The Construction of Masculinity and the Roots of Domestic Violence

as Seen in Accounts of Battered Women













Laura Leigh Dean













Sociology 410, Directed Research in Sociology/Anthropology

Dr. Ben Feinberg

May 9, 2005



            The “rule of thumb” was established by British Common Law in the mid 18th century.  According to this rule a husband could reprimand his wife, granting that the rod or stick he used to do so was no thicker than his thumb.  Post-Revolutionary American laws reflected this attitude of leniency toward perpetrators of domestic violence.  In 1874, a North Carolina court decision limited the kinds of cases in which the court could intervene, famously stating:

                        If no permanent injury has been inflicted, nor malice,

                        cruelty 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 (Kurz, 1989, p. 496).


Legal and social non-intervention into domestic violence cases was the norm until the late 1970s, when domestic violence discourse became common.  The notion that violence in the family is a strictly personal issue and should not be brought to the attention of the criminal justice system still pervades today.  While laws have changed to aid domestic violence victims in their pursuit of justice, social and legal norms still exist that nurture a culture of violence against women as a means of patriarchal control.  Throughout history, men have created and sustained control over women through social, economic, and physical intimidation and coercion.  Legal and social realms of American society “tacitly condoned or ignored domestic violence under the guise of protecting family sanctity and structure” (The League of Women Voters of Kent County, n.d.). 

            Modern feminist and sociological researchers continue to examine domestic violence as a way for male abusers to construct masculine identities and maintain dominance over women.  Many of these researchers are expanding analyses of the gendered nature of domestic violence.  When researching domestic violence it is crucial to present the audience with the definition of domestic abuse, its causes, and how women and men define their experiences of domestic violence (Fernandez, 1997).  For this study, domestic violence is defined as mental, physical, and/or sexual abuse that occurs between two adults in an intimate relationship regardless of marital status.  For this report, I will focus on the role of gender and power within abusive relationships and how batterers perform gender roles that maintain their control.  I contend that batterers construct and maintain masculine identities through their use of systematic violence and control within intimate relationships.       


            Public discourse on domestic violence began in the early 1970s, as scholars and feminist activists exposed battered women’s accounts to the American public.  A theoretical framework upon which domestic violence could be understood also began during this era.  Feminist scholars asserted that domestic abuse was part of a widespread pattern of patriarchal domination and control of women.  Methodologically, feminist researchers have relied extensively on accounts from battered women themselves, especially those seeking help from law enforcement agencies, hospitals, or legal service providers.  Theoretically, their focus has been on traditional notions of the patriarchal family structure, current conceptions of masculinity and femininity, and structural barriers that make it difficult for victims to escape abusive relationships (Johnson, 1995, p. 284). Opposition to the battered women’s movement gained popularity in the media, following the increased feminist response to domestic violence in the late 1970s.  Many critics of a feminist-centered approach to domestic violence focused on popular studies that arrived at misleading results about women’s propensities for violence.  The most famous of these studies, conducted by Straus and Gelles, argued that the female propensity for domestic violence is just as prevalent as the male propensity for domestic violence.  They used the Conflict Tactics Scale to gather and assess data measuring the frequency of domestic violence incidents in American households.  Recent feminist and sociological analyses of the Straus and Gelles study, however, argue that it does not measure the purpose of the violence or the injuries that result from assault (Berns, 2001, p. 267).  They also disagree with the study, as it does not take into account other forms of control and intimidation that abuser use such as psychological, sexual, and verbal threats and abuse.  These factors are often more difficult to measure.  Even Straus and Gelles, themselves, acknowledged that their study is misused by critics of the domestic violence awareness movement, adding that “no matter how much violence there is or who initiates the violence, women are as much as 10 times more likely than men to be injured in acts of domestic violence” (Berns, 2001, p. 267).  “Arguing that men and women are equally violent is the most significant and frequent strategy used for degendering the problem,” argues sociologist Nancy Berns.  As a result of the backlash against the battered women’s movement, the attention has shifted away from tactics of abusers and the sociological factors that foster domestic violence in a patriarchal society.  The female victim is viewed as the one that is held most responsible for ending the abuse.  She is encouraged to change her personality, get more self-esteem, or gather enough power to end the abuse herself.  The dominant focus on victims’ responsibility keeps the root causes of domestic violence hidden from view.     

            Within the past twenty years, feminist researchers and sociologists have tackled this issue by casting their net wider.  Class, race, age, and other socioeconomic factors as well as gender should be included in examining the social structures that maintain gendered violence.  Feminist sociologist Michele Bograd discusses the notion of intersectionality in her domestic violence piece in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.  She states that “life experiences and their meanings are qualitatively different for different individuals due to general and idiosyncratic patterns shaped by social dimensions” (Bograd, 1999, p. 275-76).  Bograd means that once social contexts (like class, race, age, and socioeconomic factors) are taken into account, that things are not as black and white as they may seem at first glance.  Bograd explains that through the lens of intersectionality, “domestic violence is but one form of oppression and social control” (Bograd, 1999, p. 276).  People live in a social framework composed of intersections of systems of power and systems of oppression like racism, class and gender stratification, and other inequalities.  Bograd goes on to say that “intersectionalities color the meaning and nature of domestic violence” (Bograd, 1999, p. 276).  Intersectionality affects how a battered woman may respond to domestic violence, how others respond to her situation, how she is treated within the legal system, and how and whether escape from her abuser may be an option.  For example, a domestic violence victim may view herself or be viewed by others differently if she is white or black, rich or poor, a citizen or an immigrant (Bograd, 1999, p. 277). 


At least once, sometimes many times, domestic violence victims will be involved in the criminal justice system and the civil realm as well.  They may seek assistance in obtaining restraining orders, pressing charges against an abuser, or filing for divorce.  Many times victims will be seeking assistance with multiple problems, like a protective order, divorce, and custody.  In order to examine domestic violence victims’ accounts, I contacted a domestic violence program within a legal services agency.  I received permission from the Mountain Area Agency* to collect data from 63 applicants that had applied for their domestic violence services.  This legal services agency includes an area domestic violence program that serves victims in several counties.  The data included questionnaires filled out during interviews with program applicants (see Appendix I). Interviews with clients took approximately 45 minutes.  The name of every individual applicant (including her children, friends, relatives, and abuser) in my report have been changed to protect their identities.  Some applicant interviews were conducted by other staff members of the Mountain Area Agency.  I used the information gathered in these questionnaires to assess the individual situations of the applicants in my study.  Themes were then compiled and coded, based on similarities between applicants’ responses to items in the questionnaire.  Various research methods included participatory investigation, interactions with clients, client interviews and use of the questionnaire with secondary analysis.  The statistical data that I collected came directly from the questionnaires discussed above. The questions were provided by the Mountain Area Agency.  I did not add questions to the questionnaire. 

            None of the applicants surveyed in my study were in an intimate relationship with someone of the same sex.  None of the applicants were asked to identify their race in the questionnaire. Because of the nature of a legal services agency, all of the applicants had to fall within an income bracket.  To be eligible to be represented by a domestic violence attorney at the Mountain Area Agency, applicants have to be at least 187.5% of the federal poverty level.  For example, a domestic violence victim with no kids can make no more than $17,410 per year to be eligible for assistance from the agency.  A victim with 2 kids can make no more than $29,303 to be eligible for assistance.  Domestic violence victims’ incomes are taken into account separately from their partners.  I received permission from eight applicants to use their full narratives within my report.  All of the narrative quotes used in my report were gathered with permission from these eight applicants.  I used other general data from all 63 applicants to come to general conclusions.  For example, I assessed all of the applicants’ responses to look at trends regarding age, types of abuse, child custody, and employment.  I received permission from the area legal services agency to analyze these data.  Because the sample that I collected was non-representative, it is not possible to generalize the results beyond these 63 applicants.           



Theoretical Framework

It is important to honor the voices of battered women in order to gain an understanding of the causes and solutions to the problem of domestic violence.  Using first-hand perspectives of domestic violence victims is useful because it provides victims with a forum in which to have their voices heard.  I chose to use a combination of a feminist approach and a critical theory approach in my research.  A critical theory approach is geared toward the empowerment of oppressed people.  It is “transformative, political, and emancipatory in nature.” (Berns, 2001, p. 264).  A feminist approach is used to examine constructions of hegemonic notions of masculinity and femininity and to examine the ways in which violence is gendered.  Sociologist Kristen Anderson asserts that “feminist sociologists contend that issues of gender and power are the ultimate root of intimate violence” (Anderson, 1997).  Feminist researchers contend that domestic violence is part of a deep-rooted system of control through which men exercise and maintain dominance over women.  A feminist-centered research approach is most beneficial for this project. Feminist research methods emphasize the importance of honoring the subject’s voice as the “knower” or the expert, not necessarily because of her intellectual capabilities, but because of her experiences.  As feminist researcher Marjorie DeVault writes, “what makes a qualitative or a quantitative approach feminist is a commitment to finding women and their concerns.  The point is not only to know about women, but to provide a fuller and more accurate account of society by including them” (DeVault, 1999, p. 30).  This challenges the traditional notions of the expert or the “knower.” Feminist theorists often find themselves using characteristics of various theories, including: using Marxian theory in a gendered context regarding economics and the division of capital, social constructionism (in which meanings are created and changed through interpretation), and naturalism (presenting the lives of research participants as honestly as possible).  According to many sociological scholars, including Kristin Esterberg, “feminist approaches to social science are extraordinarily diverse” (Esterberg, 2002, p. 18).  By combining characteristics of various feminist methodologies, the end result of feminist research will be well-rounded and diverse perspectives that are centered on women’s lived experiences.  By choosing to focus on a feminist analysis, my goal is twofold:  1) to explore the constructs of gender and power, and 2) to convey the importance of understanding and validating women’s voices and experiences (Yllö & Bograd, 1988, p. 13-14). 

  Author Andrew E. Taslitz argues that “we live in a ‘cult of masculinity’,” which refers to a society that describes the different meanings men and women have regarding aggression.  He expands upon the original phrase “cult of masculinity” coined by female historian Rosalind Miles in her book entitled Love, Sex, Death, and the Making of the Male.  He describes how “for most men, aggression, whether physical or verbal, is instrumental, a way of controlling others, attaining social or material benefits, dominance, and self esteem” (Taslitz, 1999, p. 25).  Some males see aggression as a way to acquire self-esteem, social dominance over females, and a way to identify and bond with other men.  To contrast men’s attitudes regarding aggression, Taslitz describes how women justify aggression.  He argues that women use aggression as a form of expression, a kind of release of frustration.  Women see it as a “loss of self-control and a danger to relationships.”  As a result, female aggression is more likely to be turned inward, often becoming a private source of guilt.

This explanation of the cult of masculinity is supported by various feminist and social science researchers’ studies of testimonies from both domestic violence victims and perpetrators.  Male abusers use violence, anger, and psychological abuse as ways to control their female partners through tactics such as intimidation, isolation, and coercion (Kurz, 1989, p. 495).  Interviews with batterers support this assertion, as they explain that they are “justified in their use of violence by their wives’ behavior or by what they feel are acceptable norms” (Kurz, 1989, p. 495).  In a 2001 study about men’s accounts of domestic violence, the researchers concluded that the batterers in the study “used diverse strategies to present themselves as nonviolent, capable, and rational men” (Anderson & Umberson, 2001, p. 358).  One of the first questions that the researchers addressed was: “How do batterers talk about the violence in their relationships?”  They concluded that men rationalized, excused, and minimized their violence against their partners.  The male study participants rationalized their violence by claiming that they were provoked by their partners or that they simply temporarily lost control of their actions.  Some study participants claimed that they had to use their masculine rationality to correct their partners’ feminine irrationality.  Sexual assaults were also blamed on female partners because women were seen as “tempting men.”  Males use violence, whether physical or sexual, to achieve and maintain respect.  The participants in this study clearly viewed male and female behavior as essentially dichotomous.  Some feminist scholars assert that, while different relational divisions exist between men and women, all men have the capability to “potentially use violence as a powerful means of subordinating women” (Yllö & Bograd, 1988, p. 14).  With this in mind, the researcher must look at the ways in which men use violence as a means to subordinate their partners.  

Profiles of Batterers

Violence against women is seen by some feminist theorists as a form of “sexual terrorism.”  This involves a system of male domination through acts of rape, battery, sexual harassment, prostitution, and even murder.  “Sexual terrorism is manifested through actual and implied violence” (Sheffield, 1992).  Actual violence includes physical, sexual, and psychological abuse tactics that an abuser uses against his partner.  Implied violence includes threats of rape, child abduction, or physical abuse.  Feminist researcher Carole Sheffield states that “violence and its corollary, fear, function to terrorize females and to maintain the patriarchal definition of woman’s subordinate place” (Sheffield, 1987).  The fear of sexual violence, whether it is through rape or being involved in a violent relationship, is palpable for millions of women.  Sociologist Michael P. Johnson coined the phrase “patriarchal terrorism” to classify a “form of terrorism” that involves the systematic use of violence as well as economic control, threats, and other control tactics (Johnson, 1995, p. 284).  The term patriarchal terrorism may seem harsh, but Johnson defends his use of the phrase.  He writes: “the term patriarchal terrorism has the advantage of keeping the focus on the perpetrator and of keeping our attention on the systematic, intentional nature of this form of violence” (Johnson, 1995, p. 284). 

I agree with Johnson’s use of the term patriarchal terrorism, as my research suggests patterns of abuse that batterers use against their partners.  Johnson refers to the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project’s power and control wheel (see Appendix II) to examine the tactics that the “patriarchal terrorist” will use against his partner.  Johnson reiterates the importance of looking at the tactics as part of an overall pattern.  He claims that “the patriarchal terrorist will use any combination of these tactics that will successfully (a) control his partner and (b) satisfy his need to display that control” (Johnson, 1995, p. 287).  My research supports this assertion.  The batterers in my study used a combinations of tactics included in the power and control wheel, including: using emotional abuse, using coercion and threats, using intimidation, and using economic abuse (Johnson, 1995, p. 288).  One way to explore the constructs of gender and power is to examine domestic violence victim accounts.  Through these accounts, the researcher is given a lens to view the tactics that batterers use against their partners.  From this, one can construct profiles of batterers to see how they construct their masculine identities.  To construct a profile of a batterer is a complex task.  Michele Bograd asserts that “life experiences and their meanings are qualitatively different for different individuals,” as seen through her description of intersectionality (Bograd, 1999, p. 275).  The data I have collected has come from the accounts of battered women, not the abusers.  By honoring the voices of the victims, however, the researcher is able to construct batterer profiles based on the lived experiences and interpretations from the victim, herself.  Batterers construct masculine identities in a variety of ways.              

A clear example of how batterers construct masculine identities is through abuse directed at their pregnant partners.  The North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence prepared a fact sheet on domestic violence.  Within this fact sheet, the prevalence of domestic violence against pregnant partners was addressed.  It reported that “forty percent of assaults on women by their male partners begin during the first pregnancy” and between 15 and 25% of pregnant women are battered.  As a result of this abuse, these women are four times more likely to bear infants of low birth weight or have an increased risk of miscarriage or injury to the baby (North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2005).  Why are pregnant women so much more at risk of abuse?  Some theories of violence reveal that batterers will more likely use aggression if their victim is less likely or unable to retaliate.  Clearly, if a woman is pregnant, she is less likely to be able to retaliate or use force against her abuser.  Pregnant battered women may be highly susceptible to continued domestic violence because their partners view them as unwilling to retaliate (Gelles, 1975, p. 84).  Because they may be physically stronger than their pregnant partner, batterers use their strength as clearly defined markers of masculinity. 

Sandra* is a 21 year old woman whose husband Rob had been violently abusive to her throughout their two and a half year marriage:

Sandra thought that Rob’s violent battering would stop

once her daughter was born.  Instead, Rob continued to

verbally, emotionally, and physically terrorize her. 

Once while Sandra was seven months pregnant, Rob hit

her in the face with an iron and locked her out of the house.


A batterer will resort to any combination of control tactics to express his performance of gender, including abusing his pregnant partner.  Tactics, like the ones described above, reveal that abusers use them because they successfully control their partners and they satisfy the need to perform and maintain that control.  Many times, abusers will continue the same tactics of abuse that they used against their partners before they became pregnant:

While Sarah was pregnant, Josh cheated on her and

abandoned her.  He was very controlling and was

“always verbally and mentally abusive”; he called her

fat and said that she wore too much makeup.


Josh exercised control over his partner, Sarah, by using threatening remarks about her physical appearance.  He wanted to prove to her that no one else would ever love her as much as he could.  His way of proving this was to destroy her self-esteem by insulting her.  As these accounts illustrate, several batterers within my study used attacks against their pregnant partners to establish and reinforce their masculine identities.   

Another way that batterers construct masculinity is through the perpetuation of social norms that favor men in violent conflicts with other men and women.  Young men learn to see themselves as able perpetrators of violence through play fighting and contact sports, and through the acceptance of the notion that “boys don’t cry” (Anderson & Umberson, 2001, p. 363).  Women’s less pervasive exposure to violence reflects society’s limited acceptance and encouragement of female violence.  “In a culture that defines aggression as unfeminine, few women learn to use violence effectively” (Anderson & Umberson, 2001, p. 363).  Some women reported that their abusive partners had even been arrested as juveniles: “When Tom was a juvenile he tied a boy to a tree, stripped him naked and beat him.”  In this case, Tom constructed a masculine identity for himself at a young age by severely assaulting another boy.  Tom continued this pattern of gender construction through acts of violence as an adult, against his partner, Kathleen.      

Many times the abusers that have threatened their partners with weapons have been involved in the criminal justice system.  Several applicants told me that their abusers had been arrested several times for crimes ranging from assault with deadly weapons to driving under the influence to even manslaughter.  Sandra described her husband’s history of arrests:

Rob has been arrested several times before, with

three counts of driving under the influence, and

assault with a deadly weapon when he drunkenly

drove his car into a discount store.


Abusers that express dominance and control within the home can also construct masculine

identities outside the home.  By engaging in illegal behavior in public, men attempt to prove that

they can exert control over others as well as in the home.  25 applicants in my study said that their abusers had been charged with crimes.  This represents approximately 40% of the abusers in the study.  There were other women that did not know if their abusers had been charged with crimes, so the number of convicted abusers could be significantly higher.  The implications of hidden criminal pasts of abusers are felt by victims on a daily basis.  They live in fear of not knowing the true potential violence of their abusive partners.     

A new federal law requires all domestic violence protective orders to include the clause that the abuser surrender and dispose of firearms if the court finds: “the use or threatened use of a deadly weapon” or a pattern of prior use or threatened use of violence with a firearm, threats to “seriously injure or kill the aggrieved party”, threats to commit suicide, or “serious injuries inflicted” upon the victim or minor child.  I talked to several women who reported that their abusers had either threatened to use a weapon against them, had used a weapon, or kept weapons in the house as tools in which to threaten them.  24 applicants reported that their abusers had threatened them with a gun or knife.  14 of these 24 applicants reported that their abusers had physically pointed a gun or knife at them to threaten them.  Below is an excerpt from an applicant, Beverly, describing a time when her abuser threatened her with a gun:

John has several guns and has threatened to use them

if Beverly ever got a boyfriend.  He has also threatened

to kill himself more than once.  Beverly only called the

police on John once, because she has been afraid of his



Even though some victims had been exposed to cases of extreme danger, like being

threatened with a weapon, some women downplayed the possibilities that their partners’ violence

was a threat.  Below is an excerpt from an interview with Lauren who described how her

boyfriend abused her while she was pregnant.  The most recent incident of domestic violence had

occurred a few months before my interview, when Lauren was pregnant. 

William tried to choke her.  Lauren said that William

was “just trying to scare me,” not kill her.  Lauren said

that she thought about going to the doctor after William

choked her, but decided not to.


Lauren’s assertion that William was “just trying to scare me” is important when analyzing her situation.  She admits that her partner had tried to choke her, but downplays it to explain that he had expressed restraint.  William used this tactic to express his masculinity by using force to threaten and most likely injure, but not kill.  From this example, it is clear that weapons seriously inflate the power differentials in the domestic violence context.  Lauren also admits to thinking about going to the doctor, but deciding not to.  Clearly, Lauren realized that William’s abuse was harmful, but thought that it was not harmful enough to seek medical or legal attention.  I saw other examples of how victims downplayed the seriousness of their abusers’ physical or mental abuse tactics.  Many applicants reported that they did not call the police on several occasions when they were severely abused.  Several mentioned that they were afraid of partner retaliation.  I also heard several women mention their distrust of the criminal justice system.  One respondent said: “Unless you’re laying there bleeding, nothing is going to happen.”       


DATA ANALYSIS_____________________________________________________________

Cultural constructions of masculinity contribute to the perpetuation of domestic violence

against women.  In this study, I examine the tactics that batterers use against their partners to reinforce their statuses of control and power within the relationship.  There were several prevalent themes that I noticed throughout my study: 1) abusers using sex as a weapon of control, dominance, and abuse; 2) abusers molesting or abusing children to maintain their control over their partners; 3) abusers using alcohol as a medium to act out aggression against their partners; and 4) batterers controlling the economic resources of the family.  I have chosen to refer to the batterers/abusers as males and the battered/abused as females, because women reported the majority of domestic violence cases at this legal services agency.  Batterers construct and maintain masculine identities through their use of systematic violence and control within intimate relationships.  Systematic abuse involves not just violence, but “economic subordination, threats, isolation, and other control tactics” (Johnson, 1995, p. 284). 

1. Sex as a Form of Violence

Another example of how men construct masculine identities is the prevalent stories of

batterers using forced sex as a form of male dominance, control, and power.  Partner rape is a

tool that batterers use to reinforce notions of masculinity: 

Once Josh had sex with Sarah even though she was so

drunk that she was almost unconscious.  Sarah said that

Josh talked frequently about wanting to have “violent”

sex with her and that he began wanting sex all the time. 

She said he was “out of control.”


The above excerpt is indicative of how the abuser, Josh, used his power to rape his partner, while she was clearly unable to defend herself.  As Sarah explains, this rape was not an isolated incident of her abuser using sex as a form of exercising control.  Later, Josh became preoccupied with wanting to have “violent sex” with Sarah.  Del Martin, author of the ground-breaking book Battered Wives, examines sex as a weapon of abuse.  She states: “with the historical emphasis on the man as the master sexually, and the traditional association between sexual intercourse and the conquest of the weaker sex by the stronger, it is no wonder that sexual pleasure becomes confused in some men’s minds with physical strength and, by extension, with physical pain (Martin, 1976, p. 70).”  When batterers confuse sexual pleasure with strength and pain, they bring continued violence and control into the bedroom. 

            Until the late 1970s, marital rape was not part of the domestic violence discourse.  It was one of the most underreported crimes in the criminal justice system (Gelles, 1977, p. 339).  In 1977, when Richard Gelles wrote “Power, Sex, and Violence: The Case of Marital Rape,” a legal definition of marital rape did not exist.  Rape was defined as forced intercourse on someone other than one’s wife.  Culturally, marital sex has been seen as something that is required of a married couple and a subject that is extremely personal.  Gelles reported that it was likely that even a majority of “women who are forced into having sexual intercourse with their husbands do not consider this to be an incident of rape, a violent act, or a deviant act” (Gelles, 1977, p. 339).  Marital rape is a controversial topic even today.  Many domestic violence victims do not think that marital rape exists, even if they have been forced into sexual intercourse or attempted acts of rape.  This denial subsists for several reasons: 1) women are socialized to believe that sexual violence between spouses is normal; 2) the notion exists that once married, a woman does not have the right to refuse sex with her husband ; and 3) cultural constructions of rape portray the crime as typically occurring “in dark alleys by strangers” (Gelles, 1977, p. 341).  According to research, between 10% and 14% of married women experience rape in a marital relationship.  

            One participant in the study reported that her partner “regularly beat me and forced me to have sex with him.”  In another report, an abuser videotaped himself raping his partner.  The victim of this assault called the legal services agency after her abuser threatened to blackmail her unless she paid him money.  A total of six out of 63 applicants in my study reported that their partners use sex as a form of violence against them.  One applicant described how she had been raped twice over the course of her three year relationship.  The latest incident occurred after the abuser came home drunk and demanded sex.  His partner refused and he became angry and raped her.  Batterers use sex as one form of violence and control against their partners, who are sometimes unable to defend themselves (especially if they are pregnant or too drunk to fight back).    

2. Child Abuse

Each year, between 3 and 10 million children witness domestic violence (Family Violence Prevention Fund, 2005).  Batterers who frequently abuse their partners are also likely to abuse their children, as well.  Batterers may resort to child abuse because they see children as more vulnerable than their own partners.  They may take out sexual or physical aggression on children in order to doubly abuse their partners.   

My study revealed the common occurrence of batterers threatening to take their children away from their partners.  One substantial concern for many applicants was losing their children, either to the Department of Social Services or to their abusers.  These threats become a cyclical form of control, as batterers likely use them when they feel most threatened that their partners will leave them.  The batterers know that they can keep their partners in a submissive position if they threaten to take their children.  Often, battered women do not leave their abusers because of these threats.  In another one of Lauren’s accounts, she explains her boyfriend’s threats to kidnap their child:  

William has threatened to take their child and said

that he’s “going to get him back no matter what.” 

She also said that “he claims [the baby] is his, not



By claiming sole ownership of the couple’s son, William tries to justify his aim to kidnap the

baby.  Sarah, a previously discussed battered woman, also describes the threats that her

boyfriend, Josh used:   

Josh threatened Sarah’s father by saying, “I’m

going to blow your head off, I’m going to burn

the house down, and take the baby.”


Clearly, Josh planned on doing more than kidnapping the couple’s child.  He threatened to

perform criminal acts against his partner’s father.  After this incident, Josh was arrested by the

police at gunpoint.   

            Children who witness domestic violence can be victimized, even if they do not sustain abuse themselves.  Some can be socialized at an early age to associate getting their needs met with aggression and violence.  One applicant I talked with described how her young son was acting out his aggression on her after he had witnessed his father physically and mentally abuse her.  Children who witness domestic violence may also victimize younger siblings, peers at school, or family pets.  Other children may take on the role of victim, becoming passive and withdrawn from their surroundings.  

Besides witnessing domestic violence, children of an abusive parent are also at risk of abuse, themselves.  Several participants in this study said that they were concerned that their abusive partners were also sexually molesting their children.  Below is an excerpt from Sandra’s interview in which she described the sexual abuse that her husband, Rob, had committed against their child: 

Sandra’s daughter described one incident to her mother:

Rob put chicken noodle soup, the child’s favorite, on his

penis and told her to lick it off.  The child refused and Rob

chased her around the room, trying to persuade her to do it. 

Once a social worker with the Department of Social Services

Showed the child a baby doll and asked her to use it to tell the

worker what Rob had done to her.  Sandra’s daughter pointed

to the doll’s vagina and told her that “daddy ate it.” 


The above narrative excerpt illustrates the interconnected nature of dominance and gendered abuse.  Rob exerted sexual and physical control and dominance over his wife, Sandra, and his daughter. 

17 applicants in my study reported some sort of abuse against their children, which is 27% of the study participants.  The most commonly reported forms of abuse that children have suffered include: punching, slapping, threatening with gun, and kidnapping.  Four of the 17 applicants that reported some sort of child abuse said that their partners had been sexually molesting their children.  One of the most severe cases I came across involved an applicant that described how her abuser had recently been arrested for sexually assaulting the applicant’s niece.  While in jail, the abuser admitted to having murdered their infant daughter.  One other applicant reported that her abusive partner had murdered their child, bringing the total to two reported cases of infanticide.  The impact of abuse against children illustrates the severe implications of domestic violence outside the dichotomy of batterer and battered woman.  

3. Batterers and Alcohol

Alcohol abuse was a major trend that many applicants in my study discussed.    In sociologist Ira Hutchison’s article entitled “Alcohol, Fear, and Woman Abuse”, the author focuses on the role of substance abuse in inducing fear in battered women.  In this piece, Hutchison looks at a feminist analysis of interpersonal power.  He writes that “this framework suggests that an underlying drive for power among men is at the root of domestic violence, particularly in patriarchal social structures” (Hutchison, 1999, p. 901).  Alcohol abuse can be seen as a tool for gaining and asserting masculine control and dominance in an intimate relationship.  My research supports this assertion, as 12 applicants reported that their abusers used alcohol before or during an episode of domestic violence.  This represents 19% of the data sample.  These battered women reported that their abusers frequently drank alcohol and sometimes resorted to domestic violence while under the influence.  Several batterers also had criminal records for driving under the influence.  One victim stated:  “when he’s drunk, he’s abusive; when he’s sober, he’s fine.”  Sociologist Del Martin calls this behavior the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” syndrome.  She goes on to say that “when the husband is sober he is ‘pleasant’ and ‘charming’; when drunk he is a ‘monster’ or ‘a bully’” (Martin, 1976, p. 56).  Other researchers like Richard Gelles and Erin Pizzey found that many domestic violence victims believed that if their partners quit drinking that they would stop abusing them. 

Another applicant reported that her partner also became physically abusive while intoxicated: “another time when Josh was drunk, he choked Sarah and became more abusive the drunker he got.”  Sociologist Richard Gelles examines the commonly held belief that alcohol is a primary cause of domestic violence.  Many times an alcoholic will use alcohol as a means of escape.  Because alcohol lowers inhibitions, it sometimes can lead to abnormal behavior.  Gelles claims that a potentially violent alcoholic can “drink with the sole purpose of providing himself with a ‘time out’” to blame his violent acts on the alcohol (Martin, 1975, p. 57).  Gelles goes on to say that some abusers will drink with the intent of carrying out a violent act against their partners.  After an abuser has become violent while intoxicated, he may deny the violence altogether or say that he didn’t know what he was doing.  By doing this, the abuser shifts the blame from himself to the alcohol.  By claiming that alcohol is a primary cause of domestic violence, the batterer’s own responsibility is diminished.    

4. Who Controls the Finances?

An estimated 52% of the women in my study are unemployed, while only 37% are

Employed (see Appendix III, graph 2).  The remaining 11% could not be counted as either unemployed or employed because they are either receiving Social Security benefits, disability aid, or are retired.  Without a job and financial autonomy, domestic violence victims are at the mercy of their partners.  As well as being able to exert physical control over their partners, batterers who control the finances can keep their partners within arm’s reach at all times.  Many applicants reported that their partners controlled their family’s income.  Some even explained that their partners refused to let them return to work after giving birth or that they prevented them from working at all.  Unemployed victims of domestic violence are severely restricted from leaving their abusers precisely because they lack the resources to support themselves alone.  “For men, in particular, working is a critical means of constructing masculinity” (MacMillan & Gartner, 1999, p. 947). Many feminist theorists attribute this to the gendered division of labor, which describes the ways that men are assigned to activities outside the home and women are assigned to activities within the home.  Current notions of masculinity are still strongly connected to beliefs about being an adequate provider and breadwinner for the family.  Sociologists Ross MacMillan and Rosemary Gartner argue that female employment that threatens notions of masculinity may ultimately result in domestic assault or systematic abuse.  Jobless abusers may feel less than adequate if they don’t have jobs because they are not able to be the sole providers for their families.  As batterers lose their economic power, they may take drastic actions to enforce power within the private realm of the home.    

I strongly support this argument, as my data show distinct themes related to abusers seeking to control their partners’ financial security.  One applicant, Robin, described her abuser’s relationship with their children: “He provides for them, but as far as daddy time, forget it.  He isn’t there.”  Robin describes how he does financially support and provide for his family, but is emotionally distant from his children.  She admits that he has fulfilled his fatherly duty to financially support his family, something that society expects from men.  This reinforces the traditional notions of the public roles of men.  If a female partner is employed and her male abuser is unemployed, her risk of abuse may increase.  He may feel threatened by her fiscal autonomy and independence.  In this situation, the female has challenged the societal norm of male dominance and female subordination.  A look at this interview excerpt illustrates the point: “Kathleen is worried because “[Tom] says that his family’s got money and I don’t have anything.”  Kathleen is worried that because Tom’s family has more money than she, that she will be looked at as less worthy and therefore less capable of providing for her family.  

Final Questions:

After looking at themes within this research, one is left with several questions regarding the possibility of battered women’s personal agency.  The first question is: Why do women stay in abusive relationships?  This is a commonly asked question.  There are several reasons why abused women continue to suffer through cycles of violence.  The top three reasons are because of: 1) their children, 2) financial stability, and 3) pressure from relatives and friends to try and make the relationship or marriage work (DeMaris & Swinford, 1996).  Several women in my study expressed concern about their children’s well-being if they left an abusive relationship.  They may feel like they would be doing more harm to their children to break up a family than to stay in a violent relationship.  Also, some female victims of domestic violence believe that eventually their batterer will stop the violence.  Some batterers refuse to let their partners have jobs of their own, further limiting or denying the possibility of having financial autonomy.  Pressure from family and friends to keep the relationship or marriage together is also a reason why battered women stay with abusive partners.  In a culture that has more than a 50% divorce rate, it may seem surprising that societal pressure is even an issue.  It is important, however, to take into account the intense emotions involved in intimate relationships.  If children are involved, it is often a difficult and painful decision to leave a relationship even if abuse has taken place.  Domestic violence victims are also highly at risk of being severely injured or even killed after they try to leave their abusers.  The fear that victims may feel often keeps them trapped in cycles of domestic violence.   

The second question is: What do victims want?  The applicants in my study requested assistance with a variety of needs, most commonly with acquiring Domestic Violence Protective Orders (50-Bs), custody, and divorce.  18 of the women in the study requested assistance with divorce.  34 women, on the other hand, requested assistance with custody of their children.  This represents an estimated 54% of the women in my study.  32 women had taken out 50-Bs against their abusers and were requesting assistance with those protective orders.  Several applicants described their fears about not being able to obtain an attorney for their 50-B hearings or custody hearings.  They were worried that if they showed up without an attorney and their abuser had one that they would be less likely to be awarded a long-term protective order or custody of their children. 

“The person that’s got the money and doesn’t have

to deal with legal aid gets custody.”  Lauren’s biggest

concern is custody and would like to work something

out with William regarding custody, without having to

go to court.  


Lauren would rather try to work something out with her abuser, William, than go through the

criminal justice system to seek help with custody.  Some applicants only wanted advice rather than legal action.  One applicant was hesitant to answer my questions during the interview.  Below is an excerpt from my interview with that applicant:

Throughout our interview, Susan was very reserved

with her answers.  She paused frequently and didn’t

go into detail about Peter’s previous domestic violence.

She then mentioned that Peter might be coming home

for lunch at any moment while she was on the phone. 

Susan repeatedly reminded me that she only wanted

advice at this point, no legal action.


Clearly, Susan was afraid of Peter coming home and overhearing her phone conversation.  She

was afraid enough to limit her answers to several of my questions, but she was insistent

upon only wanting to get advice. 

The final question is: What actions can domestic violence victims take to protect themselves?  A Domestic Violence Protective Order, legally known as a “50-B” is included in a chapter of the North Carolina General Assembly Statutes.  Domestic Violence victims can receive a temporary 50-B that remains in effect for 10 days.  Following the 10 day order, a victim and the perpetrator are required to appear in court.  From there, the victim can either ask to have her order extended into a one-year domestic violence protective order or choose to not go through further court action.  There are restrictions upon who can apply for a 50-B order.  For instance, a person can take out a protective order against a person with whom she has had a “personal relationship” with, which is defined as “persons of the opposite sex who are in a dating relationship or have been in a dating relationship.”  This definition, however, clearly excludes someone who is in a relationship with someone of the same sex.  As well as legal avenues for victims, there are also shelter services, hotlines, and counseling services available to domestic violence victims.  Having the support of family members or friends is often the key to getting help.  Several applicants described how they were able to ask for help because their loved ones reminded them that they were not alone.  One applicant, Lauren, said that she was currently living in a room at a friend’s house after she had left her abusive partner.  Many times, domestic violence victims will leave their partners several times and return to them, before taking the final step to free themselves of their dependence upon their abusers.


There were several factors that I did not address in my research relating to domestic violence victims.  Some important data to assess would be the race and the sexual orientation of applicants to a particular domestic violence agency.  It is important for researchers to see how factors like race and same-sex violence influence victims’ willingness to report domestic violence.  Domestic violence affects people from all different socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.  For example, some key questions to investigate in same-sex couple abuse include: 1) how does the abuser construct his/her identity (does he/she take on the characteristics of a typical male abuser in a heterosexual relationship)?; 2) is the victim less likely to come forward and report same-sex abuse?; and 3) do abusers use similar tactics to those of their abusers in heterosexual relationships?  Feminist sociologist Michele Bograd focused on intersectionality, as discussed earlier in this report.  Personal experiences and their meanings are different for people from different socio-economic backgrounds, races, sexual orientations, and educational backgrounds.  Having a racially diversified study population would be helpful in assessing how various victims deal with violence.   

   Cultural constructions of masculinity contribute to the perpetuation of domestic violence against women.  Male abusers use physical strength, coercion, and threats to exert control over their partners.  We live in a so called “cult of masculinity,” in which males are taught to reinforce their dominant positions in society through play-fighting as boys and through acts of aggression and violent behavior as adults.  Theoretically, I have chosen to focus on the traditional notions of masculinity that foster the creation of a “cult of masculinity” or man as breadwinner of the family.  Through these conceptions of masculinity, abusers assert and maintain dominance over their partners.  Many abusers in my study used a variety of strategies to exercise this dominance.  The most commonly used tactics included: forced sex, child abuse, and financial control.  Many victims had lived through months or years of abuse before they sought assistance from the Mountain Area Agency.  As a feminist researcher, my methodological goal has been to rely extensively on accounts from battered women themselves, rather than from second-hand accounts or previous studies.  While I have enhanced my research with studies from other feminist and sociological scholars, my aim has been to honor the voices of victims by using their own personal stories.  As I have shown, there are many manifestations of how batterers construct and act out their male identities.  By choosing to focus on a feminist-centered methodological approach, the voices of domestic violence victims can help interpret the causes and implications of violence against women.  It is through their stories that I have gotten a glimpse into a world quite different from my own. Through their own personal agency, the domestic violence victims in this study proved that their stories are powerful examples of the possibility of hope, personal transformation, and survival.       


Works Cited



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Feminist and Family Violence Approaches. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59,



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Class, Sexual Orientation, and Gender. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 25, 275-



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Influencing their Level of Fearfulness. Family Relations, 45, 98-106.   


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University Press.


22.  Yllö, Kersti & Bograd, Michele (eds.) (1988). Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse.

London: SAGE Publications.























Appendix I:


Domestic Violence Questionnaire


Date____________________________________ Deadlines ____________________________


Client’s Full Name:__________________________________________________________


Batterer: (husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, parent, child, etc.)


Batterer’s Full Name: _____________________________ Batterer’s Date of Birth___________


Batterer’s SSN: ___________________Applicant in N.C. at least last 6 months? ___yes ____ no



App’s Employment (address and hours): _____________________________________________


Income: ____________________________


OP’s (batterer’s) relationship to you: ________________________________________________


            If current/former spouse:

                        Date of marriage/began living together: _________________________________

                        Date of Separation: _________________________________________________

                        Date/County of Divorce: _____________________________________________

                        Previous Separations: ________________________________________________

            Current Address of:

                        Batterer: __________________________________________________________




Name                      Date of Birth/SSN                Name of Father     Lives w/ Now        How long               Legal Cust?



Other Household Members:

Name                                                                                      Age                                                        Relationship to Client



Now I’m going to ask you some questions that may not seem related to the reason I called.  I just want to determine if you have any other problems where we might be of assistance.




Benefits Check:


Does client receive:

            Food Stamps ___ yes ___ no

            Work First ___ yes ___ no

            Medicaid ___ yes ___ no

            NC Health Choice ___ yes ___ no

            SSI/Social Security Disability ___ yes ___ no

            Child Support—Applied yet? ___ yes ___ no. Received? ___ yes ___ no. Amount: $____


Housing Check:


Is your family’s housing decent, affordable, and secure?  ___ yes ___ no.  Are you having any problems with electrical system, plumbing, heating system, structure and/or any threats to the stability of the home?  Are you behind on rent?  What do you pay monthly for rent? __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Healthcare Check:


Does your family have physical or mental health needs not being addressed? ___ yes ___ no ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Children’s Education Check:


Are you satisfied with your child’s education?  Do your children have any health problems or special needs not being addressed?  ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Consumer Issues Check:


Do you have any problems with your creditors...are they harassing you at home or at work?  Are you having trouble paying any of your debts? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


DSS Involvement:


Has DSS ever investigated any reports of abuse, neglect or mistreatment of your children?

___ yes ___ no.  If yes, date(s), County, and name(s) of Child Protective Services worker(s): ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Domestic Violence:


Describe most recent incident(s) of abuse against you and/or children (include dates and locations) ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


List any children present: _________________________________________________________


Other witnesses to the abuse (name, address, phone number, relationship to client, date of events, if ok to contact): ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Do you know of any physical evidence (e.g. photos or medical reports of injuries, torn or bloody clothing?): ____________________________________________________________________


Describe any weapons involved in the abuse, including present location, if known: ______________________________________________________________________________


Were the police called? ___ yes ___ no

If yes, what address did the police respond to?  Police or Sheriff?  Responding officer: ______________________________________________________________________________

Outcome of police involvement: ___________________________________________________

Have any criminal charges been filed? ___ yes ___ no

            If yes, when, what charge(s), any upcoming court date(s) and outcome(s), if any:



Does batterer continue to threaten/harass/come around you? If yes, give details. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Prior incident(s)/history of abuse against applicant (include dates, details and any criminal charges): ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Prior incident(s)/history of abuse against child(ren) (include dates, details and any criminal charges, DSS reports): __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Have you or batterer ever been convicted of any crimes? ___ yes ___ no

            If yes, give details: ______________________________________________________________________________

Do you or batterer have any history of mental illness or substance abuse? ___ yes ___ no

            If yes, give details:



Does the batterer abuse animals? ___ yes ___ no.  If yes, give details:



Have you been a party to any other lawsuits (DVPOs, criminal cases) concerning the batterer’s violence (where, when, results, date orders expired, any contempt proceedings, etc.? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Have you and the batterer been involved in any lawsuits or separation agreements concerning custody of your children? ______________________________________________________________________________


Either of you ever used an attorney? (Name and reason): ________________________________

Is there property in dispute? ___ yes ___ no.  List marital or separate property at issue (assets and debts): ____________________________________________________________________


Has batterer ever threatened child snatching? ___ yes ___ no.  Has the batterer ever actually snatched the child? ___ yes ___ no. If yes, describe (how long gone, how got child back, etc): ______________________________________________________________________________


Does adverse party visit children now? ___ yes ___ no.  Will he want visitation? ___ yes ___ no. What type of arrangement would you prefer? ________________________________________.  State reasons for visits being restricted or prevented: ___________________________________


Have you filed a pro-se complaint and motion for domestic violence protective order?

 ___ yes ___ no


If yes:


When filed: ____________________________________________________________________

What relief has been granted (i.e., Ex Parte or one year DVPO):

Next hearing scheduled: __________________________________________________________




Appendix II:

Power and Control Wheel












Appendix III:

 Pie Graphs 1 & 2

A = 18 & younger                B = 19-24                C = 25-30                D = 31-36               E = 37-42                F = 43-48

G = 49-54                                H = 55 & older

* The name of the agency has been changed to protect privacy of applicants and legal professionals.

* Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved in this study.