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Discover why many women are ideal victims of abuse and why societies across the world still condone abusive behavior towards women.

Important Comment

Most abusers are men. Still, some are women. We use the masculine and feminine adjectives and pronouns ('he", his", "him", "she", her") to designate both sexes: male and female as the case may be.

Statistics show that intimate partner abuse, including domestic violence, has declined by one-half in the last decade in the United States. Jay Silverman and Gail Williamson demonstrated in "Social Ecology and Entitlements Involved in Battering by Heterosexual College Males" (published in Violence and Victims, Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 1997) that abuse is best predicted by two factors: the belief that mistreatment is justified and the succor of peers.

These two facts elucidate the cultural and social roots of abusive behavior. Abuse is bound to be found in patriarchal, narcissistic, or misogynistic collectives. Many societies exhibit cross sections of these three traits. Thus, most patriarchal groups are also misogynistic, either overtly and ideologically so - or covertly and in denial.

Paradoxically, women's lib initially makes things worse. The first period of social dislocation - when gender roles are redefined - often witnesses a male backlash in the form of last ditch patriarchy and last resort violence, trying to restore the "ancient regime". But as awareness and acceptance of women's equal rights grow, abuse is frowned upon and, consequently, declines.

Alas, four fifths of humanity are far from this utopian state of things. Even in the most prosperous, well-educated, and egalitarian societies of the West, there are sizable pockets of ill-treatment that cut across all demographic and social-economic categories.


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Women are physically weaker and, despite recent strides, economically deprived or restricted. This makes them ideal victims - dependent, helpless, devalued. Even in the most advanced societies, women are still expected to serve their husbands, maintain the family, surrender their autonomy, and abrogate their choices and preferences if incompatible with the ostensible breadwinner's.

Women are also widely feared. The more primitive, poorer, or less educated the community - the more women are decried as evil temptresses, whores, witches, possessors of mysterious powers, defilers, contaminants, inferior, corporeal (as opposed to spiritual), subversive, disruptive, dangerous, cunning, or lying.

Violence is considered by members of such collectives a legitimate means of communicating wishes, enforcing discipline, coercing into action, punishing, and gaining the approval of kin, kith, and peers. To the abuser, the family is an instrument of gratification - economic, narcissistic, and sexual. It is a mere extension of the offender's inner world, and, thus, devoid of autonomy and independent views, opinions, preferences, needs, choices, emotions, fears, and hopes.

The abuser feels that he is entirely within his rights to impose his species of order in his own impregnable "castle". The other members of the household are objects. He reacts with violent rage to any proof or reminder to the contrary. Moreover, his view of the family is embedded in many legal systems, supported by norms and conventions, and reflected in social arrangements.

But abusive behavior is frequently the outcome of objective societal and cultural factors.

Abuse and violence are "intergenerationally transmitted". Children who grow up in dysfunctional and violent families - and believe that the aggression was justified - are vastly more likely to become abusive parents and spouses.

Social stresses and anomy and their psychological manifestations foster intimate partner violence and child abuse. War or civil strife, unemployment, social isolation, single parenthood, prolonged or chronic sickness, unsustainably large family, poverty, persistent hunger, marital discord, a new baby, a dying parent, an invalid to be cared for, death of one's nearest and dearest, incarceration, infidelity, substance abuse - have all proven to be contributing factors.

This is the subject of the next article.

A critical reading of R. Lundy Bancroft's Essay - Understanding the Batterer in Custody and Visitation Disputes (1998)

next: The Anomaly of Abuse