Social Work – Social Dilemma

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Being a fairly opened minded and non-judgmental person, I found myself in a dilemma trying to choose a group or social problem that I might have difficulty working with as a social worker. After considerable thought I realized that in reality there is a group of individuals I might not be comfortable or open-minded working with. The group I speak of is that of battered women. As horrible as it sounds, I have never felt a great deal sympathy for women who are abused by their husbands/boyfriends because I feel that they are downright weak. I often think to myself that it is the womans own fault for accepting the abuse. If the woman knows it is wrong, then why not just call the police? Why not just tell the abuser that they have a problem and that you are going to leave if they do not get treatment?

Maybe ask him where he got the idea that he is allowed to hit you? I think my views may be this way for many reasons. I have never known anyone that has been a victim of this, I have never seen it happen firsthand. Maybe I feel like I am stronger than these women, that I’m not afraid of anyone. Nobody has the right to hit me, and especially not my significant other. I realize that the abusive men almost always “come to their senses”, beg for forgiveness saying they lost their head for a minute and promise that it will never happen again. That is when the woman accepts the apology and all is well until the second time, and after that it becomes a vicious cycle. That is where I say “Hit me once, shame on you. Hit me twice, shame on me.” After the second beating I would be out the door, why would I want to stay?

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All through history men have been held responsible for their women and children. With that responsibility, men were given power. That is to say, men have historically had the power to use force to control the behavior of their dependents and were expected to use so-called reasonable force in the exercise of their responsibilities. At times reasonable force included death, and has typically included beatings and deprivation of food and other resources (Straus, Gelles, Steinmetz, 1980). To an extent, wife abuse was the right of a husband (Okun, 1986). The laws of chastisement date back to 753 B.C.. This law, also referred to as the “switch-thumb law”, allowed husbands to beat their wives with a rod or stick as long as its circumference was no larger that a man’s thumb. The rational for this law was that a wife was a man’s possession, like a cow, and he was responsible for her behavior. Therefore, he had the right to punish and discipline her (Okun, 1986).

The Christian Church also played a role in wife abuse. In the Rules of Marriage, by Friar Cherubino of Siena, it states: When you see your wife commit an offense…Scold her sharply, bully and terrify her. And if this still does not work…..take up a stick and beat her soundly, for it is better to punish the body and correct the soul (Okun, 1986). This privilege of “correcting” one’s spouse was given only to men (Okun, 1986). The right of a man to kill his wife existed until the 1600’s in Russia and even until the 1900’s in some localities. In England, husbands escaped punishment for murdering their wives until the 1800’s. Wives had no right to refuse to have sex with their husbands.

In fact, there was no such concept as “marital rape” until the 1970’s (Okun, 1986). In the 1880’s, England enacted several laws in order to protect women. These laws established life-threatening beatings as a ground for divorce, prohibited men from keeping their wives under lock and key, and deemed it illegal for a man to sell his wife into prostitution (Okun, 1986). The Constitution of the United States did not address issues regarding spouse relations, except for the fourth amendment which secures the privacy of the home. Thus, it was left up to state legislature to determine what was legal or illegal in regard to wife abuse. In 1864, North Carolina overturned the “finger-switch rule”. However, the court cautioned that a “man’s home is his castle” and that it was best to “draw the curtain’s” so that the spouses could “forget and forgive”. In 1871, Alabama and Massachusetts enacted a similar policy. In 1883, Maryland was the first state to outlaw wife beating.

By 1910, 35 of 46 states granted divorce on the grounds of physical cruelty and many states made wife beating prosecutable as an illegal assault. In spite of this, police and courts often overlooked wife-abuse. As a result, the custom of chastisement still prevailed (Okun, 1986). From the 1920’s until the 1970’s the plight of abused wives was rarely heard. However, it was rediscovered because of three factors. The first, Kempe and Helfer (1963) published a paper on battered child syndrome. This awakened public awareness regarding family violence. Second, the nation became more aware of violence due to the civil strife of the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s, and also due to the Vietnam War. Lastly, the emergence of the feminist movement made the public more aware of the injustices women faced both at home and in the work place (Okun, 1986).

The first shelter in the U.S.A. for battered women was opened in 1974. Currently there are over 600 shelters for battered women throughout the United States. Studies have been made regarding social policy in order to help and protect abused women. However, the problem is not yet resolved (Okun, 1986). There is a social stigma in regard to being an abused wife. One of the reasons for this is the many myths that exist in regard to wife abuse. These include: (1) Violence is a private affair. Unfortunately many people, including the police officers, believe this myth and hesitate to intervene. (2) Women provoke, want and/or enjoy the abuse they get. Most women try to please their abusive partner in hopes of preventing the abuse. In reality, the abuser is the only one responsible for his behavior because he chooses to beat his wife regardless of her behavior. 3) A separation is made between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims.

“Worthy” victims are those who leave their husbands and prosecute them. The “unworthy” victims are the women who stay married to their husbands or refuse to prosecute them. People who believe this myth fail to realize that abuse often escalates when women attempt to leave or prosecute, and that women are scared to leave due to the fact that they have no means of supporting themselves and their children (Wilson, 1997). You, as I did, might expect that if a woman had been beaten, she would not hesitate to seek help from law enforcement or a social service agency. Still there are several reasons why wife abuse often remains a hidden crime. To begin with, for many women the pain and inner shame prevent them from revealing their beatings. She unrealistically hopes that her abuser will change and become the charmingly affectionate and caring person he was when they were dating.

Many women are raised with the value system that they can change a wife-beater, and internalize the belief that their marriage is “for better or for worse”. When a man hits a woman for the first couple of times, he may apologize continuously, shower her with gifts, and promise not to do it again. The woman, in her desire to hold on to the relationship, will believe him because she wants it to be true (Berger, 1990). In many homes it is considered “normal” to have some level of violence between husband and wife. This is most likely to be the case when one or both partners have been exposed to violence as a child. A woman who saw her own mother being beaten may grow up believing that all men batter their wives. If she sees her abuse as “just the way things are,” it probably will not occur to her that she can take steps to end the violence (Okun, 1986).

Sociologists Murray Straus, Richard Gelles and Suzanne Steinmetz found in a 1980 survey, that one in four wives and one in three husbands thought that hitting ones spouse was a necessary and normal part of being married (Straus, Gelles, Steinmetz, 1980). Fortunately, spouse abuse is no longer considered acceptable behavior. On the other hand, some men continue to abuse their wives they fear sharing empowerment with them (McKenzie, 1995). A woman may also be unwilling to report the abuse because she fears reprisal by her husband. It is not unusual for a man to beat his wife even more severely if she calls the police or tells someone else about the abuse. Police intervention rarely provides a woman any real, immediate protection. Therefore many women come to the conclusion that calling the police is ineffective and that it will only increase the chance of getting an even worse beating (Straus, Gelles, 1980).

If and when a woman decides to press charges against her husband for abuse she is faced with new problems. Police often fail to respond to domestic violence adequately. They often do not file reports and rarely make arrests regarding wife abuse. Commonly throughout the country, police often decide to take the man for a “walk around the block” to “cool off”. When police fail to arrest abusers they reinforce the idea in the abusers mind that he can get away with beating his wife, and may lead to an even worse form of physical violence that may result in death for the victim (Hong, 1997). The few times that arrests were made, charges were often dropped, or judges gave extremely light sentences (Berger, 1990).

Another factor in under-reporting is that the majority of battered women blame themselves for the violence and thus feel too guilty, ashamed and embarrassed to tell anyone about the problem. Rather than face the anticipated disapproval and disgrace, they remain silent, hoping to avoid further battering by trying harder to please their husbands (Wilson, 1997). Finally, many battered women are married to men who hold positions of high standing in the community. Such a woman may not want to press charges against her abuser because she feels that he has the ability to take away her children and her home, and she is not willing to take that risk (Felder, Victor, 1996)

Through my research I learned much about the history of males acting abusive towards their wives. Also, I gained answers to many of the questions I had about the existing battered women in todays society and understand why it would be hard to get out of the situation. Learning of the problems mentioned in regards to law enforcement policy and the judiciary system will help me as a professional social worker. I now know that these problems must be reformed. Policemen must receive training regarding intervention methods with domestic abuse cases. They should be encouraged to arrest the abuser and file reports against him. Policemen who fail to do so should be penalized.

Additionally, previous files should be allowed to be presented in court so that the judge can have an accurate picture of the domestic situation. Convicted wife abusers should be sentenced to jail and receive psychological treatment in order to prevent reoccurrence. Finally, states should prosecute abusers regardless of the victims request. Another needed reform is that of an equal opportunity economic system. This would ensure that the battered women will have the opportunity to get sufficient jobs to support their families. It would also give these women the realistic option of leaving their husbands. Ultimately, only a society built on mutual respect, opportunity, and equality between the genders will prevent wife abuse.


Berger, G., Violence and The Family. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990 p.46-49

Felder, R., Victor, B. Getting Away With Murder. New York: Simon and Schuster Trade Division, 1996 p.19-20

Hong, M., Family Abuse A National Epidemic. Springfield: Enslow Publishers Inc., 1997 p.85-86

Mckenzie, V.M., Domestic Violence In America. Lawrenceville: Brunswick Publishing Corp., 1995 p.80

Okun, L., Women Abuse: Facts Replacing Myths. New York: Slate University Press, 1986 p.2-7, 166

Straus, M.A., Gelles, R.J., Steinmetz, S.K., Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. New York: Anchor Press, 1980 p.9-11, 47

Straus, M.A., Gelles, R.J., Intimate Violence. New York: Simon and Schuster Trade Division, 1988 p.24-25

Wilson, K.J., When Violence Begins At Home. Alameda: Hubter House Inc. Publishers, 1997 p.13-23

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