Abuse Revisited

A feminist challenges the conventional wisdom about domestic violence.


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 are 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 perpetrator 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 attitudes of women who are abused.

Studies show that half of the women who go to shelters later return to their partners; prosecutors estimate that over half 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. Yet they, too, are guilty of the same behavior" when they force their ideology on unwilling women who are subjected to interventions by the criminal justice system.

Mills' book is not without flaws, and some aspects of her approach may undercut her case. Among these is an extremely broad definition of violence that renders the term almost meaningless. "I think [violence] exists along a continuum that includes emotional, financial, physical, and sexual violence," she writes. "My premise is that we have all experienced intimate violence."

Oddly, Mills accuses the orthodox feminists of uncoupling physical and emotional abuse and focusing only on physical abuse as an appropriate area of legal intervention. In fact, feminist literature—including pamphlets in domestic violence programs—often specifies that abuse need not be "physical" but can be verbal or psychological as well.

The real problem is the double standard. Verbal abuse by men is seen as part of a continuum of abuse, even as a justification for physical violence by women. Meanwhile, feminist dogma holds that verbal abuse by women never justifies violence by men.

Mills' laudable desire to look at women's aggression leads her, on occasion, to some strange places. Looking back at her own relationship many years ago with a man whose violence ranged from punches to forceful shoving to rape, she discusses her recent realization that she too contributed to the dynamic of abuse, even though she "cannot specifically identify the ways I set off his violence." Such a statement can only lend support to those who would accuse her of blaming victims and excusing batterers.

The real strength of Mills' book lies in her repudiation of a one-size-fits-all approach to domestic violence. She points out that in some cases, aggressive police and court intervention is appropriate, either because victims and/or their families want it or because there is a "great risk of harm."

Early in the book, she stresses the importance of making a distinction between the far end of the domestic violence spectrum involving one, usually male, partner's terrorism against the other, and the more common dynamics of couple violence. This commendable effort to distinguish different types of violent situations runs counter to her later attempt to squeeze virtually all intimate violence into the paradigm of a mutual dynamic of abuse and onto a single unbroken continuum.

Of great value as well is her emphasis on listening to the victims and allowing them, as much as possible, to control their fate: Except in severe and potentially life-threatening cases, she writes, "a woman should be free to choose her own intimate and family destinies, with or without criminal sanctions."

As an alternative to wholesale criminalization, Mills suggests "Intimate Abuse Assessment Teams," made up of mental health professionals who could evaluate the situation of a couple in a violent relationship, and "Intimate Abuse Circles," in which the couple could talk things out with the help of therapists, relatives, and community members.

Such a proposal has its own pitfalls: It's easy to imagine the practice degenerating into psychobabble that blames all violent acts on the perpetrator's unfortunate childhood or poor communication. But at the very least Mills' proposal is a welcome alternative to the present-day situation in which joint counseling is often prohibited as an option for couples involved in the criminal justice system.

As a new dogma, Mills' viewpoint would be problematic. As a challenge to current dogma, it is a breath of fresh air. One can only hope that its alternative message will be heard in the courses and seminars held across the country to educate counselors, law enforcement, and judges about domestic violence.