Women and Violence

Seal Studies


By Barrie Levy

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When women decide what to wear, where to go, how to get there, what time of day to be outdoors, and what affects their sense of security and safety, are they aware that they’re afraid of being sexually assaulted? Violence against women is, on a global scale, so common that some experts consider it a "normal” aspect of women’s experiences—and yet research on the issue is subjective and inconsistent.

Women and Violence is a comprehensive look at the issue of violence against women and its many appearances, causes, costs and consequences. Understanding that personal values, beliefs and environment affect an individual’s response to—and acknowledgement of—violence against women, this book addresses topics such as global perspectives on violence, controversies and debates, and social change strategies and activism.


To Charlie, my dad . . . mentor, professor, promoter of justice and ethics,
and my grandchildren's playmate

I AM A DAUGHTER OF THE 1950S. I started my adult life in the civil rights, antiwar, and women's rights movements of the 1960s. The culture I grew up in had rigid taboos against discussing sex, violence, what happened between men and women . . . about so many experiences that the women I knew in the early 1970s were beginning to reveal. Friends reluctantly talked about abuse by husbands and boyfriends, about dates where they were forced to have sex, and about many years filled with shame. These stories deeply affected me, and suddenly, with a new perspective, I looked at my own experiences: groped on the subway as I grew up in New York, coerced to have sex with a professor, sexually humiliated by a boyfriend, and always afraid, as were all of the women in my family. I realized how much I had resented and resisted the restrictions and fear arising from the unspoken dangers that lurked everywhere for girls. These realizations changed my life forever. I discovered that my private shame and fear were not mine alone. Something far greater and more powerful affected me as a woman, and it was complicated further by my ethnic and religious culture and my family's generations of poverty.
I was a social worker, a mother with young daughters. I had visions of organizing people and communities to advocate for social justice, for a future without poverty or violence. When women I knew were raped and not taken seriously, I was outraged, and along with others in the growing women's movement, took action to launch one of the first rape hotlines in the United States.
Since then, I have been passionately committed to stopping the pervasiveness and brutality of violence against women. In my journey I have played many roles: I've worked with survivors, social justice and women's movement leaders, professionals, and volunteers to launch a shelter for battered women and their children. I've run advocacy, violence prevention, and mental health programs in several organizations, always trying to reach out to and empower women and girls. I've been committed to bringing diverse people together to make communities stronger and safer for women and children, and I've organized and developed a powerful regional coalition and a network of local organizations. I have trained adults, educated youth, and counseled women and girls.
Speaking to high school students about preventing sexual assault and domestic violence in the early 1980s gave me hope that the next generation of women and girls would not have to suffer from these horrible experiences. I was shocked when girls talked to me not about their parents' experiences, as I'd been expecting, but about their own. I discovered that girls as young as thirteen were being beaten and emotionally abused in the same ways that adult women were. They were dating, not married; living with parents, not independently; surrounded by friends and families, attending school, but isolated in their intimate relationships. At that time, no one recognized the serious danger of teen dating violence.
My daughters were teenagers at that time—I was especially aware of teens' culture and vulnerabilities. I trained people who work with youth and wrote books for professionals, teens, and parents. I spoke to any audience that would listen and appeared on many television and radio shows.
My favorite audience for the past twenty-five years has been my students at UCLA, where I teach graduate courses on mental health policies, including issues for women, and undergraduate women's studies courses on violence against women. Many students take these classes to learn more about their personal experiences with violence, and many go on after graduation to contribute to social change and empowerment of women. Whatever one has experienced, even if never exposed to violence, studying violence against women is always both personal and academic.
Through all of these years, I have admired and been inspired by the resilience and courage of the women and girls I have known as they overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I have kept a vow I made to tell their stories of sexual, emotional, and physical violence—and what I have learned from them. That vow has guided everything I have done, including writing this book, so you, too, can learn about what they have faced and overcome.
I am proud of the changes and successes of the past thirty years. So many women and children now live free from violence, and they have options for preventing or escaping and recovering from it. But I still feel profoundly frightened, powerless, and angry at the pervasiveness and injustice of violence against women—it continues to be common and accepted as "the way things are." As I write this, hundreds of girls in Sierra Leone and Eastern Congo are trying to recover from being brutally raped as part of armed conflict in their countries. Girls from Southeast Asia and Central America are enslaved in domestic and sex work in Bangkok and Japan—and Los Angeles. In my neighborhood recently, several women and teenage girls sought help to get out of abusive relationships, a girl was gang-raped at a fraternity party, and a young immigrant woman had her newborn baby taken away from her because of the baby's father's violent threats.
There is still great urgency for women and men to learn about, speak out against, and take action to end the violence that continues to be widespread against women and girls. The actions, big and small, of thousands of people like you and me, worldwide, have sustained an ever-growing groundswell of protest and change, and empowerment and relief from shame for individual survivors. Major campaigns to change international policies, such as those of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and individual one-on-one efforts to prevent violence are equally essential for social change. I have been inspired by the hard work that is now dedicated to stopping violence: by my students who organize the Clothesline Project, the Take Back the Night march, and the antitrafficking Polaris Project on campus; by students who educate boys and girls about rape prevention; and by others who lobby in Washington DC for human rights and violence prevention legislation. I'm encouraged when students discuss the realities of violence against women with everyone they know, changing attitudes in their own families and communities. I hope that reading this book will inspire you to continue to study—and take action to prevent—future violence against women and girls.

Women practicing self-defense. © Barrie Levy

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN SURROUNDS all of us, whether or not we are aware of it. Think about the small decisions you make every day. If you are a woman, when you decide what to wear, where to go, how to get there, what time of day you are outdoors, and what affects your sense of security and safety, are you aware that you are afraid of being sexually assaulted? If you are a man, when you think about your mother, sister, girlfriend, or wife, and their activities and acquaintances, are you aware of your urge to protect them or your anger at them because of your fear that they could be sexually assaulted? If you are a woman who has experienced or witnessed violence, how has this affected your daily decisions?
"Not all women live in constant fear," writes London Metropolitan University professor Liz Kelly in her 1988 book Surviving Sexual Violence, "but many of women's routine decisions and behavior are almost automatic measures taken to protect themselves from potential sexual violence." The effects of violence against women are experienced not only by individual survivors, but by their communities, and by the women, men, and children who care about them. Kelly's comments highlight a powerful fact about violence against women all over the world: it affects everyone.
Violence against women is widespread in every country and society. It is so common that some experts consider it a "normal" aspect of women's experiences. Some studies estimate that half of the women in the United States have been sexually harassed at some time in their lives. Other studies show that almost half of women worldwide have experienced domestic violence. Violence can happen to anyone, although some people are more vulnerable or more affected than others. This book aims to answer your questions about why women's fear of violence—particularly sexual violence—is so common and powerful, and why some women and communities are more vulnerable to violence than others.
Sexual Terrorism
Author Carole Sheffield describes her experience of an "ordinary" event in the following excerpt from her 1997 essay "Sexual Terrorism":
One afternoon I collected my laundry and went to a nearby Laundromat. . . . After I had loaded and started the machines, I became acutely aware of my environment. It was just after 6:00 PM and dark, the other stores were closed, the Laundromat was brightly lit, and my car was the only one in the lot. Anyone passing by could readily see that I was alone and isolated. Knowing that rape is often a crime of opportunity, I became terrified. I wanted to leave and find a Laundromat that was busier, but my clothes were well into the wash cycle, and, besides, I felt I was being "silly," "paranoid." The feeling of terror persisted, so I sat in my car, windows up and doors locked. When the wash was completed, I dashed in, threw the clothes into the dryer, and ran back out to my car. When the clothes were dry, I tossed them recklessly into the basket and hurriedly drove away to fold them in the security of my home.
Although I was not victimized in a direct, physical way or by objective or measurable standards, I felt victimized. It was, for me, a terrifying experience. I felt controlled by an invisible force. I was angry that something as commonplace as doing laundry after a day's work jeopardized my well-being. Mostly I was angry at being unfree: a hostage of a culture that, for the most part, encourages violence against females, instructs men in the methodology of sexual violence, and provides them with ready justification for their violence. I was angry that I could be victimized by being "in the wrong place at the wrong time." The essence of terrorism is that one never knows when is the wrong time and where is the wrong place.
Violence against women is complicated. It is difficult to study, and research results about it are inconsistent. There is no truly objective way to think about the issue—values, beliefs, and emotions affect how we see it, or if we see it at all. Violent perpetrators are motivated by a complex range of factors: psychological, familial, economic, political, environmental, and social. Social structures that maintain the status quo of centuries of women's low status, even as these societies undergo change, are a powerful force in legitimizing violence against women and making it invisible. This book provides an overview of the multiple dimensions that interact with one another to make violence so common in women's lives, in the United States and globally, and so difficult to eradicate. Violence against women inflicts tremendous costs and consequences in all countries and societies.
Wonderful changes have taken place in the last thirty years. Violence against women is no longer as hidden or misunderstood as it was. Empowered individual women have made the transition from "victim" to "survivor" of violence. Activists all over the world have been remarkably effective in challenging the status quo and developing safe havens for victims. Governments and international bodies have passed laws, treaties, and policies for prevention and intervention. Activists, researchers, governments, and international bodies have committed a great deal of effort to define concepts and acts related to violence against women so that language and perceptions match realities.

Defining the Issue

According to Liz Kelly, violence against women involves "behavior that is violent, uses physical force or threat, [and] is intimidating, coercive, [or] damaging to women"; it includes "physical, visual, verbal or sexual acts that are experienced by a woman or girl at the time or later as a threat, invasion or assault" and acts "that have the effect of hurting or degrading her and/or taking away her ability to control contact (intimate or otherwise) with another individual."
Many writers and experts use Kelly's definition because it has important elements regarding the realities of violence against women. First, it defines as violent a range of different kinds of behavior that include coercion and emotional abuse. Second, these behaviors are recognized as harmful as experienced by the woman or girl, even if they are not recognized as such by others whose perspectives may not reflect actual experiences of women and girls. Third, it focuses on the effect of the behavior on the victim, rather than on the intentions or perceptions of the perpetrator. Fourth, it emphasizes the effect of taking away a woman's ability to control contact with another person, which is a major aspect of violence against women as a social problem.
The United Nations' 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life." Among the many acts this declaration explicitly covers are marital rape, sexual abuse of female children, sexual harassment, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, and violence perpetrated by the state (such as rape used as a weapon in war).
The UN definition is important because it focuses on the responsibility of the state to address the human rights of women, and it recognizes violence against women as gender based and both public and private. It is significant to challenge the view that violence against women is only an individual, private problem of a particular victim; it's also important to recognize that this violence is institutionalized and supported by the state. We see violence as "institutionalized" when it is justified as normal or acceptable by institutions such as religions, legal systems, workplaces, and government policies.
The following sections cover the most common types of violence that women face in homes, in public places, and in workplaces: intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.

Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence occurs when a person uses force or the threat of force to gain control in an intimate heterosexual or same-sex relationship. It is prevalent in all societies and across cultures, and although some men are abused in relationships with women, women are the predominant victims of intimate partner violence. Perpetrators may be current or former boyfriends, husbands, or girlfriends; couples dating while living apart, cohabiting, or married; people who share children or do not; young and elder people.
Intimate partner violence is complex and multidimensional; it includes physical and sexual abuse, stalking, and psychological/ emotional abuse. Physical abuse refers to any act of physical aggression, such as shoving, throwing objects, beating, burning, or assault with a weapon. Sexual abuse refers to any sexual act that a woman or girl submits to against her will because of force, threat of force, or coercion, without consenting or without the ability to consent. It can include sexual exploitation involving sexual contact with others against a woman's will. It includes sexual control of reproductive rights and any form of sexual manipulation carried out by a perpetrator who intends (or is perceived to intend) to cause emotional, sexual, and physical degradation to another person. It includes repeatedly using demeaning sexual language, minimizing or ignoring a partner's feelings about sex, or making humiliating comments about a partner's body.
Defining "consent" or "use of force" in the context of an intimate relationship is often more confusing than when sexual assault is committed by strangers or acquaintances; many women don't label as sexual abuse or rape their experiences of having sex when they don't want to but are too frightened to say no, or their experiences of being forced to have sex with someone with whom they have an intimate relationship.
Stalking is defined by the Office for Victims of Crime as "the willful or intentional commission of a series of acts that would cause a reasonable person to fear death or serious bodily injury and that, in fact, does place the victim in fear of death or serious bodily injury." Stalkers are often former intimate partners continuing to try to exercise control by being punishing, intimidating, and frightening. They engage in harassment and threats, surveillance activities, and/or vandalism repeatedly over long periods.
Psychological or emotional abuse takes place in abusive relationships whether or not the abuser uses physical violence. Christian Molidor and Richard Tolman are researchers who have identified and categorized several major types of psychological abuse; these have been observed in teen as well as adult relationships and include:
isolation or monopolization: actions an abuser takes to make himself the center of a woman's life—for example, expressing jealous rages that result in her restricting her time with friends and family; checking up on her by calling constantly when she is with others; following her; or making urgent and threatening but ultimately unnecessary demands for her attention when she is at work or with others.
economic abuse: controlling money, spending, and/or a woman's ability to work—for example, taking her money and not leaving her enough to manage; controlling her spending by restricting her access to their money; not allowing her to shop alone; cruelly criticizing her financial decisions; or interfering with her work or studies by showing up, calling constantly, harassing her, or creating conflicts that frighten or distract her.
degradation and humiliation: undermining a woman's self-esteem by shaming her, criticizing or mocking her in front of others, or forcing her do things that she finds humiliating.
rigid sex-role expectations: asserting that masculinity justifies abuse—for example, believing that an abuser has a right to express his anger and that a woman is obliged to "take it" if he needs her to; asserting his entitlement to discipline her, punish her, and "keep her in line"; or expecting that he is entitled to do what he wants as the "master" in his own family.
psychological destabilization: making a woman feel crazy and stupid—for example, manipulating her so she doesn't know the truth; cruelly twisting what she says or does to give it an unintended and crazy meaning; or, after she implements a joint decision, attacking her for doing it, stating that she is stupid and the action is not what he told her to do.
withholding emotional caring and nurturance: alternating loving and cruel, nurturing and punishing behavior to keep a woman in denial about the abuse and hopeful that if she gets everything "right" the abuser will be caring and nurturing.
Some survivors of psychological abuse describe their experience as "brainwashing." They describe their abusers as unleashing unbearable verbal attacks and rages; restricting their activities outside the relationship; relentlessly criticizing them; expressing extreme jealousy; endlessly interrogating them and accusing them of infidelity; deliberately isolating them by alienating them from friends and family and demanding exclusive attention; and manipulating them so that they feel crazy and doubt their own perceptions. Psychological abuse undermines women's self-esteem and sense of having a valued identity. Many women find that emotional abuse is worse than physical abuse and causes longer-lasting damage.
Abusers use physically and emotionally abusive behaviors that are referred to as patterns of coercive control. The abusive nature of the relationship exists all the time, even outside of physically violent incidents. Evan Stark, an award-winning researcher and professor of health administration, refers to coercive control in his book, Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life, as "a course of calculated, malevolent conduct deployed almost exclusively by men to dominate individual women by interweaving repeated physical abuse with three equally important tactics: intimidation, isolation and control." Stark compares coercive control to "capture crimes" such as kidnapping, with the twist that its power is based in sexist norms: "[L]ike hostages, victims of coercive control are frequently deprived of money, food, access to communication or transportation and other survival resources even as they are cut off from family, friends and other supports. But unlike other capture crimes it relies for its impact on women's vulnerabilities as women due to sexual inequality. The main means used to establish control is the microregulation of everyday behaviors associated with stereotypic female roles, such as how women dress, cook, clean, socialize or perform sexually."
Domestic violence researcher Michael Johnson made an important contribution to understanding multiple patterns of intimate partner violence by distinguishing between two distinct types: "situational couple violence" and "intimate terrorism." Situational couple violence occurs when day-to-day conflicts occasionally get out of hand, leading to minor forms of violence. Couples who experience it usually lack conflict resolution skills; it is likely to be mutual, and it may be initiated by either partner. The violence can be a serious problem in terms of its impact on a couple or family, but it is substantially different from intimate terrorism.
Intimate terrorism, on the other hand, is the repeated and ongoing use of abusive tactics and physical force to obtain (and maintain) power and control over an intimate partner. Through time, the abusive behavior induces fear and subservience in the victim, as well as causing chronic injury and trauma. The perpetrator weaves violence through the "normal" interactions of daily life in a way that may make it difficult for a woman to clearly identify the beginning and end of any particular violent episode. Because it is a regular occurrence in a woman's life, it is more disruptive and harmful to victims (including children who witness it) and society. Many physically abused women experience physical violence on a regular basis.
Researchers Patricia Mahoney, Linda Williams, and Carolyn West point out several particular characteristics of battering relationships, or relationships in which intimate terrorism takes place, that are important to understand. Battering relationships are ongoing and similar to nonbattering relationships, they explain: couples share intimacy, affection, families, and history. Although abuse may occur throughout the relationship, there are often many ways in which the couple enjoy being together and value or need one another. Both partners may feel love for one another and want to protect each other from harm, which makes battering unlike any other kind of interpersonal violence. Another difference from other kinds of violence is that the perpetrator knows his partner intimately, so he often knows how to hurt her. Therefore, the victim is unsafe even if they don't live together, or if they are no longer together. Abuse often continues after the relationship ends.
Both partners are likely to believe that the abused woman is responsible for the violence. When others blame the victim for provoking the violence through her behavior or by staying or returning, they contribute to her entrapment. They overlook her efforts to be safe and survive without understanding the reality of the threat or how difficult it is to leave the relationship because of the complex ways the abuser makes it impossible for her to survive independently from him.
Intimate partner violence is as prevalent in same-sex relationships as it is in heterosexual relationships. The kinds of abusive behavior and the dynamics are similar. The primary difference is the context in which it occurs—that is, the environment of feared, perceived, or real homophobia and heterosexism and the ways these are internalized and institutionalized. Not all people in same-sex relationships identify themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, but issues faced by LGB people arise for them as well. Same-sex partner violence is often understood as gendered, in that abusers often attack aspects of a partner that are perceived as feminine.
The abuser may use homophobia to control his or her partner by threatening to expose or out the victim at work or to family. Another control tactic involves demeaning or humiliating the victim based on the victim's struggles with her or his own sexuality. The same-sex couple may be more isolated than heterosexual couples if they are not open about their relationship and their personal lives are hidden from those around them. They may have an intense bond that is based on their dependence on one another and on the feeling that they have a shared enemy in the homophobic world around them. The abused partner may become determined to keep the violence hidden because of the perceived double stigma of being in a same-sex and an abusive relationship. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities have tended to deny that abuse or violence takes place to protect themselves against negative attitudes and because of the erroneous belief that women and gay men are never violent.
Teen Relationship Violence
Violence in intimate relationships takes place at all ages. Women ages sixteen to twenty-four experience the highest rates of intimate violence in the United States. Some facts about college students and dating violence:
• 21 percent of college students report they have experienced dating violence by a current partner; 32 percent report dating violence by a previous partner. (Sellers and Bromley, 1996.)
• More than 13 percent of college women report they have been stalked during one school year. Of these, 42 percent were stalked by a current or former boyfriend. (Fisher, Cullen, and Turner, 2000.)
• 60 percent of acquaintance rapes of college women occur in casual or steady dating relationships. (Johnson and Sigler, 1996.)


On Sale
Nov 12, 2008
Page Count
150 pages
Seal Press

Barrie Levy

About the Author

Barrie Levy is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice, and a faculty member in the Department of Social Welfare, School of Public Policy, and the Women’s Studies Department at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Dating Violence: Young Women in Danger, an anthology on teen dating violence, and In Love and in Danger: A Guide for Teens on Violence in Intimate Relationships; she coauthored (with Patricia Giggans) the books What Parents Need to Know About Dating Violence and Fifty Ways to a Safer World. During thirty years as an activist to stop violence against women, she has founded and directed four domestic and sexual violence organizations. She is a nationally recognized speaker and trainer and has appeared on over fifteen television shows.

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