Why Battered Women Stay

Update: Lots of excellent comments have made it very clear that Stark’s book is likely to not so exciting and new as it was presented as being.  For more, I really recommend that you have a good look through the excellent discussion in the comments.    Broadsheet alerted me to an important new book just exerpted here. The author, Evan Stark, argues that many studying and trying to help battered women have mistakenly focussed on the women’s psychology in trying to figure out why they stay. Instead, he argues, the answer lies with the power exerted by their abusers. He calls this power ‘coercive control’, which he likens to kidnapping or indentured servitude. Stark argues that this should be seen as a human rights violation, which restricts women’s rights and liberties. He also makes the important point that victims of domestic violence often make very realistic assessments of their situations and options, sometimes more realistic than those trying to help them. For example, people often suppose that if women leave they will be safer, but the odds of serious injury or death increase with separation. Potentially very interesting for those working on automony, on moral psychology, and on human rights; as well as to those trying to combat domestic violence. 

10 thoughts on “Why Battered Women Stay

  1. Women working within the battered women’s movement have been saying this for decades … the comparison is to the Stockholm Syndrome and the work
    has consistently insisted on communities insisting on an end to the violence rather than the geographic location of the woman being abused. Statistics have been out for years on how safety figures into remaining in the home, how our communities fail to adequately support women and women with children once they leave … while i am thrilled this is being discussed, it is not new and the women who have been working without publishing deserve the credit for this piece of “new” information.

  2. In my large city it *seems* almost daily one hears of a woman being murdered by an ex-boyfriend or former husband. It may in fact be considerably less, but it is enough for it to be very worrying that people trying to help the situation aren’t aware of it.

    In fact, having said that, I’m wondering what’s really going on. As the post above observes, it certainly is not new information. Hmmmmmmm. Might be worth doing a literature search.

  3. Well, having had a quick run though Academic Search Complete and a look at comments and editor’s reviews on amazon.com, I think that a special understanding might be needed for Evan Starks comments (from the excerpt linked to. Such as:
    “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.”

    The professional literature does not seem to widely assume that battered women want to stay. There were some articles to be seen in my extremely quick search that looked for pre-disposing factors, and perhaps more that sought some explanation in terms of women’s psychology, but they tended to be of the “why can’t she extricate herself,” with answers definitely not suggesting she wants to stay.

    So he looks to be exaggerating at least, and perhaps is himself prey to the idea that the best ideas have to be entirely novel. But I also wonder if his discussion reflects what has seemed to me a real poverty in many people’s patterns of explanation. There has been a pervasive and not very subtle psychoanalytic jargon that may still haunt the helping professions.

  4. Thanks, Virginia, for pointing out that what Stark says has been said by women in the movement for some time. (Why doesn’t this seem shocking? Hmm.) Not having read the book, I don’t know if he credits them or not, and can only hope that he does. If he is saying the same thing, it’s certainly worthwhile to put it into print, but very important to give appropriate credit (and not to seize inappropriate credit). JP’s second comment raises the potential, I think, for a distinction between choosing to stay and wanting to stay. The quote from Stark says that it is widely assumed that battered women choose to stay. *Maybe* this is what he’s denying, and this is how he differs from the existing literature? If his analogy is to kidnapping, then choice isn’t involved. Perhaps his claim is that abusers’ power is so great that victims are not really in a position to choose? But then this would conflict with his emphasis on the rationality of women’s *decisions*. OK, maybe I should stop speculating on the basis of an excerpt and go read the book!

  5. i love women
    my mom is one
    but is this a women’s issue
    or is it larger than women:
    the oppressed have always been lower
    in class and education.

  6. This has been a long-term problem. The attempt was made to recognize this abuse as a human rights issue in the original VAWA (Violence Against Women Act), with the Civil Rights Remedy section of the legislation. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court later found the Civil Rights Remedy to be unconstitutional. The Court placed the issue back in the State courts, which had proven and continue to prove themselves completely ineffective in this realm (see JP’s note above), stating that this violence was a local issue that was non-economic in nature. Federal recognition and access to a civil court would go a long way toward making prosecution and punishment of these abusers more effective. VAWA is still on the books, but considering the current Supreme Court make-up, there isn’t much hope of this group reinstating the CRR originally included in the legislation. Perhaps those of you who really care about this issue will check to see if you live in a state that provides a Civil Remedy. If you do, help to make abused women aware of this choice. If you do not, encourage your state legislators to provide this choice. Here is a short explanation of the decision and the dissent:

  7. So far, I haven’t read anything about the book that indicates that it’s truly groundbreaking. On another site, in fact, Evan Stark stated, “Others have said some of this before. But I think you’ll find, when you read the book, that it hasn’t been put together in this way before.”

    Indeed, the use of the phrase “coercive control” in the context of domestic violence prevention and intervention goes back at least as far as Judith Lewis Herman’s book “Trauma and Recovery” (1992). In the chapter simply titled “Captivity,” she wrote, “Prolonged, repeated trauma, by contrast, occurs only in circumstances of captivity. When the victim is free to escape, she will not be abused a second time; repeated trauma occurs only when the victim is a prisoner, unable to flee, and under the control of the perpetrator.”

    Herman added, “Political captivity is generally recognized, whereas the domestic captivity of women and children is often unseen.”

    Finally, she noted, “Captivity, which brings the victim into prolonged contact with the perpetrator, creates a special type of relationship, one of coercive control. This is equally true whether the victim is taken captive entirely by force, as in the case of prisoners and hostages, or by a combination of force, intimidation, and enticement, as in the case of religious cult members, battered women, and abused children. The psychological impact of subordination to coercive control may have many common features, whether that subordination occurs within the public sphere of politics or within the private sphere of sexual and domestic relations… In situations of captivity, the perpetrator becomes the most powerful person in the life of the victim…”

    Thus, I’m looking into how Stark’s concept of “coercive control” is substantially different from Herman’s? In what way, if any, does his work even rely or build on Herman’s (and “others”)?

    I’m also intrigued by Stark’s suggestion that “coercive control” should be considered a “liberty” crime, since it is “designed to take away women’s freedom, autonomy, and dignity.”

    That is true, of course. But, in most societies, it’s not just a man, one man, that cripples and crushes a woman’s, one woman’s, capacity to make choices and act on them. Instead, an abused woman is also made unfree by “manhood” often as it has been socially constructed within the context of a still-patriarchal society.

    “In other words,” as wrote Nancy J. Hirschmann in a Frontiers article titled “Domestic Violence and the Theoretical Discourse of Freedom” (1996), “the ultimate barrier to women’s freedom is patriarchy, or the social, legal, and economic control that men are accorded over women; all other particular and specific barriers that individual women experience at any given time or place, in any given relationship, in any given experiential moment, can be understood only in this larger repressive context. Accordingly, battered women’s freedom is restricted by men’s violence and the sexist values that underpin and perpetuate it. Women’s freedom requires that this violence and its ideological supports be ended. As long as society does not recognize and support that goal, however, it is up to individual women to manage and cope in the best way they can. When looked at from this perspective, what may appear to be complicity, internalization of abuse, or even masochism may in reality be a form of resistance, management, or just plain survival…. But that does not mean she does not feel fear, that she wants or enjoys the beatings, or that she is free.”

    I wonder, of course, whether Stark also indicts patriarchy in his book and, if so, also makes recommendations for finally bringing it to justice.

    It has been widely known and discussed for decades now that batterers “develop an obsession when the victims try to leave” and “intensify physical violence and threats of homicide and suicide” (see, e.g., Subadra Marharja’s brief survey of research online titled “Violence in Marriage: Why Do Women Stay” [ca. 2000]). “Community response,” adds Marharja, “has been a major deterrent for many women to leave abusive relationships,” with the protective and legal systems being “largely responsible.”

    Therefore, what I hope Stark does is offer clear and compelling advice on how DV preventionists and interventionists can put way more of their money and long-term resources where their collective mouth is to further ensure that no abused woman is LEFT behind.

  8. Thanks to all of you for these excellent comments and great references. I’ve updated the entry in response to them. And I’ve learned a lot!

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