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Domestic Abuse Fractures Lives

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Historical and Sociological Setting of Domestic Abuse

For a full understanding of domestic abuse and its pervasive nature, it is important to place the behaviour in a social context. Violence is not a relationship problem or issue. Basically, it is an expression of the social context that gives men control over women. This means individualistic or psychological theories are not only fundamentally flawed – they have resulted in a ‘blame the victim’ ideology. These theories are based on assumptions that men and women are equal, and that the cause of the violence lies inside people or inside relationships. This assumes that people live in captive isolation, unaffected by the social world. It denies an entire social context.

Over time, violence has become implicit in the popular definition of masculinity. That is, our society gives messages to males that to be violent is to be manly. Many videos, films and advertisements portray a "macho” type man as ideal. Thus, a "real” man is one who is big and strong and will fight, rather than walk away. Males are socialised to be strong and tough, to fight and to be powerful.

In many ways, to talk of the historical setting of domestic abuse is a contradiction. Domestic abuse has been a practice without a recorded history. Early references to men beating their wives seem to assume such behaviour was a normal part of everyday life. Two old proverbs show this graphically:

"A spaniel, a woman and a hickory tree, The more ye beat them the better they be”

(An English proverb)

"A wife may love a husband who never beats her, But she doesn’t respect him”

(Translated from Russian)

In British common law, women were considered, until recently, to be the property of men. They belonged to their fathers until marriage, and then to their husbands. Husbands were authorised to "chastise” their wives with "any reasonable instrument”. This was later modified. Men were then allowed to beat their wives, as long as the stick they used was no thicker than a man’s thumb. In United States law, the right and obligation of husbands to discipline their wives was retained, in most states, into the 20th century. The principle of the "ownership” of women by men was firmly established.

It is possible that some protection may have been afforded to women before the Industrial Revolution. In those days a home was a place of production, more open to the outside world. During the Industrial Revolution, the ideology of family privacy developed. The home became a refuge from the trials of the world. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the growth of suburbia, this ideology spread from the middle-class to the working class.

Up until recent times, secrecy and privacy have been major themes, in relation to the battering of women. A North Carolina judge stated that:

"If no permanent injury has been inflicted, nor malice nor dangerous violence shown by the husband, it is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze, and leave the parties to forget and forgive”

Historically, our society has given males superior status in relation to women. Even today, despite moves to improve the woman’s status, men who are violent to their female partners generally behave as if they have superior status and rights. Violent men tend to act as if they have the right to be violent when they think it is justified, that is, when their female partner has behaved inappropriately according to their rules and definitions, or even at their whim. Violence can be triggered by a trivial breaking of his rules such as a woman going to bed rather than waiting up for him, even though he gets home at 3am.

Violence as an acceptable form of "persuasion” is reinforced by such statements as that of Justice Bollen (Judge of the Supreme Court S.A. 1993), "There is, of course nothing wrong with a husband, faced with his wife’s initial refusal to engage in intercourse, in attempting, in an acceptable way, to persuade her to change her mind, and that may involve a measure of rougher than usual handling” (The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday May 14th, 1993).

It is important to note that not all men are violent. As with other socialisation processes, numerous influences in people’s lives determine values and attitudes. Just as some men are more competitive than others, some have more egalitarian, co-operative and respectful attitudes towards women.


Extract taken from North Derbyshire Domestic Abuse Action Group’s (NDDAAG) Domestic Violence Training Pack