The Web of Violence

Exploring violence and victimization

Domestic Violence: Learning to See Past the Stereotypes

Do you know the truth about domestic violence?

The stereotypes about battered women just won't go away, even in this era of so much rethinking of attitudes about many other stigmatized groups. These stereotypes may be stubborn—just like the negative stereotypes of other groups—but the stereotypes about domestic violence and battered women are wrong. Sadly, science has shown for years that some of them are wrong, but the myths are stronger than the reality. These are some of the most common myths about battered women and domestic violence and the real story, based on the latest scientific evidence.

Myth #1: Battered women keep domestic violence a secret.

Reality: Most battered women disclose domestic violence.

The real problem is that the people they tell either can't or won't help. Countless research studies show that MOST battered women disclose their partner's violence to at least one person—about 80% to 90% of victims in many studies. Victims not only tell, they often tell multiple people and agencies. The problem is not that women don't tell, it is that they do not receive useful help when they do disclose.

Myth #2: Victims just need to call the police.

Reality: Police often don't arrest batterers and batterers hardly ever serve jail time.

Still, even in 2014, calling the police is seldom a solution for domestic violence. In our new data from the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence, police arrested perpetrators only 47% of the time when they were called to the scene of domestic violence incidents. Further, arrested perpetrators seldom go to jail—approximately 5 out of 6 perpetrators arrested for domestic violence never serve any jail time. Finally, some of you reading this may be familiar with "mandatory arrest" laws, but in our data, perpetrators living in mandatory arrest states were not even more likely to make an arrest!

Myth #3: Battered women don't seek professional help.

Reality: Battered women seek professional help about as often as people with other similar problems.

Despite the limited professional response, battered women seek help at rates that are similar to people facing other problems. For example, battered women report to the police at rates that are similar to other crime victims. Further, battered women's helpseeking is similar to the helpseeking of people with psychological problems such as depression and anxiety.

Myth #4: Battered women just need to leave.

Reality: Sometimes leaving is the most dangerous thing a woman can do.

Danger often increases when women try to leave—or sometimes even they say they are just thinking about leaving. These dangers include separation violence, stalking, and increased homicide risk. In addition, custody battles and other risks can, in some ways, pose even greater threats to women's well-being and that of their children. We all wish that there was a simple solution like walking out, but the reality is far more complex.

Myth #5: Most women need professional help to cope with domestic violence.

Reality: Women can often rely on family and friends when domestic violence happens.

Most women cope with the problem of domestic violence with informal helpseeking. In nationally representative data, it was 10 times more common for women to go to a friend or family's house than to a domestic violence shelter.

Myth #6: Domestic violence is characterized by an endless "cycle of violence."

Reality: The "cycle of violence" came from a single, qualitative study more than 30 years ago. There is growing evidence that this does not describe every person who has committed violence. We need evidence-based practice that uses the best and most up-to-date research to inform practice and policy.

Domestic violence is a complicated problem that needs a thoughtful response that addresses all the many risk that many victims face. If you want to help women who have been victims of domestic violence, listen to their assessments of what is important, respect their values, and help them come up with a plan or seek resources that address all of the complexities and realities of domestic violence.

Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., is Research Professor of Psychology and Director of the Life Paths Research Program at the University of the South. She is author of Battered Women's Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know (Oxford University Press, 2014).  

Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., is a research professor of psychology at Sewanee, the University of the South.

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