During the recent Trump administration domestic-abuse scandals, most of the attention has been focused on former staff secretary Rob Porter. Porter resigned after both his former wives publicly accused him of assault — with a photograph as corroboration, in one instance. But a second case involving speechwriter David Sorensen, who also quit over allegations of past spousal violence, is far more complicated: Sorensen asserts that in his first marriage, he was the abused spouse. His claim raises an important issue — one that, unfortunately, has been overshadowed by the moral train wreck of Donald Trump’s White House.
Sorensen’s ex-wife Jessica Corbett told the Washington Post she revealed her abuse to the FBI in 2017. She reiterated her accusations in a television interview. Yet Sorensen has at least some evidence on his side: A statement he posted after his resignation is accompanied by several cellphone photos from 2015 and 2016 of minor cuts, scrapes and bruises on his face, neck and chest. There is no proof these were inflicted by Corbett, but, assuming the dates on the photos were not doctored, the fact that Sorensen documented the injuries has some significance.
Sorensen’s posted records also include a screenshot of text messages in which Corbett says she was justified in slapping him in response to his name-calling, and of messages with a friend of Corbett’s who called her “high strung” and said she had admitted to slapping Sorenson. Corbett has confirmed that she “slapped Sorensen a number of times after he called her a vulgar term.”
But Sorensen asserts that there was more to it than slaps. He claims Corbett repeatedly hit and punched him, and that she once blocked his way and grabbed him by the crotch while trying to stop him from leaving the house. She also threatened to accuse him of violence when she did not get her way, he says.
Sorensen, quoted in the Post, calls the exposure of his marital troubles “an opportunity to highlight the grossly underreported and unacknowledged issue of female-on-male domestic violence.” Whatever the truth of his experience, Sorenson is correct about the issue itself.
Partner violence by women is one of the most contentious subjects in social science. The first large-scale study of domestic abuse, the 1975 National Family Violence Survey conducted by the late University of New Hampshire sociologist Murray Straus and his colleague Richard Gelles (now at the University of Pennsylvania), found that similar numbers of women and men admitted to assaulting a spouse or partner in the previous 12 months. The researchers were skeptical initially, assuming most female violence had to be in self-defense, though in many cases the wife was the self-reported sole perpetrator. Later surveys showed that in mutually violent relationships, women were as likely as men to be the aggressors. These findings have been confirmed in more than 200 studies.
Critics have challenged the methodology of much of this research because it focuses on couple conflict and omits post-separation attacks. Yet two major federally backed surveys using different methods — the 2000 National Violence Against Women Survey by the National Institute of Justice and the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by the Centers for Disease Control — found that about 40% of those reporting serious assaults by current or former partners in the past year were men, and most of their attackers were women.
Female-on-male violence is often assumed to be harmless, given sex differences in size and strength. Yet women may use weapons — including knives, glass, boiling water and various household objects — while men may be held back from defending themselves by cultural taboos against harming woman. David Nevers, an Illinois man who went public about his experience as a battered husband 20 years ago, suffered serious, documented injuries — burns, cuts and a broken nose — despite being four inches taller and 100 pounds heavier than his then-wife.
Overall, studies find that female-on-male assaults account for 12% to 40% of injuries from domestic violence. Men also make up about 30% of intimate homicide victims, not counting confirmed cases of female self-defense. The 1998 killing of actor/comedian Phil Hartman by his wife, Brynn, who then committed suicide, is just one notable instance of a domestic murder in which the perpetrator with a history of violence was a woman.
Discussions of female-on-male abuse have been met with extreme hostility from feminist academics, activists and commentators. Scholars studying the subject have been attacked as apologists for misogyny. Battered women’s advocates tend to explain away female violence as almost entirely defensive, despite evidence to the contrary. One reason for this attitude is solidarity with women as victims; another is the dogmatic view that battering is an expression of patriarchal power.
Abused men have faced widespread biases from police, judges and social workers, who tend to assume that the man in a violent relationship is the aggressor and to trivialize assaults by women. Much of this prejudice stems from traditional sexism: Battered men violate stereotypical expectations about manliness. Yet feminists perpetuate such sexism when they deny the reality of male victims and female abusers. Equality should include recognizing women’s potential for abusive behavior.
Sorensen may well be an abused man with a compelling story. Of course, neither he nor Corbett should be considered guilty based on accusation alone. The claims on both sides should be fairly investigated — without political bias or sexist bias.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine and the author of “Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality.”