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Keep Calm and Rape a Lot? Domestic Violence: Not Just a Women's Issue

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Aggression towards women has gotten a lot of attention lately, allegations that Olympian Oscar Pistorius murdered his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, anchor Rob Morrison's arrest for allegedly choking his wife, and an Academy Awards ceremony that began with a dubious homage to accomplished actresses called "We Saw Your Boobs."

We can add another example of misogyny to this list, t-shirt company Solid Gold Bomb, which blamed a computer error for the creation and sale of shirts with slogans like "KEEP CALM AND RAPE A LOT" and "KEEP CALM AND HIT HER."

Though Amazon swiftly removed these shirts from sale on their site and the t-shirts' manufacturer as asserted in his apology that "As a father, husband, brother and son, I would never promote such product in our company," it's clear that we still have a long way to go before violence against women is eradicated.  For every triumph, like the hard-fought renewal of the Violence Against Women Act after 500 days languishing in Congress, we're faced with reports that mandatory federal spending cuts will erode many programs intended to help victims of abuse.

Here are some shocking statistics about the prevalence of domestic violence:

Clearly, this issue remains a huge problem for our society across a wide range of demographics. But one thing remains consistent, according to Camille Hayes, a writer and Sacramento-based domestic violence advocate: in the large majority of cases, the batterer is male, which makes domestic violence "a men's issue, not just a women's issue," says Hayes.

"The domestic violence movement was born out of Second Wave feminism in the 1970s," she says." so from the beginning, we've defined domestic violence as a women's issue, and I think that's left us with a gap, or blind spot, in our conceptualization of the problem. The information we have to date is very victim-centered: we know a lot about victim needs, how best to protect them, what the warning signs of abuse are."

"But that's leaving out the other major actor in these relationships -- the batterer. We don't know nearly enough about them, about their motives and needs. How can we hope to change batterer behavior if we don't fully understand it?"

"If you look at battery statistics across all groups -- gay, straight, men, women -- it's uniformly the case that men are much more likely to be the aggressors... So even when the sex of the victim changes, the sex of the likely perpetrator is still male. But although it's very apparent that men play a defining role here, we haven't managed to gather much useful information on them. I think that has to change if we ever want to get these incidence rates down."

Christine Bronstein: What are the limits of policy reform?

Camille Hayes: For the last 30-plus years, since the domestic violence movement grew into a distinct professional field, we've been addressing this problem at the societal level mostly via public policy reform. And there are lots of good DV laws on the books at the state and federal levels, and of course a network of crisis intervention agencies across the country that help individuals. But still, a quarter of American women will be abused in their lifetimes--I think we can all agree that's too many. It appears that we're beginning to bump up against the limits of what we can accomplish through legislative reform and the criminal justice solution.  We need to continue to support those methods of violence control, while also adding new strategies.

What is the role of individual psychology in the fight against domestic violence?

The analysis of domestic violence that drives most of our policy and intervention, and which is the basis of our understanding of abuse dynamics, was inherited from the feminist movement. What that means in practical terms is that our analysis of violent relationships is a high-level, socio-political analysis. It's focused on large-scale systems change and figuring out how big cultural institutions, like the criminal justice or education systems, impact us. Now, that kind of analysis is great, and it's taken us really far toward reforming large institutions and censuring them for systemic sexism. But when you're working on a problem like domestic violence, you start to see the limits of the socio-political analysis pretty quickly -- namely, it doesn't have much to say about individual psychology. Batterer behavior is so pathological that I don't think we'll ever know why partner violence is so common, or be able to reverse that trend, until we put real effort into understanding the psychology of abusers.

How many men are batterers?   Are most batterers repeat offenders?

Many are. Given that the vast majority of men aren't violent, to get such a high victimization rate among women, and among gay men, you have to have these chronic abusers who are battering multiple partners in their lifetimes.

How likely are batterers to repeat?

The numbers I've seen vary, but anywhere from 40-62 percent of batterers will re-offend.

Are there any programs out there for batterers?  

Yes, there are certified Batterer Intervention Programs (BIPs) in every county in CA, and I think that's true of most states. In California they're overseen by Probation Departments, meaning they have the authority to certify and de-certify official BIPs. Probation offices are county-level authorities, so that means all 58 counties in California manage their batterers programs differently. The types of programs they certify and the criteria they use aren't specified in statute. Some of those programs collect outcome data, others don't, but even the ones that do aren't all collecting the same kinds of data. The state of our knowledge about batterers programs is kind of a mess.

Which types of batterers programs seem to be most successful?

Even for the programs that are deemed "successful," because people aren't collecting consistent data, we're not in a good position to tease out which aspects of the programs are the efficacious ones, and which aspects aren't necessary for success. Now, how these programs measure success also varies. Sometimes it's by checking to see if they have re-offended after a certain amount of time, sometimes they use before-and-after surveys to test movement on attitudes about things like sexism and conflict resolution. So even the way we define a successful batterer intervention is all over the place -- there's just a lot we don't know.

What are some possible solutions... is it through the private sector nonprofits, policy or government programs or a combination?

I think what we need at this stage is for large governmental organizations like the National Institute of Mental Health and the Department of Justice to get involved, to help oversee and systematize data collection in existing programs, and fund outcome research on promising new interventions. One of the challenging things about working with batterers is that the ones we know about generally are somewhere in the criminal justice system: in prison, on probation, seeking mandated counseling. Psychologists can't just walk up to a prison and say "I'd like to do some research on your domestic violence offenders." Access can be tricky, so I think we really need some government involvement to get the ball rolling.

If you want to learn more about programs that work with batterers, check out ManKind, one of the nation's first batterer education programs for men who are violent with their female partners. Established in 1980, the two goals of ManKind are to help men end their immediate violence toward and abuse of their partners, and to engage men in community advocacy to change the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that support men's violence against women and girls. Learn more here.