Articles & Essays

Gender as a Factor in the Response of the Law-Enforcement System to Violence Against Partners

Forthcoming in Sexuality and Culture, Vol. 8, Issue ?, (Transaction Periodicals, 2004)

Grant A. Brown, D.Phil. (Oxon), LL.B.

…it is the worst oppression, that is done by colour of justice
– Sir Edward Coke

A sign that says “men only” looks very different
on a bathroom door than on a courthouse door.
– U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

“Is Parkinson’s the toughest opponent you’ve ever faced, Muhammed?”
someone asked. “Toughest was my first wife,” he said.
– Former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammed Ali


A great deal of sociological evidence has been collected in the past three decades on the prevalence of abuse among adult heterosexual partners in domestic relationships of some degree of permanence. Partly as a result of this information, partner abuse has been identified as an important social ill that must be addressed aggressively through public-awareness campaigns, the funding of a broad range of support services, and the re-training of law-enforcement authorities – including police, prosecutors, and judges. However, in at least one important respect, these policy initiatives diverge substantially from what the sociological data which ostensibly motivates them would indicate: they have been, to date, overwhelmingly gender specific. That is, partner abuse is routinely portrayed and acted upon as though it were almost exclusively about men abusing and victimizing innocent women and, by extension, their children – despite the overwhelming sociological evidence that a significant amount of abuse is also suffered by male partners. Persistent anecdotal reports from victims and even some participants in the law-enforcement system suggest that this ideological emphasis on the male as perpetrator has had a deleterious effect on the impartial administration of justice, resulting in men being treated much more harshly than women who are accused of partner violence. This study attempts to determine whether the anecdotes are scientifically supportable.


This report is written for a general audience and does not presume any specialized training in sociology, statistics, or Canadian law. Technical terms will be explained in the footnotes when they are first used; however, a few non-standard terms of art must be explained at the start. The focus of this study is on how the law-enforcement system deals with putatively criminal acts between adults in heterosexual relationships of some degree of permanence. Thus the term ‘partner’ includes married and common-law spouses, as well as some couples who might not meet the legal definition of a spouse; but it excludes persons in dating or homosexual relationships. Because of the focus on criminal behavior, as opposed to abuse more generally, the terms ‘partner violence’ or ‘violence against partners’ is meant to capture any act which could be classified as criminal, whether or not charges were laid and even if the act is not inherently violent (e.g. a non-violent breach of a restraining order). ‘Partner abuse’ is a broader term which includes partner violence as well as non-criminal abusive behavior between partners. (‘Domestic abuse’ is broader still, and includes abuse of children, elders, and siblings. This is beyond the scope of the present study.)
The Institutes of the Laws of England, vol. 2, 1628-1641.
City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc. (1985), 473 U.S. 432, 468-69.
Cam Cole, “Boxing has a funny way of making friends,” National Post, 21 October 2002, A10.