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Women's Use of Force In Relationships And Interventions To Help Mitigate Risk

Although women do use violence against intimate partners, the ways in which they use violence, and the context in which this use occurs, are “historically, culturally, motivationally, and situationally distinct.” Shamita Das Dasgupta, Towards an Understanding of Women’s Use of Non-Lethal Violence in Intimate Heterosexual Relationships (2001).

Women use force because not using force hasn’t served to keep them safe.

For various reasons, some courts and social service workers have tried to create gender-neutral interventions as remedy for any use of force in intimate relationships. However, gender is a critical dynamic to be addressed, not ignored.
Women’s use of force is different from men’s battering. Battering is a pattern of abuse in the presence of systematic terrorization and/or domination of one person by another. Women are not usually in a position to wield such power, owing to social conditioning, “pink collar” jobs and the “glass ceiling,” and the biological fact that the majority of men have more muscle and physical strength than the majority of women.

Men’s violence with an intimate partner is a deliberate strategy intended to assure overall power and control over her. Domestic abuse intervention services may use cognitive behavioral approaches to change how men think about themselves and their partner.

Women’s use of violence is usually an attempt to control what is happening to themselves at a particular point in time. Intervention strategies arise from and vary according to the motivation for using violence. Providing services to a woman who has used force requires the counselor to conduct a thorough assessment that will clarify her circumstances.

When both parties have used violence, a simple test that can sometimes be used to sort victim from perpetrator is to ask, are you afraid? The victim will likely say something like, “Yes, I thought I was going to be…” The perpetrator will more likely be annoyed or bemused rather than fearful. Some victims will, however, also deny fear, so additional assessment is, of course, required.

Here are a few things to know about women's use of force.

1) Most women’s violence is reactive or self-defensive. While defending herself from battering, sometimes her partner may have more evidence of assault or injury than she does. If police are not trained to understand the dynamics of domestic violence, or to recognize defensive injuries, or if dual-arrest policies exist, women may be inappropriately charged with domestic violence crimes.

The woman who uses reactive violence must be recognized as a victim herself. She needs a comprehensive safety plan, and she may well require other services offered in victims’ programs. Locally in York County PA, ACCESS-York and Safe Home, Hanover, provide shelter, advocacy, support groups, safety planning and empowerment counseling. National Defense Center for Criminalized Survivors (formerly The National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women) can provide additional information and assistance to battered women charged with crimes. It is inappropriate for such women to be ordered to anger management or battering intervention services.

Victims must not be disallowed the use of violence to protect themselves.

2) Some women are primary aggressors who perpetrate violence with a sense of entitlement to control their partners. These women are most often in same-sex relationships, though a small minority may be abusive in heterosexual relationships.

The intervention for women who are primary aggressors is similar to battering intervention services for men. Group settings provide the opportunity to examine beliefs and social constructs that foster privilege or entitlement. Anger management may be a component, though not the focus, of such services. Rather, accountability is the core of the curriculum.

Services for women who are primary aggressors (and training for those providing services) should also include information about cultural dynamics, intersectionality, and patriarchy.

3) Finally, there is also a significant number of women who use force, including preemptive strikes, as a means of survival or assurance that they will not be victimized again. If she was abused as a child or previously in an adult relationship, she may now experience post-traumatic stress. Thinking that she is using self-defense, she may use first-strike violence out of fear for her safety in situations where another person, who does not have that trauma background, might not feel similarly threatened.

These women may benefit from individualized services, though, again, the group setting can affirm her so that she can critically analyze her thoughts, emotions, and actions with others in a similar predicament. She needs services provided to victims as well as new coping skills, both for herself and interpersonal situations, so that she can make decisions about how best to protect herself without causing harm to others.

The unique needs of a woman who uses preemptive force require nuanced counseling that includes safety and safety planning, treatment for trauma, empowerment skills, and risk assessment proficiency.

These interventions -- which I will explore in greater detail in the future -- are relevant to support individuals. But these, alone, will not stop either battering or women’s use of force. Societal changes are essential to confront patriarchy, misogyny, and other power differentials.

Perhaps most of all, we must learn to value safety and each other.

To learn more, set up training for your office, or discuss how expert testimony can benefit litigation in which a woman's use of force is at issue (e.g., criminal charges, custody disputes, dissolution of marriage and division of assets, etc.), you can rely on Relationship Risk Solutions to partner with you for learning, education, and results. Send inquiries to jjones@CUSTODYandDV.com.
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