Intimate Partner Violence: A Psychological Diagnosis of Social Pathology

Article excerpt

Every year, 2.2 million people in the United States are physically assaulted by an intimate partner. Although men may also suffer physical abuse in either same sex or heterosexual relationships, women account for 85% of the victims of intimate partner violence1. Indeed, about 1 in 4 American women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.2 3 Incredibly, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to U.S. women between the ages of 15 and 44; more common than automobile accidents, muggings, and cancer deaths combined. And yet, compared to women in the rest of the world, my American sisters and I have it good. Many immigrant women that I have interviewed speak with unmistakable envy - and some irritation-toward their Western sisters who have the "luxury" of calling 911 for assistance when a partner performs an act that is criminal in the U.S. but considered a male privilege in their country of origin. Even when relocated to the United States, immigrant women import their countries' perils with them, as many fear that a call for assistance with a domestic assault will result in deportation for them or their partner. Wherever they are from, women suffer a disproportionate share of private and public violence. Charlotte Bunch, a leading advocate for women's rights, reminds us of the gross inequities that plague women from Dumbo, Brooklyn to Darfur, Africa.

Imagine a people routinely subjected to assault, rape, sexual slavery, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, verbal abuse, mutilation, even murder - all because they were born into a particular group... Such a group exists. Its members comprise half of humanity. Yet it is rarely acknowledged that violence against women and girls, many of whom are brutalized from cradle to grave simply because of their gender, is the most pervasive human rights violation in the world today (p.l).4

-Domestic violence does not occur in a vacuum. Whether in the United Arab Emirates-where beating one's wife has been declared by the high court to be within a husband's rights to discipline his spouse-or in Sweden, where charges may be brought against a man who seriously and repeatedly violates a women's "integrity" with or without physical assault-all partner abuse should be understood not only in terms of the interpersonal dynamics of couples caught in its destructive grip but in the context of the institutionalized norms that promote and maintain gender inequality. Attorney Bonita Meyersfield has observed the immutable connection, writing that "systemic intimate violence against women is not a case-by case peculiarity, but often a manifestation of social views, perceptions, priorities, and customs" that maintain status quo arrangements between men and women.5 As Sweden has demonstrated with its broadened definition of offenses against women in intimate relationships6, the amelioration of gendered violence may be at least partially contingent on changes to traditionally patriarchical arrangements in law and culture. Sweden, considered progressive on issues of gender equality, has substantially lower rates of domestic violence than even its most liberal Western counterparts.7

Sociologist William Graham Sumner's famous dictum that stateways cannot change folkways, has not proved out. Particularly regarding gender and sexuality, changes in both law and in psychiatric nomenclature seem to have paved the way for greater acceptance of previously deviantized behaviors from masturbation to homosexuality to women's desire to vote, even as shifting cultural norms may have emboldened legislatures, magistrates, and medical societies to oversee revisions previously considered unthinkable. Both formal law and institutionalized regulatory systems (such as psychiatric diagnoses) reflect underlying political beliefs and promote specific agendas. Methods of social control are inevitably hierarchical, with groups in power reflexively constructing things in a way that upholds their authority and keeps unempowered groups marginalized. …