News Media Misrepresents JAMA Report on Violence Toward Women

by Jeff Gibbs

This week headlines all over the country proclaimed that "one-third of women reporting to emergency rooms were there because of domestic violence." Yet even a glance at the report in the Journal of the American Medical Association the headlines are based on paints a completely different picture. It turns out that only two percent of the women in the study were seeking medical care for acute trauma from domestic abuse.

However, in response to questioning, about a third of the women did report physical or emotional abuse during the past year. We are not told what constitutes emotional abuse, but "feeling blamed" and "stomping out of the room" frequently appear on questionnaires. Under such an open ended definition of domestic violence, wouldn't nearly everyone qualify as battered? While emotional abuse is serious, it is misleading to lump such items in with being shot, stabbed and beaten. It downright dishonest to go on to say that a third of all women seeking emergency medical care were there because of domestic violence, as some outlets have done.

Here are some of the real figures from the abstract:

"Results. The prevalence of reported abuse by an intimate partner was 2.2%. . . for acute trauma from abuse, 14.4%. . . for past-year physical or sexual abuse, and 36.9%. . . for lifetime emotional or physical abuse." JAMA Abstracts - August 5, 1998; JAMA. 1998;280:433-438

Several groups were completely left out of the study. Men were not interviewed at all. Yet research referenced in the JAMA article indicates men report to emergency rooms for traumatic injuries from domestic violence in significant numbers. No attempt was made to ascertain whether lesbian women were among those questioned. Gay men were also ignored. Several studies have indicated that homosexual relationships are as violent as heterosexual.

What's wrong with altering the truth in order to rally support for women? When reporters feel free to change facts to fit their political views, no matter how righteous, our democracy is undermined, and the role of the media becomes a joke. When figures are grossly distorted the public becomes cynical, and experts are unable to develop effective social programs for women (or anyone else) using the bogus baselines. Even worse, men as well lesbian women are denied the attention and services they may need. In the end, we all pay the price for the media's willingness to print figures which don't add up.

Jeff Gibbs
Stop Abuse For Everyone
The reaction is often to try and discover the why. They look for someone to blame. At first glance this may not seem to be a very positive step, but for victims of abuse it is. The main goal of abuse is to crush the victim's spirit, to deflate their ego, so that the abuser may maintain control. This usually involves installing guilt. So looking outside of themselves, rather than continuing to carry this unwarranted and unreasonable guilt, is an acceptable first step towards recovery. Getting past this stage is a major leap towards health.

The same is not true, however, for others concerned with the issue of abuse. By focusing on laying blame, family, friends and others who support abuse victims lose sight of the main objective of recovery, which is to heal. Since the effects of abuse ripple out into the community, and even into the culture in general, we all need to be part of the healing process. By ignoring these more widespread effects, violence and abuse are allowed to grow and spread, like a nest of ants under your house. You won't even know it's there, until some pressure forces it to the surface, and your kitchen is overrun.

Healthy people do not abuse. They don't need to. Society provides many methods of fulfilling your needs which are not only easier for the healthy person, but more effective and rewarding as well. So, where does abuse come from? The tendency to use violence and abuse to control those around you is generational; it is passed from one person to another. It is learned.

Do we have "abuse schools," then? In a way we do. Attitudes and coping skills are learned from those who are significant to us: parents, teachers, even television and motion picture personalities. They are learned by example, and this learning takes place on an unconscious level.

Consider for a moment how we learn motor skills, such as riding a bicycle, playing a musical instrument or typing. We need to get the "feel" for it. Thinking about what your body is doing often only gets in the way! You just cannot type as fast or as accurately if you watch your fingers. 

Here's an experiment you can try yourself. Take a coin in each hand and toss them so that they cross in the air, to be caught in opposite hands. You can learn this skill in a dozen or so attempts. Now think back. Were you aware of the movement of your hands, the placement of your feet or your tiny balancing shifts of weight? Most people are not. This skill is learned somewhere besides in what we call "consciousness."  Attitudes and behavior are learned in the same way.

I read once of a college psychology class that was studying signal learning, also known as classical or Pavlovian conditioning. They all got together and tried an experiment on the same professor who had introduced them to the subject. Whenever the professor moved to the right side of the lecture hall, the class displayed signs of rapt attention, and laughed heartily at his slightest joke. If he moved to the left, they acted bored and inattentive. In this way they were able to almost "train him right out the door." Yet even though he was a "trained professional," and had himself recently discussed this effect, he was completely unaware that he was being influenced. He had learned, however, and had changed his behavior to get rewarded. 

More formal studies have also been done. In one experiment researchers attached four electrodes to volunteers, who were given a false cover story. Three of the electrodes were dummies, the only live one monitoring the movements of a tiny muscle in the thumb, whose twitching was imperceptible to the subjects. They then intermittently sounded a very unpleasant noise. Whenever the electrode detected motion in the thumb, the noise was stopped for 15 seconds if sounding, or delayed for 15 seconds if silent. The rate of thumb twitching which turned off the annoying sound increased in every case. Yet the subjects were completely unaware that it was they who controlled the noise. Like the psychology professor, they had learned without knowing it. 

Attitudes and behavior are learned in the same way, without our knowing it. Weve all heard sayings like "He's a chip off the old block" or "The acorn never falls far from the tree." Unfortunately, this is as true of violent and abusive behavior as it is of more positive traits.

Consider the results of a survey of State prisoners who victimized spouses or ex-spouses, conducted by the Federal Department of Justice. This survey found that 22% of these prisoners reported having suffered some form of physical or sexual abuse. This figure is surely low. Underreporting by this group would occur for two reasons:

  1. Prisoners develop the habit of hiding perceived weaknesses to avoid victimization by other inmates and
  2. There is a lack of awareness among this group, just as there is in the general population, of what constitutes abuse.

Another indication of underreporting by this group is found in a special report concerning the ultimate form of abuse, murder of a family member. This report found that over half of those convicted of killing their spouses had been using alcohol at the time of the offense. At least the same rate of alcohol use would occur in cases of lesser abuse. In the report mentioned earlier, 31% of inmates surveyed reported having parents who had abused drugs or alcohol. The "Acorn Effect" is at work here, and shows also in the fact that 35% reported having a family member who had served time in prison or jail. 

So this takes us back to the problem of finding exactly who's to "blame" for abuse. If I am abused by my spouse, who had been abused as a child, she is not instigating the abuse, she's just transmitting it. By the same token, whoever may have abused her was quite likely themselves abused, and so on back as far as you would care to go.

So my suggestion is, blame Cain, the biblical originator of domestic violence. Let's hang him in effigy, let's curse his name, let's just get it out of our systems. But for everyone's sake, let's get past the blaming.

Then let's get on with the business of healing the wounds. We're all victims of Domestic Violence; those we call the abusers, those they abuse and the community at large. That includes me, and it includes you. Let's all stop being victims, and become healers.


  • W.F. Book The Psychology of Skill New York: Gregg, 1925
  • J. Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind Boston Houghton Mifflin 1976 p33
  • W. Lambert Gardiner. Psychology: A Story of a Search Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1970-p76 as reported by Jaynes p35 note 14 (see footnote 2)
  • R.F. Herrerline, B. Keenan, R.A. Harford, "Escape and avoidance conditioning in human subjects without their observation of the response," Science, 1959, 130: 1338-9
  • U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1991 Survey of Inmates in State Correctional Facilities
  • U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Special Report "Murder in Families", NCJ-143498, July 1994
  • U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1991 Survey of Inmates in State Correctional Facilities

    copyright 1997 OtherWorlds Productions

    Last updated: Tuesday, April 18, 2000