By Deborah M. Weissman
Deborah M. Weissman is the Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Her research, teaching, and practice interests include gender-based violence law, immigration law, and human rights in the local and international realm. Some of her recent relevant publications include In Pursuit of Economic Justice: The Political Economy of Domestic Violence Laws and Policies 2020 Utah L. Rev. 1 (2020); The Community Politics of Domestic Violence, 82 Brooklyn Law Rev. 1479 (2017), and Countering Neoliberalism and Aligning Solidarities: Rethinking Domestic Violence Advocacy, 45 Sw. L. Rev. 915 (2016)
The modern movement to end domestic violence has been shaped by an early feminist discourse given to the disruption of the public/private dichotomy that had sequestered the problem of intimate partner violence within the realm of households and outside of the reach of legal institutions. Theories that emphasized the privilege of patriarchy for the purposes of subordinating women paid scant attention to domestic violence in same-sex relationships and nearly erased men as victims of such violence. Advocates demonstrated the complicity of the state and demanded that the problem be treated as a crime in order to affirm the criminal nature of domestic violence and to achieve legal parity within the criminal legal system.
With the passage of time, however, and ongoing theoretical developments, it has become evident that the causes of domestic violence are not adequately explained by unmediated patriarchy. Nor has the criminal legal response contributed to its mitigation. Questions of discrimination, inequality, and economic strain, often discounted as drivers of intimate partner violence, are in fact key to understanding and responding to this social ill.
It is hardly a bold leap to consider the political economic determinants of intimate partner violence. Criminologists have long identified the complicated structural determinants of criminal conduct, that is historical circumstances, macro political conditions, and economic forces.[i] Other areas of research have demonstrated a causal link between grave social harms and the political economy. A growing interest in class and inequality has placed poverty, economic disparity, and downward mobility at the center of research and advocacy trends in fields of critical knowledge related to human rights, public health, families, as well as crime, in order to understand and respond to the determinants of deviant behavior.
These same social forces apply no less to domestic violence offenses.[ii] Like other forms of harmful behavior, domestic violence cannot be simply ascribed to matters of individual pathology or personal characteristics. Individual behaviors are contingent and conditioned by social circumstances. Neighborhood instability and economic insecurity are conditions associated with demoralization, stress, and difficulty coping with day-to-day problems. The effects of downward mobility on mental health have been described as “staggering” with repercussions that reverberate in households—a phenomenon revealed in sharp relief in the headlines about rising incidents of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While social norms and economic realities may be shifting, it is still largely true that in the context of heterosexual relationships, economic insecurity within the family is equated with the failure of the male breadwinner, perceived as a threat to the social construction of masculinity, linked to the mandate to provide for family and household, and particularly critical as a metric of sense of self-worth. Job insecurity often translates into increased psychological aggression and some men resort to physical violence as an alternative, socially inscribed facet of manhood. In same-sex relationships, stressors related to inequality and discrimination are similarly connected to intimate partner violence.[iii] Notwithstanding various anti-discrimination laws, gays, lesbians, and transgender people lack state and federal workplace protections based on their sexual identities.[iv] These individuals suffer anxiety related to hostility at the workplace and employment uncertainty often resulting in aggressive spillover within households. The economic and psychological stress resulting from poverty, inequality, and discrimination also affect the well-being of children, whose dire circumstances are often replicated in anti-social behavior in adulthood, including acts of domestic violence.[v] The phenomenon of the victim/offender overlap related to poverty and the demise of social controls concomitant with inequality must guide an understanding of and response to domestic violence.
What would it mean to use a political economic structural lens as a way of addressing domestic violence? First, we must rethink intervention and accountability mechanisms that address those who have harmed. To recognize the inter-relationship between domestic violence, poverty, social inequality, and diminished political power is to understand that criminal behavior, including gender violence, cannot be separated from the economic. A political economic lens requires a sharp turn from overreliance on carceral strategies. As issues of police racism and brutality are revealed with ever-greater clarity, calling upon the police to serve as first responders is problematic for many survivors and especially survivors of color, immigrants, and sexual and gender minorities.
Current state-authorized batterers intervention diversionary programs that claim to obtain accountability without incarceration are similarly disconnected from the structural sources of domestic violence. These programs continue to emphasize patriarchy in opposite-sex relationships as the principal cause of domestic violence to the near exclusion of other sources of oppression. They are situated within the apparatus of the criminal legal system and are unduly retributive for abusers who suffer financial hardships and lack the means to pay mandated program fees. For these programs to address the political economic determinants of domestic violence, they must recognize the victim/offender overlap, support program participants through a curriculum steeped in premises of social justice writ large, and expand program allies as a means to advance structural change. Moreover, advocates might further consider the growing movement of social justice activists, particularly people of color, to establish community accountability collaboratives. These initiatives exist outside of state institutional structures and “aim at preventing, intervening in, responding to, and healing from violence through strengthening relationships and communities, emphasizing mutual responsibility for addressing the conditions that allow violence to take place, and holding people accountable for violence and harm.”[vi]They have as their goals: “1. survivor safety, healing, and agency, 2. accountability and transformation of those who abuse or cause harm; 3 community response and accountability; and 4. transformation of the community and social conditions that create and perpetuate violence—systems of oppression, exploitation, domination, and state violence.”[vii]
Second, a political economic lens requires a focus on strategies to expand survivor agency by improving economic circumstances. Poverty functions as an ex ante point of vulnerability to domestic violence and prevents survivors and from exiting abusive relationships. Addressing the economic consequences of domestic violence is best done in collaboration with other community groups who share many of the same goals. For example, anti-domestic violence advocates are natural allies in labor campaigns; frontline domestic violence program workers often earn a minimum wage as a result of the failure of the state to provide adequate support for the programs where they are employed. Labor unions are important allies. Many have identified domestic violence as an issue central to the well-being of organized labor and have recognized that LGBT discrimination creates fear and interferes with the ability to workers to organize and collectively bargain. Advocates can also assist survivors often trapped by the consequences of economic abuse—a central feature of domestic violence—by challenging predatory lending and other wrongful debt collection practices, and credit and housing discrimination—all matters that affect poor people in generaland people of color in particular. They can collaborate with community groups who negotiate community benefit agreements (CBAs) to place conditions on capital to include minimum wage ordinances, affordable housing, environmental protections as well as matters specific to the specific needs of survivors such as shelters, child care, and transportation. Indeed, CBAs promise to address structural concerns and at the same time obtain resources to assist survivors with their material needs.
Shifting understanding of the determinants of domestic violence does not provide its justification. The point is not to exculpate those who engage in abusive behavior, but rather to construct interventions that consider context to preclude consequences that create additional harm. It requires attention to the relationship of economic power—or lack thereof—and efforts to connect solutions to the crisis of domestic violence that is interrelated with other urgent social problems. To approach the complexities of domestic violence through remedies that address socioeconomic conditions is not without challenges, of course, but such strategies are worthy of consideration for they offer far more comprehensive and nuanced remedies to domestic violence than the existing template of “punishment-as-deterrence” that has failed to reduce gender-based violence.
[i] David Garland, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society (1998); Jeffrey Fagan & Tracey L. Meares, Punishment, Deterrence and Social Control: The Paradox of Punishment in Minority Communities, 6 OHIO ST. J. CRIM. L. 173 (2008); John Hagan, Introduction: Crime in Social and Legal Context, 27 L. & SOC’Y REV. 255, 255 (1993).
[ii] See Rebecca Miles-Doan, Violence Between Spouses and Intimates: Does Neighborhood Context Matter?, 77 SOC. FORCES 623, 623-25 (1998); Michael L. Benson et al., Violence in Families: The Intersection of Race, Poverty, and Community Context, in 2 FAMILIES, CRIME, AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE 91, 91 (Greer Litton Fox & Michael L. Benson eds., 2000); Judy A. Van Wyk et al., Detangling Individual-, Partner-, and Community-Level Correlates of Partner Violence, 49 CRIME & DELINQ. 412, 413-14 (2003). A National Institute of Justice study demonstrated the role that different neighborhood conditions (particularly those conditions that relate to poverty and economic stress) play in producing domestic violence. Greer Litton Fox & Michael Benson, Household and Neighborhood Contexts of Intimate Partner Violence, 121 PUB. HEALTH REP. 419, 426 (2006).
[iii] Luca Rollè, et al., When Intimate Partner Violence Meets Same Sex Couples: A Review of Same Sex Intimate Partner Violence 9 Frontiers in Psychology1506 (2018).
[iv] At the time of this writing, the Supreme Court has not yet issued a decision in the case of Altitude Express, Inc et al. v Zarda et al.which will determine whether Title VII prohibits employment discrimination against sexual and gender minorities.
Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 2019 WL 2915035 (U.S.) (U.S.,2019)
[v] Amaia Iratzoqui, Domestic Violence and the Victim/Offender Overlap Across the Life Course, 9 International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 62 (2018).
[vi] Transform Harm, Community Accountability, quoting The Audre Lorde Project, National Gathering on Transformative and Community Accountability, 9/2010, at https://transformharm.org/community-accountability/
[vii] Miriame Kaba & Shira Hassan, Fumbling Towards Repair 21 (2019).