Erin Pizzey, the founder of the world’s first battered women’s shelter, told a recent Toronto workshop on domestic violence that “men and women (are) equally able to be perpetrators of domestic violence.”

In 1971, Pizzey opened Chiswick Women’s Aid in London, England. “Of the first 100 women coming into the refuge, 62 were as violent or more violent than the partners they had left. Not only did they admit their violence in the mutual abuse that took place in their homes, but the women were abusive to their children,” Pizzey wrote in the London, England Observer, July 5.

Pizzey is the author of Scream Quietly or the Neighbours will Hear and Prone to Violence. The Toronto workshop, which attracted 125 people, was held Sept. 19 in St. Cyril’s Orthodox Church hall.

“Domestic violence is the dark side of family relationships,” said Senator Anne Cools, who sponsored the workshop. “Violence and aggression are human problems, not gender problems. Family violence by both genders, male and female, needs to be explored.”

Murray Strauss, Richard Gelles, and Suzanne Steinmetz authored Behind Closed Doors:Violence in the American Family in 1980. They argued domestic assault rates among men and women were about equal. Men tended to do more harm through simple brute force, but women were more likely to use weapons.

Such weapons, Pizzey said, could be as simple as broken milk bottles, but they can still be deadly.

While feminists argue that any injuries caused by women are inflicted in self-defence, Pizzey believes female violence is under-reported. In a recent British Medical Association report, 571 women and 429 men were asked about domestic violence. One in three women reported domestic violence, and a quarter reported they had been forced to have sex against their will. The men were questioned only about whether they had physically or sexually abused women. The researchers failed to ask if the men considered themselves victims of domestic violence.

Pizzey told the workshop, “Men explode and women implode. Women often are violent by proxy. They hate the men in their lives, but take their frustration and aggression out on their children.” She distinguishes between “a woman who has accidentally become involved with a violent partner and who now wishes to leave and to never return … and a woman who, for deep psychological reasons of her own, seeks out a violent relationship or a series of violent relationships, with no intention of leaving.”

A woman who has accidentally become involved with a violent partner will recover from the trauma of leaving him, Pizzey observed. She will need emergency shelter, legal advice, and re-housing. It may take her six months to gain confidence to cope on her own with her children, but it will happen.

“Genuine victims,” on the other hand, “find it hard to describe the physical, mental, and sexual abuse, and when they do, they cry. They often blame themselves and are deeply ashamed. Violence-prone women have no such feelings of shame, and will recount to anyone willing to listen the story of their lives with no feelings of self-reproach or blame.”

Pizzey defined “violence-prone” people as having “a tendency to be attracted to violent relationships or are themselves violent.”

“The violence I was seeing amongst many of the women in the refuge was a form of addiction. You cannot take a violence-prone woman and her children away from the war and give her peace. Her stress levels will be too high and she will return to the war zone.”

Research by Dr. Malcolm Carruthers at Maudsley Hospital in London, England found that certain individuals may become addicted to the hormones released by excitement, extreme anxiety, or stress. This stimulates pleasure centres in the brain and makes these individuals into “stress seekers.”

Pizzey found violence-prone women often present “hazards” to the interventions and solutions that are offered them by agencies. She says they often choose to return to their chaotic homes and dysfunctional relationships, because it is all they have ever known.

The non-violent woman who has a violent partner learns from her experience and doesn’t go back. In the shelter, she is in control of herself. She has been mothered herself and she mothers her own children well.

A violence-prone woman often has not been mothered herself. In the shelter, she is abusive with her own children, the other women and children, and the staff.

Partly because violence-prone women grandstand in court, Pizzey has found it more effective to use mediation in solving domestic conflict. Also, with their permission, Pizzey has videotaped the behaviour of violent men and women so they can see and hear just how abusive they are. “Most have no idea how violent they are, how they frighten everybody around them.”

Theresa Petkau, a Hamilton sociologist, told the workshop that domestic violence would be better understood if patrol constables, who “routinely confront” domestic violence “in a manner unlike any other professional group connected with this issue,” could share their first-hand knowledge with researchers in the field. “Female violence is a problem we are not naming,” said Petkau.

Pizzey claims that the shelter movement has been “hijacked by the politically correct arm of the women’s movement” and needs to be reclaimed. She believes that when feminists don’t allow male workers into the shelters, it only reinforces a paranoid feeling that all men are violent and should be feared. In her shelter, Pizzey had male volunteers play with children, so the children would have some positive male role models.

Pizzey is concerned with the legal consequences of the common feminist interpretation of domestic violence—that the woman is always the innocent victim and the man is always the violent perpetrator. This demonizing of men means child custody cases almost always result in mothers gaining custody and fathers being denied access.

“Men were accused of molesting their children and many jailed without evidence. Men could be removed from their homes merely by an allegation from their partner that they were ‘in fear.’ No physical evidence of violent behaviour was necessary.”

Pizzey said in spousal assault cases, unlike in other crimes, “A woman has a license to accuse without corroborating evidence or a witness. For nearly 30 years, men have done very little to protect themselves from being disenfranchised from their homes and from their children.”

In concluding, Pizzey asked workshop participants, “If women are so violent in their relationships … how can the myth of men as the sole perpetrators of domestic violence hold up its head?