Science Isn't Golden

Matters of the mind and heart

Steps Anyone Can Take to Help Stop Interpersonal Violence

Actions Citizens Can Take to Reduce Interpersonal Violence

Hope for Ending Forms of Abuse

Today's essay is about a disturbing subject, but I write it to suggest some things that everyone can do.

Women's History Month is a good time to look at the still painful, complicated problem of what used to be called "wife battering" and is now called the genderless "domestic violence" (DV). Although some people have claimed that there is no sex difference in the perpetrating of domestic violence, women are less likely to initiate such violence and more likely to be injured.

What continues to make DV still more a danger for women than for men is the combination of the average woman's shorter stature, lower body weight, physical strength, and salary than those of the average man (the lower salary making women less financially independent and thus finding it more difficult simply to leave abusers), as well as the fact that women are more likely than men to have primary childcare responsibilities.

DV has been shown to be different from other types of violence, in that the former results in what experts call "unique psychological harm" as well. To be mugged in the park by a stranger is a horrible experience but does not involve either the betrayal of trust when the perpetrator is a family member (never mind, as sometimes, the primary breadwinner for the family) or the excruciating conflicts experienced by the victim about whether, and how, to get out of the relationship, especially but not solely when the couple has children. Many years ago, I wrote The Myth of Women's Masochism partly because I was appalled to hear people assert that battered women who stay with their batterers do so because they enjoy the suffering.

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That DV remains so common is troubling, but here are two hopeful ways to help reduce it:

(1) Daniel Manne, formerly a practicing attorney with a J.D. who is also a recent LL.M graduate of Harvard Law School and currently a Fellow in the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School, has studied sex equity and policies about violence against women. His LL.M. thesis revealed the inadequacy of the state's response to violence against women in the United States, and he points out that Congressional testimony regarding the creation of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) included "clear evidence that domestic violence has a profound effect on the women as a general class in America. An assault committed by a male partner in the privacy of a household has consequences far in excess of a comparable mugging. Domestic violence effectively silences abused women, compromising their autonomy and robbing them of control and the promise of safety within their own homes. Having no safe haven, women live in fear—both individually, and in a more diffuse way, throughout the community as a whole."

Before those who do not believe that sexism exists any more cry out their protests, I will say that some women do not have that fear, because some women have, happily, not been touched by DV in their own lives. Sometimes, until it happens to you or someone you know, the reality and the effects of DV just don't seem real.

Manne argues that, "The imminent threat or risk of living in violence itself constitutes a harm and a significant barrier to freedom. For, even when they are not themselves the direct victims of domestic violence, women are socially constructed as an apt locus for abuse. In other words, they are the ones who get beaten—as they are all too well aware. This is not to say that men are never victims; but such violence is too unusual to be systemic, and constitutes an exception to the rule."

In light of this understanding of the problem, reports Manne, the VAWA contained a provision that allowed victims of sex/gender-motivated violence to sue their batterers (or rapists) in federal court for damages. He says, "The logic of the provision was that violence against women was a form of discrimination and, therefore, the victim was entitled to compensation. In order to succeed, however, the victim was required to demonstrate that the act of violence was motivated by an animus towards women. This provision of VAWA was struck down by the Supreme Court in United States v. Morrison (2000)."

Despite this setback, Manne says that domestic violence should be considered a matter of civil rights. He says that, "It is not at all clear that most violence against women is motivated by animus towards women generally," but even if it were, "the policy tools used to combat discrimination are not a good fit in the domestic violence context. A civil suit for damages is the farthest thing from a victim's mind when trying to flee a violent household. If we are going to adopt efficacious policy, we need to recognize domestic violence for what it really is: a civil rights violation. When it comes to the issue of gender equality, no issue can be more important than the foundational concern of bodily integrity. Important as these issues are, it remains a luxury to worry about the second-shift problem or the wage-gap when many women cannot feel safe in their own homes. All civil rights are contingent upon physical security. When one sex faces widespread physical intimidation and control, we have a civil rights problem."

To those who would argue that not every woman is intimidated to the point of deprivation of her civil rights and that some men also are, Manne replies, "The Supreme Court has held that disparate impact [on women in contrast to men] alone is not sufficient to support most civil rights claims, but severe 'adverse impact' can be sufficient. Not every member of a class needs necessarily to feel the impact or bias to support a civil rights claim."

Manne says further that "Domestic violence that is man against women means something different than woman against man in exactly the same way that White on Black crime in the South in the Jim Crow era was different than Black on White crime. Citing Catherine MacKinnon's work, we need to accept that there is an existing hierarchy of social privilege and violence" and that this "can have broader civil rights implications."

If you share Manne's view, one thing you can do is to tell others about this argument, including victims of domestic violence, because helping people understand these matters can go some way toward empowering the victims, whether solely in their own minds and hearts, whether it helps them explain their situations and feelings to others about whom they care, or whether it moves them to seek legal redress.

Manne writes, "Thus my argument is that private acts of violence committed in the most personal of settings have a wide-spread and devastating impact on an entire class of citizens. Every year between 1,500 and 3,000 women are killed by their intimate partners.... Even if you do everything right to protect yourself, he can still get you. Recognizing both the severity and the breath of the problem makes it all the more clear that new policy is required. This new policy needs to be premised on the understanding that the real tragedy of intra-family violence is not the bruises and broken bones, but the broken psyches and violated rights. It is therefore not appropriate to treat the violence simply as a criminal justice matter. The criminal justice system is, by its very nature, reactive. What we need is a pro-active, preventative model for addressing domestic violence. This new model should allow for routine check-ups on families with a history of violence, mandatory counseling for offenders, economic assistance for women fleeing violence, GPS monitoring of high-risk reoffenders, and other simple but important tools to prevent repeat abuse... It is time for America to bring out the big guns to combat a problem of this magnitude: the tools designed to fight civil rights violations."

Another kind of major initiative, which every individual and every group can join, is the recently-created National Partnership to End Interpersonal Violence (http://www.uncg.edu/psy/npeiv/), which is helping to promote a Stop the Abuse! campaign (http://www.uncg.edu/psy/npeiv/summary.pdf ) aimed to end every kind of violence between people. Its organizers hope that, by raising awareness of the seriousness of all kinds of interpersonal violence as, for instance, Mothers Against Drunk Driving transformed the ways that people think about drunk driving and what should be done about it, they will have a major impact on these various forms of abuse.

If you go to the URLs listed above, you can find out how to join in this campaign of major importance.

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an Associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former Fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program. more...

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