The words "domestic violence" typically invite images of bruised women and children and male perpetrators.
But the real picture of domestic violence isn't so clear-cut. And the solution to family violence is far more complex than our current criminal justice approach can handle.
For about 30 years now, we've been throwing money and punishment at domestic violence with not enough to show for it. Estimates are that more than 32 million Americans are affected by domestic violence each year, with many of those in need of help never reporting their abuse.
These are among the important findings of Linda Mills attorney, social worker, survivor of a violent relationship, as well as professor and senior vice provost at New York University whose new book, "Violent Partners," tackles the myths of domestic violence and suggests new ways of dealing with the problem.
One of the primary myths and the one that meets with the most resistance is that only men are violent. As I point out in my own book, "Save the Males," women and children indeed suffer the worst injuries and more often die as a result of those injuries. But women initiate violence as often as men.
Ignoring or downplaying that fact both obscures the real problem of intimate violence and makes solutions less likely. Yet even people who know better are afraid of speaking up lest they be accused of undermining feminist efforts to help women and children in danger.
Feminism deserves credit for putting domestic violence on the radar back when what happened in a "man's castle" was considered no one else's business. But we now know a great deal more about what happens behind closed doors, and progressive feminists such as Mills are trying to open America's mind to new ideas and innovative approaches.
According to Mills, studies now confirm that women initiate violence in 24 percent of cases in which the husbands don't fight back, while men initiate violence in 27 percent of cases in which women don't fight back. In the other 49 percent of cases, both partners actively participate in the violence.
What this tells us is that violent partners frequently have a relationship problem that is never addressed under our system of arrest-and-punish. Moreover, says Mills, a majority of families with violence issues don't want to shatter the family, as our criminal system often encourages. They just want the violence to stop.
Yet many states have a "must-arrest" policy if a call to police is made. Many also take a "primary aggressor" approach in determining who should be arrested. Even if the man calls the police, says Mills, he's often the one hauled off and charged, based on the assumption that he, the physically stronger, is more dangerous.
Consequently, the underlying problem of violence isn't addressed and people needing help won't call police for fear of the draconian measures likely to follow. In fact, according to Mills, 75 percent of women and 86 percent of men don't call the police when their partner is violent.
The solution to domestic violence, says Mills, begins with recognizing it as a cyclical, intergenerational family problem that usually begins in childhood. Mills provides some devastating statistics to highlight how early this cycle begins and how hard it is to break the trend once begun: 35 percent of parents hit their infants when they believe they're misbehaving; 94 percent of parents spank their 3- to 4-year-olds for the same reason.
Research shows that children raised by violence are more likely to become violent or be the victim of violence in their own adult relationships and so it goes from one generation to the next.
Allowing exceptions for the most violent abusers, Mills proposes a broad, systemic approach to domestic violence that includes counseling and at least the option of restorative, rather than punitive, justice. The current approach to "treatment" usually consists of sending men to classes on how to be less sexist.
Mills is testing an alternative program in Nogales, Ariz., that brings the whole family together to learn how the cycle of abuse works within families. Without blaming the victim, Mills insists that everyone has to take responsibility for his or her role in the dynamic that leads to violence.
It is brave of Mills to invite these challenges. But if we're really serious about reducing domestic violence, we have to recognize that demonizing men isn't the answer and that sexism isn't the only question.
It's at least time for a new conversation.