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An ethnographic assessment of the policing of domestic violence in rural eastern Kentucky.

I. Introduction

As Dobash and Dobash (1992) have argued, the last two decades have seen a marked growth in our awareness about domestic violence. They attribute this growth to the battered women's movement and to feminist demands for change. We now have various studies that, by drawing upon the experiences of battered women, capture the nature and extent of interpersonal violence against women (Dobash and Dobash, 1979; Pagelow, 1981; Russell, 1990; Pizzey, 1974; Pahl; 1985, Stanko, 1991).

Studies of rural domestic violence and its policing have not appeared systematically in the research literature of criminology, social science, or gender studies. Indeed, there is no clear-cut definition of "rural." The 1990 U.S. Census estimates the population of rural counties in the United States to be 61,690,238. For the U.S. Census Bureau, rural areas consist of communities of less than 2,500 people. For my purposes, people live in a rural setting if they reside in the countryside or a relatively small town, with a population of less than 5,000. I also understand rural to refer to certain types of communities where people know each other's business, come into more regular contact with each other, and share a larger core of values than is true of people in urban areas.

In this exploratory article, I raise questions about the marginalization of rural women, the violence they experience, and the inadequacy of the police response to that violence. I provide a brief overview of theories of domestic violence and the policing response to that violence. After pointing out certain lacunae in the research literature, I offer several propositions on domestic violence and law enforcement in rural areas. I then discuss how the findings from my ethnographic study of domestic violence and policing in eastern Kentucky can clarify and extend these propositions.

The outcomes of 50 focused interviews form the core supportive material for the propositions. After a discussion of my ethnographic method, I explore what I call "Rural Voices and Theoretical Themes." In this section, I use the ethnographic data to flesh out the propositions into more fully fledged theoretical themes. Having elucidated a number of theoretical themes on domestic violence and policing in rural areas, I summarily examine the implications of these themes for the formulation of social policy.

II. Theories of Domestic Violence and Its Policing

Feminists have theorized male violence within families as part of the wider structure of patriarchy (see Dobash and Dobash, 1979 and 1992; Radford and Russell, 1992; Hanmer and Saunders, 1984; Pahl, 1985; Russell, 1990). Sylvia Walby (1990: 20) uses the term patriarchy to refer to the domination, oppression, and exploitation of women by men. Walby situates male violence within a nexus of relations that includes: (1) the reluctance of the patriarchal state to confront violence against women or provide women with sufficient funds to live independently of violent men, (2) sexuality, (3) the cultural depiction of women as objects of the male gaze, (4) the gendering of the capitalist economy, and (5) the disproportionate share of unpaid work performed by women within the patriarchal household.

Historically, the most common police response has been to treat "domestics" as noncriminal problems, to be "resolved" within the family (Tong, 1984). Stanko (1989) observes that domestic altercations produce arrests that do not elicit much recognition from police officers' peers. However, according to Sherman (1992a), the arrest of batterers increased during the 1980s, as part of a much "broader revolution" in the policing of domestic violence that dates back to the 1970s. The use of mandatory arrest laws increased after the Minneapolis "experiment" in which researchers found that the arrest of batterers correlated with a reduction in recidivism (Sherman and Berk, 1984). A number of other federally funded studies in urban areas (Miami, Milwaukee, Colorado Springs, Omaha, and Charlotte) largely failed to replicate the Minneapolis findings and consequently cast doubt upon the effectiveness of mandatory arrest (see also Sherman, 1992a: 104-109; 1992b).

Feminists have been skeptical of this "broad revolution" in the policing of battering and have argued that the failure to intervene and/or arrest batterers is one way in which the patriarchal oppression of women is reproduced (see Edwards, 1989; Hanmer, Radford, and Stanko, 1989). Rather than focusing on the pros and cons of mandatory arrest, feminists argue that until the structure of patriarchy is changed, any change in police response will have a limited effect on levels of intra-familial violence.

III. A Blind Spot in Existing Research on Domestic Violence and Its Policing

Nearly all the research on domestic violence and its policing has been limited to urban areas. This bias does not simply reflect the urban orientation of mainstream criminology; rather, it reflects the much wider marginalization of rural social problems. Impoverished rural women constitute an acutely marginalized group. The failure to confront the battering of these women and the police response to that violence is akin to the failure of traditional disciplines such as history and the social sciences to address women's lives and issues as legitimate subject matter. This article addresses domestic violence and its policing in rural eastern Kentucky as integral components of the structure and practices of patriarchy.

IV. Statement of Propositions: Laying the Groundwork for a Theory of Domestic Violence and Its Policing in Rural Areas

The intense isolation experienced by many rural women results from a variety of factors. This isolation increases their vulnerability to intra-familial violence. I identify three forms of isolation that differentially influence rural domestic violence and policing: physical, socio-cultural, and institutional.

Proposition One: Physical Isolation. The physical isolation of the rural milieu provides opportunities for batterers to engage in particular forms of abusive behavior. Similar control strategies would either be more visible or less effective in urban areas. This isolation also makes it difficult for battered women to leave or otherwise resist violent men.

Proposition Two: Socio-Cultural Isolation. Rural family life, gender roles, and patriarchal ideology generate acute forms of socio-cultural isolation that render rural women particularly vulnerable to domestic violence and passive policing.

Proposition Three: Isolation from Potentially Supportive Institutions. Rural battered women experience acute difficulties in using the limited but potentially supportive services of the state. These acute difficulties and limited state provisions tend to reproduce, in a complex and often contradictory fashion, the power relations of rural patriarchy.

V. The Utility of the Kentucky Case Study: Moving from Propositions to Theory

The research literature on rural crime is both inadequate and undertheorized. Bachman (1992), using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) covering the period from 1973 to 1990, usefully points out that the crimes of rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault are far less prevalent in rural areas. She also notes that in rural areas, the NCVS data suggest that violent crime is more likely to be perpetrated by offenders known to the victim. This information is helpful insofar as it directs attention to "known offender" violence in rural areas. However, much remains to be done on known-offender violence within rural families. As noted, my ethnography moves in this direction.

VI. Methodological Approach

Cultural anthropologists use the term ethnography to refer to a method employed to describe an unfamiliar culture. The researcher often immerses him or herself in that unfamiliar culture through participant observation. In this way the researcher can study a different way of life, in part by living out or at least closely observing daily life. The proximity of the researcher to the minutiae of cultural life ideally enhances the level of understanding the researcher acquires. Though there are many problems with ethnographic research, the details need not concern us here (see Reinharz, 1992: 65-75).

As Reinharz recently noted, feminists have used focused interviews as a means of accessing the hitherto marginalized experiences of women. In the focused interview, women use their own language to describe their lives. This technique contrasts with the positivist paradigm by not requiring women to respond rigidly to closed-ended questions constructed by researchers. In other words, the hierarchical relationship between researcher and researched tends to be replaced with a more democratic exchange. Focused interviewing is common in sociology and is not limited to issues concerning women. In-depth or intensive interviewing alone differs from pure ethnographic research because the former does not necessarily "immerse" the researcher in the cultural milieu of those being researched.

Due to the potentially dangerous and highly privatized nature of domestic violence and policing, ethnographic research opportunities involving participant observation are limited. Researchers cannot reside in homes where battering takes place and, if they did, the presence of the researcher would seriously affect behavior therein. An alternate strategy in developing a textured understanding of abuse is to have women or men who have been in battering relationships systematically reflect on past events and write ethnographic accounts of them.

The core of my ethnographic research in eastern Kentucky consists of 50 focused interviews. I conducted interviews while living in a small town in the Appalachian hills. In addition to the interviews, I rode with police officers and observed them as they dealt with a small number of domestic altercations. Likewise, I became familiar with the leaders and organizers of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association. This organization also employed me in my capacity as a sociologist to evaluate a federally funded program that was being conducted in half the shelters in Kentucky. I also spent time observing domestic cases in the local courts. Finally, I worked closely with several people who ran groups for men who battered their partners.(1)

I interviewed the following number of people by category: battered women living in a local spouse-abuse shelter (25), Lovelace municipal police officers (8), shelter employees and advocates for battered women (5), Kentucky State Troopers (3), sheriffs (2), sheriff's deputies (2), a district court judge, attorneys (2), and social service workers (2). The focused interviews covered a certain number of core topics. Questions were open ended and were asked in different forms at various stages of each interview. Issues often arose through mutual exchange, with many unforeseen leads coming from interviewees. The respondents and any persons to whom they refer appear under a pseudonym. All place names have been changed.

Besides the inability of respondents to recall events accurately, there may be other more serious problems connected with personal interviewing. Respondents' replies are influenced by the nature of the social interaction between him or herself and the interviewer. Reactions to the interviewer can vary according to the interviewer's sex, age, race, and class (Phillips, 1971). More specifically, the respondent might frame his or her reply in such a way as to avoid disapproval or to impress the interviewer. Therefore, responses do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, attitudes, and life experiences of the interviewee. Phillips has called this the "social desirability effect" or "evaluation apprehension."

A more serious potential problem with this research is that I was a man interviewing 25 female victims of domestic violence. Feminists have long questioned whether a man can ever effectively interview a woman, given that power differences between men and women militate against mutuality and "equal" exchange (see Roberts, 1981). How can a sufficient level of empathy and rapport be established so that the nuances of the battering situation emerge? In an interview outside the 50 conducted for this research, the president of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association (KDVA) told me that some battered women may have viewed me as a "knight in shining armor," who had some power to do or write something that might reduce levels of domestic violence or change police and judicial responses to that violence. Her remark was elicited when I asked her what she thought about men interviewing battered women. Her comment was not directed at me in any threatening way, but rather as a way of expressing that I, as a male interviewer, may obtain information because women may have felt that the products of the interview could somehow ameliorate the condition of battered women.

In my case, my maleness may not have been the only factor that influenced the nature of the discussion. As a British subject, my accent set me apart as the "other." As a college professor, my class and social status may also have set me apart.

VII. Rural Voices and Theoretical Themes

Below I develop a number of theoretical themes from the propositions. I employ the ethnographic material and other sources to clarify and highlight these themes.

Theme One: Physical Isolation

The physical isolation of the rural milieu provides opportunities for batterers to engage in particular forms of abusive behavior. Similar control strategies would either be more visible or less effective in urban areas. This isolation also makes it difficult for battered women to leave or otherwise resist violent men.


The most consistent factor in women's description of their lives was isolation. Even if battered women lived in small towns and worked outside the home, they still reported great isolation and loneliness. It is important to bear in mind that the geographical isolation experienced by battered women may stem from the batterer's calculated decision to reside in the country. In other words, the isolation may be a product of abuse, as well as a physical setting conducive to abuse.

Abusers' tactics fed off this isolation and were all the more effective because of it. Physical isolation provides space for batterers' strategies and also limits women's resistance. The batterers' strategies, according to the women, included removing the phone receiver (for example, when leaving for work) so that she could not contact the outside world by phone; locking the thermostat, especially in winter, as a form of torture; disabling motor vehicles to reduce or eliminate the possibility of her leaving the residence; destroying motor vehicles; closely monitoring the odometer reading on motor vehicles (a simple yet effective form of control due to the lack of alternate means of transportation); driving recklessly to intimidate his partner; discharging firearms in public (for example, at a battered woman's pet) in an intimidating manner to scare or otherwise distress her.(2) Simply put, batterers can get away with different control tactics in rural areas, primarily because of the isolation. These tactics might still be used in urban areas, but they would either have less impact or be more visible.

If rural battered women are more isolated and depend more upon the batterer, they may be more vulnerable to extreme battery. Kalmuss and Strauss (1982) used national survey data to argue that the more dependent a battered woman is on her batterer, the more likely she is to endure more extreme violence.

In my interviews, battered women reported how difficult it was to leave an abusive home that is located several miles from the nearest paved road. Though it may be possible for her to walk to the paved road, attempting to take her children along makes the task much more difficult. If we add to this the fact that there is no public transport that services the paved road, the act of leaving the violent home in an isolated rural area becomes more difficult than leaving a similar abode in an urban setting. The extended length of time it might take a rural battered woman to leave her abuser makes the danger she is exposed to correspondingly greater. The act of leaving is a form of resistance that can evoke extreme violence on the part of abusers. Many of the murders of women by their violent partners take place during or shortly after leaving them. There are numerous other geographical considerations in rural areas that vary by region of the country. For example, weather conditions may influence the way battered women strategize against their abusive partners and negotiate geographical isolation.

Living in a rural area, Barbara relied heavily on her vehicle to transport her children to school and herself to work. One night her abusive ex-husband set her car on fire and destroyed it.

Barbara: He did not want me to have a car. That way I would have to stay home. I would have no choice. And he knew I would have no choice.

June lived in a very remote rural area and had no vehicle. The victim of extreme physical abuse, including a shooting, she reported that she would have filed charges against her abusive husband if she had had a vehicle to get to the courthouse.

N.W.: Did you ever bring charges against him?

June: I never had no way to get over to do nothin'. I never had no vehicle.


Since telephone subscription rates are significantly lower in rural communities, it is likely to be more difficult for battered women to call the police when an act of violence is committed against them. In urban counties in Kentucky, subscription rates run as high as 98%. In the counties in the case study, roughly two to three households in 10 did not have a phone. Similarly, if a neighbor's house is far away, then calling police from the neighbor's residence will be more problematic.

Since batterers employ tactics that compound isolation (including disabling cars, checking the odometer, and forbidding women to drive), the chances of reaching a phone by driving may also be reduced. Of the 25 battered women I interviewed, three did not have telephones at their residence and another three were prevented from using the phone by the batterer. In other words, 76% had phones they could use to call the police.

June did not have a phone at her Mule County house. After incidents of abuse she walked to a telephone box and called her mother, who lived in Rhino County. Her mother then called the Mule County sheriff's department. This happened on at least six occasions. This delay in calling the police meant that officers attended the scene much later, often when the assaultive behavior was over. This tardiness influenced the officers' perception of the seriousness of the calls. According to June, the officers' typical response in this situation was, "If there isn't anything goin' on now, there isn't anything we can do."

We know little about the relationship between rural women seeking the services of spouse-abuse shelters and telephone access. Rural residences without phones may be the reservoirs of an alarming amount of domestic violence that never sees the light of day.


In many cases of rural domestic violence, the distance separating responding police officers from incidents is considerable. Even assuming that the officers are trained, willing, and able to travel to the scene immediately, this distance will mean that it will take longer for a police officer to attend. In her study of Raven Ridge, Gagne (1992: 410) provides a limited amount of ethnographic evidence showing that the response time of police to domestics was at least an hour. When they did arrive, officers sat in their cars and beeped their horns rather than approach the house. The reported reason for the reticence of officers was their perception that many officers had been shot during domestics. As Gagne points out, more officers are accidentally shot by other officers than they are by the participants in a domestic disturbance.

Tardy police responses may compound the sense of desperation and isolation that rural battered women feel. Saltiel et al. (1992), focusing on fear of vandalism, theft, and burglary in rural areas, note that it may be the general presence of police in rural public space, rather than their response time to specific incidents, that allays fears of victimization. My ethnographic research suggests that the general presence of police in rural areas will do little to allay battered women's fears of violence in the private sphere. Long response times may also increase a battered woman's sense of disillusionment with the police and make it less likely that she will call them in the future. The longer response time may also add to the number of injuries and fatalities from domestic violence.

Individual state troopers in eastern Kentucky often patrol several counties on their shift. This makes it very difficult for the trooper to reach the scene of domestic violence in much less than 30 minutes. On many occasions, the response time is much greater. Sheriffs have acquired a very poor reputation among battered women in the region for not attending domestic calls at all. Of the 25 women interviewed, 18 expressed varying degrees of dissatisfaction with the police. In most of these cases, the tardiness of the police was commonly seen as problematic. Only three women were satisfied with the police response in their cases.

On the surface, the Kentucky state police are the best trained to deal with domestics. They display a greater awareness of the liability issues, a firmer grasp of how to deal with Emergency Protective Orders, and are more alive to the dangers of false arrest. This awareness probably derives from their training and the fact that they see their jobs more as careers than do sheriffs and their deputies. Nevertheless, because of the wide area they patrol, the state police often attend a very different situation than that attended by the municipal police in Lovelace. State trooper Davis talked of the difficulties associated with responding to domestic calls in rural regions.

Davis: You're on one end of the county [Dolphin] and there's no road like this [wide, well surfaced]'re called to the opposite end of Rhino County. A domestic in progress. As hard as you can run, lights and siren, you're looking at best of 40 minutes. That's hard runnin', that's 100 plus most of the way.

In Lovelace, the municipal police appeared to respond to domestic calls within a minute or two, especially if an assault was in progress. This was the view of Chief Jones, his officers that I interviewed, and the women who ran the local spouse-abuse shelter. In small towns in rural regions where municipal police are committed to attending domestics quickly, the response time may be significantly less than it is in urban areas. However, in most rural regions in the study, battered women identified a number of other factors that affected police response to domestics. These other factors, discussed below, militated against a fast response by police agencies and especially undermined the potentially fast response of municipal police.

Theoretical Theme Two: Socio-Cultural Isolation

Rural family life, gender roles, and patriarchal ideology generate acute forms of socio-cultural isolation, which render rural women particularly vulnerable to domestic violence and passive policing.


For feminists, marriage and family life lie at the heart of the subordination of women. Marriage rates are higher among rural women than urban women (Bushy, 1993: 188). In rural areas there is a much more traditional division of labor between men and women (Fassinger and Schwarzweller, 1984; Gagne, 1992). Men are seen as providers and women have an intense and highly privatized relationship with domestic production. As both Gagne (1992: 395-398) and Bushy (1993: 191) note, rural women seem to be more strongly associated with domestic activities such as child rearing and housework.

Given the often longstanding social relationships between people in rural areas, informal social controls can strongly influence social life. These informal controls may work to pressure battered women not to report domestic violence, since such disclosure might affect the standing of the family in the community and adversely affect business or trade.

Another informal cultural control mechanism is the proximity of extended family, especially if it is the abuser's family and is hostile to the interests of the battered woman. If the victim lives with or near the family she was born into, her parents or other family members may act against her abusive partner.

Roxy was forced into what her abusive husband saw as the appropriate place for a wife. She gave up work at his insistence, after he had eventually found a job. She found that her new economic dependence, combined with her rural isolation, intensified her fears. Her husband bought a gun and used it to intimidate her.

Roxy: He kept tellin' me, when he first bought his gun: "I bought this just for you." ...It just got worse, because when he saw that I really had to depend on him for everything, he was a complete ass.

The proximity of the abuser's extended family can compound the sense of isolation and work against the interests of battered women in rural areas. Virginia's resistance was limited by the proximity of her abuser's large and influential extended family, which wanted to keep Virginia's and her partner's children in the extended family circle.

Virginia: In order for him to keep his kids, they would do anything they had to. A lot of people would tell me one thing like leave him, you know you don't deserve that, and a lot of them wouldn't open their mouth because there's too much of his blood in the county.


Though rural women have traditionally been limited to the private sphere of domestic production, many have moved into the public sphere of wage labor. When this has happened, rural women have earned roughly 50% of the wage made by rural men. This compares unfavorably with urban women, who have earned roughly two-thirds of the urban male wage (Bushy, 1993: 189). The limited earning potential of rural women negatively affects their ability to leave violent partners. Bushy suggests that rural women, more than urban women, may experience greater conflict with their partners over seeking employment outside the home. This fits with rural patriarchal ideology, which emphasizes women's place in the home.

According to Stewart and Payne (1991), of all persons employed in Kentucky in 1990, over 48% were women (820,713 out of 1,704,731). As in the United States in general, Kentucky women are clustered in certain occupations that tend to pay poorly. For example, in 1990, 42.7% worked in the service sector and 23.4% in wholesale/retail. The most significant predictor of income in Kentucky is gender. In 1989, 76.5% of Kentucky women had incomes of less than $15,000. Among Kentucky men, 51.3% had incomes greater than $15,000. Perhaps the most striking income disparities between men and women in Kentucky emerge when years of schooling are controlled for. With the same number of years of schooling, Kentucky men still earn between $8,000 and $10,000 per annum more than women. These disparities hold true at the lowest levels of schooling. For example, with eight or fewer years of schooling, the difference between men and women in Kentucky is still around $10,000. This stands in marked contrast to national figures, which indicate that at lower levels of schooling, gender disparities approximate to $5,000 per annum (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1991, cited by Macionis, 1993: 453). Women in Kentucky, with fewer years of schooling, are particularly hard hit by low wages. This fact is especially significant, since many of the battered women I interviewed received few years of schooling and experienced abject poverty.


It is more likely that rural police officers, particularly those who were raised in the rural cultural milieu, will view the family as a private and insular patriarchal unit (see also Gagne, 1992: 410-411). This may mean that police in those areas are less willing to intervene in domestics and less inclined to arrest husbands, who they feel should be in a dominant position in the family. Ronnie, an officer with the Lovelace municipal police, put it as follows: "In one sense I feel that at times we are sticking our nose where it doesn't belong."

The shared understandings, common interests, collusion, and outright misogynism of officers and batterers significantly affect the outcome of police intervention. The attitudes of rural police officers toward battered women and the battering situation as a whole tend to mirror wider rural patriarchal constructions about the social position of women. According to Sally, local police failed miserably to take domestic violence seriously.

N.W.: So the police...took him down to the station and let him go?

Sally: He beat me home you know. We lived about 11 miles out of town (Saleville).

N.W.: How did you feel about that?

Sally: Awful.... Well, in Saleville it's very poor, I can tell you that right now. It's bad today. My daughter has been abused, she's been slapped and her husband got a gun out right in the city limits and shot it. City police came. Didn't do a thing.... You might as well not call 'em. It's like the sheriff told me. He said I can take 'em upstairs and book 'em and they can beat me back down.

Many cases revealed ways in which some police tend to take the batterer's side, share the batterer's understandings of the situation, or have similar interests in asserting a man's right to control his wife. It is possible that when police fail to take these situations seriously, we are also witnessing misogynism.

A good illustration of what I mean by common interests among men emerged in a conversation with Chuck, a Lovelace patrol officer. He felt that under certain conditions a "good man" might assault a woman.

Chuck: It's a frustrating situation.... There's times that...I have to...arrest a gentleman...and actually the woman really deserved it.... [S]he does stuff that would actually cause a good man to slap a woman.

N.W.: Give me some ideas.

Chuck: Like a woman's cheatin' on her husband. And he catches her at it. Police officers varied considerably in their attitudes toward domestic calls. Many felt frustrated because in most cases the victim did not file a criminal complaint against her abuser. Few officers expressed either an awareness or a concern over the social and economic difficulties faced by battered women, that among other things, worked against her filing criminal charges. According to police, if battered women remained with their batterers, it was because they had chosen to.

Officer Davis viewed many victims of domestic violence as being manipulative and rather undeserving of police support. His outlook betrayed more than a hint of misogynism.

Davis: A lot of them were fabricated.... [T]hat man has taken all that he can take.... [T]hat's the way he lashes out...and boom. Call the State Police. I want his ass out of here. And I just don't really see that's right.... It's bullshit is what it is.

N.W.: As a rough guess, what would you say the percentage of bullshit ones is to legit ones?

Davis: Probably 70-30.

Kindra reported that one state trooper who attended a domestic call at her residence was hostile to her.

Kindra: I told them [state police] that I was leaving my husband, he was violent and that he's destroyed my trailer three times this week. But this one cop [state trooper] came in and he was real cocky and smart and he just walked into every room. He even walked in my kitchen and looked at what I had for dinner.... But they do this stuff. They try to make you look bad.... [T]hen I started to get my stuff together.... I came out with the one suitcase. And I had a laundry basket upstairs with clothes. And he told me: "You're gonna have to carry light." I said: "Well, I have to have her [Kindra's daughter] school clothes. I have to have my clothes." And he said: "Well, you can always come back and get the rest of your stuff."

This last comment told Kindra that the officer was not listening when she told him earlier that she would not return to the site of the abuse. She said he told her: "Well, I'm not a U-Haul service.... I don't have time for this."

Chief Jones of the Lovelace Police was active in a local campaign against domestic violence. He also sits on the Board of Directors of a local spouse-abuse shelter. In addition, Jones is active at the state level on the Attorney General's Task Force on Domestic Violence. As a chief, he is both strong and dictatorial. Internal discipline at the Lovelace Police Department is tight. Jones' influence over the policing of domestics may not have been possible in a larger department, where it might be easier for middle managers to subvert the directives of the chief. In a small town, it is easier for the chief to know if things are not being done the way he or she wants them done. Most battered women I interviewed found the response time of most other municipal police agencies to be problematic. The faster response times of the Lovelace Department were unusual, but nevertheless serve to remind us that if local police are, for whatever reasons, committed to confronting domestic violence, then the small town in rural areas may be capable of producing swift and consistent responses to family violence.

Theme Three: Isolation from Potentially Supportive Institutions

Rural battered women experience acute difficulties in using the supportive services of the state, however limited they may be. These acute difficulties and limited state provisions tend to reproduce, in a complex and often contradictory fashion, the power relations of rural patriarchy.

Institutional provisions in rural areas have mixed and contradictory effects. The ethnographic findings do not suggest that all institutional support neatly reproduces the structure of patriarchy. Neither does the ethnographic evidence suggest a monolithic role of the state vis-a-vis domestic violence. A monolithic interpretation of institutional provision denies the historical and cultural complexity of the relationship between the state and gender relations in rural regions. It also minimizes the complex intersection of classism, racism, and sexism. Put simply, state institutions do make provisions that respondents report as being beneficial in their lives. I therefore reject interpretations of the state that argue that institutional provisions are either "band aid" sources of legitimation or ameliorative measures that make little or no real difference to battered women. However, it must also be said that battered women in rural areas experience unique difficulties in accessing the potentially helpful services of the state. It is to these difficulties that I now turn.


Many respondents pointed to a lack of privacy in rural life in general. Interviewees knew personnel who worked in schools, welfare agencies, churches, county politics, and the criminal justice system. On many occasions this lack of privacy worked against battered women pursuing various forms of assistance (see also Davenport and Davenport, 1979; Navin, Stockum, and Campbell-Ruggaard, 1993; and Bushy, 1993).


In Kentucky, there are fewer regulated daycare facilities than in any other state. Consequently, even if battered women do leave their abusers and have the chance to engage in wage work, the lack of adequate daycare facilities will seriously limit their ability to take those jobs. Without the financial contribution of the male wage, women's prospects of surviving independently are bleak in any economy that underpays them and makes little provision for childcare. Rural battered women's "choices" often boil down to remaining with abusers and enduring or resisting violence, leaving the abuser and enduring poverty under the welfare system, or leaving the abuser and entering wage work in a hostile gendered capitalist economy. If women elect the latter "option," they must give up, often for the first time, their everyday job of parenting their children. For some respondents, this possibility pushed them more toward the welfare "option."


Health services are particularly scarce in rural Kentucky. People often must travel long distances to see a physician. This is especially the case with women's reproductive health. The most recent figures on abortion rates in Kentucky show that 10.4 abortions were performed per 1,000 women in 1987, compared to 26.7 per 1,000 nationally. Part of this disparity reflects the acute difficulties Kentucky women face in gaining access to abortion services. Battered women's limited access to health services may seriously affect their post-battering experiences. Many shelter workers in Kentucky complained of the unwillingness of doctors to intervene or to report cases of spousal abuse (as they are required to do by law). Likewise, doctors appear to be unfamiliar with the dynamics of domestic violence. Part of this may be related to the rural milieu, where physicians feel that domestic violence belongs within families, rather than out in the open. However, the problem of doctors failing to report family violence is not limited to rural areas (see Council on Scientific Affairs, 1992; and Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, American Medical Association, 1992).


We must also note that rural women receive less schooling than their urban counterparts. Rural patriarchal values posit women as being less in need of schooling and more in need of a husband and children. This lack of schooling has important implications for battered women, who, without academic qualifications, have a much harder time surviving independently of the financial support of violent partners.


Several authors have noted the role of the church and fundamentalist religion as disseminators of patriarchal ideology (see Kuczynski, 1981; Whipple, 1987; Navin et al., 1993). Religious influences seem to be stronger in rural communities and are more likely to militate against battered women leaving violent men. These influences may include the power of religious ideology and local preachers who advise battered women to "weather the storm" with their abusers. The religious rationale behind discouraging women from leaving is often pitched in terms of maintaining the sanctity of the marital bond and also in terms of wives (not husbands) fulfilling their duty to stay in the marriage.

Interviewees reported the strong influence of religion in social and cultural life in Kentucky. Lovelace Police Chief Jones, who won a federal grant of $10,000 to work on rural domestic violence issues, used some of the money to print informative pamphlets. A key point he made in the pamphlet concerned the erroneousness of religious beliefs that argued that battered married women should remain with abusive men. These beliefs, as Jones noted, were prevalent especially in the more remote rural areas.

Likewise, some battered women reported the influence of religion on family values. Kindra described her mother-in-law as being strongly influenced by religion and the family as a whole as believing that marriages should last forever, whatever the problems. According to Kindra, "it has a lot to do with the religious beliefs of their mom."


One possible reason for the dearth of social services for women in Kentucky may be the under-representation of women in the state legislature. Some leaders of the KDVA commented that the interests of battered women would be better served if more women were legislators. In 1992, Kentucky ranked last among the states, with only six women out of 138 legislators (five in the House and only one in the State Senate). Across the United States, nearly one-fifth of all legislators are women. In the U.S. Congress in 1992, the number of women Senators rose from three to six, while women Representatives in the House rose from 28 to 47. In Kentucky, the proportion of female legislators actually decreased in 1992, from nine to six.

It is not my suggestion that more female representatives will solve the problem of rural domestic violence. Neither do I wish to imply that the polity can undo the structure of patriarchy. Nevertheless, shelter directors and KDVA leaders argue strongly that more women representatives would at least sensitize the polity to women's issues.


In those rural areas where sheriffs, county attorneys, and judges are elected, the enforcement of domestic violence laws may depend, in part, upon the political connections of the batterer and the battered woman. Unlike in urban areas, county law enforcement officials in rural regions often have personal relationships with the electorate who voted them into office.

My ethnographic data suggest that these local allegiances influence the way in which officials respond to domestic altercations. As elected officials, sheriffs perform a variety of administrative duties besides law enforcement. The role of the sheriff in policing varies considerably. In Dolphin County, for example, the sheriff seemed to be minimally involved in law enforcement. This was especially true with domestics. A number of victims and spouse-abuse shelter employees reported that the Dolphin County sheriff's response to domestics amounted to no response at all. In neighboring Rhino County, the sheriff appeared to be much more involved in all aspects of law enforcement work. Both he and his deputies attended domestics.

Sheriff's deputies reported that they had secured their jobs because they knew the sheriff. Most deputies did other work to supplement their pay.(3) Neither sheriffs nor their deputies need have had any law enforcement experience. Rather, there is a network of men in the counties with the political connections necessary to qualify as deputies. This appointment system is reminiscent of the old patronage style of policing, whereby ward bosses gave out jobs to police officers in return for future favors, or as a reward for past favors.

Attorney Cart commented that the nature of the sheriff's response sometimes depended on the numbers of potential voters the victim or the batterer could influence.

Carr: I goes back to the political systems in these small counties.... They look at who has the biggest family and they kind of judge it on that. If the man is from out of town, I think she might get more help if she's got a big family in that county.

In rural areas the police reported a very informal system of serving Emergency Protective Orders. Some sheriffs serve Emergency Protective Orders by telephoning abusers and asking them to come in to collect the summons. The procedure depends upon sheriffs and their deputies knowing a large number of the men that they police. According to most officers interviewed, the telephone method of serving papers works well and offenders appreciate the informality and implied trust. Apparently, in only a few cases did abusers abscond after being called. However, the possibility of suspected abusers disappearing after being called by the sheriff seems to be real. This possibility could expose victims to more violence. Undoubtedly, the telephone approach saves the sheriff time. If the abuser refuses to come to the sheriff's office, the sheriff can develop a plan of action. However, if the abuser agrees to come in, then the sheriff can be fairly certain that the abuser will be cooperative. The attendance of the abuser after a phone request for attendance may hail a certain solidarity between sheriff and abuser as to the rules of the game. A batterer might think that his offense is less serious because the sheriff telephoned him rather than sought him out to serve the summons. With "serious" crimes like burglary, theft, robbery, and drug dealing, the police usually do not telephone suspects and ask them to drop by the office. The failure to serve papers may also signal the sheriff's reluctance to serve papers on friends and acquaintances.


Research by Davis and Potter (1991) in the rural counties of Kentucky's Appalachian region reveals that bootlegging is conducted by small groups of people with intimate ties to local politicians and criminal justice personnel. This form of organized crime is not seen as deviant behavior by rural citizens. On the contrary, bootleggers provide a much needed commodity and Davis and Potter argue that bootlegging is viewed as "respectable business" (Ibid.: 155). This lucrative illegal operation is also linked to other illegalities, including gambling, prostitution, and the sale of drugs, illegal weapons, and stolen goods (Ibid.: 146). These researchers also point to a symbiotic relationship between bootleggers and local police. They note that in a recent trial of six eastern Kentucky law enforcement officers (four sheriffs, a police chief, and a deputy sheriff), it was suggested that the officers, all from dry counties, had "protected marijuana and cocaine shipments...and facilitated the bootlegging business in their capacity as law enforcement officers" (Ibid.: 156). They also note that if a sheriff were to move against bootleggers, he would have a "very difficult time" getting reelected (Ibid. 156).

My ethnographic data suggest that if law enforcement personnel are involved in activities like bootlegging, they will be compromised around the enforcement of domestic violence laws. First, to enforce the domestic violence laws against a batterer who is either a consumer or supplier of illegal goods or services (liquor, gambling, prostitution, drugs, illegal weapons, and stolen property) might expose the corrupt officer, or the officer who turns a blind eye, to the wrath of the batterer, who might then be inclined to blow the whistle on the officer. Second, enforcing the law against someone involved in the popular activity of supplying illegal goods and services might greatly diminish a sheriff's chances of reelection.

State trooper Goople noted that sheriff's departments may not pursue batterers because of the close and potentially corrupt ties between batterers, their extended families, and sheriff's department personnel.

N.W.: I've heard from...battered women that sheriff's departments haven't responded because...they've been involved in other activities with the husbands.

Goople: Well, I think there's probably some accuracy to it.

Ariel lived in a secluded part of Mule County. She was the only battered woman with a bachelor's degree that I interviewed. Ariel made numerous references to the corrupt activities of local criminal justice officials. She appeared to be well informed and her allegations of impropriety were consistent with the comments of other respondents.

N.W.: Any suspicion...that the Bleakville sheriff's department knew about illegal gambling and drinking?

Ariel: They know about everything over there.

N.W.: Do you have any sense that the sheriff's department is connected with illegal activity?

Ariel: Yeah. I've been there. You know, when they're there.

Janis said she felt that all the things she reported to state police would get back to her abuser. She alluded to the existence of a "mini-Mafia," but declined to elaborate.

Janis: He (state trooper) was good buddies with the brother of my abuser. And that's the same way with the sheriff's department. That's the main reason why they didn't respond. They asked these people (abuser, his brother, and their friends) before they even ran for sheriff, if they should. In other words, they was gettin' their okay to do this. The people that I was with are almost mini-Mafia. That's as far as I want to go on that. I don't want to dig myself a hole here.

VIII. Conclusion: Rural Voices, Theoretical Themes, and Social Policy

To repeat, much of the ethnographic material on women's perceptions of domestic violence and policing emerged through the medium of a male interviewer talking with a female respondent. This medium is not without its problems. Discussions with shelter workers and directors suggest that certain forms of information might be withheld by women in such a setting. For example, battered women may not think me capable of understanding some very personal aspects of their lives and might not have raised those issues. Silences of this kind may have occurred around issues of sexuality or the linkages between sexuality and violence. Because I was a male interviewer, women may not have expressed their generalized anger toward men. In a similar vein, respondents may have feared me as a man and been reluctant to express their true feelings about male law enforcement figures. Likewise, because of my maleness, respondents may have balked at disclosing events in their relationships (failure to cook meals or to provide sexual services) that they perceived as precipitating violence against them. These potential shortcomings may have resulted in a more limited grasp of the relationship between ruralness, battering, and policing. We ought to use the findings as a springboard into further research.

I can only enumerate a few of the policy implications that emerge from the theoretical themes and empirical information presented in this article. While acknowledging the need for deep-seated structural change, the following recommendations will also focus on the kinds of ameliorative policies suggested by the ethnographic data.

1. The structural conditions experienced by women in Kentucky must change before any change in violence against women will occur. Ultimately, the nature of gender relations must change.

2. Following from the above, to live independently of violent men, Kentucky women require more and better jobs. The Homeless Job Training Initiative (HJTI program, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor) seeks to train and place homeless battered women in jobs and help them move toward economic independence. At a minimum, this program should be greatly expanded to provide support for larger numbers of battered women in spouse-abuse shelters. This expansion should recognize the need not to merely feed women into the gendered capitalist labor market, but rather to change that market and make it more sensitive to the long-term needs of women.

3. If issues central to the lives of Kentucky women (childcare services, educational opportunities, housing, health care, and transportation services) are to come to the fore in the arena of institutional politics, more women representatives will be needed at national, state, and local levels.

4. Perhaps even more important is the paradoxical suggestion that some (organized) attempt be made to create networks of women in rural areas. These groups may come together to discuss any number of issues. Their "women only" make-up would be emblematic of their politicality. The purpose of such groups would be to break down the isolation that women experience in the rural setting. One way of doing this might be to increase the number of spouse-abuse shelters and to expand outreach programs from these shelters. Historically, such group networking has taken place to a limited degree through Homemaker Clubs, which organized meetings among farm women.

5. We might envisage a program of government assistance for increasing telephone subscription rates in rural regions. More telephone contact would reduce isolation, although this would not stop violent men from terminating phone services when it suited their needs.

6. More must be done to confront the problem of local police officers being compromised around the enforcement of arrest laws. This involves much more than sensitizing and training police officers and other criminal justice personnel as to how to handle domestics. Reducing unemployment and poverty may lessen the need to make money by illegal means and thereby reduce the need for an underground economy that local police connive in or turn a blind eye to. If these changes were combined with the legalization of alcohol, this connivance would be further reduced to the point that elected officers may be much less compromised in domestic altercations.

7. Following from point six, it is essential for much more networking to take place between shelters and other agencies, including police and social services. The shelter should be the focal point of this liaison network. The aim should be to educate area agencies and to better coordinate the provision of essential services such as the issuance of protective orders and the uncompromised execution of arrest laws.

In one rural shelter in Kentucky, staff have been authorized to fill out Emergency Protective Orders (EPOs) for battered women. This saves women from the need to get these orders from the local court. The orders, once served on the abuser by the local sheriff, provide women with (legal, not de facto) protection from their abuser, until the case is heard in court and a more permanent order is put in place by the district judge.

8. We need much more information on domestic violence and policing in rural areas. We must be sensitive to regional cultural differences and guard against essentializing the concept of rural patriarchy. Rural culture differs in Oregon, Kentucky, and upstate New York, and the idiosyncrasies of these cultural differences must be factored into the formulation of policy. This involves a thorough investigation of the regional intersection of class, race, and gender relations as historically enduring indices of social conflict.

Finally, domestic violence clearly cannot be explained in terms of economic class factors. While it may or may not be accurate to argue that domestic violence occurs more frequently in poorer families (the majority of police officers in the study made this point), it is difficult to use a class analysis to explain why men commit much more violence than the women they cohabit with in poverty. Consequently, economic changes that bring jobs to rural areas and reduce poverty may not directly reduce levels of domestic violence. My ethnographic findings suggest that economic change be implemented in tandem with changes in the field of gender relations.


1. As a result of my research interests, I became a member of the Advisory Board of the local spouse-abuse shelter where I interviewed 25 battered women. As a frequent visitor there, I came to know staff and residents alike. I had a number of lengthy conversations with residents outside the context of the "interview." In addition, I attended fund-raisers for the shelter, although I did not assist in the fundraising process or contribute money to the shelter.

2. Citing Wright, Rossi, and Daly (1983), Patricia Gagne (1992: 406) points out, "the cultural acceptance and use of firearms in rural America has been well established."

3. A 14-year veteran of the Dolphin County sheriff's department makes $14,000 per annum. Even this low rate of pay compares favorably with the regional median annual income of $7,000 to $9,000 (see Davis and Potter, 1991: 157).


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NEIL WEBSDALE teaches in the Department of Criminal Justice, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ 86011. The author wishes to thank Sherrie Currens, Helen Kinton, and Debbie Stevens of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association; Ray Michalowski, Bryon Johnson, and the anonymous reviewers for Social Justice and the interviewees who so generously gave of their time.
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Author:Websdale, Neil
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Date:Mar 22, 1995
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