Justifying Domestic-Violence Gender Stereotyping

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Gender-stereotyping of domestic violence is prevalent throughout literature on domestic violence. A 1994 social-scientific book on domestic violence noted:

There seems to be a ritual that almost all authors of books on family violence respect. Each volume leads off with an emotional “grabber” anecdote or two that uniformly portray a rather brutal, insensitive man abusing a sympathetic, victimized woman ^

That’s also a prevalent rhetorical practice in law review articles about domestic violence.^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ For example, a law review article published in 2011 begins:

Sarah, a young bride, believes her groom, John, is perfect. Soon after they take their vows, John’s criticism of Sarah transforms into verbal abuse. His command keeps her trapped in their home. His temper places her in fear. And eventually, his fist leaves a mark on her face.

After marriage comes a baby, and then John threatens to kill Sarah. The baby cries:

the baby crying causes him {John} to relax the hands that were tightening around Sarah’s neck.

The story ends with Sarah fleeing from the marital home in Kansas to her mother’s home in Oklahoma. The author of this sensational, stereotype-laden story declares:

Hopefully, the above hypothetical is as difficult for the reader as it was for the author to imagine. Unfortunately, reality closely mirrors this situation all too often.^

This scholarly article then moves on to legal-technical analysis of whether an Oklahoma court would have jurisdiction to issue a restraining order against John at the petition of Sarah, now residing in the hypothetical story with her mother in Oklahoma. That’s a very narrow issue in the fundamentally important field of family law. Scholarly imagination continually producing gender stereotypes of domestic violence and mythic domestic-violence legal history encourages reasoning divorced from important truths. Pervasive gender-stereotyping of domestic violence also contributes to lack of public concern about domestic violence against men and expansive criminalization of men.

Gender-stereotyping women as victims of domestic violence and men as perpetrators of domestic violence has persisted for decades in formally open, competitive, rationalistic legal deliberation. Virtually all law review articles addressing domestic violence depict women as victims and men as perpetrators. Domestic-violence gender stereotyping implicitly gains support from the stereotype of women as physically weaker than men and the stereotype of men as criminals. By the standard of good public reason, law review articles justify domestic-violence gender stereotyping with astonishingly weak justifications.

Law review articles commonly justify domestic-violence gender stereotyping with factual claims. Law review articles addressing domestic violence thus explain:

This Note will refer to batterers as men and victims as women because the overwhelming majority of cases involve men abusing women. Approximately 95% of domestic violence victims are women.

Although men are also victims of domestic violence, this Comment will refer to women as victims and men as batterers because women are victims in 95% of the assaults that result in injury.^

Factual justifications for domestic-violence gender stereotyping typically don’t recognize that the claimed facts (about 95% of victims are women, or similar claims) are highly contentious among domestic-violence experts. Moreover, highly credible, nationally representative data indicate that men account for 40% of visits to hospital emergency departments for domestic-violence injuries. In addition to these problems of authority and truth, factually justifying gender stereotyping isn’t formally good reason. Stereotypes that damage a minority aren’t convincingly justified by arguing that a minority is a minority. But with respect to domestic violence, that argument has dominated in scholarly writing on domestic violence for decades.

That domestic-violence gender stereotypes are well-established in scholarly literature is also put forward as justifying continuing to gender-stereotype domestic violence. Law review articles addressing domestic violence thus explain:

This article will use the pronoun “she” when discussing victims of domestic violence. This conforms with the literature upon this topic.

the bulk of the literature on the subject refers to defendants in domestic violence cases as men.

for ease of reading and to conform to statistical data, the batterer/abuser will be referred to in the masculine form, and the victim will be referred to in the feminine form.^

Stereotyping is particularly damaging when it re-enforces historical injustices. Law reviews have for decades disseminated highly exaggerated, sensational, false claims about domestic violence against women. Law reviews have largely ignored men’s suffering from domestic violence. Law reviews have shown little concern about the highly disproportionate imprisonment of men. Conventional justifications for continuing domestic-violence gender stereotyping lack appreciation for the real, historical context of that stereotyping.

Domestic violence stereotyping also occurs through explicitly or implicitly defining domestic violence to be violence by men against women. For example, a law review article declared:

Throughout the Article, I make reference to domestic violence or domestic abuse. I use the terms interchangeably to mean acts of violence committed by men against their girlfriends, wives or intimate partners. This definition accurately reflects the fact that ninety to ninety-five percent of domestic violence victims are women.^

Men suffer about 40% of the serious injuries from domestic violence. So the cited statistic is far from accurate. Moreover, defining a generic term to explicitly exclude a minority is bigoted intellectual practice. Another law review article declared:

Throughout this Article, we use the term “domestic violence,” not in its generic (and gender-neutral) sense, but to refer to the physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse of a woman by her male intimate partner. Similarly, we use the term “batterer” to refer to a man who engages in any form of domestic violence, including abuse that is purely psychological.^

The criminal justice response to domestic violence has conflated “battering” (repeated, severe violence) with low-level physical aggression and perceived psychological harm. That unreasonable conflation of acts in domestic violence policy has contributed to the extraordinary growth of incarceration in the U.S. Moreover, because police cannot ignore the reality of women perpetrating domestic violence as easily as law professors do, about 25% of persons arrested for domestic violence are women. Nonetheless, much research on domestic violence selects samples that explicitly exclude men as victims or men as petitioners for restraining orders.^ That’s anti-male gender bigotry deeply embedded in scholarly study.

Exaggerating domestic violence against women works to re-enforce gender stereotyping of domestic violence. A book-length personal account of horrific domestic violence, published in 1993, featured an introduction by the Co-Chair of the Battered Women’s Task Force of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Approximately half of the introduction consisted of formally factual, formally social-scientific statements. Those statements included the following:

The March of Dimes reports that more babies are now born with birth defects as a result of the mother being battered during pregnancy than from the combination of all the diseases and illnesses for which we immunize pregnant women.

Battering is the single major cause of injury to women — more frequent than auto accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.^

Under a reasonable standard, these statements are grotesquely false. They are good evidence of the power and control of gender stereotyping domestic violence in public discourse. Without good reason, public discourse across a variety of fields and for decades has stereotyped women as domestic-violence victims, and men as (implicitly or explicitly) domestic-violence perpetrators.

Domestic violence stereotyping has deeply affected law. A legal monograph examining the extraordinary development of civil-criminal domestic violence law could itself not escape normative gender stereotyping:

In this book, I generally refer to “spouses” and to male abuses and female victims because the legal practices I describe here operate on that general presumption, supported by statistics.

Appending the the defensive clause, “supported by statistics,” to the justice system’s stereotyping men as criminals is extraordinary legal argument. But that is normal for analysis of domestic violence law. The scholar further appends an end note:

Victims of DV {domestic violence} are of course not always wives, women, or in heterosexual relationships, and abusers are not always male.^

That end note concludes by referring to two law-review articles on domestic violence protection for non-marital couples. Throughout the legal monograph on domestic violence, the legal scholar does not acknowledge decades of bitter controversy among domestic violence scholars. The legal scholar does not consider highly unequal service for men who are victims of domestic violence. In the highest courts and throughout the legal academy, the rational basis for gender-stereotyping domestic violence is frighteningly weak.

Decades of domestic-violence gender stereotyping in law reviews point to deeper communicative issues. In moving away from highly exaggerated, sensational claims about domestic violence against women, law reviews have performed worse than highly politicized non-scholarly discussion and no better than commercial, market-driven reporting. The communicative record of law reviews shows limits of formal communicative structure. A formally open, competitive, rationalistic communicative field will not necessarily perform well. Despite its rational weakness, domestic violence gender stereotyping has been frighteningly successful.

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