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Locking up men who beat their partners sounds like a tremendous improvement over the days when men could hit women with impunity and women fearing for their lives could expect no help from authorities. But does our system of requiring the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of abusers lessen domestic violence or help battered women? In this already controversial but vitally important book, we learn that the criminal justice system may actually be making the problem of domestic violence worse. Looking honestly ...
Locking up men who beat their partners sounds like a tremendous improvement over the days when men could hit women with impunity and women fearing for their lives could expect no help from authorities. But does our system of requiring the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of abusers lessen domestic violence or help battered women? In this already controversial but vitally important book, we learn that the criminal justice system may actually be making the problem of domestic violence worse. Looking honestly at uncomfortable facts, Linda Mills makes the case for a complete overhaul and presents a promising alternative.
The evidence turns up some surprising facts about the complexities of intimate abuse, facts that run against mainstream assumptions: The current system robs battered women of what power they do hold. Perhaps as many as half of women in abusive relationships stay in them for strong cultural, economic, religious, or emotional reasons. Jailing their partners often makes their situations worse. Women are at least as physically violent and emotionally aggressive as are men toward women, and women's aggression is often central to the dynamic of intimate abuse.
Informed by compelling evidence, personal experience, and what abused women themselves say about their needs, Mills proposes no less than a fundamentally new system. Addressing the real dynamics of intimate abuse and incorporating proven methods of restorative justice, Mills's approach focuses on healing and transformation rather than shame or punishment. Already the subject of heated controversy, Insult to Injury offers a desperately needed and powerful means for using what we know to reduce violence in our homes.
"Drawing both on research and on her own experience in the field, Mills concludes that the conventional feminist paradigm of domestic violence as a form of patriarchal oppression is woefully inadequate. . . . [Mills's] message needs to be heard by politicians, judges, prosecutors and many others. It took the 'mainstream' feminists about 30 years to establish their monopoly on the public debate about domestic violence. Mills's book may be the first step in dismantling that monopoly."—Cathy Young, Boston Globe
"The real strength of Mill's book lies in her repudiation of a one-size-fits-all approach to domestic violence. . . . As a challenge tocurrent dogma, it is a breath of fresh air. One can only hope that its alternative message will be heard in the courses and seminars held across the country to educate counselors, law enforcement, and judges about domestic violence."—Cathy Young, Reason
I turned and looked at my companion; we were both impressed and somewhat pleased that the child had asserted his rights, stood up for himself, and retaliated. Then it slowly dawned on me. In that split second, we had witnessed the genesis of intimate abuse. This was an unexceptional everyday scene, just another parent who felt entitled to correct her child with physical admonitions and a child who reactedunreflectively. But the little boy would grow up to become a man, and he was already being taught to respond to women with violence. We learn to become violent, as this scene suggests, but we seldom realize that is what we are learning, let alone that it is what we are teaching.
The image of that altercation has stayed with me for many years. We all witness and experience violence in our lives. We have all become habituated to violence, consciously or unconsciously judging who is right and wrong in relation to violence. This book is, in essence, an attempt to become conscious of the pervasiveness of violence, its role in our intimate lives, and the judgments we make about it.
Becoming conscious of violence is always met with resistance. We have a hard time believing violence is occurring, even when it is direct and personal. We tend to run, either literally or metaphorically, so as to ignore it or put it behind us. Denial kicks in, and we are left pretending it never happened.
The only time we are truly comfortable thinking about violence is when it affects other people. Then we become experts on violence and on what other people should do about it. Our denial and paralysis in the face of our own experience gets externalized: we solve the problems of others while denying our own. When our anger is exteriorized in this way, it is projected: what we cannot accept in our own past, we project onto others.
Consider the reaction of a man who grew up with a violent mother. If he is unaware of his history or how it affects his view of violence, he might project his unconscious hatred of his own mother onto the woman on Bethnal Green Road. He might villainize her without any attempt to understand or engage her. Now assume he is also a social worker; he might believe that the child is best served by taking him away from his mother. It is highly unlikely that he would have any awareness that his judgment was determined, in some significant way, by his own unacknowledged prior experiences of violence. When we project, we judge someone else for what happened to us; we act out our rage at our own helplessness by controlling what others do. It is a central argument of this book that to understand violence, we must attend to the "ground zero" of intimate abuse-that is, to our own experiences of it.
Returning to the five-year-old boy, it is significant that my initial response was supportive of his physical reaction to his mother's violence. I identified with the child's helplessness, with his vulnerability in the face of abuse by an adult. Most of us feel that identification when we see a child struck or otherwise abused. The reality of the situation is much more complicated. Here a other is "coaching" a child to be abusive, teaching her son to react violently toward women. I am sure we would not normally view the situation in this vein.
On reflection, what is most remarkable about this interaction is the complexity of violence between intimates; it crosses genders and generations. Unless we appreciate the dynamics of intimate abuse, we will judge it before attempting to understand it. Consider this disturbing fact: after a few years have passed and the boy who hit his mother on Bethnal Green Road has become a man, it is statistically likely that he will hit a woman again. At that time, some people, especially a group called "mainstream feminists," will argue for his arrest and prosecution. What is perhaps most troubling about this situation is that mainstream feminists would at the same time leave the mother blameless. Paradoxically, mainstream feminists are arguing in this situation for the disempowerment of the violent mother and the empowerment of the violent man. The mother, viewed as a victim, is without blame. The man is the cause and the sum of the violence he inflicts. The mother's contribution to his trained reaction to women is ignored. In the most traditional of terms, he is everything, and she is nothing.
Historically, mainstream feminism's highly successful response to heterosexual domestic violence has been to ignore the complexity of the dynamic that I witnessed. The child whom I saw being hit by his mother is three times more likely to become violent in intimate relationships than a child who was not hit. The moment that he hits a woman, mainstream feminists have legislated that he be taken out of the context of his biography and into an automatic legal process in which he will be held absolutely accountable for any violence he committed. He will be defined as a product of patriarchy, and his masculine privilege will account for the sole source of his aggression. For many mainstream feminists, the causal relationship between patriarchy and violence is uniform and singular; heterosexual men beat women because of patriarchy. Domestic violence involves perpetrator and victim, and nothing more. While this makes for easy policy and uniform legislative solutions, it addresses the symptoms of intimate abuse and not its causes.
Mainstream feminism, a term I have drawn from others, is not meant to malign any individual feminist per se. I refer to mainstream feminists as people who self-identify as "feminist" but adhere to a monolithic legal approach to domestic violence. As I will show, domestic violence does not lend itself to one solution. It is difficult to define exactly who makes up this group's membership. It may include activists, lobbyists, and helping professionals such as police officers, prosecutors, and even judges-men and women alike. Although the focus of this book is on their support for the legal process, mainstream feminists share many of the same assumptions that informed the battered women's movement early on. Many of the feminists who started and supported the battered women's movement, however, have now begun to question the decision to focus so heavily on the criminal justice system. In addition, a person may agree with aspects of the mainstream feminist approach, such as arrest, prosecution, and punishment of the most violent criminals, yet reject the rest of the mainstream agenda. In the end, mainstream feminism is a collection of ideas that a powerful group of people, with shifting membership, adhere to and advocate for. Their continued advocacy for an almost exclusive focus on punishment in response to domestic violence represents the privilege of their assertion and the positions of power they hold. It also represents, I believe, their fear that if they capitulate in any way, or recognize any limitations to their approach, they will lose the benefits they have gained.
Some people believe that calling this group of women "feminist" gives other feminists a bad name or somehow implies that there is one stereotypical feminist who supports mandated interventions. This is not the case. Many straight and gay white feminists have for a long time questioned and challenged a monolithic criminal justice response to domestic violence; many straight and gay women of color have supported mandated responses. It cannot be denied, however, that overall, mainstream feminism, as I suggest in chapter 3, has forwarded an agenda that has advanced the interests of privileged white heterosexual women at the expense of the concerns of women who are different from them, at least when it comes to criminal justice system interventions. The tensions between white feminists, women of color, and lesbians who also identify as feminists are not centered only in domestic violence. They have persisted since the feminist movement began.
This book is a reflection on where I think some feminists went wrong in relation to domestic violence and the need for other feminists to assert a different agenda. There is no one "feminism," and this book provides us with an opportunity to reflect on both our identity as feminists and what each of us stands for. Although at times it may feel like an attack-I don't mince words-it is meant to be an opportunity to see what we, as feminists, are doing and start to make deliberate decisions about the consequences of our actions.
The term "mainstream feminism" is not meant to blame any one person, but rather to point out the ways a group of feminists and their agenda have come to shape both how we think about domestic violence and what we should do about it.
I write as a feminist and activist of many year's standing. Some mainstream feminists believe my attack is fundamentally conservative in approach. As I will show, I believe the opposite is true. Conservative women have advocated that no aggressive government intervention should be made available to victims. This is not my position. As a feminist, I believe that women should be entitled to their privacy to the extent that they want to maintain their privacy. If women or other members of a family want the police and/or courts to intervene, either because they ask for it or because their situation poses great risk of harm, the state should respond with appropriate assistance without reproducing the harm already being inflicted. Although in some life-threatening cases this might involve arrest, prosecution, and incarceration, in most cases a woman should be free to choose her own intimate and family destinies, with or without criminal sanctions, and after the state has provided options that respect her specific needs while also offering her methods that would help her be safe.
It is my belief, arrived at over two decades of working in the field of intimate violence, that mainstream feminists have failed to understand intimate abuse and the choices women make when they are involved in abusive relationships. To my sorrow, I have come to realize that, in general, the mainstream feminist response to domestic violence represents the views of a relatively small minority of women who have the resources and political strength to aggressively assert their narrow explanations for domestic violence. Whether by virtue of denial, projection, or privilege, mainstream feminists have been able to advocate for a uniform, and ironically conservative, law-and-order response to intimate abuse that blames men and ultimately treats women as innocent victims. Consider a recent New York City ad campaign that features pictures of men behind bars. On billboards, subway trains, and government Web sites, we see the following captions: "Successful Executive. Devoted Churchgoer. Abusive Husband." "Big Man on Campus. Star Athlete. Abusive Boyfriend." "Employee of the Month. Soccer Coach. Wife Beater." At first blush these ads seem at the very least paradoxical. If these men are successful leaders in their fields, why are they behind bars? On reflection it seems shocking that the only response available is imprisonment and shame. Can it really be asserted that their abusive behaviors are all that matter? Is it really not possible, even with successful men, to work their violence through? The mainstream law-and-order response here seems to wholly fail to address the problem; it simply wants to lock it away.
What may come as a surprise to many people is that study after study confirms that arrest, prosecution, and incarceration do not necessarily reduce the problem of domestic violence and may even be making the problem worse. Arrest has been shown to have a positive deterrent effect on men who are "good-risk" perpetrators, that is, people who have something to lose by being incarcerated. On the other hand, the men most likely to be arrested because of the criminal justice system's inherent class and race bias can become more violent in response to arrest. Even a coordinated response that includes arrest, prosecution, and incarceration has not shown better outcomes. Although there are conflicting results, no study documents an overwhelming reduction in intimate violence in the groups most likely to be arrested. At worst, the criminal justice system increases violence against women. At best, it has little or no effect.
The assumptions underpinning mainstream feminist advocacy efforts are that all intimate abuse is heterosexual, that violence is a one-way street (male to female), that all violence warrants a state response, and that women want to leave rather than stay in their abusive relationships. It is on this basis that mainstream feminists advocated for interventions that called for the state to arrest and prosecute batterers regardless of the woman's wishes. Mandatory arrest and prosecution, as they have come to be called, became the battle cry of mainstream feminists. Their efforts were overwhelmingly successful.
Their success was important and drastically lowered the level of social tolerance for domestic violence and focused attention on the pervasiveness and danger of intimate abuse. Their success, no doubt, immobilized some men who were so violent that they would otherwise have killed their intimate partners. It is important however, to distinguish between that end of the spectrum that sociologist Michael Johnson dubs "patriarchal terrorism," and "common couple violence," which reflects the more common dynamic I describe throughout this book. My argument is that recognizing that some men inflict severe physical and emotional violence on women is important, but in many cases it is neither the whole story of violence in that relationship, nor the most common instance of violence in the intimate sphere.
Here is the history. Thirty years ago, law enforcement personnel paid no attention to domestic violence and certainly did not listen to women's complaints. Twenty years ago, women, some of whom had left their abusers, started shelters and assumed that the women who came for safety or a respite from the violence ultimately needed to leave their abusive relationships. They called these battered women "victims." The irony is that statistics reflected the fact that many of these women stayed and/or returned to their abusers. Yet shelter workers were politically motivated and did not stop to listen to the women who said that they sought only temporary refuge, that they were returning to their abusers. Women in abusive relationships remained unheard.
Ten years ago, mainstream feminists successfully advocated for policies that instituted mandatory arrest, prosecution, and reporting even though there was evidence that such action may increase the incidence of violence against poor women of color. As Lawrence Sherman and his colleagues observed after studying mandatory arrest practices in the city of Milwaukee: "If three times as many blacks as whites are arrested, which is a fair approximation, then an across-the-board policy of mandatory arrest prevents 2,504 acts of violence against primarily white women at the price of 5,409 acts of violence against primarily black women." Because arrest in Milwaukee is more likely to prevent future violence when the batterer is white, mandatory arrests protect the partners of white men, who are most often white women, while threatening the partners of black men, who are predominantly black women. And since three times as many black men are arrested as white men, partners of black men are at a disproportionately increased risk.
Excerpted from Insult to Injury by Linda G. Mills Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 24, 2012
Posted November 12, 2003
This courageous book by a feminist/social worker/law professor makes a powerful case that the simple one-sided mainstream feminist view of males being responsible for all significant violence is inaccurate. She shows that the success feminists have had in the criminalization of all intimate abuse is dangerous to minorities and counterproductive to most intimate relationships. She calls for a creative solution borrowing from the restorative justice utilized in South Africa. The only question is if 'entrenched and very powerful' feminists (quoting Archbishop Desmond Tutu) are willing to give up the power they have acquired from the widespread political and legal acceptance of their exclusive focus on male to female violence.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.