Evan Stark is a founder of one of the first shelters for abused women in the US and author of Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life . His book, which we have excerpted below, looks at the domestic violence and why law, policy and advocacy must shift their focus to emphasize how coercive control jeopardizes women’s freedom in everyday life.
In 1979, psychiatrist Alexandra Symonds, published an unusually candid article. When her profession dealt with families “where the main disturbance was violence against the wife or sweetheart,” she observed, they focused on how the women provoked their husbands, or how the women were getting satisfaction in some obscure way by being beaten. “The final proof of all this,” she wrote, “was invariably a learned statement such as ‘After all, why doesn’t she leave him?’” Symonds admitted that she, too, had been oblivious to the real situation of battered women earlier in her career. Although she had rejected the “myth of masochism” in favor of the woman-friendly ideas of Karen Horney and her school, she believed that the “dependent personality interacts with the aggressive, arrogant, vindictive personality in a mutually satisfying way.” This theoretical explanation had served her as “a convenient way to push aside an unpleasant and painful condition.” Symonds believed her defensive response to victims of violence was widely shared.
A year before Symonds’s article appeared, another psychiatrist, Elaine (Carmen) Hilberman, reported that 30 of 60 women referred to her for consultation at a rural clinic in North Carolina were being battered, often over many years. The referring clinicians had missed the abuse in all but four of these cases and focused instead on seemingly intractable behavioral or mental health problems. The psychiatric establishment in the 1970s believed women brought abuse on themselves because they were “masculine,” “frigid,” “overemotional” with “weakened ties to reality,” or had “inappropriate sexual expression.” But by the late 1980s, the “myth of masochism” and other transparent accounts that blamed the “wife-beater’s wife” for her abuse had been widely discredited, in no small part because of the work of feminist mental health professionals. Empirical work by psychologists and social workers had demonstrated that battered women had a better sense of reality than their assailants and, compared to nonbattered women, were actually more “social,” more “sympathetic,” less “masculine” though not necessarily more feminine, exhibited greater ego strength, and employed a greater range of strategies to change their situation than nonbattered women in distressed relationships.
And yet the same question, “Why doesn’t she leave him?” or its obverse, “Why does she stay?” continues to gnaw at the moorings of the domestic violence revolution. The durability of abusive relationships remains their central paradox. Everyone knows or knows about women who have exited, then returned to abusive relationships, often multiple times. Approximately half of the women who utilize emergency shelter return at least once to their abusive partner. For millions of women, violent partnerships, an oxymoron if there ever was one, is everyday reality.
“Honor killings” by fathers or brothers of women who have rejected their husbands remain common in Pakistan, Nigeria, and other fundamentalist societies. During the current U.S. occupation of Iraq, even women who were kidnapped by insurgents have been killed by their families because of their “disgrace.” Law, custom, and religion choke off the personal independence of millions of women in these societies from birth. But most women in liberal democratic societies are fully engaged in the market, enjoy full rights as citizens, and routinely end bad relationships for reasons much less substantial than life-threatening violence. This is illustrated by a remarkable statistic: between 1960 and 2000, the proportion of American women aged 20 to 24 who were married dropped from 70% to 23%. Dramatic sexual inequalities remain deeply embedded in economic and personal life in the United States and other highly industrialized societies. But inequality should not be confused with subordination.
Because women have such ready access to rights and resources in liberal democratic societies, it is widely assumed that if abusive relationships endure, it is because women choose to stay, a decision that seems counterintuitive for a reasonable person. The logical explanation is that women who make this choice are deficient psychologically or in some other respect. Yet researchers have failed to discover any psychological or background traits that predispose any substantial group of women to enter or remain in abusive relationships. Battered women do suffer disproportionately from a range of psychological and behavioral problems, including some, like substance abuse and depression, that increase their dependence and vulnerability to abuse and control. As we will see momentarily, however, these problems only become disproportionate in the context of ongoing abuse and so cannot be its cause…
Do Women Stay?
Underlying the question of why battered women stay are the beliefs that they have the opportunity to exit and that there is sufficient volitional space between abusive incidents to exercise decisional autonomy…these beliefs are demonstrably false in the millions of cases where abuse is unrelenting, volitional space closed, or decisional autonomy is significantly compromised. An equally controversial presumption implicit in the question is that exercising the option to leave will reduce a victim’s chance of being hurt or killed. In fact, around 80% of battered women in intact couples leave the abusive man at least once. These separations appear to decrease the frequency of abuse, but not the probability that it will recur. Indeed, the risk of severe or fatal injury increases with separation. Almost half the males on death row for domestic homicide killed in retaliation for a wife or lover leaving them. As we’ve also seen, a majority of partner assaults occur while partners are separated. So common is what legal scholar Martha Mahoney calls “separation assault” that women who are separated are 3 times more likely to be victimized than divorced women and 25 times more likely to be hurt than married women.
The fact that separation is hazardous is not news to battered women. Many of my clients have told me they were never more frightened than in the days, weeks, or months after they moved out. Abused women are much less likely than the professionals whose help they seek to regard decisions about physical proximity as means to end abuse and much more likely to regard separation as a tactical maneuver that carries a calculated risk within the orbit circumscribed by assault or coercive control. The disjuncture between what victims and outsiders expect from separation remains a major obstacle to effective intervention and communication in the field.
Evidence that abuse victims call police, seek protection orders, turn to health providers, and enter shelters in huge numbers discounts the claim that they are reluctant to seek help. But their aggressive help seeking raises another troublesome question: why hasn’t the proliferation of userfriendly services limited the duration of abuse in the same way antibiotics end strep infections? Again the answer has been sought by dissecting the victim’s beliefs and behavior rather than the perpetrator’s behavior or the inadequacy of the helping response. When the same victims call police repeatedly, repeatedly show up at the ER, or cycle in and out of shelter and the abusive relationship, it is hard to resist the conclusion that something is wrong with them. If advocates find this view politically untenable, it is continually reinforced by their experience. After receiving help, my clients have returned to live with and even married abusive men who raped them, stabbed them, burned them with cigarettes, tied them up and left them to die in a basement, killed their pets, or hurt their children. In a recent case, a senior at Hunter College beat her boyfriend with his own construction hammer during one of his dozens of assaults, leaving him partially paralyzed. Then, when she was out on bail, she married the man, apparently in response to pressure from his sister, because he promised not to testify if she did so, and because she felt guilt that he would no longer be able to earn a living. Even the most seasoned professionals are tormented by such cases. One common response is identified by Symonds and by Loseke’s study of the California shelter, to manage frustration by applying pseudo-psychiatric labels such as “hypochondriac” or “woman with well-known complaints” to battered women, effectively isolating them from future help. In the Yale Trauma Studies, 80% of all such labels we found on women’s medical records were applied to battered women.
Trauma theory offers a more helpful explanation: that women’s failure to utilize services effectively is a byproduct of their abuse. By giving professionals a handle on why women have failed to extricate themselves from abusive relationships, trauma theory encourages them to provide supportive counseling and other resources to victims albeit with limited expectations about success. This approach has been particularly useful in countries (such as Finland and Denmark) or in service sectors (like mental health, child welfare, or substance abuse treatment) where “feminist” ideas remain suspect. But in shifting attention from the perpetrator’s behavior to the victim’s response, trauma theory can also discredit a woman’s capacity for rational action while resurrecting the belief that her fate is in her hands.