeing these women told “no.” I suspect it’s a word they do not graciously accept from their husbands or lovers.