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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 according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

 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 sub·ju·gate  
tr.v. sub·ju·gat·ed, sub·ju·gat·ing, sub·ju·gates
1. To bring under control; conquer. See Synonyms at defeat.

2. To make subservient; enslave.
 women.) The proper response to the problem, we ate told, is to lock up and perhaps re-educate re·ed·u·cate also re-ed·u·cate  
tr.v. re·ed·u·cat·ed, re·ed·u·cat·ing, re·ed·u·cates
1. To instruct again, especially in order to change someone's behavior or beliefs.

 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 in·sti·tu·tion·al·ize  
tr.v. in·sti·tu·tion·al·ized, in·sti·tu·tion·al·iz·ing, in·sti·tu·tion·al·iz·es
a. To make into, treat as, or give the character of an institution to.

 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 perpetratot to the power and control of the state. Like the campaign against pornography, this policy shift represented a strange marriage of radical feminism Radical feminism is a "current"[1] within feminism that focuses on patriarchy as a system of power that organizes society into a complex of relationships producing a "male supremacy"[1] that oppresses women.  to law-and-order conservatism.

There were always dissenting voices. Researchers such as Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire New Hampshire, one of the New England states of the NE United States. It is bordered by Massachusetts (S), Vermont, with the Connecticut R. forming the boundary (W), the Canadian province of Quebec (NW), and Maine and a short strip of the Atlantic Ocean (E).  and Richard Gelles of the University of Rhode Island History
The University was first chartered as the state's agricultural school in 1888. The site of the school was originally the Oliver Watson Farm, and the original farmhouse still lies on the campus today.
 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 University of Maryland can refer to:
  • University of Maryland, College Park, a research-extensive and flagship university; when the term "University of Maryland" is used without any qualification, it generally refers to this school
 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 Princeton University, at Princeton, N.J.; coeducational; chartered 1746, opened 1747, rechartered 1748, called the College of New Jersey until 1896. Schools and Research Facilities
 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 New York University, mainly in New York City; coeducational; chartered 1831, opened 1832 as the Univ. of the City of New York, renamed 1896. It comprises 13 schools and colleges, maintaining 4 main centers (including the Medical Center) in the city, as well as the  who also teaches at the NYU NYU New York University
NYU New York Undercover (TV show) 
 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 altitudes of women who are abused.

Studies show that hall of the women who go to shelters later return to their partners; prosecutors estimate that over hall 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 socialization /so·cial·iza·tion/ (so?shal-i-za´shun) the process by which society integrates the individual and the individual learns to behave in socially acceptable ways.

. Often, "They stay because they have an intimate relationship An intimate relationship is a particularly close interpersonal relationship. It is a relationship in which the participants know or trust one another very well or are confidants of one another, or a relationship in which there is physical or emotional intimacy.  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 dis·em·pow·er  
tr.v. dis·em·pow·ered, dis·em·pow·er·ing, dis·em·pow·ers
To deprive of power or influence.

 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, ate 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 verbal abuse Psychology A form of emotional abuse consisting of the use of abusive and demeaning language with a spouse, child, or elder, often by a caregiver or other person in a position of power. See Child abuse, Emotional abuse, Spousal 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 of 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 late: 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 crim·i·nal·ize  
tr.v. crim·i·nal·ized, crim·i·nal·iz·ing, crim·i·nal·iz·es
1. To impose a criminal penalty on or for; outlaw.

2. To treat as a criminal.
, 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 pit-falls: It's easy to imagine the practice degenerating into psychobabble psy·cho·bab·ble
Psychological jargon, especially that of psychotherapy.
 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.

Contributing Editor A contributing editor is a magazine job title that varies in responsibilities. Most often, a contributing editor is a freelancer who has proven ability and readership draw.  Cathy Young This article is about the writer. For the New York State Senator, see Catharine Young.

Cathy Young (Ekaterina Jung) (b. 1963 Soviet Union) is a journalist and writer.
 ( is a columnist for The Boston Globe and the author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality (Free Press).
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Title Annotation:Columns
Author:Young, Cathy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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