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July 28, 1998

A Fistful of Hostility Is Found in Women

In the old Punch and Judy shows of the last century, Punch would batter Judy under the stage while the audience roared. But now it seems likely that in their private moments together Judy gave Punch back a bit of his own.

Researchers studying human aggression are discovering that, in contrast to the usual stereotypes, patterns of aggression among girls and women under some circumstances may mirror or even exaggerate those seen in boys and men. And while women's weapons are often words, fists may be used, too. In a large-scale review of dozens of studies of physical hostility in heterosexual relationships, Dr. John Archer, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire in Great Britain, has found that although women sustain more serious and visible injuries than men during domestic disputes, overall they are just as likely as men to resort to physical aggression during an argument with a sexual partner.

Archer compiled interviews with tens of thousands of men andwomen in Canada, Great Britain, the United States and New Zealand, and discovered that women who argued with their dates or mates were actually even slightly more likely than men to use some form of physical violence, ranging from slapping, kicking and biting, to choking or using a weapon. The pattern was particularly pronounced among younger women and women who were dating a partner rather than married to or living with him, he said.

"Whatever the base rate of physical aggression in the population, women tended to have a slightly higher rate than men," Archer said. In contrast, though, most instances of serious violence in his study were caused by men, as were most injuries that required medical care: Women accounted for 65 to 70 percent of those requiring medical help as a result of violence between partners.

Still, "the large minority of men who got injured is fascinating," Dr. Archer said. "It counters a certain entrenched view of partner violence as being exclusively male to female."

Archer's study was reported at a meeting of the International Society for Research on Aggression held at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J., earlier this month. It is an extraordinary study, said Dr. Anne Campbell, a psychologist at the University of Durham in Great Britain, because it lends support to an emerging theory that women may respond to certain environmental stresses with physically aggressive behaviors that are analogous to men's, although often on a different scale of intensity.

For instance, she said, criminologists know that although men are more likely to commit crimes than women, crime rates in the genders are also strongly correlated. In other words, in impoverished, "high crime" areas, rates of both violent and nonviolent crimes increase proportionally among men and women.

"Unlike men, though, women tend to view crime as work rather than adventure," Campbell said. For example, women spend more of the proceeds of nonviolent crimes on staples rather than on luxuries. And women often commit violent crimes against other women with the very pragmatic purpose of attracting the protection and financial support of a "well-resourced" man.

Patterns of domestic homicide also indicate that women are capable of significant violence, although often only as a last resort. Although the vast majority of all murders are committed by men, "intimate partner" homicides were split about equally between the sexes until about 20 years ago, said Dr. Daniel Nagin, a public policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

In the last two decades, intimate-partner homicides have declined by about 30 percent. Dr. Nagin noted, however, that the decline has been primarily in rates of women killing men, and correlates strongly with several environmental changes.

"The decline appears to be related to an improved relative economic status of females, and a decline in exposure to violent relationships," Dr. Nagin said.

This drop also correlates with the availability of alternatives to violence for women: In an ongoing study of domestic homicides in 29 cities in the United States, the availability of resources like shelters for battered women and legal advocacy for them has correlated strongly with lower rates of domestic homicide committed by women.

"The resources for women seem to be saving the men's lives," Dr. Nagin said.

The experts in human aggression are now aware that even in childhood similarities between male and female aggression are more substantial than is usually recognized.

Until about five years ago scientists studying aggression tended to include only direct physical or verbal efforts to injure another person. Then they discovered that great damage can be done to another person so subtly that even the victim is unaware. The badmouthing, gossip and smear campaigns that can demolish an opponent as well as direct verbal or physical assaults are now formally known in psychological circles as "indirect aggression," and their patterns are tracked as carefully as punches and kicks.

With indirect aggression factored in, aggression in childhood is no longer primarily a male affair.

In a large observational study of "trajectories of aggression" in children, Dr. Richard E. Tremblay of the Université de Montreal has found that physical aggression in both sexes seems to peak around age 2, then decline steadily, although it remains consistently more common in boys. Indirect aggression, however, becomes more prevalent as children grow older and is consistently more common in girls.

The effect of external stimuli on these trajectories is still under intensive speculation, but one long-term study suggests that the omnipresent influence of television violence may correlate with overall aggressive behavior in boys and girls in both the short and the long term.

In a 20-year study of more than 300 Chicago-area children, led by Dr. L. Rowell Huesmann at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the more violent television a child watched at ages 6 through 8, the more aggressive behavior that child displayed, no matter what the child's sex.

And in interviews 15 years later with the grown-up study participants, the correlation between the television viewing habits of childhood and adult behavior patterns persisted, Dr. Huesmann said at the Ramapo College meeting.

The more television violence the child watched, the more aggressive the man or woman became.

The correlation was especially marked among those children who told researchers that they identified with the characters on the television screen, and thought the events depicted were real.

For instance, 16.7 percent of the young women who had been "high violence" television viewers as girls reported having punched, beat or choked another adult, in contrast to 3.6 percent of others.

Thirty-seven percent of the "high violence" vieiwing women had thrown something at a spouse during an argument, in contrast to 16 percent of the others.

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