Intersectionality and Intimate Partner Violence: Barriers Women Face

Intimate partner violence (IPV) against women is likely to involve physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse and is still treated somewhat as a private issue. Until the 1980s, the American Bar Association advised police to avoid arrest and engage in conflict resolution.  This was common practice until the Domestic Violence Movement aided in changing social constructs and encouraging pro-arrest and mandatory arrest policies. However, Lockwood and Prohaska (2015) found that police are still less likely to respond with the same vigor to IPV as they are to the violence against men. The 1994 Violence Against Women Act encouraged prosecutors to charge IPV offenders with their crimes. This led to “no-drop” policies. Yet, Messing (2014) found that while evidence-based prosecution is practiced in this post-Crawford era (the 2004 Crawford v. Washington case prohibited testimonial evidence made by victims to police) the victim and offender status still influences decision making. In an extensive review of the research, Garner and Maxwell (2009) found that prosecutors are still less likely to charge IPV assailants with a crime (as little as 28% of IPV assailants are charged) than non-IPV offenders.

Today, while judges are more likely to sentence IPV offenders to incarceration, IPV offenders are still more likely to receive probation than are non-IPV offenders.

Violence experienced by women is not experienced in the same way as violence against men. Violence against women is more likely to involve an intimate partner or former intimate partner as the assailant than is violence against men. Women are more likely to be victimized by the males in their lives and in their homes, whereas men are more likely to be victimized by other male familiars or strangers on the streets. By the same token, IPV is experienced differently by women holding varying statuses. Understanding that the functioning of our society is gendered, racialized, ageist, classist, religiocentrist, and heterosexist is no surprise. Therefore, we must attempt to understand IPV through intersectionalities (see Kimberle Crenshaw, 1991 for an in depth examination of intersectionality theory). One’s experiences are determined by one’s position in society with regard to master statuses such as gender, race and ethnicity, age, income, religion, sexual identity, sexual orientation, and disability. Additionally, the multiple marginalities victims live (i.e., having more than one minority status) further complicate the violence they experience as well as how they are treated by the criminal justice system.

Multiple Marginality, IPV, and Criminal Justice Response

The research findings described in the opening paragraph of this article do not explain how criminal justice response has changed for IPV victims with multiple marginalities. Consider violence against a racial minority woman. IPV victims have to contend with stereotypes that are institutionalized within our responses to these women. For example, Black[1] women are defined as tough matriarchs within their families, sometimes promiscuous, sometimes asexual, and dangerous (Hill-Collins, 1991; Manatu-Rupert, 2000).  As discussed in our book, Gendered Justice: Intimate Partner Violence and the Criminal Justice System, Black women are less likely to be seen as victims and are more likely to be arrested in a dual arrest[2] in IPV cases. Hillary Potter (2010) interviewed Black female IPV victims and found that the racial stereotypes of Black women as strong and independent often stopped them from seeking help, but they also often stopped police from giving them help when contacted. Shamita Das Dasgupta (2005) examined immigrant IPV victims. She found that society and many criminal justice officials hold to the stereotypes that certain cultures, such as Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern, dominate and abuse women as a way of life. In a misguided practice of multiculturalism, many officials define the violence as part of the culture accepted by men and women and do not respond to these cases as harshly as they would to white female victims of IPV.

While race has been a common focus, we cannot ignore the fact that the power structure of society also creates age minorities, economic minorities, religious minorities, and so forth.  Examinations of the intersections of these statuses reveal that young (but not too young), poor, racial/ethnic minority females of IPV are more likely than older, wealthy, white female victims to be blamed for their victimizations. Stereotypes of poor people as vagrant, lazy, and immoral have given officials excuses to deny them as victims. Beth Richie, in her famous work Compelled to Crime (1996), found that poverty negatively affected Black female victims of IPV. In a process of what Richie called gender entrapment, these IPV victims became victims as a result of their racial and economic oppressions and committed crimes in response to their victimizations. As is common for women and children, their victimizations go ignored but their crimes are penalized (also see Belknap, 2007 for a discussion of the invisibility of girls and women in criminal justice). Because these victims carry the label of criminal, they become invisible to social and justice systems designed to help them and are less likely to be believed.

Violence against women, both intimate and non-intimate, has been linked to the multiple marginalities at the micro level, as revealed in Richie’s ethnographic study, and at the macro level, as revealed by Jo-Ann Della Giustina. Della Giustina (2010) examined femicide in large cities and found that cities with greater racial and economic oppression had higher rates of femicide, both by strangers and by intimate partners. Frye, Haviland, and Rajah (2007) found that it is not uncommon for female victims of IPV to be arrested in a process of dual arrest. In dual arrest cases, the police often find physical injury on both parties but have difficulty determining the aggressor. This often results from lack of training. In these cases, extra legal factors such as cohabitation and poverty increase the victim’s chances of being arrested.

In far and recent history, religion worked against female IPV victims as well. In the past, religions strongly discouraged women from leaving their abusers. Similar to the larger society, many religions blamed the victim. Some religious leaders were even known to attempt to exorcise the demons from the woman who “caused” her husband to abuse her. Frowning on divorce, many religions today still stress the importance of family counseling and discourage victims from leaving their abusive husbands. Women were and are often expected to take on the blame and the responsibility of fixing a problem over which they have no control. If the woman is poor (also a marginal status), she has little ability to escape the problem. Without aid from police, the poor woman is more likely to stay in an abusive relationship than is the wealthier woman. While many religions still adhere to these notions of victim blaming, especially as practiced in less developed nations, many have changed.

Moving Forward

Today, many religions help victims of IPV. They provide group support, counseling, and shelters for victims. In fact, research conducted by Lilly, Howell, and Graham-Bermann (2015) recently found that religiosity or spirituality helps women deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Interestingly, Lilly and colleagues found that religion and prayer are more helpful for African American women than for European American women, demonstrating yet again the importance of understanding intersectionalities. The more severe the IPV and PTSD symptoms, the more likely are victims to turn to religion. Therefore, religion should also be considered in addition to clinical therapy, such as cognitive processing, stress inoculation training, and acceptance and commitment theory.

The criminal justice system is slowly moving toward addressing the problem of IPV.  However, the operative word here is slowly. While more police departments are actively involved in helping women of IPV, we still find too many responding inappropriately. We still find failure to respond, failure to enforce orders of protection, failure to arrest perpetrators of IPV, failure to arrest fellow officers who perpetrate IPV, and dual arrest of female IPV victims who fight back in self-defense. We still find failure to prosecute, failure to convict, and failure to sentence in a way that protects the victim. In addition to retraining criminal justice officials in the letter of the law, officials also need more training in distinguishing defensive wounds from offensive wounds in order to distinguish the victim from the offender. When a man has scratches and bites on his arms and legs this is often evidence that the victim was fighting desperately to dislodge a stranglehold or a body straddle. This is evidence of the victim trying to get free. But many officers mistakenly see these “wounds” as evidence of the women’s aggressiveness as well and mistakenly arrest the female victim as well as the male perpetrator.

Moving to the courts, prosecutors have adopted an evidence-based strategy in which hard evidence such as medical records and police reports are used in lieu of victim testimony (discussed above with the Crawford case).  Evidence-based prosecution can be helpful in aiding victims but often treats them as hostile and unreliable.  The reality is that because many victims are financially dependent on their abusers they may refuse to cooperate with the prosecutor. Furthermore, the reliance on hospital and police records presumes that the victim reached out to these personnel. As Richie found with incarcerated IPV victims, many women do not reach out for help. Evidence-based prosecution also presumes that these personnel were thorough in identifying the problem when reached out to. This is often not the case. As a result, communities also need to step up to the plate in helping victims of IPV. There needs to be more support groups, more shelters, and more resources to allow IPV victims to build up the courage to report and leave abusers. Some judges often avoid sentencing offenders to jail with the intention of keeping the breadwinner in the workforce (Belknap, 2007). This also allows the offender free to abuse. If IPV victims have more support and resources, the good intentions of these judges would not result in further abuse and violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Multicultural training must also be revisited. Officials need more multicultural training in order to understand the complexities of multiple marginalities. However, it is important that the criminal justice system not use stereotypes when responding to IPV, or to any crime. For example, the notion that Hispanic women are submissive, a presumed cultural fact that Hispanic women gladly choose, should not be a reason to fail to arrest when IPV occurs. This failure to act works to keep Hispanic women submissive since they come to learn that the criminal justice system will not help them. This same example can be applied to the use of stereotypes with Black victims, poor victims, immigrant victims, and victims of various religions.

Failure to aid IPV victims is contrary to the law. Failure to help these victims while giving more aid to victims of non-IPV crime amounts to a violation of the United States Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires that all people under the jurisdiction of the United States of America be afforded equal protection under the law. This includes women, racial/ethnic minorities, economic minorities, the young and the old, immigrants, religious minorities, and so forth. In the 1984 landmark case Thurman v. City of Torrington, the court ruled that the police violated Tracey Thurman’s Fourteenth Amendment right by nonperformance and malperformance of official duty. This case led to widely revised domestic violence legislation around the nation that reflected pro- or mandatory arrest policies.  Yet, in 1995, the Fourteenth Amendment issue surrounding IPV was once again considered (Navarro v. Block, 72 F. 3d 712, 714 [9th Cir. 1995]). The U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit found that failure to give equal consideration to IPV cases was a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment only when there is intent or motive proven. The court found that the dispatch company did in fact practice preference for non-IPV calls over IPV calls but that Navarro did not show that a policy or custom existed within the Los Angeles Police Department. However, in 1999, the same court reconsidered the case and ruled that the trial court did not explore the existence of such a policy or its rationality (Fajardo v. County of Los Angeles, 96-55699, 179 F. 3d 698 [9th Cir. 1999]). The Fajardo decision resulted in a remand, requiring a hearing to determine if a preferential policy or custom did in fact exist and if that policy or custom met the rationality test of the Fourteenth Amendment. Failure to protect IPV victims’ Fourteenth Amendment right works to perpetuate their oppression. We have come a long way since the onset of the Battered Women’s Movement of the 1980s; however, we must continue to educate ourselves on the complexities of IPV as well as the complexities of intersectionalities.


Further Readings

Belknap, J.  (2007). The invisible woman: gender, crime, and justice. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004)

Crenshaw, K. (1991).  Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review 43: 1241–1299.

Das Dasgupta, S. (2005). Women’s Realities Defining Violence Against Women by Immigration, Race, and Class.  In N. Sokoloff (Ed.), Domestic violence at the margins: Readings on race, class, gender, and culture (pp. 56-70). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Della Giustina, J. (2010). The Impact of Gender, Race, and Class Discrimination on Femicide Rates. In V. Garcia & J. E. Clifford (Eds.), Female victims of crime: Reality reconsidered (pp. 95-112).  Upper River Saddle, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Fajardo v. County of Los Angeles, 96-55699, 179 F. 3d 698 (9th Cir. 1999).

Frye, V., Haviland, M., & Rajah, V. (2007). Dual arrest and other unintended consequences of mandatory arrest in New York City: A brief report. Journal of Family Violence 22:397-405.

Garcia, V. & McManimon, P. (2011). Gendered justice: Intimate partner violence and the criminal justice system. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Garner, J. H. & Maxwell, C. D. (2009). Prosecution and conviction rates for intimate partner violence. Criminal Justice Review, 34(1) 44-79.

Hill-Collins, P. (1991).  Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Lilly, M. M., Howell, K. H. & Graham-Bermann, S. (2015). World assumptions, religiosity and PTSD in survivors of intimate partner violence.  Violence Against Women, 21(1), 87-104.

Lockwood, D., & Prohaska, A. (2015). Police officer gender and attitudes toward intimate partner violence: How policy can eliminate stereotypes. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 10(1), 77-90.

Manatu-Rupert, N. (2000). Media images and victimization of black women: Exploring the impact of sexual stereotyping on prosecutorial decision making. In M. Markowitz & D. D. Jones-Brown (Eds.), The system in black and white: Exploring the connections between race, crime and justice (pp. 181-196). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Messing, J. T. (2014). Evidence-based prosecution of intimate partner violence in a post-Crawford era: A single city study of the factors leading to prosecution.  Crime & Delinquency, 60(2) 238-260.

Navarro v. Block, 72 F. 3d 712, 714 (9th Cir. 1995).

Potter, H. (2010). “I don’t think a cop has ever asked me if I was OK”: Battered women’s experience with police intervention. In V. Garcia & J. E. Clifford (Eds.), Female victims of crime: Reality reconsidered (pp. 219-242). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Richie, B. E. (1996). Compelled to crime: The gender entrapment of Black battered women. New York: Routledge.

Thurman v. City of Torrington, 595 F.Supp. 1521 (D. Conn. 1984).

[1] We use the term Black instead of African American because not all Black people in this country are of African descent.

[2] Dual arrest in IPV refers to a case in which both the victim and the offender are arrested because the status of the victim cannot be ascertained or the police do not care to ascertain who the victim is.


Comments are closed.