Batterers are people who inflict violent physical abuse upon a child, spouse, or other person, but the term is relatively new. Batterers are numerous but relatively invisible in American society. Usually, only the most severe batterers come to the attention of authorities. Domestic violence advocates have long argued that batterers’ invisibility is one of the sources of batterers’ power. Most, but not all, batterers are men. Batterers do not differ in readily observable ways from no batterers, but tend to differ from one another. Gender, income, substance abuse, and violence in the family of origin are the factors most often linked to battering, but batterers can never be fully distinguished from the society in which they learned to use physical and nonphysical aggression to dominate others.
The term batterer can be applied to a broad range of individuals. A batterer is an individual who commits acts of physical violence and domination against an intimate partner or ex-partner. The violence is usually episodic rather than a one-time event. This essay’s definition of batterer also includes a person who batters severely on one occasion. In most of those cases, the singularity of the one physical event is surrounded by a milieu of domination and nonphysical abuse, all of which predicts a second battering event in the future. The batterer and his partner may be married or never married, living together or dating, gay or straight, young or old. A batterer may assault a lifelong partner, a first date, or a person from whom he is estranged. Batterers are present throughout our society across all social groups, although groups within our society vary in the prevalence of battering.
This essay adopts the convention of using the pronoun he linked to batterers, although she can batter too. However, when injury, fear, and goal of the violence are considered, most batterers are men and most victims of batterers are women. In U.S. households, about 85% of intimate partner crimes are committed against women. Adopting the convention here of using “he” to refer to batterers is not meant to imply that women never batter, or that they should be immune to laws against battering.
Battering is against the law in all Western democracies, but has not always been so. The earliest recorded effort to curb batterers was 202 BCE when, at the end of the Punic Wars, Roman societal and family structure changes gave women more property rights, including the right to sue husbands for unjustified beatings. However, this was not the beginning of a movement, as 500 years later, the batterer and Emperor Constantine had his wife burned alive when she was of no further use to him. In 1871, Alabama became the first U.S. state to rescind the legal right of men to beat their wives. During feminism’s third wave, Erin Prizzey wrote the first dedicated book on battering in 1974, Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear, the title emphasizing the privacy element so necessary to battering. The first intervention programs for batterers began in the late 1970s, modeled on the consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement. In 1980, California became the first state in the United States to mandate treatment for men convicted of domestic violence.
How Widespread Is Battering?
The National Family Violence Survey found that 1 in 8 women reported they had been physically assaulted in the past year, and 1 in 16 had been assaulted more than once. If limited to those who had been severely assaulted more than once in the past year, the prevalence is 2.2%. While battering using severe assault and on more than one occasion over a 12-month period are restrictive criteria, one can use these figures to estimate that no less than 1 in 45 paired adult males in the United States is a batterer according to the definition of repeated, severe violence. Obviously, there are a lot more batterers who use nonphysical forms of control to maintain their dominance.
Do Batterers Differ From Nonbatterers?
Since battering is often a hidden behavior, it would be useful if there were other markers of risk that would help to identify batterers among those who do not batter. An alternate way of conceptualizing battering and batterers is that there are not discrete categories but rather there is a continuum of violence. Inherent in this conceptualization, and a hallmark of the feminist perspective, is the idea that all men are capable of battering. Unfortunately, the feminist perspective does not tell us much about which men will batter. All men have grown up in a patriarchal society, but only some men batter. Other theories of domestic aggression such as social learning theory are combined with the feminist perspective to form a more complete explanation of battering and batterers.
The path to battering is complex and differs for every person. Anger, hostility, depression, relationship dissatisfaction, personality, age, stress, spouse-specific assertiveness, sex-role beliefs, and other individual level markers have all been examined. However, there is no marker or risk factor that, when present, indicates that the risk bearer is a batterer. Likewise, there is no “smoking gun” that can be clearly identified as the cause of his violence. Battering is larger than the individual. Although individuals carry out the acts, acts of battering are incubated in a social system that has encouraged them, permitted them, and failed to sanction them when they happen.
Researchers have identified a number of risk factors for intimate partner violence (IPV) that cut across several empirical studies. Foremost among these is gender. Most representative samples of U.S. adults have found that the prevalence of IPV perpetrated by men and by women is roughly equivalent. For example, the National Family Violence Survey found that 12.4% of women reported that they had been physically violent to their spouse in the preceding 12 months compared to 11.6% of men. When injury, fear, chronicity, and the context of aggression are considered, it is clear that battering is usually the province of men. For example, in the National Survey of Families and Households, 73% of those reporting injury in an IPV episode were women. To point out that serious IPV is more often perpetrated by men does not suggest that women are not violent, or that there are no women who batter. However, research suggests that most women’s violence occurs in the context of violence against them by their male partners. Men’s violence is more likely to include sexual abuse, coercive control, and stalking, while women’s violence is more likely to be motivated by self-defense and fear.
In addition to gender, three other cross-cutting factors have been found to be important in discussions on batterers and IPV: substance abuse, a history of violence in the family of origin, and low income. Alcohol and drug abuse have long been linked to IPV, but the nature of the relationship is not yet clear. Early studies comparing physically aggressive couples with conflicted and satisfied couples found that chronic alcohol abuse rather than acute measures of quantity and frequency of alcohol use best distinguished between these two groups. More recent studies have suggested that the acute effects of intoxication are also linked to IPV. In one study, IPV was found eight times more likely to occur on a day when the man has used alcohol than on a nondrinking day.
In addition to the acute and chronic effects of alcohol, the frequency with which a man gets drunk is an important predictor of IPV. How often a man gets drunk has been found to be directly related to how often he batters and to the probability he will batter again after he has completed a batterer program. Drunkenness plays a special role in IPV because of its role as an instigator of fear. Drunkenness is the quintessential control tactic because people who are drunk are unpredictable, and people around them who are not drunk are usually alert to the danger and modify their behavior accordingly. When the drunken person is a man with a history of IPV while intoxicated, this fearfulness is an adaptive response. Studies have found that frequency of drunkenness almost quadruples the likelihood that victims will fear their batterer, even after these studies have controlled for the batterer’s amount of alcohol used, class, race, marital status, and levels of prior abuse. Drugs other than alcohol also play an important role in battering.
The second cross-cutting risk factor in battering is a history of IPV in the family of origin. Violence in the family of origin can be either observing IPV between parent figures or experiencing violence at the hands of a parent figure. Batterers are much more likely than nonbatterers to have observed violence in their families of origin. The prevalence of parental IPV in the general population is estimated to be 13%, but for men who have been violent with their partner in the past year, the prevalence rate jumps to 35%. However, despite what many believe is a defining characteristic of batterers, only about one in three batterers in treatment report experiencing violence in their families of origin. Even though observing IPV growing up is a risk marker for battering, most batterers have to learn their violent behavior elsewhere. The visual and print media’s chronic exaggeration of masculinity is one likely place to learn violence, but sports, clubs, the workplace, education, and religion also contribute.
The third identified risk factor for battering in most studies is some measure of income, employment, or social class. Batterers are more likely than no batterers to have low income. The average family income (in 2006 dollars) reported by male respondents in the 1985 National Family Violence Survey who did not batter was $58,371; for men who self-reported battering, income was lower by 16%, at $48,783. Regardless of which data are used, there is a visible link between income and battering.
Do Batterers Differ From One Another?
All of the risk factors discussed previously share two important features: (1) most individuals who have that risk factor do not batter; and (2) for those who do batter, most do not have that risk factor. To the careful observer, batterers often appear as different from one other as from nonbatterers. Observations of variations among batterers have led to attempts to classify or type batterers. With successful classification, additional knowledge may be gained about the dynamics of battering, and subsequently improved interventions may be developed. Studies on batterer types look at differences along three dimensions: (1) severity of the violence—batterers who use injury-producing violence may be different from batterers who use only moderate violence; (2) generality of their violence—batterers who are violent outside the family may differ from batterers who are violent only in the family; and (3) psychopathology—batterers who have co-occurring psychiatric, substance use, or personality disorders may be different from batterers who do not. Most studies have found three somewhat different types of batterers.
The most common type of batterer is the family only batterer. These batterers confine their aggression to their partner or children. Family-only batterers’ violence is usually on the lesser end of severity, and they are less likely to have substance use or mental health issues. The second general type is called the unstable batterer. With somewhat elevated levels of violence severity, and more proneness to violence outside the family than the family-only type, the most salient feature of unstable batterers is the instability of their mood. Ranging from anxiety and depression problems, some of these batterers have personalities characterized by emotional lability and borderline personality features. Not surprisingly, these batterers are more likely to use alcohol or other drugs to regulate their mood. Some researchers believe that borderline personality organization and insecure attachment constitute an abusive personality. The third general type of batterer is generally violent. Often more severe in their violent behavior than the family-only or emotionally unstable batterer types, these batterers’ violence toward their partners may be an extension of their general violence toward society. In some cases, these batterers may have an antisocial personality orientation.
The threefold typology is the most prominent classification system for batterers, but not the only one. Based on observations that IPV in the general population may differ from the IPV by those arrested and sent to treatment, some scientists distinguish two types of IPV: intimate terrorism and situational couple violence. Intimate terrorism is severe, chronic, injurious, instrumental, more likely perpetrated by a man, and more likely to come to the attention of the criminal justice system. There is considerable overlap between the concepts of the intimate terrorist, the abusive personality, and the unstable or generally violent batterer. More controversial is the concept of situational couple violence. Less violent and sporadic, situational couple violence is mutual pushing and shoving between partners that does not result in injury, and where neither partner fears being abused. The roles of perpetrator and victim are fluid, and in fact these terms are meaningless. These cases do not usually come to the attention of the criminal justice system.
Other researchers have looked at readiness to change as adding an important dimension to batterer typology. Since the mid-1980s, practitioners have observed variation in the extent to which batterers accept responsibility for their violence and are prepared to change their behavior. Research on and application of the stage of change model to batterer intervention programs has been under way for over a decade. This model suggests that change is not linear but cyclic, and that people making changes differ in their readiness to change; from the precontemplative or denial stage, they proceed to the contemplative stage, then to preparations for change, then into an active stage of change, and after changes have been made, to engaging in behavior to maintain those changes. While most men entering a batterer program will be in the precontemplative or contemplative stage of change, most programs provide interventions more appropriate for the action stage of change. Even men designated as family-only type batterers, usually thought of as the most change ready and treatable, are often found to have a low readiness to change.
So far, batterer typologies have not been very useful. For one thing, there is evidence that these typologies are not stable over time. For example, over time there may not be a sharp distinction between unstable and generally violent batterers, and men tend to become less “pathological.” Despite well over a decade of work on batterer typologies, they remain in the province of academia rather than practice. In part this is a logistical problem. There are few criminal justice or community programs for batterers that have the resources to match batterer characteristics with differential programming, even if such differential programs were shown to be effective. Beyond the possibility of unstable typologies and logistical problems in matching, typologies present other problems. First, most courts and treatment programs do not have the diagnostic capacity, which requires personality and psychopathology assessment, to classify batterers into typologies. Second, the reliability of classification systems has not been established. Third, there are factors such as ethnicity and arrest history that confound typologies. For example, prior conviction for non-IPV crimes would be an important indicator of generally violent batterers. However, low-income African American men are more likely to have been convicted of crimes than middle-class Caucasian men.
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