Abusive Men Overestimate the Rate at Which Other Men Abuse

A new study has been released on the views held by men who have been known to commit intimate partner violence (IPV). While the full study is behind a pay wall, what the abstract and this report on the study (note: the accompanying image at the article may be triggering) tell us is incredibly interesting:

The research looked at 124 men who were enrolled in a larger treatment intervention study for domestic violence. The men, all of whom had participated in violence against a partner in the previous 90 days, were asked to estimate the percentage of men who had ever engaged in seven forms of abuse.

These included throwing something at a partner that could hurt; pushing, grabbing, or shoving a partner; slapping or hitting; choking; beating up a partner; threatening a partner with a gun; and forcing a partner have sex when they did not want to.

In every case the men vastly overestimated the actual instances of abuse. For example, the participants on average thought 27.6 percent of men had thrown something with the intent of hurting a partner while the actual number is 11.9 percent. Similarly, they believed 23.6 percent of men had forced their partner to have sex involuntary compared to 7.9 percent in reality.

A couple of the authors of the study comment further on their findings:

“We don’t know why men make these overestimations, but there are a couple of likely reasons,” says Clayton Neighbors, an affiliate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington and a professor of psychology at the University of Houston.

“Men who engage in violent behavior justify it in their mind by thinking it is more common and saying, ‘Most guys slap their women around so it is okay to engage in it.’ Or it could be that misperceptions about violence cause the behavior.”

“Social norms theory suggests that people act in a way that they believe is consistent with what the average person does,” adds Denise Walker, research professor of social work and co-director of the Innovative Programs Research Group.

“With sexual assault the more a man thought it was prevalent the more likely he was to engage in such behavior. If we can correct misperceptions about the prevalence of intimate partner violence, we have a chance to change men’s behavior. If you give them factual information it is harder for them to justify their behavior,” Neighbors says

The study is only preliminary, and more research is needed. The sample size was small, and there was no control group to test non-abusive men’s perceptions on rates of abuse. But this study is the first of its kind, and is thus rather groundbreaking. And what information it does give us is vital.

First of all, while currently unknown, it’s entirely possible that abusive men’s disproportionate likelihood of having grown up abused and/or living in an abusive home is related to their likelihood to overestimate the general rate of IPV. For this reason, it’s incredibly important to improve our ability to identify children who are being abused and/or exposed to abuse, and to provide them with support, resources, education, and counseling. We need not first know conclusively whether or not exposure to abuse is connected to one’s views on the normalcy of abuse in order to do this work; regardless of its effect on one’s propensity to go onto commit abuse oneself, these services are simply the only right way to treat any human being, potential abuser or not.

Secondly, while the study’s authors note that it’s currently unknown whether correcting abusers’ perceptions on the rate at which other men abuse will alter their own behavior, it is known that this misperception allows abusers to help justify their own actions. While entirely possible that abusers would then find another method of justification, the fact is simple: there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to allow this particular justification to go unchallenged.

Challenging the false justification doesn’t involve downplaying the rates of intimate partner violence and sexual assault, which are very distressingly high. It involves telling the truth about the rates of men who commit intimate partner violence and sexual assault, which are relatively really quite low. Both the numbers used above and other studies show that only small minorities of men are abusive towards women. Even if the rates are actually higher than most statistics show, as many activists believe, the fact remains still that a large majority of men are not committing intimate partner violence and are not committing rape. Prevention education aimed at preventing more people from becoming abusive must include this information, not as a means of excusing abusers or soothing some men’s belief that anti-violence activists portray all men as violent, but as a means to break apart misconceptions about just how “normal” abusive behavior is and take down the “everybody’s doing it” justification.

Probably even more vitally, it requires a more intense focus on bystander behavior. Bystander training is a great means of preventing individual assaults. When bystanders know how to respond to a situation that has turned or could turn violent instead of standing by as though it’s not their business, abusers lose their support systems — and the complicity of others is a major tool used by abusers.

But ideal bystander behavior involves not just intervening to stop an assault at the last moment, it also involves saying something when another person makes a remark that supports violence. It involves pushing back when one makes a statement indicating their willingness to take advantage of another person’s vulnerability or indicating that they don’t see their partner as an equal worthy of respect. And as Kate Harding so aptly put it years ago, it involves speaking up against “jokes” that promote IPV and sexual violence and not making them oneself, not only because these same “jokes” may traumatize victims, but also because abusers are everywhere. And when you make one of those jokes or laugh at them, the abuser thinks you’re on their side.

While essential for everyone to do whenever they feel they safely can, this is especially important for the large majority of men who are not abusive. Because while education is necessary, the fact is that to a lot of abusers, we can spout statistics until we’re blue in the face. The inclination to justify one’s own bad behavior is a strong one. And the fact is, statistics are routinely incredibly unpersuasive to a person whose life experience tells them something dramatically different. Statistics won’t do much at all unless the same men who abusers are out there seeking support from back those statistics up with their own actions and responses. They won’t do much until non-abusive men ally themselves with women and social justice instead of with abusive men and the “all in good fun” excuse. They won’t do much until non-abusive men stop using misogyny as a marker of manhood and masculinity, and until they stop viewing it as a means to bond with other men rather than as a way to actively hurt women.

I would hope that the vast majority of male readers here are here because they know this already, and are already behaving accordingly whenever they safely can. We need to make sure that other men start, and include in preventive education not only statistics about how relatively few men abuse, but also information about how important it is to denounce all tolerance for abuse whenever and wherever it is found.

The beauty is that even if further research showed this tactic had no effect whatsoever on abusers’ behavior, successful implementation would undoubtedly improve women’s lives all the same — even if it meant nothing more than an increased ability to be around friends with lesser fear of hearing words that will hurt and reduce one’s humanity, nothing more than making the terrible bargain just a little bit smaller part of our lives.


0 thoughts on “Abusive Men Overestimate the Rate at Which Other Men Abuse

  1. Schala

    Conversely to this study, I wonder how everyone’s idea that women are never perpetrating violence, sexual or otherwise influences behavior of female abusers.

    I think this would be interesting because if men can justify themselves with “all men do it” or “many men do it”, then how do women who abuse (who may very well be in much fewer numbers, but data is scarce to have a real idea) justify their abuse when all they hear is “women never do it” or “only crazy women do it”.

    Male and female victims of female abusers are the forgotten ones in all DV and rape prevention advocacy. Their being victims, or as you say, bystanders, of that abuse, may contribute to some becoming abusers in the future, and until we take care of those victims, the problem will not be eradicated completely.

    Also, programs to reform abusers might need to be reformed themselves to be more efficient. Rely more on objective data than ideology (the Duluth model fails to take into account any other reason than power and control for abuse). They should be tailored to the future-reformed abuser in order to have a smaller or inexistent recidivist rate.

    I’ll give an example to make this more concrete. Say I’m an abuser. Telling me about general theories of why “people like me” abuse probably won’t talk to me, and I’d just ignore it. But if someone takes time to understand the individual psychology under it, then we might get further and I might follow the therapy to genuinely reform myself instead of just following the court order to avoid prison.

    Also prison sucks for reform purposes. But that’s another topic.

    My comment might seem as a sort of derail, and you might say I don’t speak of all angles. I see it as complementary – not replacing – the actual system in place that goes to prevent violence (sexual or otherwise) against women. Because all angles need to be considered to eradicate the problem.

    So I’m not a troll, a MRA or an abuser. Just someone who wants all DV and sexual assault to end, all of it. And for victims to be treated by good services, but all victims.

  2. makomk

    Schala: at a guess, by ideas like “it’s not real violence because I’m female” or (in the case of male victims) “it doesn’t hurt him because he’s a man and therefore strong”, together with all the usual justifications. I think there may even have been a study or two actually showing this, if I can manage to dig them up.

  3. preying mantis

    “then how do women who abuse […] justify their abuse when all they hear is “women never do it” or “only crazy women do it”.”

    Given how difficult it is to get people to publicly acknowledge the female-perpetrated sex offenses against male victims aren’t somehow a positive thing, even with ridiculously young victims, it’s hardly a mystery. When women do it, the cultural narrative leans strongly against recognizing it as a real harm. Erasing the sexist ideas that women are oh-so-weak/harmless and that all men want sex with anyone all the time will go a long way towards acknowledging the problem.

  4. Schala

    The “men want sex all the time” narratives also robs them of consent, since men who are assumed to always want it can’t really say no.

    I read an article or study recently on some other blog about how there were many women who reacted with taking it personally or blaming the guy, when he didn’t want to have sex when they wanted it. But that was mostly anecdotal stuff.

    If it’s true on a large enough scale (which I can’t know), then fixing that problem would require a change of attitude in both men and women.

    Same for the weak part about women. This idea seems to be common in both men and women. Men who will ‘do it for them’ and women who will ‘ask men to do it for them’ when it comes to anything requiring some moderate physical effort.

    My mother as anecdotal evidence of this: She thinks working in warehouses is “men’s work”, not because of the male/female ratio of workers, but because its physical work primarily. And yet she’s far from conservative.

    I’m not sure how to fix the harmless perspective except by making it known that women can be violent, or criminal, are not angels that are morally superior to women. In other words, it involves killing the Victorian era narrative about women.

    Although this might appear negative for women, giving them a share of responsability in criminality instead of excusing it is recognizing women as full citizens, capable of both good and evil, and thus capable of leading, voting and making decisions – because they know how to be responsible. In other words: This can only improve their professional reputation. Open up more opportunities to high executive positions.

  5. Taylor

    Thank you for posting this report…Just found this treasure trove of a website! So many interesting (but very sad) articles here…

    We were just discussing this topic of DV and Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) in class the other day and debating whether such a strong, pro-longed psychological effect on the victim could be raised as a defence for murder.

    I say a resounding yes! These women have suffered so much at the hands of their boyfriends/husbands/partners that they descend into a state of learned helplessness which leaves them virtually no alternative to escape. Sure, antagonists argue that they could just leave, but they are oversimplifying things by a long stretch.

    It is not that easy to just pack up and leave particularly because women are usually more ‘tied down’ by the house, the children, etc. Even though society has progressed, there are still a lot divisions along gender lines. Let’s not kid ourselves, the woman is always expected – and most of the time ends up – taking care of the household. She will invariably have a harder time than the man to just up and leave.

    This is exacerbated by the fact (especially here in Asia) that leaving your husband is a very shameful thing to do. The contrast is quite stark. It is not uncommon for men to leave the family; sometimes it is even encouraged and accepted by society. However, when the woman does it, it is like raising a red flag for the entire community to criticise her for her actions. The modern world has a long way to go if it cannot erase the shame from women-related status and concepts (e.g. loss of virginity)

    Furthermore, the slightly sexist but undeniable fact that most men are physically bigger and stronger than most women contributes to this god-awful cycle of domestic violence and abuse. It is unrealistic to think women can retaliate (and win) in a fist-fight against their attacker. Thus, they are driven to the point where they have to use a weapon to get an advantage of their opponent. And to improve their chances, they usually do it when the man is asleep.

    Unfortunately, this means they can rarely raise the defence of duress and/or provocation because firstly, they were not under the threat or fear of imminent death or serious bodily injury (the attacker was asleep), secondly, they had an undue advantage (knife or weapon vs unarmed man in PJs), and thirdly, they were not provoked at that instance by the words or conduct of the man. And the last driving nail into the coffin is that the murder was clearly intentional and premeditated.

    However, that being said, I don’t think that we should put these poor women up on trial for something that should have never happened to them in the first place. As the famous song from the musical Chicago went “He had it coming, he had it coming/He only had himself to blame/If you had been there, if you had seen it/I betcha you would have done the same”

    As a guy, I am sickened by the way some of my kind behaves towards women in general – treating them like dirt and doormats to be trampled on. In a perfect world, men should treat women with all due respect, love and honour. Hopefully, with greater awareness being raised about such pertinent (but sadly hidden) issues, we will one day become a society that truly has equality and justice for all.

  6. Schala


    I know nothing personally about the situation of Asia, except that it’s usually much less egalitarian than here, at least from what I read or hear of it.

    That being said, I’m not sure that men can just up and leave, at least here (Canada/US). Having children complicates the issue as well. If the woman is the abuser, and there are children, if he leaves, he leaves their children with the abuser. If he leaves with them, he’s a kidnapper. And well, where would he go? No shelter, very little help if any and the law has trouble believing it could even have happened to him.

    So I’m not sure its all one-sided, or that women only respond with murder when its all been bottled up for years. I think many would respond with moderate non-lethal violence, with or without a weapon. If anything, DV murder have women as responsible of only 1/4 of it.

  7. Pingback: Just the links: more stuff I’ve been reading 4 « Urocyon's Meanderings

  8. Pingback: Just the links: more stuff I’ve been reading 4 « Urocyon's Meanderings

  9. anne

    i am very glad to read such a study is being made. i have a personnal opinion that this question has been addressed in a wrong way, or else on a non effective way. to focus on the victims (the most common approach) drives to the results found out here. men overestimate the rate. if the focus was changed towards the perpetrators of the violence, that would create a different image, and different reactions. i am very much against campaigns that focus on pictures of beaten women, for example. what not replacing those by pictures of the men? let’s stop humiliating women who are already humiliated. i know almost no one shares my point of view, but i do believe that this study backs up my feelings and impressions.


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