Current Controversies on Family Violence


Edited by: Donileen R. Loseke, Richard J. Gelles & Mary M. Cavanaugh

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    Introduction: Understanding Controversies on Family Violence

    Donileen R.Loseke
    Richard J.Gelles
    Mary M.Cavanaugh

    For more than 30 years, the introductions to books and articles about child abuse, violence against women, domestic violence, or intimate violence invariably began by pointing out the public and professional inattention to private and intimate violence. In the 1970s, such introductions were “calls to arms” about the unacknowledged significance of the problem of family violence. In the 1980s and 1990s, these introductions were designed to keep family violence on the public and professional agenda.

    Now, in the early years of the twenty-first century, such introductions seem trite and overdone. After all, each year the president of the United States declares April to be “Child Abuse Prevention Month,” and October to be “Domestic Violence Awareness Month.” Public opinion surveys, content analysis of mass media, and reviews of annual state and federal legislative activity clearly demonstrate that the public, professionals, and policymakers alike are concerned about family violence. Awareness no longer is a major problem.

    Family Violence and Social Change

    One reason why family violence in the past was considered a private trouble was that this violence often was defined as simply a “normal” part of family life. Members of the general public tended to have an image of family violence as parents “spanking” their children, or husbands and wives “slapping” one another in the heat of arguments. Logically, there was no reason to worry about such violence because it likely would not lead to negative consequences. Encouraging the general public to condemn violence therefore required changing the idea that violence inside homes was “normal” and inconsequential.

    One mechanism for changing these attitudes was to name the problem. Thus, advocates and researchers did not refer to violent acts as “discipline” or “marital discord,” but instead called the violence “abuse.” The term of abuse is an evaluation that the behavior is not tolerable, that there are limits to what is acceptable, that outsiders can—and perhaps should—intervene. By definition, “abuse” should not be a “normal” part of family life.

    In order to transform family violence from a private trouble to a social issue, other changes were needed surrounding ideas about family, marriage, parenting, and gender. For example, defining violence as a matter of public concern required challenging deeply held beliefs that what goes on inside the privacy of one's home is not the concern of others: Condemning child abuse challenges traditional beliefs that parents should have the right to discipline their children as they see fit, while condemning wife abuse challenges traditional notions that men have the right to control their wives as they see fit.

    In brief, the transformation of family violence from behaviors that were invisible, ignored, denied, or minimized into something that is a topic of public concern required many changes in how people think about family, gender, parenting, and violence. In some ways, the magnitude of this change in such a short period of time is remarkable. As late as the 1970s, for example, there were complaints that police often failed to respond to calls for help when violence involved family members, or that police used a “stitch rule” to determine whether or not to arrest a violent husband: An arrest would be made only when a woman's injuries required a certain number of stitches. Also, until quite recently, laws surrounding rape explicitly excluded women who were raped by their husbands. According to law, women gave their husbands consent to sex—all sex—when they married.

    The transformation of public and political concern, however, was hardly seamless. Attempts to generate concern for the formerly defined “private troubles” of family violence did not immediately galvanize an unaware public and apathetic public policy system. Advocates often clashed with politicians about whether or not family violence existed at all and, if it did, whether it was a significant enough problem to warrant special agencies, programs, and policies. Also predictably, social change has been uneven. True, there are shelters for battered women, but there are too few. True, there are multiple interventions for abused children, but these too often are characterized more by their failures than by their successes. So, too, there has been uneven social change in attitudes: While many people believe that shelters for battered women are life-saving resources, others believe they should be closed because they are “homes for runaway wives” that promote family dissolution. Likewise, child abuse intervention is applauded as life saving by some, while others argue that it interferes with parental rights to discipline their children. And, while Americans tend to deplore extreme abuse that yields devastating consequences, other forms of violence—such as pushes, shoves, slaps, and spanks—are not condemned; they are still considered a normal and legitimate part of family life.

    One recent example of such a bifurcation of attitudes about family violence is the Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. The main provisions of the act prescribed steps that states must take to protect the safety and well-being of abused and neglected children. Yet, the act specifically states that nothing in it should be interpreted as a prohibition against parents using “reasonable corporal punishment” on their children. But what is “reasonable” corporal punishment? The legislation did not specifically define what is—and what is not—“reasonable.” Reasonable lies only in the eyes of the beholder.

    Social change has been uneven, and, critically, family violence in its many forms remains surrounded by controversies. For example, naming the violence as abuse was necessary to highlight its moral intolerability. Yet this naming was not without unintended consequences, because the more pejorative the term, the less likely offenders will admit what they did and the more reluctant victims are to come forward and seek help because it is embarrassing. There also are continuing controversies among members of the general public, who approach the topic with very different kinds of understandings and values. What is evaluated as a simple “exercise in parental authority” by one person is evaluated as “child abuse” by another; what is “sibling rivalry” to one person is “sibling abuse” to another.

    Social Change and Family Violence Experts

    Social change also is found in the scholarly work surrounding this topic. Although family violence scholars in the past invariably began by noting the lack of knowledge about it, there now is so much knowledge that some professional and academic organizations have established Web sites dedicated solely to interpreting, organizing, and synthesizing new research. Theory and scientific research on family violence are regularly contained in general journals of biology, psychology, sociology, women's studies, history, political science, and cultural studies. There are several academic journals (such as Child Abuse and Neglect, Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect, Journal of Violence Against Women, Journal of Family Violence, Violence and Victims, the Journal of Interpersonal Violence) devoted entirely to this topic. This is a remarkable social change.

    But it is not change without controversy. While apathetic politicians were a convenient and common enemy for early advocates, controversies soon arose between and among advocates, researchers, and practitioners. Researchers, social service providers, and social advocates whose work revolves around family violence disagree about how best to approach this personal and social problem. Indeed, family violence researchers, practitioners, and advocates do not even agree on how to define the topic itself. This book, for example, has family in its title, but some people argue that this label is inappropriate because public and academic attention should focus on violence among intimates, whether or not those intimates are family members. Still others argue that the focus of attention should be on typical victims of violence—women, children, elderly people—who can experience violence by family members, other intimates, social service providers, employers, and complete strangers.

    Disagreements about naming the problem are only the tip of the iceberg of controversies among those whose work revolves around family violence. There were, obviously, sufficient controversies and passion in the field of family violence to allow us to publish the first edition of this book in 1993. A comparison of the first and second editions demonstrates that some controversies continue to stir passion, others have faded into the background as either less relevant or somewhat settled by evidence or agreement, and new controversies have emerged.

    The Organization of This Volume

    This edition is about some of the most important and hotly debated issues surrounding family violence in its myriad forms. “Controversies in Conceptualization” is Section I, because when violence is defined as a particular type of problem, the stage is set for policy and practice interventions. What type of problem is family violence? Is it a problem of individual psychopathology (Dutton & Bodnarchuk)? Is violence caused by gender inequality (Yllö)? Is it a problem created by a variety of social structures, social forces, and social processes (Loseke)?

    Section II centers on “Controversies in Definition and Measurement.” Once violence is conceptualized as a particular type of problem, a set of research questions follows: How, specifically, should violence be defined? How should it be measured? What people should be the focus of research attention? The three controversies in this section each demonstrate how different answers to these questions lead to remarkably different research results. First, is women's violence toward men a serious social problem? If violence is measured in terms of behaviors, then women's violence against men is as serious as men's violence against women (Straus). Yet if violence is defined and measured in terms of its gendered contexts, consequences, and meanings, it makes little sense to talk about similarities in sheer number of violent acts done by women and by men (Loseke & Kurz). Second, depending on how “date rape” is defined and measured, it either is a problem affecting a large minority of women (Cook & Koss), or a problem affecting a much smaller number of women (Gilbert). Third, what is “spanking” of small children? Is it an effective and sometimes necessary parental technique of control and socialization (Rosemond)? Or is it an always ineffective and never necessary form of violence (Straus)?

    Section III, “Controversies in Cause,” turns to two specific controversies about the causes of violence. Both involve comparing a view that seems only common sense with an opposing perspective. First, do alcohol or other drugs cause violence? In the public imagination they do, and in this section that understanding is supported by research (Flanzer). The opposing view is that alcohol and other drugs are associated with violence but are not its cause (Gelles & Cavanaugh). Second, what is the relationship between abused elderly people and their abusive offspring? While it seems logical that the perception of stress created by the burden of caring for elderly people might lead caretakers to become abusive (Steinmetz), perhaps it is the deviant and abusive adult children who are dependent on the elderly parents they abuse (Pillemer).

    Section IV turns to “Controversies of Social Intervention.” What should the public do about violence? While what should be done depends on how the problem and its causes are conceptualized, defined, and measured, social interventions cannot wait until controversies are resolved. Not surprisingly, social interventions themselves can become surrounded by controversy. This section considers four such controversies. First, is the battered woman syndrome a sensible and important legal defense for abused women who kill their abusive partners (Osthoff & Maguigan), or is it a false hope that actually hinders women in court (Downs & Fisher)? Second, should young children be educated in how to prevent their own abuse (Plummer), or are child sexual abuse education programs ineffective at best, harmful at worst (Reppucci, Haugaard, & Antonishak)? Third, should there be guidelines allowing workers at child abuse hotlines to filter out some calls so that they have more time to respond to the most serious cases (Besharov), or should policy encourage bringing in even more such reports (Finkelhor)? And last, are programs attempting to “save families” better for children than taking children out of their homes and placing them into foster care, with its well-known problems and failures (Wexler), or do policies to “preserve families” put abused and neglected children at risk for even more harm (Gelles)?

    By highlighting controversies, the chapters in this volume explode the myth that a group of experts, such as those in family violence, hold a united vision of “the truth.” But just as idealized images of home and loved ones often stand in stark contrast to lived realities, public images of experts as holders of singular and agreed-upon objective truths most often stand in contrast to the realities. Indeed, all professional groups are much like families, where there is a “front stage” of presentation to outsiders and a “back stage” of interactions among group members. Like families in a traditional sense, members of professional groups, such as experts on family violence, often sweep disagreements under the carpet and project a public face of agreement and accord. Disagreements among professionals of all types tend to occur primarily behind closed doors—in the pages of journals read only by other professionals or in conferences attended only by like-minded others. Similar to family members in a traditional sense, members of professional groups are reluctant to publicly air their “dirty laundry.”

    The chapters in this volume are written by individuals who are members of the professional family of experts on family violence. This group is composed of people who have taken on the various tasks of researching, writing about, and intervening in this violence. Members of this group are a family in a sense that we share common goals—in one way or another, all want to change some aspect of how the public evaluates and responds to family violence. This also is a family in the sense that all are engaged in a joint enterprise, in which the efforts of each person often can influence the work of others. As with families in a traditional sense, we do not all agree. Such controversy should be expected.

    Sources of Controversy

    There are multiple sources of controversy among family violence experts. First and most simply, public and scholarly attention to this violence has a relatively short history. Only four decades have passed since child abuse first received particular attention; it has been only during the past three decades that wife abuse and elder abuse have been specific topics of concern, and most social service interventions have an even shorter history. Making sense of any social problem is difficult; something as complex as family violence cannot be understood, much less resolved, in the short span of a few decades. Regrettably, it is only in fiction—including that presented through the mass media—that human troubles are easily understood and quickly fixed.

    The complexity of family violence and the many questions it raises also have drawn the attention of people who approach their work from different perspectives and with different goals. Authors of chapters in this volume use frameworks as diverse as psychology, sociology, political science, law, women's studies, social welfare, and Christianity. Various authors identify themselves as academic or public policy researchers, therapists, lawyers, victim advocates, or educators. An important source of controversy is that the experts do not share a theoretical perspective, a common vocabulary of discourse, or a specific agenda for their work.

    The short history of family violence as a social problem, coupled with the multiple perspectives of family violence experts, at least partially accounts for the presence of controversies. Four additional characteristics of this topic lead to disagreements that can be heated, long lasting, and resistant to resolution.

    First, while family violence in its many forms is an academic puzzle to be studied, this violence is first and foremost a practical problem to be resolved. Debates among experts do not, and should not, disguise the fact that the topic at hand is immediate and critical: It is about real people who experience sometimes life-threatening violence, and it is about people who commit this violence. Debates about immediate and practical concerns are more heated than are controversies over obscure issues having little relevance to the real world. The topic is immediate, practical, and urgent. So, too, are the debates and disagreements.

    Second, family violence is a political issue. Family violence experts can be powerful because they can influence what is done to stop violence, to help victims, to rehabilitate and/or punish offenders. When one side of a controversy “wins,” even if only momentarily, social policies can be designed, public attitudes can be shaped, behaviors can change. All controversies in this volume have implications for practical action: What types of changes are needed? Will interventions focus on changing individuals or on changing social forces or social institutions? Where will social service providers look in the lives of their individual clients for causes and hence resolutions of violence? Controversies and disagreements increase in intensity as the practical and political stakes become higher.

    Third, controversies can become heated and resist resolution when the issues at hand cannot be resolved solely by reason and logic. Although only sometimes explicit, views of morality underlie all definitions and measurements of family violence. Each definition and argument involves making moral evaluations: What behaviors are evaluated as acceptable or at least tolerable? What behaviors are evaluated as wrong? What values should be preserved? Controversies with clear moral dimensions can become emotionally charged, because morality is as much about feeling as about thinking.

    This emotional dimension of the topic is a fourth reason that controversies surrounding family violence can be so heated. The public image of professionals as people who are somehow immune to human feeling does not describe professionals in general, and it certainly does not describe family violence professionals in particular. In the course of their work, many of the authors of these chapters have repeatedly seen the horrific details of cases of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; many have witnessed firsthand the sometimes disastrous unintended consequences of well-intentioned social policies. Researchers and practitioners working in this area often feel sadness, rage, anger, and frustration. Such emotions can influence arguments and can lead to disagreements that are emotionally charged.

    The relative newness and complexity of the topic, experts’ divergent perspectives and agendas, the high practical and political consequences of what experts say, the moral dimension of the work, and the inextricable combination of rationality and passion associated with these concerns have combined to yield controversy. To be clear, controversy is good, because this is how knowledge is advanced: Controversy leads to debate, debate encourages reflection, reflection leads to research, and research leads to refining and elaborating ideas. At the same time, for controversies to be beneficial, they must be swept out from the musty pages of academic journals and from the dark rooms of professional conferences into the bright light of public scrutiny.

    Although we do not naively believe that the controversies presented in this volume can be neatly resolved, we do believe that closing off debate is counterproductive when so little is known about such important issues. There is reason, then, for this particular volume. Taken as a whole, the chapters presented here do not answer questions. Rather, they encourage debate and reflection about complex theoretical, moral, practical, and political questions.

    Evaluating Controversies

    Clearly, the organization of this volume differs from that of most mass media treatments of family violence—or any other social problem. In this world of 30-second sound bites and television talk shows, the expert of the moment often seems to convey “simple truths.” Such mass media images are calming because they allow audiences to believe there are simple solutions to complex problems. But that is the world of the mass media. When taken as a whole, the chapters in this volume reflect real life. Family violence is a complex theoretical, moral, practical, and political problem. Therefore, the discussions in these chapters are complex, and they contain no simple truths. Certainly, it would be the route to ignorance if readers simply dismiss all viewpoints in these chapters because the “experts do not agree.” Rather, chapters in this volume require readers to weigh the evidence and make their own judgments about the validity and importance of the views in these chapters.

    Evaluating discussions of any type, but especially those surrounding such a morally charged topic as family violence, is very difficult work for at least two reasons. First, arguments are cognitively evaluated by comparing them to existing knowledge and personal experience. People have a tendency simply to accept views that confirm what already is known; there is a tendency simply to reject views that challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about how the world works. In these instances, people tend to be not critical enough of statements confirming existing understandings, and too critical of those challenging existing knowledge. Second, feeling influences cognitive evaluations. There is a tendency to reject too quickly arguments that lead to negative feelings such as anger or hopelessness or frustration, and a tendency to accept too quickly arguments that lead to positive feelings such as hopefulness. In these instances, arguments are evaluated on criteria of feeling rather than thinking.

    Although evaluation always is difficult, and especially difficult for topics such as family violence, there are evaluation criteria that nonetheless can be used to examine views such as those contained in this volume. Surely, readers should ask questions associated with the critical reasoning of science: Is the argument logical? What is the quality of evidence? Does the evidence support the argument? Even for a topic as volatile as family violence, logical and objective standards apply.

    At the same time, generally accepted scientific criteria are not enough to evaluate the views contained in these chapters. For example, scientific criteria are a yardstick measuring an academic standard of knowledge that prizes impartiality and generalizability of evidence. However, family violence is not just an academic puzzle to be studied; it is a practical problem to be resolved. At times, evidence might not conform to academic standards, yet it nonetheless is adequate to address particular practical questions. In addition, while family violence is associated with strong feelings and moral evaluations, scientific criteria are concerned only with logic and objectivity. Much that might reasonably pertain to understanding violence escapes empirical conceptualization and measurement.

    In brief, although it is important to examine these opposing viewpoints in terms of their logic and empirical support, readers should remember that academic research is only one way of knowing about the social world. It likewise is important to remember that, because the arguments made by some of the authors in this volume are new, scientific evidence supporting or refuting them is not yet available; that authors write from many different perspectives and have different agendas; that what does and does not constitute adequate evidence can vary; and that the evidence for arguments made by some of the authors never could be found in statistics. The messiness of the subject matter therefore leads to complexities in evaluation.

    We are grateful to all of the contributors to this volume who have demonstrated that the best spokespersons for the various sides of controversies can and will engage in debate. Although these chapters do not offer a simple truth about myriad questions of family violence, the high quality of the presentations here repeatedly demonstrate how equally intelligent and dedicated people can come to quite different conclusions.

  • Conclusion: Social Problems, Social Policy, and Controversies on Family Violence

    The chapters in this volume have only touched upon the many controversies among experts concerned with the problems of family violence. We begin this conclusion by examining how characteristics of this topic lead to controversies that can be deep, long lasting, and resistant to change.

    Sources of Controversy

    In the Introduction to this volume we speculated that there are many characteristics of family violence that fuel the controversies swirling around it. Here we offer further speculations about four of those characteristics:

    • Family violence simultaneously is an academic puzzle to be studied and a social problem to be resolved.
    • Studying or intervening in family violence requires making moral distinctions about what is tolerable and what is intolerable, about which values are more important than others.
    • Studying or intervening in family violence often leads to strong feelings, which influence thinking.
    • There are high practical consequences associated with “winning” or “losing” controversies.

    Is family violence first and foremost an academic puzzle to be studied or a social problem to be resolved? A commonsense answer is that it is both. Academic study, after all, depends at least in part on social problem consciousness: Why would we study the various forms of family violence unless a significant number of people evaluated them as problems? Family violence, in its many forms, arose as an academic puzzle to be studied only after advocates had made notable progress in their efforts to change public opinion that previously had led to ignoring or even applauding violence in homes. For the most part, what is studied—child abuse, wife abuse, elder abuse—is what has been defined as a social problem. What is much less researched—sibling violence, child and teen violence toward non-elderly parents, the “normal” violence found in American homes—are forms of violence that have not achieved the status of social problems for the general public. Research depends on social advocacy.

    Just as certainly, efforts to do something about social problems such as family violence should be based on knowledge from research. A condition cannot be changed unless we know how common it is, who is affected by it, what causes it, and what its consequences are. Just as clearly, only research can show which social interventions are effective and should be continued and which are ineffective and are therefore a waste of resources. Social advocacy depends on research to define the size and shape of the problem, to isolate the problem's cause and, therefore, its potential solution, and to evaluate the effectiveness of all forms of social interventions.

    At times, contributors to this volume demonstrate how science and social action can mutually reinforce one another. In these instances, social advocates have done research themselves, and they also cite the research of others to support their calls for practical action. In turn, several authors identify themselves as researchers but nonetheless argue that the results of their studies support particular forms of social change.

    While it makes sense to maintain that research and practical action can be mutually reinforcing, it sometimes is difficult to blend science and social activism, because the goals of each are different. At least in their ideal images, the goal of science is to produce knowledge, while the goal of social activism is to change the world. What is required to produce knowledge can be very different from what is required to convince a disbelieving public that an intolerable condition exists and must be eliminated. This difference in goals is seen in the recurring controversies in this volume surrounding what constitutes “good evidence” to support arguments. Some authors promote the primary value of science when they talk about the importance of “further scientific studies,” when they criticize counter views by arguing that the evidence for those views rests on “biased samples,” on “hope” rather than on “research,” or on “advocacy research” rather than on “scientific research.” Simultaneously, others promote the primary value of social activism and complain that calls for “more research” are merely a convenient rhetoric disguising intentions to discredit efforts at social change, that the scientific measurement of violence misrepresents the complexity of violence in lived reality, that the results of scientific research are used to roll back social change. Herein lies a seed of controversy: When the goals and methods of science and social action are incompatible, which should be privileged? Should the goal of accumulating knowledge be actively pursued even if the uses of this knowledge lead to negative practical consequences? Should social interventions receive continued funding although their effectiveness has not been—and perhaps cannot be—scientifically measured?

    The first divide among family violence experts stems from the dual definition of this violence as something to be studied and as something to be changed. The second divide is more subtle: studying or changing family violence require social activists and scientific researchers alike to make moral decisions. Because we have an image of science as an “objective” search for knowledge, it might seem odd to claim that researchers identifying their work as scientific must make moral decisions. While moral decision making seems to have no place in the scientific endeavor, scientific researchers must make moral decisions, two types of which are illustrated in these chapters.

    First, what should be studied, and how should it be defined and measured? Clearly and most certainly, none of the authors of these chapters argues that we need more violence in our world; none applauds the use of violence nor maintains that violence is preferable to no violence. At the same time, these authors offer very different answers to questions about what should be studied and how it should be defined and measured. Such decisions are inherently moral, because by examining only some types of violence, others are left unexamined. Are we interested in minor violence or only extreme violence? What specific behaviors should be condemned as those of rape? Is spanking discipline or abuse? What specific behaviors are those of elder abuse? When is it moral to excuse a battered woman for killing her abusive partner? Such choices are consequential in the world of practical action, where the public tends to accept—or at least to tolerate—some forms of violence. If the focus is on studying and condemning only extreme cases of violence, are seemingly more minor types of violence unintentionally evaluated as morally tolerable? If the focus is on studying and condemning all violence in all forms, then is the seriousness of extreme cases unintentionally diminished? Deciding what to study is every bit as much a moral decision as is deciding what to change.

    A second type of moral decision is reflected throughout many chapters: Which important American values surrounding families should be preserved, and which can be ignored in order to stop violence? The answers to such questions reflect moral judgments about the power and the purposes of government authorities, the value of family privacy, and the balance of the rights of victims, offenders, and families. What rights should be expanded? Which should be preserved? Which can be reduced or even suspended? What are the costs and benefits of expanding or reducing rights? Who experiences those costs? Who experiences the benefits?

    A third divide in studying family violence that fuels controversies is that what we think about this violence is as much related to our feelings as to our cognitive appraisals. While contributors to this volume did not elaborate on their own experiences while doing their research or in accomplishing social advocacy, strong feelings are to be expected when research involves long interviews with people, such as the stressed caregivers of elderly people, battered women, or victims of date rape. Likewise, focusing on horrors such as those of children left with abusive parents or children in the chaotic foster care system will lead researchers to accumulate example after example after example of individual stories. Of course, when researchers or advocates write their findings for a volume such as this, their experiences are sanitized, and they report only the “data” they collected. Yet behind these data are the researchers’ experiences, and these often can lead to very strong feelings: of sympathy for victims, hatred of offenders, complete frustration with the organization and characteristics of social services of all types. Controversies can be far more than dispassionate disagreements about “facts.” Behind debates about the facts can be the strong feelings of researchers and advocates alike, and these fuel controversies.

    A fourth characteristic of the topic of family violence that fuels controversies is that “winning” or “losing” debates leads to very practical consequences. This is not always obvious. For example, arguments in some chapters in this volume might seem to plod along in dense academic prose, with opposing authors offering “dueling statistics,” and disputing what might seem to be very minor points of research methodology or offering conceptualizations that are so subtle in their differences that readers might not even notice the differences. In such instances, readers might wonder why authors often seem so intent not just in winning the debate but on completely demolishing the arguments made by their opponents. It is because the stakes are high indeed.

    Being convinced that one or another side wins a debate can lead to changing attitudes. It is possible, for example, that some readers of chapters in this volume have changed the ways they think about violence in general, or how they think about wife abuse, date rape, spanking, or elder abuse in particular. Depending on which “side” of these arguments was the most convincing, readers might make sense of their experiences and the experiences of others in new ways. Changing the public's attitudes about violence is consequential.

    More concretely, convincing arguments can change behaviors in daily life. For example, parents might willingly stop spanking their children if they are convinced that spanking does no good and, in fact, does harm; parents might willingly send their children to child sex abuse education programs if they are convinced such programs are worthwhile, or they might refuse to do so if they are convinced these programs are ineffective and possibly even harmful. Members of the public who are on juries might be able to understand the complexity of the self-defense claims of battered women who kill their abusive partners and therefore vote to acquit such a woman, or they might understand self-defense claims as inappropriate and vote to convict her. How people evaluate controversies is consequential, because it can change how people act.

    Finally, but critically, sometimes it does not matter how members of the public evaluate the soundness of arguments. Regardless of whether or not the majority of people agree, winning—or losing—the debate about a controversy can convince legislators or courts to change social policies. Depending on which side wins controversies in this volume, for example, it could become more difficult—or easier—to initiate investigations for suspected child abuse. More children—or fewer children—could be taken from their homes; more money—or less money—could be spent to change the characteristics of abusive or neglectful parents. The government might declare spanking to be a crime. Each and every controversy in this volume might become a topic of public policy. Although controversies sometimes seem esoteric, they are fueled by the understanding that who wins—and who loses—determines social policies. Clearly, this is consequential.

    Reflections on Controversies

    Such are a few of the many seeds of specific controversies surrounding family violence in its many forms. Controversy is a common characteristic of professional groups of all types. Indeed, there will be tendencies for a great deal of controversy whenever a professional group is composed of people who seek to study and those who seek to change, whenever a group draws attention from a wide variety of professionals, whenever the topic is political in its consequences. We could, therefore, just as easily make similar comments about groups of experts on homelessness, education, drug abuse, crime, gun control, and so on. While extreme disagreements characterize many professional groups, and while such disagreements are social rather than individual in their nature, too much controversy nonetheless has at least two negative consequences.

    First, and as several of our contributors noted, far too little is known about the causes of violence, or about what works to stop it. Extreme controversy hinders the possibility of gaining more knowledge. Debate and learning are not possible when experts approach their work with the a priori attitude that another set of arguments need not be seriously considered; nothing results from dismissing the work of some people as “merely politically correct” or as “politically incorrect.” Nothing comes from dismissing research findings simply because the research is “not real science.” Too much controversy yields professional fragmentation: Particular conferences organized to expand knowledge are attended only by like-minded others; some people will publish their thoughts in professional journals read only by like-minded others. Indeed, in putting together this volume we found that some experts on family violence refused to have their work included in a volume that also would contain the work of particular others. Little is learned in these small groups of like-minded others, because the only ideas allowed to enter the group are those supporting what group members already believe. Too much controversy hinders the chance of increasing knowledge. This is unacceptable when so little is known about so important a topic.

    Second, extreme controversy is destructive when it enters the sound-bite world of the mass media. While the chapters in this volume have demonstrated how disagreements most often are very complex, the world of the mass media does not allow subtlety, complexity, or detail. Furthermore, although there is much upon which the authors of these chapters agree, the mass media tends to ignore agreements and rather to amplify disagreements. This leads to a lack of public trust in what experts say. Why should members of the public trust what experts say if these experts are so adamant about not trusting one another?

    Do we believe that family violence experts can become one big happy family characterized by solidarity, assistance, and trust? Unlikely. Do we believe our simple call to “talk about it” will resolve controversies? No. The complexity of the topic and the very different moral evaluations underlying both research and social activism make it improbable that this group of people will cooperatively develop a shared vision of the best theoretical perspectives, definition of the problems and its causes, and routes to social change. Nonetheless, discussion must be encouraged, because the alternatives of divisiveness, animosity, and isolation lead to no political, moral, or social good.

    If we lived in a world where people felt sympathy for every human trouble no matter how small, if we lived in a world of unlimited resources to resolve all problems great and modest, it would not be necessary to resolve the controversies contained in this volume. We could, for example, simultaneously conceptualize violence as a problem of psychology, of gender, and of the organization of the social order. We could simultaneously treat individuals, create gender equality, reduce poverty, create community. We could drastically increase the number of social service providers and foster homes while working diligently to make children's own homes safer. In this perfect world, battered women would not kill their abusers, because wife abuse would be stopped long before it reached its horrific conclusions. In this perfect world, there would be no need for programs to educate young children about child sexual abuse, because there would be no child sexual abuse. And so on.

    Yet our world is not perfect. Our imperfect world is characterized by a lack of sympathy for all but the most extreme victims of abuse and by increasingly limited social resources for any form of intervention into violence. In this imperfect world, women's violence toward men becomes a justification for withdrawing sympathy and support from battered women. In this imperfect world, money is used to increase the number of child abuse allegations coming into the system, but no new money is given to do anything about these calls. In this imperfect world, children must be educated to protect themselves against child sexual abuse because adults do not protect children. In the present—and in the future—sympathy and resources will be directed only to particular people suffering particular problems. Who gets this sympathy and resources—and who doesn't—will be a consequence of how controversies such as those contained in this volume are resolved. The choice is whether this will happen through debate or through the exercise of sheer political power.

    We again thank the contributors to this volume for showing that debate is possible, and we hope our comments and speculations will encourage readers to examine further how particular controversies might be surrogates for underlying, often vaguely articulated, disagreements. The chapters in this volume can be read as mirrors of general controversies within the modern-day United States. It should not be surprising that family violence experts do not agree on what types of violence warrant attention and concern, because Americans in general do not agree. Given that Americans in general do not agree about the compromises we should be willing to make in order to do something about violence—or any other social problem—it is not surprising that these experts likewise disagree. Such professional disputes echo cultural controversies: They are about Americans’ failures to agree about what the characteristics of a good society should look like, and how that good society should be achieved.

    Donileen RLoseke
    Richard J.Gelles
    Mary M.Cavanaugh

    Author Index

    About the Editors

    Donileen R. Loseke received her Ph.D. from the University of California-Santa Barbara and is Professor of Sociology at the University of South Florida. Her books include The Battered Woman and Shelters, which won the 1994 Charles Horton Cooley Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, and Thinking About Social Problems: An Introduction to Constructionist Perspectives. She has been the coeditor of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, the President of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction and Theory Division Chair, and member of the Board of Directors of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. Currently she is an advisory editor for Social Problems and The Sociological Quarterly.

    Richard J. Gelles received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of New Hampshire. He is Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania and holds the Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence in the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy and Co-Director of the Center for Children's Policy, Practice, and Research. His book The Violent Home was the first systematic empirical investigation of family violence and continues to be highly influential. He is the author or coauthor of 23 books and more than 100 articles and chapters on family violence. His latest books are The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children's Lives (1996) and Intimate Violence in Families, 3rd Edition (1997).

    Mary M. Cavanaugh, M.F.T., M.S., is currently a doctoral candidate in both Social Welfare and Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. She has been involved with numerous research projects on intimate violence that have been submitted to the National Institute of Justice and the National Institute of Mental Health. She is a practitioner in the field of domestic violence facilitating batterer intervention service programs in cooperation with adult probation and parole departments and victim service agencies. She has served as a consultant and trainer on offender risk assessment and treatment services to state and local victim service agencies and youth and family service departments. She has recently completed a project for the U.S. Army on “The Evaluation of Domestic Violence Prevention and Intervention Strategies.” She also serves as a consultant to the Violence Against Women and Family Violence Research and Evaluation Program for the National Institute of Justice.

    About the Contributors

    Jill Antonishak is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia. She received her undergraduate degree from Goucher College and her master's degree from UVA. Her research focuses on adolescent risk taking and problem behavior, with an emphasis on peer relations. Other research interests include the application of developmental psychology to law and public policy, especially juvenile justice issues and the prevention of child abuse and neglect.

    Douglas J. Besharov, a lawyer, is Professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs. He also holds the Joseph J. and Violet Jacobs Chair in Social Welfare Studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He was the first director of the U.S. National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. His books include Recognizing Child Abuse: A Guide for the Concerned; Family Weil-Being after Welfare Reform; America's Disconnected Youth: Toward a Preventive Strategy; Enhancing Early Childhood Programs: Burdens and Opportunities; When Drug Addicts Have Children: Reorienting Child Welfare's Response; Legal Services for the Poor: Time for Reform; The Vulnerable Social Worker: Liability for Serving Children and Families; and Juvenile Justice Advocacy.

    Mark Bodnarchuk is the staff psychologist for an intensive group psychotherapy program for high-risk spousal assaulters with the Correctional Service of Canada, a position he has held since 2002. He has also provided group treatment for community resident spousal assaulters, and has conducted research on the personality and behavioral typologies, treatment evaluation, and the assessment of risk with this population. He received his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of British Columbia in 2002.

    Sarah L. Cook is Associate Professor of Community Psychology and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Psychology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her research interests focus on how social scientists measure women's experiences, and the role of conflict and coercion in women's responses to abuse, incarcerated women's abuse experiences, and the perceptions and effects of street harassment on higher education students. Before beginning her academic position at GSU, she confronted the problem of violence against women as a peer educator, rape crisis advocate, child protection social worker, and consultant to local and state advocacy organizations. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.

    Donald A. Downs is Professor of Political Science, Law, and Journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He also has taught at the University of Michigan and at Notre Dame. He specializes in public and constitutional law, political and legal theory, and American politics. He is the author of numerous articles and five books dealing with such topics as free speech, criminal law, and academic freedom and politics. He has lectured nationally and internationally, and has been interviewed by national and international media. His book, More Than Victims: Battered Women, the Syndrome Society, and the Law, was published in 1996.

    Donald G. Dutton is Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He co-founded the Assaultive Husbands Project in 1979, a court-mandated treatment program for men convicted of wife assault. He has published more than 100 papers and three books, including the Domestic Assault of Women (1995), The Batterer: A Psychological Profile (1995), and The Abusive Personality (1998). He frequently has served as an expert witness in civil trials involving domestic abuse and in criminal trials involving family violence, including his work for the prosecution in the O. J. Simpson trial (1995). He received his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Toronto.

    David Finkelhor is Director of the Crimes against Children Research Center, Co-Director of the Family Research Laboratory, and Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire. He is well known for his conceptual and empirical work on the problem of child sexual abuse, reflected in publications such as Sourcebook on Child Sexual Abuse (1986) and Nursery Crimes (1988). He has also written about child homicide, missing and abducted children, Internet victimization, children exposed to domestic and peer violence, and other forms of family violence. He is editor and author of 10 books and more than 75 journal articles and book chapters on the victimization of children.

    James Fisher is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Criminal Justice at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. He received a law degree from William and Mary School of Law and is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    Jerry P. Flanzer is known for his work on drug abuse, alcoholism, and family conflict as an author, clinician, program consultant, and researcher. He currently is a senior social scientist with the Services Research Branch, Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Before coming to NIDA, he served as Professor of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin, University of Arkansas, and as CEO and Director of Recovery and Family Treatment, Inc. He is a licensed clinical social worker and a certified substance abuse and relapse prevention counselor who has authored two books and numerous articles. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

    Neil Gilbert is Chernin Professor of Social Welfare at the University of California-Berkeley and Co-Director of the U.C. Berkeley Center on Child and Youth Policy. He has served twice as a Fulbright Fellow studying European social policy and was awarded the University of Pittsburgh Bicentennial Medallion of Distinction. His publications include 25 books and more than 100 articles. His works have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Italian, and reviewed in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Review of Books, New Republic, Society, Partisan Review, and leading academic journals. Gilbert is the Oxford University Press U.S. Delegate for Sociology and Social Work. He is chair of the Board of Directors of Seneca Center. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh.

    Jeffrey J. Haugaard is Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Cornell University. He is Chair of the Working Group on Implications for Education and Training of Child Abuse and Neglect Issues of the American Psychological Association, author of several professional articles and papers on child maltreatment, and, with N. Dickon Reppucci, is coauthor of The Sexual Abuse of Children: A Comprehensive Guide to Current Knowledge and Intervention Strategies. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in Clinical Psychology.

    Mary P. Koss is Principal Investigator of the RESTORE Project and is Professor of Public Health on the faculty of the Mel and Enid Zuckerman Arizona College of Public Health at the University of Arizona. She works to prevent violence and improve policy responses through service to boards such as the Governor's Commission on Prevention of Violence against Women, and on the management Committee of the Sexual Violence Research Initiative based at the World Health Organization. She has worked in sexual assault for more than 25 years, in recognition of which she received the American Psychological Association Committee on Women in Psychology 2003 Leadership Award.

    Demie Kurz is Co-Director of Women's Studies at the University of Pennsylvania with an appointment in the Sociology Department. Her primary research and teaching interests are contemporary issues of gender and the family. She has written extensively on issues of domestic violence in the United States. Her book on divorce, For Richer, For Poorer: Mothers Confront Divorce (1995), analyzes the social and economic impact of divorce on a diverse group of divorced mothers, and also includes an analysis of the role of domestic violence in the causes and consequences of divorce. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Northwestern University.

    Holly Maguigan is Professor of Clinical Law at New York University School of Law. She has litigated and consulted on battered women's criminal trials since 1979 and has published many articles on the subject. She is a member of the Family Violence Prevention Fund's National Advisory Committee on Cultural Considerations in Domestic Violence Cases. She serves on the National Advisory Council of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, and is on the Board of Directors of the Society of American Law Teachers and the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice. She received her J.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

    Sue Osthoff is Director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, a Philadelphia-based organization designed to enhance the quality of legal representation and personal support to battered women facing trial and to incarcerated battered women. She began work with the National Clearinghouse full-time in 1987 when she co-founded the organization. She has been working in the battered women's movement since 1979 when she was a counselor/advocate in Massachusetts.

    Karl Pillemer is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and Director of the Cornell Gerontology Research Institute. His major research interests lie in the family relationships of the elderly, including projects relating to family caregiving, relationships of family members to nursing homes, and elder abuse and neglect.

    Carol A. Plummer is the author of Preventing Sexual Abuse, a prevention curriculum first published in 1984 and still widely used in schools and communities. She has conducted several studies of child sexual abuse prevention programs and on program effectiveness. Most recently, her research and writing has focused on the nonabusive mothers of sexually abused children. She is a founding member and current board President of the Association for Sexual Abuse Prevention. She received her Ph.D in Social Work and Personality Psychology from the University of Michigan.

    N. Dickon Reppucci is Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, a position he has held since 1976. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and was Assistant and Associate Professor at Yale University from 1968 to 1976. He is an author, coauthor, or editor of more than 135 books, chapters, and articles. His major research interests include children, families, and the law, especially juvenile justice and adolescent development, and the prevention of child abuse and neglect.

    John Rosemond is a family psychologist who directs the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. His nationally syndicated parenting column appears weekly in more than 200 newspapers. He has written nine books, including A Family of Value, on various parenting and family issues. His Web site is located at

    Suzanne K. Steinmetz is Professor of Sociology at Indiana University, Indianapolis. She received her doctorate in Sociology from Case Western Reserve University Steinmetz is the author of Cycle of Violence: Assertive, Aggressive and Abusive Family Interaction (1977) and Duty Bound: Elder Abuse and Family Care (1988). She is the coauthor of Marriage and Family Realities (1990), and co-editor of several books including Violence in the Family (1974), Family and Support Systems throughout the Life Span (1988), Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach (1993), Pioneering Paths in the Study of Families: The Lives and Careers of Family Scholars (2003).

    Murray A. Straus. is Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. He has served as President of the National Council on Family Relations (1972–73), the Society for the Study of Social Problems (1988–89), and the Eastern Sociological Society (1990–91). He was awarded the Ernest W. Burgess Award of the National Council on Family Relations for outstanding research on the family in 1977. He is the author or coauthor of more than 150 articles and 15 books, including the Handbook of Family Measurement Techniques, Four Theories of Rape in the American Society, and Physical Violence in American Families (with Richard J. Gelles).

    Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (, a nonprofit child advocacy organization. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War against Child Abuse (1990, 1995). His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a journalist. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he was awarded the school's highest honor, a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship.

    Kersti A. Yllö is the Henrietta Jennings Chair of Sociology at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of New Hampshire. She has published License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives (with D. Finkelhor) and Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse (with M. Bograd) as well as numerous articles on domestic violence, sexual assault in marriage, and feminist theory and methodology. She has conducted evaluation research on violence programs at Boston Children's Hospital and the U.S. Marine Corps. She is currently working on the problem of marital rape as a human rights issue and an important aspect of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

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