By Kristin Anderson
Domestic violence happens to all social groups, but it is more likely to occur among those who have to worry about paying the rent or keeping kids safe from neighborhood violence. Data from the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), the most recent large national survey of domestic violence victimization among U.S. adults, show that women who live in households with incomes under $25,000 experience annual victimization at over three times the rate of women in households with incomes of $75,000 or more (here). Study after study finds that heterosexual women with less access to education and income suffer the highest rates of abuse.
Does this pattern also occur among men? Are the least educated and poorest men at greatest risk for victimization? My research with Mick Cunningham shows that the story is more complicated among straight men. Our analysis of NISVS data finds that both women and men report the highest rate of physical abuse by a partner when they have less than a high school education (11 years, see Figure 1 below). For women, the risk of abuse falls as their level of education increases. Among men, the decline is much less steep. Additionally, the gender gap widens as educational attainment increases: men with college degrees report almost twice the rate of victimization as women with college degrees. We find the same pattern when we look at earnings: women are less likely to be victims as they earn more income, but men with higher incomes report being abused at similar or even higher levels than men who earn less.
Figure 1. Predicted Probabilities of Annual Physical Intimate Partner Violence Victimization among Heterosexuals, by Gender Identity and Years of Education, NISVS (2010, N = 16,372).
Why Does the Pattern Vary by Gender?
What explains this difference? Why don’t education and income resources protect men from abuse as much as they protect women? One answer – but we think it’s probably not the right one– is that women with higher education and income feel more empowered to use physical violence against men than women with less economic power. Because people usually choose partners who share their same levels of educational attainment, these findings suggest that women with some college or higher education are hitting the men they date, live with, and marry much more often than they are getting hit. This answer seems unlikely and it doesn’t fit with what we know from the limited data on women’s self-reported domestic and dating violence perpetration, which shows higher rates of perpetration among women with lower education.
Another answer is that men with more education report being victims of their women partners because they feel like victims of the social changes of the last half-century. In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel writes that some privileged (white, middle-class) men have “aggrieved entitlement”—the belief that women, immigrants, and people of color have stolen the jobs, the deference, and the power that “should” have been rightfully theirs as members of the privileged gender and racial categories. Kimmel writes that although angry white men “still have most of the power and control in the world, they feel like victims.” It is men who have some economic and educational resources—not the poorest of the poor—who feel entitled to the power and privilege that white men have been historically granted. Although the growing divide between the rich and the poor and the shrinking middle class are the main source of men’s declining fortunes, angry white men are encouraged by conservative talk-radio pundits and the internet “manosphere” to blame immigrants, racial minorities, feminists, and/or their wives for what they see as their loss of power and status. They feel beaten up by the social changes around them and they are sharing their pain.
Kristin L. Anderson is professor of sociology at Western Washington University. Her current research examines the implementation of lethality risk assessment in domestic violence cases. She is currently an editorial board member for Gender & Society.