Do complementarian views encourage domestic abuse?

The Assumption

The idea that ‘patriarchal’ societies and families would result in greater likelihood of domestic abuse by males seems entirely logical, and has been a standard argument of feminists and even some evangelical egalitarians.[1]

The Facts

Repeated detailed studies of domestic violence have demonstrated that there is no connection (as claimed by various feminist and egalitarian scholars), between ‘patriarchal’ or complementarian views, and domestic violence perpetrated by males.[2] [3] Van Leeuwen notes that spousal abuse among conservative Protestant husbands is strongly related to lack of involvement in their congregation, a mere nominal claim to be Christian, rather than related to complementarian views on men and women.[4]

It is true that ‘patriarchal’, ‘hierarchialist’ or complementarian beliefs are used to justify domestic violence.[5] [6] However, the evidence demonstrates strongly that complementarian husbands and fathers (what Van Leeuwen refers to as a ‘traditionalist ideology of gender relations), are the least likely to commit domestic violence, as long as they are regular church attendees and genuinely involved in their congregation.[7]

Summarizing the scholarly data, Van Leeuwen contradicts flatly the claims made by egalitarians and feminists. Complementarian views are not demonstrably related to domestic abuse.[8] Even further to the contrary, Van Leeuwen points out that complementarian males (‘gender hierarchicalist’, as she calls them), often function in an egalitarian manner, even while they assume the responsibility of headship over their households.[9]

Scholarly Studies

  • Dutton & Browning (1988)

Only a minority of batterers are misogynistic (Dutton and Browning, 1988), and few are violent to non-intimate women;’[10]

  • Jackie Campbell (1992)

‘If feminist analysis is correct, we should expect greater violence directed toward women in more patriarchal cultures. However, this prediction is not supported. Campbell (1992) reports that “there is not a simple linear correlation between female status and rates of wife assault” (p. 19).’ [11]

  • Donald Dutton (1994)

‘But after carefully analyzing numerous studies of violence among married and cohabiting couples, psychologist Donald G. Dutton [“Patriarchy and Wife Assault: The Ecological Fallacy,’’ in Violence and Victims Vol. 9, No. 2 (1994): 167-82] has concluded that “no direct relationship exists between patriarchy and wife assault’’ and that, therefore, feminists will have to find another explanation of wife abuse. [Emphasis ours].’[12]

  • Patricia Pearson (1997)

‘“That men have used a patriarchal vocabulary to account for themselves doesn’t mean that patriarchy causes their violence, any more than being patriarchs prevents them from being victimized. Studies of male batterers have failed to confirm that these men are more conservative or sexist about marriage than nonviolent men. To the contrary, some of the highest rates of violence are found in the least orthodox partnerships — dating or cohabiting lovers.”’[13]

  • Sugerman & Frankel (1996), Lisa Battaglia (2001)

‘…most of the studies that have been conducted do not support the global feminist hypothesis. For instance, a comprehensive meta-analysis of various studies showed that adult male batterers could not be differentiated from non-abusive men on the sole basis of traditional (patriarchal) gender attitudes. 41 [footnote reproduced in footnote [14] below]’[15]

  • Ellison, et al. (2007)

‘They found that: (a) religious involvement is correlated with reduced  levels of domestic violence; (b) levels of domestic violence  vary by race/ethnicity; (c) the effects of religious involvement  on domestic violence vary by race/ethnicity; and (d) religious  involvement, specifically church attendance, protects against  domestic violence…’[16]

Some have speculated that traditionalist or patriarchal religious ideologies may legitimate, or at least fail to adequately condemn, the practice of partner violence (e.g., Nason-Clark 1997, 2000). This may be particularly true for certain variants of conservative Protestantism that emphasize male headship; however, to date, studies of domestic violence that have examined the role of religion have not identified any clear support for this claim (Brinkerhoff, Grandin, & Lupri, 1992; Ellison, Bartkowski, & Anderson, 1999; Wilcox, 2004).’[17]


[1] ‘The claim from a feminist analytical perspective, therefore, is twofold: that society is patriarchal and that the use of violence to maintain male patriarchy is accepted.’, Dutton, ‘Patriarchy and Wife Assault: The ecological fallacy’, Violence & Victims (2.125-140), (1994).

[2] ‘If patriarchy is the main factor contributing to wife assault, then the majority of men raised in a patriarchal system should exhibit assaultiveness. However, given the four major surveys of incidence of wife assault that have been implemented to date, the vast majority of men are non- assaultive for the duration of their marriage (Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz, 1980; Schulman, 1979; Straus and Gelles, 1985; Kennedy and Dutton, 1989).’, ibid.

[3] ‘Also, studies of the general population do not appear to suggest that faith groups that endorse hierarchical marital structures report higher rates of IPV [Inter Personal Violence] (Brinkerhoff, Gradnin, & Lupri, 1992; Cunradi, Caetano, & Shafer, 2002; Ellison & Anderson, 2001; Ellison, Bartowski, & Anderson, 1999).’, Levitt & Ware, ‘”Anything With Two Heads Is a Monster” Religious Leaders’ Perspectives on Marital Equality and Domestic Violence’, Violence Against Women (12.12.1170), (2006).

[4] ‘However, using data from the National Survey of Families and Households (1992–1994) Wilcox also found that a little bit of conservative religion—like a little bit of knowledge—is a dangerous thing. Some of the worst fathers and husbands are men who are nominal evangelicals. “These are men who have, say, a Southern Baptist affiliation, but who rarely darken the door of a church. They have … the highest rates of domestic violence of any group in the United States. They also have high divorce rates. But evangelical and mainline Protestant men who attend church regularly are … much less likely to divorce than married men who do not attend church regularly.”61’, ibid., p. 190.

[5] ‘As well, studies of women who have been victimized suggest that batterers use these beliefs to support their abuse (e.g., Adelman, 2000; Giesbrecht & Sevcik, 2000; Hassouneh-Phillips, 2001; Knickmeyer, Levitt, Horne, & Bayer, 2004).’, Levitt & Ware, ‘”Anything With Two Heads Is a Monster” Religious Leaders’ Perspectives on Marital Equality and Domestic Violence’, Violence Against Women (12.12.1170), (2006).

[6] ‘Reports of IPV repeatedly describe male partners as holding an imbalance of power (e.g., Giesbrecht & Sevcik, 2000; Knickmeyer et al., 2004; Yllo, 1993), and individuals who hold traditional beliefs about gender roles have been found to blame victims more and perpetrators less when wife abuse is reported (Haj-Yahia, 1998; Hillier & Foddy, 1993), as do clergy who endorse these beliefs (Wood & McHugh, 1994). Abused women who hold more traditional beliefs about relationships have been found to be more likely to justify their abuse, remain in the relationship, and allow their partner to control them (Folingstad, Rutledge, McNeill-Hawkins, & Polek, 1992). Also, research suggests that higher rates of incest have been found in families with hierarchical marital relationships (Draucker, 1996).’’, ibid., p. 1186.

[7]And conservative Protestant husbands and fathers (including those who espouse, among other things, a traditionalist ideology of gender relations) are—provided they attend church regularly—the group that is actually least likely to commit domestic violence.62’, ibid., p. 190.

[8] ‘The upshot is that we have no evidence so far that a gender-traditionalist ideology—at least of the soft patriarchal variety—is a strong predictor of domestic physical abuse.’, ibid., p. 190.

[9]Gender hierarchicalist males—at least those who have frequent and active church involvement—turn out, on average, to be better men than their theories: more often than not, they are functional egalitarians, and the rhetoric of male headship may actually be functioning as a covert plea for greater male responsibility and nurturant involvement on the home front.’, ibid., p. 190.

[10] Correy, ‘The Role Of Patriarchy In Domestic Violence’ (2002).

[11] Ibid.

[12] ‘Patriarchy And Abuse: No Direct Link’, Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (2.2), 1996.

[13] Correy, ‘The Role Of Patriarchy In Domestic Violence’ (2002).

[14] ‘41 D. B. Sugerman and S. L. Frankel, “Patriarchal Ideology and Wife-Assault: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Journal of Family Violence 11 (1996) 13-40; see also Lisa Jeanne Battaglia, “Conservative Protestant Ideology and Wife Abuse: Reflections on the Discrepancy between Theory and Data,” Journal of Religion and Abuse 2 (2001) 31-45.’

[15] Tracy, ‘Patriarchy and Domestic Violence: Challenging Common Misconceptions’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (50.3.580), (2007); he also notes ‘While patriarchy may not be the overarching cause of all abuse, it is an enormously significant factor, because in traditional patriarchy males have a disproportionate share of power’ (pp. 582-583), and ‘So while patriarchy is not the sole explanation for violence against women, we would expect that male headship would be distorted by insecure, unhealthy men to justify their domination and abuse of women.’ (p. 583).

[16] Ellison, et al, ‘Race/Ethnicity, Religious Involvement, and Domestic Violence’, Violence Against Women (13.11.1094), (2007).

[17] Ibid., pp. 1095-1096.

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