Cover photo of Social Policy Journal

Hitting Home: Men Speak about Abuse of Women

By Julie Liebrich, Judy Paulin and Robin Ransom, Department of
Justice, in association with AGB McNair

Ken McMaster
National Convenor
Men for Non-Violence


Within the past five years barely a score of research articles in the field of family violence have been published in New Zealand. This is what makes this 243-page report so important in terms of the growing field of family violence research. Little information has been available within the New Zealand context about the extent of violence by men to women or about the attitudes that underpin such behaviour. The Hitting Home report attempts to answer both of these questions and describes two studies undertaken in 1994; one a nationally representative sample of 2,000 men and the other, a sub-sample of 200 of the 2,000 men.

The report establishes a platform across the wider community for understanding men's attitudes to violence against women. It accesses data that is not restricted to the public record (as with government statistics which tend to reflect only reported violence) or based on prison populations, both of which are skewed in terms of ethnicity and class. Men who are abusive and access the criminal justice system are estimated to comprise only 15-29% of the population of men who are violent (Carbonatto 1994).

The researchers would agree that this area of research is one of the most perplexing and difficult to study. It is fraught with ethical as well as practical dilemmas. Informed consent, the right to privacy, the reduction of harm and the use of the data were issues that all needed to be addressed. The fact that the researchers elicited the information they did is in itself a milestone for New Zealand research.


The design of the research was a stand-alone survey, using structured questionnaires in face-to-face interviews. The authors' rationale for this is that it increased the credibility of the survey, allowed the interviewer to deal directly with questions of confidentiality and assisted the delivery of the questionnaire. Experienced researchers from AGB McNair carried out the face-to-face interviews.

This research clearly defines family violence, including psychological as well as physical components. This is in line with the current thinking behind the Domestic Violence Bill currently before Parliament which includes intimidation, harassment, damage to property and threats to harm. The researchers have utilised a combination of adapted questionnaires including Spence-Helmreich's "Attitudes towards Women Scale", the Maurio et al. "Brief Anger Aggression Questionnaire", Greenblat's "Acceptance of Physical Force in Families Questionnaire" and Straus and Gelles' "Conflicts Tactics Scale". This gives the research an international standing in that it can be used for comparative analysis with other large population studies.

The researchers utilised a quantitative methodology which is currently the best tool available within the social sciences which can provide large-scale national statistics. This methodology however does not deal well with the contextual questions that arise and give us the in-depth information necessary. They acknowledge that this does not deal well with cross-cultural comparison, particularly different cultural understandings and definitions of violence. Ethnicity was therefore not included because of methodological problems and concerns about how this information could be used in an unhelpful, inappropriate and insensitive way.


Practitioners will welcome the findings of this report in that it confirms what clinicians have known for a long time. It supports the notion of masculinity being culturally determined and at the root of physical and psychological abuse.

When men are thwarted in their search for a traditional masculine identity, when they find, for example, that they are unable to measure up to the image they may hold of the strong, silent, successful breadwinner, it is then that they are more likely to be abusive towards their female partners. There is some support for this notion in the literature which says that men who are abusive feel pressure to be dominant and in control, yet feel personally inadequate to fulfil these self-imposed, yet socially supported, expectations (Prince and Aria 1994).

The 2,000 men surveyed were, on average, liberal in their attitudes towards women's role in society and tended to reject the notion of using physical force in families. However, 25% stated that physical abuse of women partners was acceptable in some circumstances, while 58% stated that psychological abuse was acceptable. Men who tended to condone abuse tended to be older, have less egalitarian views of women, have higher anger levels, predict themselves as being violent, not know hitting a woman is a crime and have witnessed a man hitting a woman.

What is most interesting is that while a man may not condone abusive behaviour, he may still use physical or psychological violence if he deems it justifiable. This demonstrates that attitude may not be a good indicator of future abusive behaviour.

Of significance are the prevalence rates of reported physical abuse during the past year (see table). The questionnaire found that 21% of men used some form of physical abuse during the past year. The behaviours surveyed ranged from threatening with a knife or gun to pushing, grabbing or shoving. Some critics have stated that to group the "less serious" behaviours with those more serious undermines the findings. I would argue the opposite based upon clinical experience, with both men who are violent and those they victimise. If we explore the patterns of abusive behaviour within relationships, for the majority of situations the abuse is incremental in that it becomes more serious, frequent and intrusive over time. A one-in-five ratio should have us all very concerned, especially when compared to the much lower rates for other acknowledged problems of our society, such as psychiatric illness (4-5%) and alcoholism (7%).

Types of Physical Abuse Used During Past Year (Hitting Home, p.79)

Types of physical abuse Number N=2,021% Average number of times
Threatened her with a knife or gun 6 0 1.8
Used a knife or gun on her 6 0 2.7
Physically forced her to have sex 15 1 1.5
Choked or strangled her 21 1 2.3
Beat her up 22 1 3.0
Kicked, bit or hit her with a fist 32 2 2.1
Pressured her to have sex in a way that she didn't like or want 41 2 2.3
Hit or tried to hit her with something 62 3 1.7
Threw something at her 122 6 2.6
Slapped her 143 7 1.7
Pushed, grabbed or shoved her 307 15 2.4
At least one of the above 427 21

Concluding Remarks

Everyone has an opinion on family violence because it is an issue that touches the very fundamentals of our existence; it looks behind closed doors at behaviours that over the centuries we have accepted as part of male entitlement. It is an area where blame of victims has been commonplace within research and clinical practice.

This research will be of immense interest to those who are interested in family life, and from a policy perspective it is a comment upon the nature of men's relationships with women. Clearly physical and psychological abuse by men of women is a fundamental human rights issue in that it impinges upon women's ability to participate in the world. The beginning place in addressing this issue appears to be to alter the social expectations of what it is to be a man and re-educate men about the acceptability of violence as a means of resolving conflict.


Carbonatto, H. (1994) "Dilemmas in the Criminalisation of Spouse Abuse", Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, (2), pp.21-31.

Prince, J.E. and Aria, I. (1994) "The Role of Perceived Control and the Desirability of Control among Abusive and Non-abuse Husbands", American Journal of Family Therapy, Vol.22, No.2.

Cover photo of Social Policy Journal


Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 05

Hitting Home: Men Speak about Abuse of Women

Dec 1995

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