Labeling Partner Violence: When Do Victims Differentiate among Acts?

Article excerpt

Domestic violence professionals have debated whether all physical assaults by partners should be labeled abuse. This study examined the use of labels such as "abuse," "victim," and "battered woman" in a sample of women (n = 78) who had sustained at least one physical assault in their current or most recent relationship. Self-labeling followed a differentiating strategy, that is, women experiencing more frequent and more severe assaults were more likely to apply labels. Lower partner income, being Black, lower relationship commitment, and having ended the relationship also were associated with increased self-labeling. Labeling of hypothetical acts followed an inclusive strategy, that is, all assaults were considered abusive. These results suggest that contextual factors influence labeling. Prevention and intervention programs may be able to increase their effectiveness by including more situational context in their messages.

When is a woman a battered woman? If her partner has physically assaulted her, is she battered as of the first time? The second? Must the assault be of a minimum level of severity? Relatively little empirical attention has been paid to these questions, although it is clear that the answers are a source of controversy. On the one hand, some domestic violence professionals advocate using labels such as "battering" for all physical violence (e.g., Hamberger & Arnold, 1989), what might be called an "inclusive" perspective. Advocates of this perspective assert that if the definition of battering needs to be changed at all, then it should be made broader to incorporate all acts of coercive control (Stark, 1995). They argue that applying a "calculus of harms" (Stark, 1995, p. 980) that discriminates among victims of violence can lead to minimizing some forms of violence. Such a strategy may limit the scope of public policy and intervention, and in the long run, reduce protection for assault victims. Most prevention and intervention programs in western countries adopt an inclusive strategy; that is, the definitions of "abuse" and "violence" tend to be broad and the cessation of all violence, including controlling and abusive behavior, is the treatment goal (e.g., Gondolf, 1995; McMahon & Pence, 1996; Pence & Paymar, 1993; also see Feldman & Ridley, 1995, for a review). Recent policy initiatives tend to adopt an inclusive perspective as well (e.g., Domestic Violence: Probation Act of California, 1995; Department of Public Health, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1995).

Other professionals argue that there are equal dangers in labeling all violence the same (e.g., Rouse, 1989). From this "differentiating" perspective, using the same terms for all physical force trivializes the experiences of women who have suffered the most horrific extremes of violence. Those advocating distinctions among levels and forms of violence suggest that their approach will be most helpful in terms of shaping theory, policy, and intervention because of the potential increases in specificity in each of these domains (Jacobson, Gottman, & Shortt, 1995; Johnson, 1995; O'Leary, 1996; Rouse, Breen, & Howell, 1988; Sedlak, 1988). Recent theoretical and empirical work suggests a marked trend in the direction of differentiating among levels of violence. Studies that differentiate among levels of violence are becoming increasingly common (e.g., Gottman et al., 1995). For example, many authors separate violence into minor forms, such as grabbing, versus more severe forms, such as beating up (Hamby, Poindexter, & Gray-Little, 1996; Sugarman, Aldarondo, & Boney-McCoy, 1996). Johnson (1995) has suggested that partner violence be divided into "patriarchal terrorism" and "common couple violence." These authors believe such a shift would have significant implications for the field.

Although the distinction between the inclusive and differentiating perspectives has been fairly well articulated among domestic violence professionals, little is known about the labeling strategies of women who have sustained physical assault by their partners. …