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Rethinking domestic violence: learning to see past the stereotypes

By Sherry Hamby

The common stereotypes about battered women are wrong and not based on up-to-date science. Here are five common myths about battered women and the real truths about the realities and complexities of domestic violence.

Myth #1

Battered women keep domestic violence a secret.

Reality: Countless research studies show that most battered women disclose their partner’s violence to at least one person—about 80% to 90% of victims in many studies. Victims not only tell, they often tell multiple people and agencies. The problem is not that women don’t tell, it is that they do not receive useful help when they do disclose.

Myth #2

Victims just need to call the police.

Reality: Police officers cannot offer a cure-all for domestic violence. Police arrest perpetrators less than half the time when they are called to the scene of domestic violence incidents, according to the most recently available national data. Worse, arrested perpetrators seldom go to jail—approximately five out of six perpetrators arrested for domestic violence never serve any jail time.


Myth #3

Battered women don’t seek professional help.

Reality: Despite the limitations of police and victim services in many communities, battered women seek help at rates that are similar to people facing other problems. Battered women report to the police at rates that are similar to many other crime victims, and also similar to the helpseeking of people with psychological problems such as depression and anxiety.

Myth #4

Battered women just need to leave.

Reality: All sorts of dangers can increase when women try to leave, including separation violence, stalking, and increased homicide risk. Further, custody battles and other risks can, in some ways, pose even greater threats to women’s well-being and that of their children. We all wish that there was a simple solution like walking out, but the reality is far more complex.

Myth #5

Most women need professional help to cope with domestic violence.

Reality: Most women cope with the problem of domestic violence with informal helpseeking. In nationally representative data, it was ten times more common for women to go to a friend or family’s house than to a domestic violence shelter.

If you want to help women who have been victims of domestic violence, listen to their assessments of what is important, respect their values, and help them come up with a plan or seek resources that address all of the complexities and realities of domestic violence.

Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., is Research Professor of Psychology and Director of the Life Paths Research Program at the University of the South. She is author of Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know.

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Image Credit: Violencia de género. Photo by Concha García Hernández. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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