Abuse Revisited: A Feminist Challenges the Conventional Wisdom about Domestic Violence

By Young, Cathy | Reason, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Abuse Revisited: A Feminist Challenges the Conventional Wisdom about Domestic Violence


Young, Cathy, Reason


FOR 15 YEARS or so, a fairly straightforward paradigm has dominated mainstream thinking about domestic violence policies. According to this conventional wisdom, domestic violence should not be treated as a "family problem," the way it often was in the past, but as a crime--one perpetrated primarily by men against women. (To this, the feminist analysis adds that men use violence as a deliberate strategy to subjugate women.) The proper response to the problem, we ate told, is to lock up and perhaps re-educate violent men while helping women get out of violent relationships.

Following this thinking, numerous jurisdictions and states passed laws that mandated arrests for domestic assault (treating such violence as not just equal to but more serious than non-domestic assaults, since no arrest is mandated in such cases) and encouraged prosecutions even when the alleged victim was unwilling to press charges.

The Violence Against Women Act, passed by Congress in 1994, institutionalized the traditional feminist view of family violence on a federal level, with grants for law enforcement, counseling, and judicial training programs based on the assumption that domestic violence involves male power and control over women and is best stopped by subjecting the perpetratot to the power and control of the state. Like the campaign against pornography, this policy shift represented a strange marriage of radical feminism to law-and-order conservatism.

There were always dissenting voices. Researchers such as Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire and Richard Gelles of the University of Rhode Island have argued that domestic abuse has complicated dynamics, often involving female as well as male violence. Criminologists such as Lawrence Sherman of the University of Maryland have cautioned that in many situations, mandatory arrest for domestic assault does not lead to a reduction in violence and could even cause it to escalate. Journalists, including myself, have covered cases of men and women who were caught up in the criminal justice system and either labeled as abusers on spurious pretexts or treated as victims when they felt more victimized by the system than by their partners.

Now Princeton University Press has published a fascinating new book by Linda G. Mills, Insult to Injury: Rethinking Our Responses to Intimate Abuse, which provides a strong boost for the dissenters' views. It is all the more impressive since Mills, a professor of social work at New York University who also teaches at the NYU School of Law, has solid feminist credentials. The 45-year-old scholar has spent a decade working on behalf of battered women. Moreover, as she reveals in her book, she herself was once in an abusive relationship.

Relying on studies and case histories, Mills concludes that using the "big stick" of the law as our dominant (or only) response to domestic violence ill-serves both women and men: "Using one approach only--beating the batterer and ignoring the wishes of the intimate partner--is hardly the route to diminishing violence." The orthodox feminist paradigm, Mills writes, ignores not only women's violence (in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships) but also the complexities in the lives and altitudes of women who are abused.

Studies show that hall of the women who go to shelters later return to their partners; prosecutors estimate that over hall of the victims in domestic assault cases are uncooperative.

To Mills, it is a mistake to view these women simply as "passive prisoners" of male power and patriarchal socialization. Often, "They stay because they have an intimate relationship with and emotional attachment to their partners, their children, and the life they have built. "To take crucial decisions about prosecuting a case out of these women's hands serves only to disempower them and to deny their personal agency.

Mills notes that orthodox feminists "argue that abusive men do not acknowledge their own power and should be accountable for it. …

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