The other side of the story on domestic abuse

Barbara Kay, National Post · Jun. 1, 2011 | Last Updated: Jun. 1, 2011 2:03 AM ET

Remarkably, a PhD student in Criminology at the University of Toronto, Alexandra Lysova, has been awarded one of 14 2011 scholarships from the prestigious Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

I say "remarkably" not because Ms. Lysova herself is unworthy -on the contrary -but because of the nature of her research project. Of which more anon.

According to the Foundation's spokesperson, "The Trudeau Foundation rewards excellence [in the humanities and social sciences] and provides young researchers with the best conditions to ground their work in the real world."

In academia, for ideological reasons, there have always been, and continue to be, areas where "the real world" makes an uncomfortable fit with sacred myths based in theory, not evidence. One such theory is that in domestic violence -or "intimate partner violence (IPV)," as it is now called -women always are either passive victims of male aggression or violent only in self-defence. This myth has so permeated the academy, social service agencies, charities, schools, the police and the legal system, that the truth about the "real life" of intimate partners caught up in dysfunctional scenarios has been ignored, suppressed or attacked to the point that most researchers stay far away from it.

Which makes the Trudeau Foundation's encouragement for Ms. Lysova's project, Women's involvement in Intimate Partner Violence: Dynamics of escalation and desistance, a watershed moment.

As a psychology student during the 1990s in her native Russia, Lysova discovered that the roots of family dysfunction, her special interest, were not well understood at all. As most of the research was being done in the West, she set her sights on postgraduate education here. Previous to the University of Toronto, she studied at New York University on a Fullbright Scholarship.

"Even 10 to 15 years ago, some of the scholars who showed about equal rates of perpetration of IPV by males and females were harassed, threatened and denied their promotion and tenure [in the academy]," she told me. "There are about 200 studies that document equal rates of IPV perpetration by women and men. These data have been available for more than 25 years, and yet there are still many of those who deny the dynamic nature of IPV and women's role in this violent dynamic."

Lysova is by no means an anti-feminist. She credits feminists with their role in drawing attention to the scourge of domestic violence against women, and in creating a shelter network for battered wives in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, she is critical of radical feminists for the fallout from that movement: For the same women who worked hard to help abused women also consciously worked to narrow public perception of intimatepartner abuse, cementing the myth that women are never violent by inclination or free will.

In fact, according to Lysova, sociological and criminological data suggest that female-initiated violence is an important precipitant of male aggression in many cases. And, Lysova concludes, "I believe that accepting women in IPV as rational human beings who make their own choices in life will give them power to take responsibility for an abusive dynamic in their relationships and help them to change it."

Correcting the record through research is important, but only a first step in redressing the injustices that men have suffered for decades: As a result of this myth, there are virtually no charitably or publicly-funded resources for male victims of female abuse; there are no court-mandated anger management courses for women (to my knowledge); women's false allegations of abuse by men often are believed without evidence; while men's true allegations of abuse by women often are not believed, even with evidence; and clinical intervention in partner abuse is still governed not by therapeutic models, but by the unscientifically conceived "Duluth Model," an ineffective approach to partner abuse that presumes female victimization and patriarchal male privilege of dominance and control.

Alexandra Lysova is researching female involvement in IPV at a fortuitous academic moment. Her work will build on a solid body of research by unsung academic heroes who for decades have beaten against the current and in many cases lost career opportunities because they stubbornly follow the evidence leading to politically incorrect truths.

Kudos to the Trudeau Foundation for helping to break the silence on this cultural taboo in choosing the best researcher for the award without regard to ideological trends.