The recent news coverage of family violence involving NFL stars Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson captured the attention of many Americans. A number of questions have been raised about the causes and the consequences of these cases, particularly: Why do people assault their loved ones, and what is the appropriate societal response? As a sociologist, director of the undergraduate degree completion program in Human Services, a former Child Protective Services worker in both the U.S. military and the civilian world, husband of 30+ years, and father of four, I have some insights I would like to share.
CAUSES OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
There is a substantial body of social scientific research on the causes and correlates of domestic violence. Findings reveal that domestic violence takes a variety of forms, such as:
- Physical violence: Pushing, punching, choking, slapping. The level of violence often increases in frequency and intensity over time.
- Sexual violence: Unwanted and forced sexual contact ranging from touching to forcible rape.
- Threats of violence: Intimidation and terrorizing whether the threats are carried out or not.
- Emotional/psychological abuse: Humiliation, controlling the victim, isolating the victim from friends and family.
Whatever the particular form or combination of forms the violence takes, we know from the voluminous research literature that the most important causes include:
- A history of family violence: Today’s victim is at an increased risk of becoming tomorrow’s perpetrator. Family violence gets handed down like an heirloom.
- Substance abuse: Drug and alcohol abuse affect judgment and often lead to aggression. The abuse of intoxicants should not be viewed as an excuse for violence.
- Social isolation: Controlling and isolating family members allows abuse to go undetected.
- A set of attitudes and beliefs that rationalizes or justifies the abuse: For example, “I wouldn’t hit her if she just did what I told her to do.” Our behavior typically matches our attitudes. If you believe violence is acceptable, you are much more likely to engage in it.
At the cultural level, it is not too difficult to connect the dots between widely held American norms and attitudes that objectify women, that communicate to young males that “real men” are aggressive, that problems should be solved by physical force with the private and hidden reality of domestic violence that affects millions of American families across all social class, race/ethnicity, religion, and regional lines.
ADDRESSING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
The most effective way to address domestic violence is to identify the relevant risk factors and then address each of them. While most of the work here must occur at the individual and family level, we should not forget that social and cultural problems require social and cultural solutions. This means, among other things, that we must address and dismantle the widely held beliefs and attitudes that provide the context for domestic violence. Specific examples include educational programs that teach youngsters that violence is not an acceptable means of resolving family disputes. Also, we need far more in the way of prevention and intervention programs, such as shelters for domestic violence victims and advanced training for police and court personnel.
I recognize that I’ve barely scratched the surface on this important topic. My hope is that readers take away two key messages from this short piece:
- There are multiple causes of family violence. These causal influences range from the personal characteristics of the abusers to broader social forces.
- Family violence, in all its forms, can be reduced. Researchers and clinicians know well what works to reduce the social problem of family violence.
While we will never reduce family violence to zero, we can reduce it significantly. What we need now, more than anything else, are honest discussions about the nature and extent of family violence, plus the political will to invest in programs and policies that are effective at preventing and, when that fails, responding to family violence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Timothy Wolfe, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology and the director of the Human Services degree completion program at the Mount’s Frederick campus. He worked in the social and human services field investigating and treating family violence before he joined the Mount faculty in 1997.