Comparisons of Moral Reasoning Levels between Battered and Non-Battered Women

By Busch, Noel Bridget | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Comparisons of Moral Reasoning Levels between Battered and Non-Battered Women


Busch, Noel Bridget, Journal of Social Work Education


VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN is a major social problem that requires well-informed, empirically grounded policy and practice responses. The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice (1998) indicates that approximately 1 million violent crimes are committed annually against persons by their current or former spouses or partners and women are victims in 8 of 10 of the cases. Slightly more than half of these women report having children under the age of 12 at home (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1998).

Several contemporary researchers identify stereotypes and challenge early research on battered women (Gelles, 1997; Herman, 1997; Pagelow, 1997; Ross & Glisson, 1991; Stark & Flitcraft, 1996). These authors maintain that previous studies often mistakenly focused on the victim's deficits and pathology, described the woman's hysteria, emphasized myths and stereotypes (Pagelow, 1997), and blamed the victim for her abuser's violence (Ross & Glisson, 1991). These pathological perspectives viewed battered women as having a contradictory set of attributes including personalities that are masochistic, immature, inadequate, incomplete, and sexually perverse (Herman, 1997; Pagelow, 1997; Stark & Flitcraft, 1996). Today, while most of the psychological literature is free from blatant untruths (Herman, 1997), victim blaming is common (Ewing & Aubrey, 1987). Public opinion about battered women is saturated with victim-blaming beliefs and negative stereotypes. Ross and Glisson (1991) find that social workers, like others, have judgmental attitudes toward battered women. One of these misconceptions may involve a critique of the victim's ability to distinguish "right" from "wrong" about her relationship. A popular belief is that battered women chose to be in relationships with violent partners (Gelles, 1997) and therefore make morally immature decisions. Because violence between adults is considered culturally "wrong," a popular belief ensues: battered women who stay in violent relationships condone the aggression, make the "wrong" choices to stay in their relationships, and therefore must be morally underdeveloped. Genes (1997) writes, "quite a few people believe that battered wives are somehow culpable, and their culpability is enforced by their decision not to leave. Nothing can be further from the truth" (p. 9). Although these beliefs are widespread, there is little empirical research to support these opinions.

Domestic violence research suggests that a woman's perceived choices are shaped by the degree to which she feels isolated, unsupported, physically weak, and confused by the trauma in her life (Johnson, 1992). Moreover, research suggests that the more controlled a woman is by her batterer, the more likely she is to feel stuck in the relationship (Johnson, 1992). Ultimately, these factors alter her perception of and ability to make a decision to leave an abusive relationship. Consequently, the public's judgment of a battered woman's moral development often surrounds the victim's decision to stay in her violent relationship. Research investigating public opinion about the stay/leave decisions of battered women indicates that many people believe that a battered woman can "simply leave" her abusive relationship and if she stays she is "emotionally disturbed" (Ewing & Aubrey, 1987, p. 261). While these results imply beliefs that battered women have choices, the truth may be that limited resources and a lack of viable alternatives to the abusive relationship may restrict their stay/leave choices.

In leaving an abusive relationship, a battered woman must balance her own and her children's safety and needs, including considerations of economics (homelessness and joblessness), community and family resources, and the danger of her abuser's retaliation (Gelles, 1997). Other studies investigated factors contributing to a battered woman's stay/leave decision and determined that a complex and often interdependent set of variables influences a woman's decision to stay or leave the violent relationship. …

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