Critically evaluate the main explanations of violence against women - Sociology Essay Example

This essay aims to investigate and evaluate the main explanations concerning violence against women - Critically evaluate the main explanations of violence against women introduction. In order to achieve this we will first look at the history of domestic violence, as this illustrates how attitudes and policies have altered over the decades. However, the main focus will rest on the explanations put forward by various academics as to why this violence may occur. Before evaluating the above it is important to point out that women who experience domestic violence can be of any age, or from any background or ethnic group.

Some of the most common forms of abuse are portrayed through physical or sexual violence, which tends to take place in the home. However there is major difficulty in identifying these forms of violence, as women are often reluctant to seek help for a number of reasons. Also economic necessity can also be a major factor in the reluctance to seek help. Whatever the reason it is important to remember that domestic violence drastically undermines a woman’s confidence and the fact that they do not always receive an appropriate response from statutory services, makes it far more understandable as to why they remain in violent relationships.


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Violence towards women within a domestic situation is far from a contemporary issue, for hundreds of years it has been present in the lives of many women. Over the centuries women have rarely been treated as equals, often being viewed merely as the chattels of their husbands. In turn their role in life has been mainly to ensure their husbands contentment and to execute his demands and desires, be these domestic or sexual. Such ‘chastisement’ came to be accepted not only as a bona fide form of patriarchal domination, but as an inevitable element of daily life and a way of maintaining social order ( Dobash & Dobash 1980).

Moreover, by 1915 a London Police Magistrate ruled that; “The husband of a nagging wife could beat her at home provided the stick he used was no thicker than a mans thumb” (Young 1976 cited in Dobash&Dobash 1980: 74). 1 Both the law and the general public supported his right to privacy and as a result, there was little protection for wives who experienced abuse from their partners. As we can see, throughout history domestic violence was commonplace for many married women. Therefore, the problem continued to exist because the causes that effect the perpetuation of domestic violence had not been tackled.

The greatest reform in the area of domestic violence came in the 1970s and was mainly influenced by the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Women came together and the issue of domestic, interpersonal and sexual violence became highlighted. This resulted in the first Women’s Aid Federation being set up by women, for women, in 1974. Refuges provided a safe place for a woman to stay with her siblings. Although only 40 refuge groups existed at the time, by 1977 the number of groups had rapidly grown to over one hundred (WAFE 2001).

However, at this time protection for women victims under civil and family law was almost impossible except in the cases of divorce and domestic violence was not accepted as a reason for being homeless. The continued lobby for changes in legal framework by the Women’s Aid Federation resulted in the passing of the first Domestic Violence Act in 1976, which allowed a married or cohabiting woman to; “Obtain a court order aimed at preventing further violence and to exclude her violent partner from the shared home” (Womensaid. org. uk 2001:3).

In addition, by the following year, domestic violence was directly included in the homelessness legislation. Thus, women and children who were victims of abuse were classed as being in ‘priority need’ that resulted in local authorities having to find them alternative accommodation (ibid). Police policies and practices concerning domestic violence have been much slower to change. Domestic violence was viewed by police as a private matter, taking place within the family. It has been suggested that the police actively avoided arrest in domestic violence incidents (Hilton 1993; Bourlet 1990). 2

However, the Home Office Circular in 1990 recommended that the police should adopt an approach of intervention. With this Greater Manchester Police developed a force wide policy and specific Domestic Violence Officer posts were created within Family support Units. Also the continued monitoring of policy and legislation by Women’s Aid in recent years has influenced the Housing Act and Family law Act of 1996(WAFE 2001). Today the issue of domestic violence no longer holds the resounding silence that it did many years ago and violence against women has become very much a public issue and as Tierney summed up; Wife beating has become the object of media attention and government policy, not because of an increase in its frequency, or because the public has become more concerned, but because a social movement developed in the 1970’s to help battered women” (Cited in; Barnett 1993:86) Conversely, although the legal right for a man to beat his wife is no longer recognised in western countries today, there remains a widespread resistance amongst perpetrators to acknowledge domestic violence as a ‘public’ issue.

There is also a clear consensus view that domestic violence occurs to a certain extent in all societies irrespective of class, race, culture and religion, be it wife, husband, partner in both heterosexual or homosexual relationships (WAFE 2001). In addition, the same applies where the abuser is concerned. There are no set models of an abuser or their behaviours ( Freeman 1979, Gelles 1987). However, certain patterns have suggested that men of working class backgrounds are more commonly found to be abusive towards their partners.

Some would argue that certain factors such as daily stress, frustration of unemployment etc, may contribute to this unacceptable behaviour( Ibid). In contrast, it could be argued that these reasons are merely excuses created in order to explain domestic assaults and to reduce the blame from men onto some other socially created problem. Yet again situations are being used as a scapegoat for men’s abuse and the true seriousness and root of the problem is being ignored leaving women in potentially dangerous positions with little chance of a solution. 3

Domestic violence can, and does occur in many manifestations. It can range from emotional abuse such as shouting, blackmailing, isolation from friends and family or belittling comments, to physical attacks of varying degrees of severity ranging from a ‘gentle’ push to a kick, rape and in some cases death. Although there are many definitions of domestic violence, Barron et al (1992) define this form of abuse as: “Threats, intimidation, manipulation, isolation, keeping a woman without money, locked in, deprived of food, or using (and abusing) her children in various ways to frighten her or enforce compliance.

It can also include systematic criticism and belittling comments”. Therefore, when we combine both physical and emotional attacks/threats such as ‘if you leave me ‘I’ll kill you’ or ‘your not taking the children’ apart from ‘fear’ and the lack of personal finances and a place to go, we begin to understand why so many women find it hard to leave a violent relationship. Moreover, various causes or reasons have been put forward for the occurrence of domestic violence in a relationship.

Many of these are individual reasons, which could lead to a violent act or nature, but some instances of violence result from a combination of a variety of factors and situations that combined, cause an abusive situation or personality. One of the most influential recognised experts in domestic violence is Dr Leonore Walker. She has made a great contribution to both psychology and to the battered women’s movement and grounds her analysis in feminist research, which relies heavily on the psychological theory effects on women.

She draws upon the model of ‘learned helplessness’. Emerging from her work is the cycle theory of violence. This consists of three phases, the first being the ‘tension phase’, where the woman attempts to please her partner to avoid abuse. The second being the ‘explosion phase’, where the abuse actually occurs, at this stage the abuser has control over when the violence will stop. The third being the ‘contrition phase’, where the abuser is apologetic and loving. 4 In turn, the woman hopes to maintain this phase so as the other phases will not occur.

Walker believes that over time the woman “becomes an accomplice to her own battering” and that ” in order to break this cycle of violence, they must first become aware of the pattern” (Cited in Whalen, 1996: 63/69). In complete contrast, Gondolf (1998) criticises Walkers theories as “victim blaming; (Whalen 1996; 62). Another explanation for the causes of domestic violence can be seen through family violence in that events and behaviours that occur within the family situation happen out of sight of the rest of the community.

The family exists in the private sphere where actions of abuse and deviant behaviour go unnoticed or ignored and accepted as ‘normal’ family or social behaviours, supported by such phrases, as ‘A man’s house is his castle’. It could be said that this is a result of the patriarchal society which is predominantly governed by men in which men make the decisions institutionally and culturally, in turn this reflects on societies norms and values that we as women must aspire to. Therefore such instances of abuse become and are accepted as the ‘norm’ throughout society. Feminists support this statement, their central argument being: That the brutalisation of an individual wife by an individual husband is not an individual or ‘family’ problem. It is simply one manifestation of male domination which has existed historically and cross culturally” (Yllo, 1983. Cited in Dallos & McLaughlin (1998).

Throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, we are constantly reminded of the differences between men and women. We are organised into and treated in accordance with traditionally perceived gender roles. Such gender roles are assigned at birth and continue to be sustained by various influences such as education, media, environment and society as a whole. Gender refers to socially prescribed patterns of behaviour attached to sex. It is a social construct and relates to societies conception of the attitudes, qualities and roles appropriate for men and women” (Haywood 1989:157). 5 In early childhood young girls are taught to be feminine, submissive and caring. Young boys on the other hand are taught to be dominant, strong and aggressive. Such gender ideals can be seen through the types of play activities undertaken by children. Young boys play soldiers; climb trees, and other such stereotypical masculine behaviours.

Conversely, young girls are given toys such as baby dolls and prams as an introduction to their future role as a mother and carer. It is through the continual perpetuation and support given to these roles that men continue to view themselves as dominant and as having control. It is important to mention that it is not merely the family who perpetuate and support this gender ideology, but the whole of society and very often the media play a large dangerous part in dividing the sexes. The media, throughout time, has portrayed motherhood, home and relationships as being the main interests in young girls and women’s lives (Haywood 1989).

The media also portrays images of women as objects, often degrading them as sexual objects. It could be said that presenting women as objects only devalues them and leaves them open to many instances of unacceptable behaviour by men within society. Moreover, it is important to mention that no single cause exists to explain all instances of this form of abuse. However, a combination of various situations and beliefs could help to explain or at least better understand this phenomenon. Sadly, many of the believed causes of domestic violence are myths created by societies beliefs and structure.

These myths have been created to protect society and its institutions in order to hide a very serious problem. “The myths are a form of defence mechanism, the family is an important social institution and the myths have grown up as shields to protect it” (Freeman 1979:134). In addition, women who find themselves in such situations, often inadvertently perpetuate the myth of provocation as they may often blame themselves for an attack as they are able to comprehend why such genuine requests, in order to provide for children and other such areas of day to day life could cause such a reaction. 6

In relation to the provocation myth, more often than not the victim of an abusive attack has merely asked for money to buy food, clothes for children, does not have a meal ready on time or does not engage in sexual activity. Furthermore, “women are generally seen as contributing to the violence, which justifies men’s actions and ignores the intentional nature of violence” (Jukes, 1990:3), The fact is that no one deserves to be beaten or mentally tortured in any way. Furthermore, the common assumption that domestic violence only occurs in working class or problem families follows a similar pattern rooted in myth.

Domestic violence has been found to exist throughout society and culture regardless of class or status. This distribution may not be equal but it is a distribution. However, people who fall into the lower status groups have emerged as being the predominant abusers with such excuses as unemployment, frustration, and a lack of resources given as explanation. Moreover, mentioning Strauss work can support this. He believed that: “The basis for the wide belief in social class difference in attitudes towards violence is the fact that the lower classes live in a situation where violence is present and often necessary for self preservation.

They do not favour the violence any more than middle class people but the blue collar group seems to differ in regarding violence as inevitable – even through disliked and disapproved – aspect of life” (Strauss cited in Freeman 1979:134). Therefore, it appears to be the case of the lower classes being normalised towards violence in order to compete and survive, than being the more violent members of society. Furthermore, where the middle classes are concerned, it could be said that violence is more hidden due to embarrassment, as it would corrode the image of maintaining a higher status.

Also, little research exists on middle class violence. We therefore are unable to grasp the true extent of its occurrence as we do with the lower class members of society. In addition middle class individuals tend to have the better financial resources and often refrain from seeking help from friends and family or using the network of resources aimed at members of the working class sector. Thus, they tend to keep violence hidden away from the general view of others. 7 Peterson debated this issue in 1980 when he concluded that: Stress and poverty by themselves are not sufficient to explain the violence, as many poor families are not affected, women battering and stress occur right across the social spectrum” (Hearn 1998:30). Likewise Stanko recently acknowledged the fact that: “Prosperity doesn’t protect against domestic violence. The stress of poverty makes some impact but there is not an overwhelming difference across the classes” (Daily Express Oct. 2000). Moreover, it is important to note that there are no set victims or abusers.

Anyone can be raped or rape and any individual can encounter domestic violence, these myths merely create more danger towards women. Various views that exist surrounding the issue of domestic violence, tend to include a belief that abusers often carry out acts of violence due to a sick or inadequate personality, that he is a psychopath or an alcoholic. Alcohol is found to be present in many incidents of domestic violence, yet often an abuser is violent whether drunk or sober. Therefore, alcohol is not the causal agent it is assumed to be.

Alongside this, Barnett (1993) indicated that drinking was much more likely to be a consequence, rather than a precursor, of abuse. In turn, it could be argued that such explanations are applicable to only a small number of men who abuse their partners. Another common assumption is the cycle of violence explanation, which claims that violent role models may play a part in why men continue to beat their wives or partners. “The uncontrollable anger of a violent man emanates from unresolved conflicts with his parents, resulting in a displacement of anger and aggression onto the most convenient targets in his life – his wife and girlfriends….

Unmet needs are created in childhood and express themselves as violence in later life” (Dobash & Dobash, Cited in: Dallos & McLaughlin, 1993:17) In contrast, it can be argued that men who have been raised in non- violent homes also too commit these acts of violence. The problem with these explanations is that they are not plausible when more general evidence is taken into account. 8 Moreover, Smith (1989), suggests the pathological discourse view offers ” an exceptionalist explanation of a universal problem” (Cited in: Kelly & Radford, 1996:183).

Therefore it could be argued that the idea of pathological explanations and many other believed causes lack credence, as they tend to seek out a single exceptional explanation of the problem which, in reality, is a multidimensional problem inherent within culture and society. Furthermore, given the prevalence of domestic abuse in our society, it could be argued that patriarchy continues to generate the conditions and relationships that lead a man to use force against his partner.

Patriarchal domination through force is still supported by a moral order, which reinforces hierarchy and in turn makes it difficult for a woman to struggle against this and any other forms of domination and control. Moreover, It could be said that this multidimensional problem continues to be sustained through lack of assistance by police and judicial systems. In the past, and indeed to some extent today, the police and the courts treatment of domestic violence has been condemned. Once again we encounter the public – private sphere ideology.

The police themselves have assisted in maintaining this ideology of ‘a man’s home is in his castle’ in some cases, by not responding directly to disputes in the past and by treating them as a non-criminal matter. Another aspect of poor response by police in domestic violence matters is related to the use of stereotyped ideology when prosecuting perpetrators of domestic violence. However, “some policy changes have recently been made to address the problem, and domestic violence is now recognised as a criminal offence” (Mullender 1997:53). In London alone, by 1991, over 40 jurisdictions had set up special units to monitor domestic violence and the Home Office guidelines of July 1990 recommended the establishment of such units in all Police forces” (Radford, cited in Kelly 1996:74). Conversely, Cretney& Davis (1995), found that in many cases officers used time delay as a tactic to effectively ‘test out’ a woman’s commitment to prosecution, therefore ensuring that any decision to arrest and charge is unlikely to be followed through.

They found by doing so there was less likely to be a charge brought in the first place, therefore less likelihood of any necessary paperwork, retractions by the woman, or complaints of false arrest by the man. It would appear even now, in a supposedly egalitarian society where there is meant to be an abhorration of domestic violence, certain public institutions are still allowing it to continue and perpetuate. Therefore, Distrust of and poor reactions from police and other institutions has assisted in leading women to believe that there is no one whom she can trust or turn to where the protection of herself and her family are concerned WAFE 2001).

After considering the reactions of the police it is not surprising that many women remain in abusive relationships. Although this is not the main reason why they stay, it could be argued that reactions by police are a contributing factor. However there are a number of reasons as to why women do not leave violent relationships. A major problem that can prevent a woman from leaving can be the economic dependence on a partner. Often women with small children are for the majority, unable to seek work due to childcare commitments and as a result may fall into the poverty trap.

Also, for many women who experience abuse, children are usually involved and this is perhaps the greatest reason why women are staying in abusive relationships. When addressing the statistical data surrounding domestic violence, evidence is very much under represented. Therefore it is impossible to assess how many women leave or remain in a violent relationship. However, statistics are available as to how many women experience partner abuse. This can be seen in the analysis of the 1992 British Crime Survey, which showed that 11% of women, who had lived with a partner, had at some point experienced domestic violence.

In addition a survey undertaken in 1996 showed that 60% of victims had been abused by their current partner and 21% by their ex partners (Pilcher 2000). Of these cases two thirds had been punched or kicked and required some form of medical attention and about 3% required hospital treatment (ibid). Furthermore, in 1997 of the 835,00 domestic violence incidents reported, 70% were women victims (Pilcher 2000). 10 Although inadequacies exist within the data produced by criminal statistics, the British Crime Survey continue to represent an important source of data.

However, it is important when addressing the above statistics to bear in mind that these only accounts for the reported cases of domestic violence, which leaves the true picture greatly, underestimated. In conclusion, it is clear that domestic violence is not only created and perpetuated by various myths within society, but also presents itself as a multidimensional problem with no single causal factor that can specifically explain all cases of domestic assault; therefore leaving the responsibility in the hands of those that commit it, not the victims of such abuse or other false blames.

Therefore, it could be argued that the patriarchal structures of many families and ideologies that surround marriage and parenthood may actually create a situation in which the signals of dysfunction, which should be apparent, may actually go unnoticed and indeed, merely serve to further empower men to exert their control over their female partners and their children. In turn, patriarchal nature of society and culture plays a substantial part in the perpetuation of many of the previously highlighted causes of domestic violence, and thus could be said to be the main root of the problem.

Furthermore, Men, at every level of society, have refused to accept the blame for many crimes against women. Preferring instead to blame violent acts on such myths as alcohol, provocation, and frustration, again directing the blame onto any aspect of the victim’s behaviour or societal problem instead. What is desperately needed is a complete restructure and education of beliefs and ideology of family lessons in relation to gender roles, and a ceasation of all types of violence within the home in order to reduce the effects and normalisation of violence.

Once achieved than perhaps we will be able to abolish the patriarchal ideology of society and move to a more egalitarian approach towards society and gender relations. A society where women are no longer restricted to where they can go, what they can do, and where men no longer control every aspect of society and thus see it as their natural right to dominate society and women in often violent ways. Until such changes are made we cannot begin to see an end to the struggle faced by many women against male dominance, power, and violence within society.

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