Friday, August 4, 2017

Moving Beyond the Internalities of Domestic Violence


Guest blogger Professor Jamie Abrams is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law where she teaches Torts, Family Law, Legislation, and Women and the Law. Her research focuses on reproductive and birthing decision-making, gendered citizenship, legal protections for immigrant victims of domestic violence, and legal education pedagogy. Professor Abrams' most recent work includes Debunking the Myth of Universal Male Privilege, in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, and The Feminist Case for Acknowledging Women’s Acts of Violence in the Yale Journal of Law & Feminism


Imagine if domestic violence activists could reframe its politicization and present the issue for public response anew.  How would the issue be framed and described?  What legal solutions would be identified?  Who would be accountable for effective results?  I suggest that such an exercise would reveal that the domestic violence movement is politicized around the internalities of victims and perpetrators in ways that collaterally restrain efforts to end domestic violence. 

Internalities are the condition of being internal or contained within.  This term describes the ways in which domestic violence is politicized as a problem internal to the relationship in which it occurs.  In this internalities framing, there are two actors – the victim and the perpetrator.  Other actors, such as law enforcement, social support services, and lawyers, all intervene to assist once initiated, but the problem and legal responses to it are understood and defined by its internalities.  The internalities framing puts our focus on the victim and the perpetrator as a contained unit:  How can this victim be protected?  How at risk is this victim for future violence?  How will the perpetrator be prevented from contact with this victim?   The “crisis” of domestic abuse is built around the victim and her needs, an understandable point of emphasis from a public safety and health standpoint,  but a narrow one from the perspective of ending domestic violence.

There are considerable strengths to an internalities framing, particularly when understood in historical context.  It uniquely grew out of understandings of domestic violence as discerned from women victims and the consciousness-raising dialogues that brought these individual experiences together collectively. This framing gave powerful voice to a silent epidemic historically insulated in the family with minimal state intervention or response.   Giving voice to the experiences of survivors and developing social, political, and legal interventions to those experiences is one of the greatest accomplishments of the second-wave feminist movement.

There are also inherent limitations to this approach.  From a politicization perspective, an internalities framing risks politicizing domestic violence as if it spontaneously erupts out of the relationship, which insulates the state from accountability.  Consider, for example, the iconic “Cycle of Violence.”  It visually depicts and explains abuse as a single victim and a single perpetrator on a continuous cycle without externalities or collateral harms to family, community, employers, the economy, etc.  It pretends that abuse just erupts and sustains itself on this cycle within the internal family unit, without consideration of the political, economic, social, legal, medical triggers that also play a role.  Lethality risk assessments likewise ask victims about internalities only, such as victim pregnancies, perpetrator drug/alcohol abuse, perpetrator weapon access, and recent violent incidents between the two.

There is an interesting power paradox embedded in this internalities approach.  Victims gain autonomy by shaping law reform approaches and framing domestic violence in the public arena, but they, in turn, hold implicit accountability for the effectiveness of those interventions.  This autonomy paradoxically immunizes the state and perpetrators from accountability, which was the exact goal of the early battered women’s movement.  This creates an insider-outsider politics that positions the victim as the insider party accountable for effective interventions and risk assessments.  The state is cast merely in a supporting role coming to her aid as an outsider.  This insulates the state from accountability and casts the crisis and accountability for effective solutions around the victim, rather than the perpetrator. 

This framework ignores the ways in which state actors in the judicial and law enforcement process might provoke or exacerbate risks of family violence or might exercise more proactive risk assessments and accountability.  It also ignores the ways in which those externalities will likely lead the perpetrator to recidivist behaviors with a new partner even if the state were able to successfully break the cycle of violence in the preceding relationship.

Missing from this framing of violence are the ways in which externalities can play a critical role in exacerbating, triggering, and facilitating domestic violence.  Some examples of relevant externalities systemically excluded from our politicization of domestic violence are economic distress, the perpetrator’s own history of prior abuse, job loss or dissatisfaction, mental illness, larger gender inequality and cultural norms, and changes in custody/parenting status.  Ignoring externalities compromises the extent of state interventions; fictionalizes the family as an isolated unit separated from other political and social systems; and reveres state actors as universally working to end family violence, ignoring the possibility that state action can also sometimes provoke or exacerbate violence.

Note:  This blog post previews arguments that I make in a forthcoming chapter in the book The Politicization of Safety (N.Y.U. Press) following a conference on The Politicization of Safety organized by Jane Stoever at the University of California–Irvine School of Law this April

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