Explanations for Wife Assault:
Psychiatry, Sociobiology, and
John Stuart Mill's attribution of wife assault to the 'mean and savage natures' of some men exemplifies nineteenth-century explanations of human behavior: actions were attributed to an inferred construct residing within the person — a construct referred to as human nature. Such reasoning was clearly circular: the construct was considered to be the cause of behavior, but the only proof for the former's existence was the latter. Considerable credence was given to a belief that human nature, be it savage or superior, was the product of breeding.
Early twentieth-century attempts to explain wife assault were based on case studies of men who had been incarcerated for the crime. Those cases were either exceptional in the extent of their violence (since nothing short of extreme assault or attempted murder led to conviction [Fields 1978]) or else were revealed during psychiatric treatment of individuals who were being tended for other psychological problems. These few exceptional case studies served as a basis for the overgeneralized conclusion that all men who assault their wives do so because of pathology or psychiatric disorder. Clinical syndrome explanations of wife assault attributed it to pathological dependency (Snell, Rosenwald, & Robey 1964; Faulk 1974), brain lesions such as temporal lobe epilepsy (Elliot 1977), or sadistic character (Pizzey 1974). Such explanations helped to reinforce the view of wife assault as rare and the men who committed it as unusual, atypical, and pathological.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) (American Psychiatric Association 1981) contains a variety of disorders that share symptomatologies with descriptions of wife assaulters given by their victims (Rounsaville 1978; Rosenbaum & O'Leary 1981), by