This week, the charity Kidscape attributed the rise in physically aggressive behaviour among girls to 'Spice Power'. So are we really witnessing the demise of the gentler sex? Claire Seeber reports on the women who beat up their partners and the men who love them too much to hit back
"I WOULD SCRAPE my fingernails down his face - as hard as I could. I wanted to see blood - the tracks of my anger and fury with him, there, written on him. I wanted to mark him. I would hit him again and again, quite blind in my rage. Then, in the cold light of day, it was like coming to ... realising what I was doing. I suppose I was trying to destroy the person that I really loved, the man that I wanted to be with for ever." Julia is a neat, delicate-looking woman in her mid-thirties. She plucks an imaginary hair from the lapel of her suit with thin, nervous fingers as she talks. She is embarrassed, but she is able, now, to be honest about this period of her life. A period in her life when she lost control of her emotions and, eventually, became abusive towards her now ex-husband.

"I met Robbie during my last year of university and liked him a lot. But I think I was scared of falling for him, and so I became a harder version of me. I kept him at arm's length and kind of - it's hard to describe - encased myself in a shell. I probably thought it was attractive, that I was being mysterious."

Julia's voice wavers as she talks of the couple's first violent encounter. "After Robbie and I had been seeing each other for about 6 months, we went on holiday to Corfu," she says. "The first couple of days were brilliant, really romantic, and I think I was slowly letting my barriers down. One night Robbie went off to the local taverna before me. I was having a leisurely shower and trying to make myself beautiful for him. When I got there, he was talking to this very pretty Greek girl at the bar. In retrospect, I'm sure it was perfectly innocent. But I just lost it with him. I don't know where it came from - I felt a surge of pure rage. I went straight up to him, and slapped him really hard round the face .... I can still remember his look of shock, and the red marks my fingers left on his cheek." Julia winces at the memory. "Then I stormed off to the apartment. When he followed me, and tried to explain, I didn't listen. Instead, I worked myself into a frenzy. I lunged at him and I tried to gouge his eyes out with my fingernails. I was spitting in my fury, and the more aware I was of how mad I must look, the more hysterical I got and the more viciously I attacked him, slapping and punching him. When eventually he tried to get away, I grabbed him round his knees and begged him not to go."

Julia realises that it's hard for people to comprehend her behaviour. Women aren't known to hit men - certainly not their partners, and it soon became a habit. "I couldn't recognise this thing in me, this demon. I pretended it didn't happen, that we were like any normal couple." Yet slowly and more frequently, Julia's vicious attacks on Robbie became part of their relationship. "We did love each other," she insists. "I'd promise that I would never attack him again, and I would mean it - at the time." Somehow, Julia would persuade Robbie, time after time, that she would change. Under duress, she went to the doctor about PMT, but he just put her on the pill. "I wasn't going to go to the doctor and say 'I can't stop attacking my husband.' He wouldn't have believed me, and at the time, I would have been mortified. Anyway, I didn't believe it myself. It was like I could block it out. Robbie tried to make me go to Relate," she says, "but we only got as far as the door. Instead, I decided that if we had a baby, I'd change."

After their daughter was born, Julia suffered terrible post-natal depression. "If anything, my temper got worse. Robbie would infuriate me - I was jealous that it was me stuck at home with the baby, whilst he was going off to work and to the pub with his friends." He didn't do that often, but Julia couldn't see things in perspective. "One night I drank a bottle of red wine and sat listening to the baby crying. When Robbie came home, I attacked him, pulling out huge handfuls of his hair and threatening him with a screwdriver. I remember him looking up at me, he was literally cowering from me, and I suddenly felt so ashamed, dirty almost. This man, who loved me so much, was frightened of me, and yet I knew that he was miles stronger than me. He could have hurt me badly, had he wanted to." Yet Robbie never once lifted a finger to Julia. "I wanted him to," she says. "It wasn't a conscious thing, but I know, deep down, I was trying to get him to hit me back. I would have seen it as a warped kind of reaction to me, and I think I was always trying to get him to react. But he'd sit on his hands, so he couldn't hit me back. I'm sure he often wanted to."

Julia admits that her abuse was not only physical. She'd accuse Robbie of all sorts of things which she knew weren't true, like bizarre sexual perversions. She'd criticise everything he did, trying to belittle him and how he looked. She wanted to control him so that he would never leave her. It backfired.

Julia is more fortunate than some of the women I have talked to. With a good job in advertising, she has benefited, albeit too late to save her marriage, from years of expensive therapy. She has tried to root out the causes of this frightening side of her nature. Even so, it seems that there is a lot she is still unable to comprehend about herself. She talks of a lonely childhood. "I was an only child. I wasn't used to sharing things, and I wasn't used to sharing myself with anyone. My parents always seemed more absorbed in themselves and each other. Perhaps I was vying for Robbie's attention, perhaps I didn't realise that I didn't need to fight for it."

Eventually Robbie was pushed to his limit. Julia is aware that he felt he had nowhere to turn, no one in whom he could confide. "I feel so guilty." She understands why he left her. "He doesn't want anything to do with me. It's easier for us both that way, but I miss him terribly. I wish he could have loved me just that little bit more so he would have stuck with me, but I know that in the end, I didn't give him much to love. I've learnt to control my mood-swings, but I haven't had another relationship since our split. I'm scared I'll end up doing the same thing." Julia feels that she's lost the only man she ever loved. "I drove him away. I feel unnatural, I've lost touch with my femininity."

Their daughter lives with Robbie. "I couldn't fight for custody, though I know people thought that was unnatural at the time. If only they'd known the half of it. I was scared I'd end up hurting her, too. So I just see her on the occasional weekend. Nowadays I just live for my work. I have to."

Les Davidson runs MALE, the UK helpline for men who are battered or mentally abused by their women. "Men feel ashamed because they think their masculinity is being compromised. But they must not isolate themselves; they must talk about it, not just live in it. It's telling that whenever this type of abuse receives media attention, the calls to MALE increase by 100 per cent."

When I first spoke to women who had attacked their men, I felt a jolt of recognition. At 18, I got involved with a man totally wrong for me. I was studying at college, he had left school at 16 and was doing a gritty job. He wanted to go drinking with his sporting chums, I wanted to drink cappuccino and talk art and romance. After a while, he stopped coming home when he said he would. After I had sat and watched the clock night after night, something in me just snapped and I attacked him.

I would become a wailing banshee, lashing out at him. My insecurity ate me up, and I became irrational. Depending on how drunk he was, he would hit me back - usually harder.

I don't know whose fault it was - he was a nice enough bloke, he just wasn't nice enough to me. He wouldn't discuss it, and in the end I became so frustrated that I could only communicate through violent fury. It was all born out of a hurt that began to fester in me when I felt unloved or unappreciated. Afterwards, I would feel so ashamed.

I spoke to Dr John Bland about it. As a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist, he worries that female violence is viewed too often as exotic. "It shouldn't be seen as alien when a woman hits a man. Whatever the reason, being angry and violent is functional, because then people won't argue with you. Male or female, it's a useful technique." Not that he advocates violence. He is quite specific about his advice to the male victim. "I'd say 'Get out'. People don't often change, and if they do it's slowly, over a long period of time. If you, the victim, stay, you are reinforcing the behaviour of your abuser. By leaving, you might help break the cycle."

Laura is 20. When she talks about her lover Jason, she blushes, but her gentle appearance belies the truth. "I've been foul to Jason. I'd start arguments for no reason, just because I was feeling jealous or insecure. I'd work myself up to such a fever pitch that I'd lash out at him, scratching and kicking. I'd only stop if I drew blood. Once I was so hysterical I picked up a curtain pole and started beating him with it."

Laura grew up in a brutal home. The victim of terrible abuse, she learnt about violence at her mother's knee. Laura, always a victim, became the abuser. She did not have enough faith in herself to believe that Jason wanted to be with her. Unconsciously and physically, she was trying to push him away.

Laura says she is lucky. "Jason never hit me back, and eventually made me get counselling. After six months of talking about it, I felt more in control."

Counsellor Mo Shapiro calls Laura's condition "the Groucho Marx Syndrome". "Marx said that he would never join a club that would accept him as a member," she explains. "I think this can happen to anyone in a relationship - if you feel bad about yourself, you can't understand why anyone would want to be with you." For Laura, taking physical action was the next sad step in a cycle of abuse and self-loathing.

So are Laura and Julia and I the victims of a feminism which has overshot its mark in the "caring" 1990s? Perhaps we've been fuelled by the desire to be up there with the boys in power, whilst trying to shed our so-called maternal and feminine skins. Is this the logical progression - that we strive to become the bullies that some men have always been? Becoming violent in our fight for equality?

Somehow I can't see it like that. I think that there have always been male victims of domestic violence. But it has been so socially unacceptable that, until recently, it has been the abuse that dare not speak its name.