Domestic Violence - Page 2

Working with Young Men Who Batter


Dean Peacock & Emily Rothman

In 1995, domestic violence was recognized as one of the foremost public health concerns in the U.S. by Congress. Since 1997, violence committed by adolescents has also received significant attention due, in part, to a number of high profile school shootings (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999). Teen dating violence, however, has received comparably little attention, despite its prevalence and the severity of its impact. Recognizing that this gap exists, researchers and practitioners have gradually begun to focus on adolescent males who perpetrate dating and family violence. As a result, juvenile batterer intervention programs have been developed in several jurisdictions across the United States. These programs attempt to hold young men who batter accountable for their violence and rehabilitate them whenever possible. No evaluations of these programs have been published, or to our knowledge conducted. Moreover, few efforts have been made to collect, summarize, evaluate and disseminate existing program methods or protocol.

This article offers an overview of the nascent juvenile batterer intervention programs. It identifies risk factors for teen dating violence perpetration as described by the literature and considers the utility of these findings, describes efforts to prevent re-offenses by juvenile perpetrators of domestic violence, discusses several shortcomings inherent in post-crisis intervention, and outlines current challenges within the field. In addition, the authors draw upon research from related fields to posit possible future directions for research and intervention efforts.


A growing body of research indicates that dating and family violence is a leading cause of injury for women and girls. Lifetime prevalence of teen dating violence victimization among girls in the U.S. is estimated to be between 9 and 41% (Avery-Leaf, Cascardi, O'Leary & Cano, 1997; Silverman, Hathaway, Freedner, Aynalem & Tavares, 1999; Sugarman & Hotaling, 1986). Although research in the area of adolescent-to-parent violence is limited, several studies suggest that approximately 10% of adolescents aggress toward their parents each year (Cornell & Gelles, 1982; Peek, Fischer & Kidwell, 1985; Straus, Gelles & Steinmetz, 1980). Adolescent male violence against female family members is a concern of many practitioners, and is reported by battered women as frequently coinciding with violence from adult partners (Bancroft & Silverman, in press). Many (e.g. Carlson, 1990; Hotaling & Sugarman, 1986) theorize that men who abuse family members provide a powerful model for family violence to adolescent males.         

Who are the boys most at risk for abusing and assaulting their dating partners? What can be done to prevent these adolescent batterers from becoming adult domestic violence offenders? While scientific inquiry into these topics is in its infancy, and intervention programs designed to address teen dating violence have yet to be established in most states, initial investigation and program development have taken place in select areas.

Who are adolescent male perpetrators of dating violence?

The profile of the adolescent male perpetrator of dating violence suggested by the literature is similar to the profile of other juvenile offenders. In short, teen boys who abuse their dating partners are more likely to have experienced child abuse or neglect (McCloskey, Figueredo & Koss, 1995; Wekerle & Wolfe, 1998; Wolfe, Werkele, Reitzel-Jaffe & Lefebvre, 1998), witnessed domestic violence (Hotaling & Sugarman, 1986), and to use alcohol or drugs (Cate, Henton, Koval, Christopher & Lloyd, 1982) than their non-abusive counterparts. In addition, several studies have established that adolescent males who abuse their dating partners are more likely to have sexist attitudes that support male domination over females (Follingstad, Rutledge, McNeil-Harlings & Polek, 1992; Henton, Cate, Koval, Lloyd & Christopher, 1983; Himelein, 1995; Koss & Dinero, 1989, Koss, Leonard, Beezley & Oros, 1985; Malamuth, Heavey, Barnes & Acker, 1995; Tontodonato & Crew, 1992) and are more likely to associate with peers that support these attitudes (Lavoie, Robitaille & Hebert, 2000; Roscoe & Callahan, 1985).

It is important to note that most research conducted on juvenile perpetrators of domestic violence to date is based on non-representative samples; no studies have utilized samples that would enable generalization to all juvenile perpetrators of dating violence. Therefore, the studies reflect only the profile of those adolescents who come to the attention of researchers—i.e., boys who come into contact with the criminal justice system or who readily admit to perpetrating violence during interviews or surveys. It is possible that there are many adolescent males who perpetrate violence and abuse that don’t fit the established profile and will remain undetected by research. Moreover, it is critical to bear in mind that no study has established that any of the risk factors listed above (such as witnessing domestic violence) actually cause youth to perpetrate violence. Risk factors only reveal which characteristics or life experiences juvenile perpetrators are likely to share in common. They don’t provide us with answers to the question: “What is it that causes the boys to be violent?”

Therefore, developing “profiles” or “prediction tools” based upon existing research is premature and could unfairly label adolescents. Practitioners who attempt to predict which adolescents are most dangerous based on available information run the risk of overestimating dangerousness for certain individuals and failing to identify those who are in fact dangerous. Investigation of resiliency or protective factors, in addition to research on the level of risk of individual offenders, may provide practitioners, survivors and policy-makers with more useful information (E. Gondolf, personal communication, June, 2000).

Keeping in mind the limitations of “risk factor” research, we offer the following review of what is known about adolescent males who are violent towards dating partners, female family members and others. CEU

Parent-to-Child Violence: Maltreatment of children by parents is a consistent predictor of young males’ physically, sexually and verbally abusive behaviors (Wekerle & Wolfe, 1998; Wolfe et al., 1998; McCloskey et al., 1995) and later criminal behavior (Viemeroe, 1996). This evidence notwithstanding, it is also recognized that children who are maltreated by parents are not guaranteed to become adolescent or adult offenders; a significant proportion of children from abusive families are non-abusive to intimate partners (Widom, 1989). Adolescent males who are referred to programs for domestic violence perpetration should be screened for parent-to-child maltreatment and provided with services as needed.

Witnessing Inter-parental Abuse: Many studies support the contention that young males who witness parental domestic violence are at increased risk for becoming abusive themselves in adult intimate relationships. Through a comprehensive review of family violence literature, Hotaling and Sugarman (1986) found that 88% of studies with adequate comparison groups revealed that witnessing parental violence was a significant predictor of adult violence against a female partner. Childhood observation of inter-parental abuse may also predict the development of attitudes that support violence against women (Silverman & Williamson, 1997; Stith & Farley, 1993). Practitioners are cautioned against approaching all adolescent males who witness family violence as potential offenders. Similarly, the literature does not support an assumption that all adolescent males who perpetrate domestic violence have witnessed inter-parental abuse. Rather, all adolescent males who witness domestic violence must receive appropriate support services and education regarding healthy relationships. All identified juvenile perpetrators of domestic violence should be screened for witnessing inter-parental abuse.

Substance Use: Several studies have found that the perpetration of family and dating violence by adolescent males is strongly associated with alcohol consumption (Cate et al., 1982; Foo & Margolin, 1995; Makepeace, 1987; Malik, Sorenson & Aneshensel, 1997; O'Keefe, 1997; Symons, Lin & Gordon, 1998). No research has been conducted that establishes the effect of substance abuse intervention on teen dating violence perpetration rates. Many advocates predict that treating a juvenile perpetrator of domestic violence for substance abuse problems alone will not produce significant change in the perpetration of abusive behavior. Substance use and violence perpetration are often viewed as related, yet distinct, health problems that each require specialized intervention (Bennett, 1997).

Sexist Attitudes: Several studies have found that adolescent males who possess attitudes legitimizing violence against female partners are more likely to report being physically violent toward dating partners (DeKeseredy & Kelly, 1993; Riggs & O'Leary, 1996; Silverman & Williamson, 1997; Smith, 1990; Stithe & Farley, 1993). Thus, intervention programs that fail to address perpetrators’ sexist attitudes may have a minimal effect. To date, there have been no evaluations of adolescent intervention programs that do or do not address sexism, nonetheless, advocates encourage practitioners to include education about sex-role stereotyping, and concepts of masculinity and femininity, in intervention programs on the basis of available research on adolescent attitudes.

Peer Attitudes: At least three studies have found that having peers who support violence against women predicts one’s own dating violence behavior (DeKeseredy & Kelly, 1993; DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 1993; Silverman & Williamson, 1997). Based on this knowledge, some practitioners believe that encouraging juvenile perpetrators to form new peer relationships with non-violent and non-sexist males may reduce abuse perpetration.

Current Methods Of Intervention

Juvenile batterer intervention programs have emerged in the U.S. over the last decade. Most have developed in relative isolation from one another, despite the fact they often share similar philosophies. They have been developed by courts, survivor advocacy agencies, batterer intervention programs and community-based agencies that serve youth. As a result, the programs differ with regard to structure and methodology. As alternatives or complements to incarceration, such programs offer possible methods to re-educate young men about their relationships and their use of violence. Most juvenile batterer intervention programs utilize a psycho-educational group format and meet weekly for 1-2 hours. Intervention group activities may include discussions of healthy and unhealthy relationships, sex-role stereotyping, coping with anger or rejection, and the effect of alcohol or drug use on one’s behavior, among other topics. The atmosphere of groups is neither intimidating nor social; trained staff works to maintain a safe, encouraging, yet serious tone. Group cycles last from 12-52 weeks. Parents receive orientation information regarding the program and, in some communities, are involved in the intervention on an on-going basis. Intervention participants who re-offend may be expelled from the group or asked to re-start it, depending upon the program. In some communities, those who are expelled may face more severe penalties from a probation department or court.

Table 1: Features of Some Juvenile Batterer Intervention Programs



Number of Youth


Per year




Program Duration (in weeks)

Referring Entity

Expect Respect

Austin, TX

School Based


6-12 grade

School groups. Individual & Family Available onsite


Middle and High Schools

MOVE Youth Program


Agency based








52 minimum

Juvenile Courts

Mass DPH

10 Programs







Juvenile Courts,

Schools &



Seattle, WA

Comm. Centers






24 minimum




Juvenile Batterer Intervention Programs: Challenges and Dilemmas

Programs for adolescents who batter currently face a number of challenges and dilemmas, as do all new interventions. These challenges include public recognition of teen domestic violence as a phenomenon distinct from generalized violence; a dearth of culturally appropriate interventions and research; and partnering with a juvenile justice system perceived by many to suffer from pervasive racial and class biases.

Recognizing teen batterers: Between 1997-1999, seven incidents of teen-perpetrated domestic violence received national attention in the U.S.—perhaps the most widely-publicized of these events being the shooting in Jonesboro, AK. In the wake of these tragedies, media posed questions about the cause of “youth violence” or “school violence,” but failed to emphasize that in all cases the shooters were male and the intended victims female (Sousa, 1999). In fact, the incidents might have been more appropriately and specifically classified as “violence against women or girls.” An inability to perceive violence perpetrated by adolescent males as similar to domestic violence perpetrated by adults may limit our capacity to alter their behavior.

For many, it may be difficult to acknowledge that boys as young as eight or nine years old participate in “dating” relationships. As a result, in some cases abusive behavior may be dismissed or handled as though it were acceptable rough-housing. (For example, girls and boys may be told that if someone kicks or insults them, it is a sign of affection.) In order to offer victims of abuse consistent and comprehensive protection, and in order to provide young perpetrators with the services and intervention that they need, adults may be required to alter their own definitions of “dating.” Similarly, any incidents involving violence between adolescents should be assessed to determine if, and to what extent, dating or sexism was a motivational factor.

Culturally appropriate intervention and research: Although men of color are over-represented in batterer intervention programs, there are few culturally specific intervention strategies and insufficient research on violence in communities of color (Richie, 1998; Williams, 1997). While research does not demonstrate conclusively that culturally specific programs have improved outcomes for adult batterers (Gondolf, 2000), some resarchers have found that men of color have higher completion rates when working with staff of similar ethnic backgrounds (O. Williams, personal communication, September, 2000). It is possible that these results would hold true for adolescent offenders in culturally-specific intervention programs as well. Despite the fact that very few outcome studies of culturally specific batterer intervention programs have been conducted, practitioners have expressed a need for the development, implementation and evaluation of culturally specific models (Carillo & Tello, 1998; Williams, 1997).

Partnering with the juvenile justice system: The juvenile justice system has an important role to play in securing safety for victims and holding juvenile batterers accountable. In a number of jurisdictions, law enforcement agencies, probation departments and juvenile courts work with juvenile batterer intervention programs to monitor program compliance, enhance victim safety and to hold juvenile batterers accountable. Much work is still needed across the nation to establish a consistent juvenile justice response to teen dating violence.

There are, however, considerable drawbacks to relying on the juvenile justice system as the primary agency of response to teen dating violence. By nature, the juvenile justice system provides a response only once violence has occurred. Other than the deterrent effect of holding batterers accountable for their violence after the fact, it does not seek to prevent dating violence. There are also significant risks associated with youth involvement in the juvenile justice system. According to Amnesty International, "use of incarceration in the United States Juvenile Justice System is a matter of grave concern because of its inherent risks to the physical and mental integrity of children, and its potential for negative influence rather than rehabilitation." (Amnesty International, 1998). In addition, recent research demonstrates that the juvenile justice system continues to suffer from pervasive racial bias (National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2000). Efforts to respond to teen dating violence in communities of color will be hindered by the perception that the domestic violence movement relies uncritically on what is perceived as a racially biased system.

Juvenile Batterer Intervention Programs: New Directions

As the field of teen dating and family violence intervention becomes more sophisticated, stakeholders are increasingly exploring new strategies, identifying needs and attempting to build on lessons learned in related fields. Examples of these new developments include partnering with schools, drawing on the strengths of ecological approaches to violence, and promoting efforts that attempt to link post-crisis intervention with primary prevention.

Partnering with school administrators and educators: While intervention with individual perpetrators of dating or family violence is essential, it as just as critical that social norms that support violence change. Educators have an enormous potential to affect the social environments in their classrooms and in their school-communities. School administrators have the power to design, promote and implement policies and curricular approaches that can significantly affect students’ attitudes and behavior. It is important that school personnel receive training on the topic of gender-based violence and are supported when they link existing literature or social studies themes to social norms regarding violence and gender (B. Rosenbluth, personal communication, November, 2000).

Research: Creating policy or awarding funding to intervention programs in the absence of evaluation research potentially places victims at continued risk for abuse and may waste resources. It is imperative that long-term follow-up evaluation studies of juvenile intervention programs are conducted and that the results be widely disseminated. Moreover, those who develop programs should base the design of curricula and intervention components on data collected from program participants; optimal interventions will be created if the service population is more fully understood.

Learning from related research: The last two decades have seen a proliferation in research and evaluation on violence prevention and intervention. While the bulk of the literature focuses specifically on youth violence, findings may be applied to dating and domestic violence intervention and prevention. In 1999, the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence evaluated several violence prevention and intervention initiatives. Those that utilize ecological approaches were shown to have high success rates with violent juvenile offenders (Center for Prevention and Study of Violence, 2000). The factors associated with the success of ecological approaches are potentially instructive for the nascent efforts to rehabilitate and hold accountable young men who batter.

Ecological approaches recognize that individuals often reflect the values of their families, communities, and societies, and that “effecting sustained change requires addressing the multiple problems of youth wherever they arise; in the family, the community, the health care and school systems" (Currie, 1998, p.105). Ecological approaches also recognize that treating offenders in isolation of their social environment is a "prescription for failure” (Currie, 1998, p.105). The evidence in favor of ecological approaches is supported by other studies that have found that involvement of the family seems necessary to effect sustained change (Henggeler, Melton, Smith, Hanley & Hutchinson, 1993; Tolan, Gorman-Smith, Huesmann & Zelli, 1997), and that community based efforts are more effective than institutional efforts (Tolan et al., 1997).

Ecological Approaches: Some adult and youth batterer intervention programs have attempted to integrate ecological principles into batterer intervention programs. Common to some of these approaches is the recognition that each participant serves as an important point of access to the family, community members, including peers, and institutions such as the faith community, schools, other community based agencies, the juvenile and family courts and to youth employment agencies. This access makes it possible to enlist family, community members and institutions in holding perpetrators accountable and ensuring victim safety. In some cases, however, it is acknowledged that involving family members is not always appropriate—the safety of the young men who batter may be jeopardized if abusive parents are included in the approach. Unlike many intervention strategies that work to affect behavior change by focusing on perceived deficits, ecological approaches emphasize individual and community strengths and build on emerging understandings of individual resiliency and community assets.

In Atlanta, the Men Stopping Violence (MSV) program attempts to affect the social ecology of adult program participants by involving their friends, and on occasions their sons, and by advocating for change across the broad range of institutions with which participants interact (S. Nuriddin, personal communication, April, 2000). Similarly, some juvenile batterer intervention programs have developed models that involve a wide range of stakeholders including city agencies, community based organizations and community members themselves. For instance, the MOVE Youth Program, a juvenile batterer intervention program based in San Francisco, CA, is implementing a model that involves family and community members in teen dating violence prevention (A. Silva, personal communication, May, 2000). In this way, ecological approaches such as those used by MSV and MOVE also serve as important opportunities for engaging in prevention, and in this way connect intervention and prevention efforts.

The Case for Prevention: Studies indicate that "punitive, legalistic approaches" are unlikely to have much effect on youth violence unless they are integrated into policies that focus funding and efforts on prevention (Tolan, 2000). Domestic violence prevention campaigns have been pursued in health care settings, in schools and through the media, and show promise in changing attitudes towards the use of violence (Edleson, 2000). Important lessons can be drawn from related fields that have been effective in changing adolescent behaviors and attitudes, for example regarding teen pregnancy prevention and child abuse awareness (Daro & Cohn Donnelly, 2000). Prevention efforts may be enhanced through collaboration with related fields, such as child welfare and youth violence, and by developing connections with a range of agencies that serve youth. These partnerships could include linkages with mentoring programs, employment training sites, arts and recreation programs, rites of passage programs, and literacy and media literacy projects (National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women, 1999).

Since lower education, lower-status jobs, and under-employment are all identified as probable risk factors for the perpetration of violence, effective prevention plans will need to address each of these, and the relationship between these potential risk factors and domestic violence should be further clarified by continuing research (Edleson, 2000; Kaufman Kantor & Jasinski, 1998). Prevention activities should also address peer behaviors and attitudes since these have been shown to affect boys’ choices about whether to use violence (Heise, 1998). Given the contemporary predisposition in favor of intervention and incapacitation, committing resources to prevention will require a shift in policy priorities (Tolan, 2000). Nevertheless, the returns on rigorously designed and well-implemented prevention may be significant in terms of money saved and lives enhanced.


The paper presented here offers a brief overview of the emerging field of working with adolescent perpetrators of domestic violence. The fact that there exists such a field, embryonic as it may be, is evidence of the increasing attention being paid to the devastating impact that intimate partner and family violence have on the lives of children and youth. While significant challenges remain, work being done to detect, deter and rehabilitate adolescent perpetrators represents an important step towards interrupting intergenerational cycles of violence and enhancing safety for victims.


Authors of this document:


Dean Peacock

Emily Rothman, MS

November 2001


The authors would like to thank Ed Gondolf, Oliver Williams and Larry Cohen for their thoughtful feedback and assistance in the development of this paper. The authors would also like to thank Jeff Edleson, Gita Mehrotra and Pam Baker at MINCAVA - Minnesota Center Against Violence & Abuse, University of Minnesota.


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Working with Men to Prevent Violence Against Women: An Overview (Part One)

Alan D. Berkowitz

With contributions from David Mathews 

There is a growing awareness that men, in partnership with women, can play a significant role in ending violence against women.   This has led to an increase in programs and activities that focus on men's roles in violence prevention.   Men should take responsibility for preventing violence against women because of the untold harm it causes to women in men's lives and the ways in which it directly hurts men.   Violence against women hurts men when it results in women being afraid of or suspicious of men due to fear of potential victimization and when it perpetuates negative stereotypes of men based on the actions of a few.   The behaviors and attitudes that cause violence against women may also be a cause of men being violent towards other men.   These same behaviors and attitudes may also keep men from having close and meaningful relationships with each other.   Finally, while only a minority of men are violent, all men can have an influence on the culture and environment that allows other men to be perpetrators.   For example, men can refuse to be bystanders to other men's violent behavior.

For all of these reasons men have a stake in ending violence against women.   To do this, men must accept and examine their own potential for violence and take a stand against the violence of other men.   In recent years, a number of authors have argued persuasively that men need to take responsibility for preventing men's violence against women, both in the United States (Berkowitz, 2002a; Funk, 1993; Katz, 1995; Kilmartin, 2001; Kivel, 1992), and internationally (Brienes, Connell, & Eide, 2000; Flood, 2001, 2003; INSTRAW, 2002; Kaufman, 2001).

This paper provides a brief overview of what is known about effective strategies for involving men in violence prevention efforts from the perspective of men who are recipients of anti-violence programs as well as from the men who provide them.   It defines the term "prevention" for men's violence against women, reviews best practices for involving men and for tailoring programs (for men in general and for particular groups of men) and, in Part Two, offers examples of prevention program formats and pedagogy.   These examples are provided to illustrate best practices rather than to describe specific programs, as this review is not intended to be exhaustive or comprehensive of all violence prevention efforts involving men.   Finally, in order to be useful to practitioners and educators the paper provides references to websites containing information about men's anti-violence organizations and programs.   While the conclusions and trends noted here are applicable to the prevention of all forms of men's violence against women, the preponderance of literature cited is from the rape prevention field where there has been more research conducted on this subject.

Defining Men's Roles in Prevention

Men can prevent violence against women by not personally engaging in violence, by intervening against the violence of other men, and by addressing the root causes of violence.   This broad definition provides roles for all men in preventing violence against women.   Men's involvement can take the form of primary or universal prevention (directed at all men, including those who do not appear to be at risk of committing violence and those who may be at risk for continuing a pattern of violence), through secondary or selective prevention (directed at men who are at-risk for committing violence), and/or through more intensive tertiary or indicated prevention (with men who have already been violent).  

For violence prevention these distinctions may be somewhat artificial because it can be argued that all men are at risk for perpetration by virtue of their socialization as men (Hong, 2000; Kaufman, 1985), because men can commit violence without defining it as such, and because men who have been violent can successfully participate in programs to prevent other men's violence.   "Prevention" is defined here as any program or activity that reduces or prevents future violence against women by men.   Programs for men who already have a documented history of violence against women, such as batterer's or perpetrator treatment programs, will not be discussed here.

Prevention programs can take the form of one session, a series of sessions or ongoing interactive educational workshops, leadership training, social marketing and social norms media campaigns (defined in Part Two of this paper), or through participation in one-time or ongoing public events.   These may focus directly on the issue of violence or on its specific forms (for example, sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and/or harassment, and stalking), or indirectly through men's involvement in consciousness raising, fatherhood and/or skill-building programs that foster attitudes and behaviors that may protect against violence, or by providing healthy resocialization experiences about what it means to be a healthy, nonviolent man.   In its broadest definition, violence prevention for men includes any activity that addresses the root causes of men's violence including social and structural causes as well as men's gender role socialization and men's sexism.

Among men's violence prevention programs those for school-aged boys have tended to focus on issues of sexual harassment and dating violence, those for college age men have tended to focus on sexual assault, and those for men not in college or older have tended to focus on domestic violence in longer-term partnerships.   In actuality it is important for all men to be involved in the prevention of all forms of violence against women, even when it may be developmentally or strategically appropriate to foster this involvement by focusing initially on one form of men's violence.

What Works in Men's Violence Prevention?

Due to evaluation literature that is limited in scope, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of violence prevention programs for men.   For example, most prevention program assessments measure changes in attitudes that are associated with a proclivity to be violent rather than actual violent behavior.   Reviews of the literature suggest that sexual assault prevention programs for college men can be effective in improving attitudes that may put men at-risk for committing violence against women, although these attitudinal changes are often limited to periods of a few months (Brecklin & Forde, 2001; Breitenbecher, 2000; Lonsway, 1996; Schewe, 2002). In contrast, programs that focus only on providing information have not been found to be effective (Schewe, 2002). Among pre-college aged males, dating violence and harassment prevention programs offered to mixed gender groups in school settings can result in both attitude and behavior change for a few months or longer (Avery-Leaf & Cascardi, 2002).  

Despite the limited research, there is an emerging consensus regarding what constitutes effective violence prevention for men.   Violence prevention programs that have been found effective in evaluation studies tend to share one or more of the assumptions listed below.   Practitioners who work with men to prevent violence have also concluded that effective violence prevention programs for men share some or all of these assumptions:

•  Men must assume responsibility for preventing men's violence against women.

•  Men need to be approached as partners in solving the problem rather than as perpetrators.

•  Workshops and other activities are more effective when conducted by peers in small, all-male groups because of the immense influence that men have on each other and because of the safety all-male groups can provide.

•  Discussions should be interactive and encourage honest sharing of feelings, ideas, and beliefs.

•  Opportunities should be created to discuss and critique prevailing understandings of masculinity and men's discomfort with them, as well as men's misperceptions of other men's attitudes and behavior.

•  Positive anti-violence values and healthy aspects of men's experience should be strengthened, including teaching men to intervene in other men's behavior.

•  Work with men must be in collaboration with and accountable to women working as advocates, educators, and prevention specialists.

What is the Logic of these Assumptions?   First, research and experience have shown that putting men on the defensive or using blame is not effective and can even result in negative outcomes.   Thus, in Lonsway's review of the literature she stated:   "although educational programs challenging rape culture do require confrontation of established ideologies, such interventions do not necessitate a style of personal confrontation "   (Italics added, 1996, p. 250).   Thus, men should take responsibility for acting as perpetrators and bystanders of violence and the best way to accomplish this is to encourage men to be partners in solving the problem rather than by criticizing or blaming men (Berkowitz, 2002a; Men Can Stop Rape, 2000; Schewe, 2002).   Most men are not coercive or opportunistic, do not want to victimize others, and are willing to be part of the solution to ending sexual assault.   (In contrast, while men who are predatory or who have a history of perpetration may benefit from exposure to some education and prevention programs, more intensive treatment is likely required for these men to change previous patterns of perpetration).

The majority of men may already hold attitudes that can be strengthened to prevent and reduce violence and encourage men to intervene with other men.   For example, research has demonstrated that most men are uncomfortable with how they have been taught to be men, including how to be in relationship with women, homophobia, heterosexism, and emotional expression, and that they are uncomfortable with the sexism and inappropriate behavior of other men (Berkowitz, 2003; 2004).   Because many men already feel blamed and are on the defensive about the issue of men's violence (even when this defensiveness is misplaced), effective approaches create a learning environment that can surface the positive attitudes and behaviors that allow men to be part of the solution.   This can be accomplished in the context of a safe, nonjudgmental atmosphere for open discussion and dialogue in which men can discuss feelings about relationships, sexuality, aggression, etc. and share discomfort about the behavior of other men.

What Types of Discussions are Effective?   Literature reviews have suggested that the quality and interactive nature of the discussion may be more important than the format in which it is presented (Breitenbecher, 2000; Lonsway, 1996), a dimension that Davis (2000) has called "program process."   Because men are influenced by other men and by what men think is true about other men, this influence can be positively channeled in all-male groups.   Thus, effective violence prevention for men acknowledges the important influence that male peer groups have on men's actions (Schwartz & DeKeseredy, 1997), corrects misperceptions that men have about each other's attitudes and behavior (Berkowitz, 2002a), and channels this influence towards positive change.

The common element in successful prevention programs for men is the opportunity to participate in an experience where men are encouraged to honestly share real feelings and concerns about issues of masculinity and men's violence.   The opportunity for men to hear the attitudes and views of other men is powerful, especially because it empowers men who want to help and provides them with visible allies.   This strategy encourages the majority of men to take the necessary steps to avoid perpetrating and to confront the inappropriate behavior of male peers.  

Are All Male or Mixed Gender Programs More Effective?   Research suggests that these goals can be accomplished most effectively with male facilitators in all-male groups.   For example, Brecklin and Forde (2001) conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of forty-three college rape prevention program evaluations and concluded that both men and women experienced more beneficial change in single-gender groups than in mixed-gender groups.   This was also the conclusion reached in five other literature reviews of rape prevention programs that all recommended that rape prevention programs be conducted in separate-gender groups when possible (Breitenbecher, 2000; Gidycz, Dowall & Marioni, 2002; Lonsway, 1996; Schewe, 2002; Yeater & Donohue, 1999).

While there are advantages to programs facilitated by men, skilled female facilitators can also work very effectively with men.   Women working with men need to be aware that men may view their leadership as reinforcing the assumption that violence prevention is a "women's issue" not relevant to men and must also find ways to prevent participants from attributing honest dialogue simply to the presence of a female.   It is also beneficial for men to see women and men co-facilitating in a respectful partnership.   Examples of programs for men that have been developed and led by women include those by Hong (2000) and Mahlstedt (1999).  

One of the main arguments for separate gender workshops is that the goals for violence prevention are different for men and women (Gidycz, Dowdall, & Marioni, 2002; Schewe, 2002).   Despite this being true in some settings, it may be necessary or more appropriate to offer violence prevention in mixed groups. Trainers must still take into account the gender differences that make such separation desirable, avoid the polarization that can occur in mixed-gender groups, avoid potential victim-blaming, not give information about victim-risk that could be useful to perpetrators, and avoid approaches that are blaming of men (Schewe, 2002).   While mixed gender workshops have been evaluated as successful with boys in school settings, these programs have not been compared with similar programs offered in all-male settings (see Avery-Leaf & Cascardi, 2002 for an excellent review of this literature).

Partnerships with Women and Accountability to Women.   Attention to men's roles in preventing violence against women is only possible because of the decades of tireless work and sacrifice by female victim advocates, social activists, researchers, academicians, survivors, and leaders.   These courageous women have successfully challenged society to take notice of this problem and to begin to fund efforts to solve it.   Men's work to end violence against women must include recognition of this leadership and must never be in competition with or at the expense of women's efforts.   Thus, prevention programs for men should be developed to exist alongside of victim advocacy, legal and policy initiatives, academic research, rape crisis and domestic violence services, and educational programs for women.   Male anti-violence educators must recognize that we are accountable to the women who are the victims of the violence we hope to end, and must work to create effective collaborative partnerships and alliances that provide a role for women in men's programs (Flood, 2003).   To do this requires an understanding and exploration of men's privilege, sexism, and other biases, and an openness to learning from women and to working with them as allies.

Challenges to Men's Involvement.   Finally, it is important to acknowledge that there are many challenges and barriers for men who do this work.   Men who work to end violence against women are challenging the dominant culture and the understandings of masculinity that maintain it.   Thus, male activists are often met with suspicion, homophobia and other questions about their "masculinity." Men and women who feel threatened by this work often discredit male activists efforts and persons (Flood, 2003; Stillerman, 1998).   At the same time many men are grateful for the example set by male activists and for modeling a different way of being male.   Men who do this work are also frequently and unfairly given more credit for their efforts than women who do similar work (Flood, 2001).   Men engaged in violence prevention need to personally recognize these challenges and take responsibility to change these dynamics both personally and professionally.

Cultural Issues and Masculinities

While men in North America may share some common socialization experiences and definitions of what it means to be male, there are also important differences in terms of race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, religion, and other identities that must be addressed in violence prevention efforts.   In addition, there are cultural differences regarding the appropriate context for prevention including how violence should be addressed.   Currently there is extensive literature documenting the need for culturally relevant and tailored programs in medical, psychological, and public health literatures, along with evidence for the ineffectiveness of approaches derived from dominant groups or paradigms.   Providing culturally competent programming should not be considered optional, but is a necessity for effectiveness.  

"Relevance" is a critical component of program success. It has been determined to be an important component of effective prevention programs and is discussed further in Part Two of this paper.   Because men from different identities have different experiences, relevant programming must address these differences, including experiences of racism among men of color, of homophobia for gay, bisexual and/or transgender men, the effects of economic inequalities for working class and poor men, and the cultural context for violence prevention within different communities.   As with every other issue, there is a danger of imposing definitions and understandings from more established violence prevention efforts (which, like the larger culture, is predominantly white and middle class) upon other cultures and communities.

An example of the importance of culturally relevant programs comes from research on the differential impact of programs on men from different racial backgrounds.   In one study, a generic race-neutral program was effective for European heritage men but not men of color, while a modified program with a co-presenter of color and relevant information (including statistics on violence in ethnic communities and dispelling of ethnically based rape myths) were effective for both groups (Heppner, Neville, Smith, Kivlighan, & Gershuny, 1999).   In other research conducted on perpetrators from different ethnic backgrounds, differences were found in personality characteristics and motivations for perpetration that may have important implications for designing culturally sensitive prevention programs for men (Hall, Sue, Narang, & Lilly, 2000; Kim & Zane, 2004).

Violence prevention efforts need to acknowledge these kinds of differences and also correct stereotypes and myths about the prevalence of violence among different groups of men.   Finally, men from different cultural groups have different experiences with the educational and criminal justice systems that may influence receptivity to violence prevention.   Violence prevention efforts that are community based, sensitive to ethnic and class issues, and accountable to the larger community have been developed in many communities and show promise. All of the above strongly suggest the critical importance of developing programs that are either tailored to the needs of a particular group, or conducted in a way that is inclusive and welcoming of all backgrounds.   A critical oversight is the lack of research examining the needs of gay, bisexual and transgendered men with respect to violence prevention programming.  


In recent years there has been expanded interest in developing programs and strategies that focus on men's responsibility for ending violence against women.   These programs create a safe environment for men to discuss and challenge each other with respect to information and attitudes about men's violence.   The literature suggests that these programs can produce short-term change in men's attitudes that are associated with a proclivity for violence, encourage men to intervene against the behavior of other men, and in some cases reduce men's future violence.   As these programs become more popular and as more men take leadership on this issue we are hopeful that the epidemic of men's violence against women will be significantly reduced and that all of our relationships will come closer to embodying ideals of respect, mutual empowerment, growth, and co-creation.

Note: Portions of this review were adapted from "Fostering Men's Responsibility for Preventing Sexual Assault" and "Working with Men to Prevent Sexual Assault," both written by the author in 2002.

Author of this document:
Alan David Berkowitz, Ph.D.
Independent Consultant
Founder and Editor of The Report on Social Norms

Dave Mathews, PsyD, LICSW
Director of Therapy
Domestic Abuse Project
204 W. Franklin Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55404

Citation: Berkowitz, A. (2004, October). Working With Men to Prevent Violence: An Overview (Part One). Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Retrieved 10-4-09, from:


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Working with Men to Prevent Violence Against Women: Program Modalities and Formats (Part Two)

Alan D. Berkowitz

With contributions from David Mathews 
In Part One of this paper an overview was provided of men's role in prevention along with effective strategies for ending men's violence against women, and the importance of creating culturally relevant programs that address all of men's identities was presented.   The discussion is continued in this document by providing an overview of best practices in prevention, the content and format of men's prevention programs, and an overview of different program philosophies or pedagogies.

It is a challenge to classify and summarize the many different types of violence prevention efforts that have been developed for men in recent years.   One-way to conceptually organize and describe them is in terms of:   1) program content; 2) program format (how the information is provided and delivered), and; 3) program philosophy or pedagogy.   In addition, extensive research within the prevention field regarding program effectiveness has identified best practices that can be applied to programs on all three of these dimensions.   These topics are reviewed below, beginning with best practices.

Best Practices in Prevention

The prevention literature suggests that effective prevention programs have a number of characteristics that are independent of particular issues or topical areas.   In particular, effective prevention programs are comprehensive, intensive, relevant to the audience, and deliver positive messages.   (For a more detailed discussion of these areas with respect to rape prevention see Berkowitz, 2001.)

Comprehensiveness.   Comprehensiveness addresses who participates in the intervention.   In a comprehensive program all relevant community members or systems are involved and have clearly defined roles and responsibilities.   Linking activities that are normally separate and disconnected can create positive synergy and result in activities that are more effective in combination than alone.   A comprehensive program views the target population as the whole community and emphasizes creating meaningful connections with colleagues.   This can foster awareness of what others are doing, develop a common prevention framework, and provide information and messages that are mutually reinforcing, integrated and synergistic. Within the domestic violence prevention movement, comprehensiveness has been encouraged through the development of coordinated community responses to men's violence and its prevention (Pence, 1999).  

Intensiveness.   Intensiveness is a function of what happens within a program activity.   Programs should offer learning opportunities that are interactive and sustained over time with active rather than passive participation.   In general, interactive interventions are more effective than those that require only passive participation (Lonsway, 1996; Schewe, 2002).   Interactive programs that are sustained over time and which have multiple points of contact with reinforcing messages are stronger than programs that occur at one point in time only.   As noted earlier, providing meaningful interactions between men that foster change is a critical element of successful violence prevention programs.

Relevance .   Relevant programs are tailored to the age, community, culture, and socioeconomic status of the recipients and take into consideration an individual's peer group experience.   Creating relevant programs requires acknowledging the special needs and concerns of different communities and affinity groups.   These programs are stronger when group-specific information is used in place of generic statistics (Schewe, 2002).   Relevance can be accomplished by designing programs for general audiences that are inclusive and acknowledge participant differences, or by designing special programs for particular audiences.   Relevant programs pay attention to the culture of the problem, the culture of the service or message delivery system, and the culture of the target population (Berkowitz, 2003).   Differences in these three cultures must be addressed in the design of programs.   Carillo and Tello (1998) provide an excellent example of the issues involved in designing culturally relevant programs for men of color from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.   Part One of this paper contains an extensive discussion of relevance from the perspective of developing culturally inclusive programs for men.

Positive messages should build on men's values and predisposition to act in a positive manner.   Men are more receptive to positive messages outlining what can be done than to negative messages that promote fear or blame.  

To design a program that incorporates these elements may seem like a daunting task.   It is important, therefore, to focus on quality and process rather than quantity.   A few interventions that are carefully linked, sequenced, and integrated with other activities will be more powerful than many program efforts that are discrete, isolated, and unrelated.

Program Content

As noted earlier, programs focusing on men's responsibility for preventing violence against women can address men's violence in general or focus on specific forms of violence, such as sexual assault and rape prevention, domestic violence prevention, dating violence prevention, stalking prevention, and sexual harassment prevention.   Other programs may address the issue of violence indirectly by teaching men relationship, parenting and fathering skills, how to manage aggression and anger, how men are socialized, and by providing positive re-socialization and bonding experiences for men.   There is some controversy in the field regarding whether these latter programs can be considered bona-fide violence prevention for men, with the answer depending on the content of the individual program and the degree to which links to men's violence are made explicit (for an excellent discussion of this issue go to in the Online Discussion Series).   Because they devote considerable attention to addressing socialization and cultural issues that underlie men's violence they certainly have a place in the larger task of redefining masculinity and male culture of which violence prevention is a part.   They may also be more appropriate with men who do not have a history of violence and when safety issues are not a concern.  

Program Format

Violence prevention programs that focus on changing individual men's behaviors can be offered as one-time only events, such as educational programs or workshops, or as multiple linked events over time.   These types of workshops have been traditional in the violence prevention field.   Recently, there have been attempts to also address the larger culture of violence and target the general population through the use of media in the form of social marketing campaigns that provide positive messages about men, social norms marketing campaigns that provide data about healthy anti-violence norms, and through activist events such as the White Ribbon Campaign and appropriate participation in Take Back the Night.   There is very little research on these larger efforts, although preliminary research suggests that social norms marketing campaigns can change relevant attitudes and in some cases behaviors (Berkowitz, 2003; Bruce, 2002; Hillenbrand-Gunn et. al, 2004; White, Williams & Cho, 2003).   It may be even more powerful to combine both types of interventions in a synergistic fashion so that men participating in individual workshops are also exposed to supportive media campaigns outside the workshop setting.

Program Philosophy

Violence prevention programs for men may differ in terms of their pedagogy, i.e., their philosophy regarding how to help men change.   Programs may focus on building empathy towards victims, the development of personal skills, learning to intervene in other men's behavior, re-socialization of male culture and behavior, or media efforts to change the larger environment.   While there has been debate about whether men's violence prevention efforts should be pro-feminist, it is this author's contention that violence prevention for men is pro-feminist by definition because it is about changing men in ways that support the feminist agenda of creating of a society in which women and men are treated equally and equitably (see Capraro, 1994 and Corcoran, 1992 for a discussion of the feminist underpinnings of men's anti-violence efforts).   These program philosophies are briefly summarized below.

Fostering empathy for victims .   It is undeniable that men need to understand and be empathic to the experiences of victims and that development of such empathy may discourage men from harming women.   Presenting stories of victims in person, by video, or through interactive theater, can help create such understanding and empathy.   For victim stories to have an impact it is important that men's defensiveness first be reduced.   Victim empathy programs are useful when men are not sufficiently aware of the problem of men's violence.   However, they fall short of asking men to make changes in our own and other men's behavior and run the risk of appealing to a male-helper mentality.   In addition, they are not appropriate for coercive and/or opportunistic men with impaired empathy.   The literature on empathy induction programs has been reviewed by Berkowitz (2002a), Lonsway (1996) and Schewe (2002).

Individual change .   Learning skills such as managing anger, understanding gender based privilege, relationship skills (including communication, partnership, and parenting skills), or how to ensure that intimate relationships are consenting can all help to reduce men's violence.   Research has established that deficiency in these skills is associated with violence and that teaching men these skills may decrease the likelihood of future violence when the acquisition and maintenance of these skills is encouraged in a supportive environment (Low, Monarch, Hartman, & Markman, 2002).   However, while focusing on personal skill development moves beyond empathy development by asking men to change behavior and take responsibility for actions and intentions in relation to others, it still does not address the larger cultural context that supports and maintains men's violent behaviors.  

Bystander interventions .   Programs attempting to reduce bystander behavior teach men how to intervene in the behavior of other men (see for example, Berkowitz, 2002; Katz, 1995).   Men who are likely to commit violence are men who over-identify with traditional masculine values and roles and who are especially sensitive to what other men think.   The focus of bystander intervention programs is to provide the majority of men who are uncomfortable with these men's behavior with the permission and skills to confront them.   Bystander interventions move beyond empathy and individual change to make men responsible for changing the larger environment of how men relate to each other and to women.   This can change the peer culture that fosters and tolerates men's violence.

Re-socialization experiences .   Socialization focused programs explore the cultural and societal expectations of men that influence how men are taught to think and act in relation to women.   A socialization-oriented discussion inevitably focuses on men's homophobia, heterosexism, and sexism.

Social marketing and social norms marketing .   In recent years there has been an effort to augment and reinforce small group interventions through the use of media campaigns that portray men in positive, non-violent roles or through social norms marketing campaigns that provide data about the true norms for men's behavior (see Bruce, 2002; Hillenbrand-Gunn et al, 2004; Men Can Stop Rape, 2000; White, Williams, & Cho, 2003).   The social norms approach relies on the assumption that men commonly misperceive the attitudes and behaviors of other men that are relevant to violence.   For example, men think that other men are more sexually active than themselves, are more comfortable behaving in stereotypically masculine ways, are less uncomfortable with objectification of women and violence, are more homophobic and heterosexist, and are more likely to endorse rape myths (Berkowitz, 2003, 2004).   Because of the powerful influence that men have on each other, correcting these misperceptions can free men to act in ways that are healthier and more aligned with personal values.   In one study, for example, it was found that the strongest influence on whether men were willing to intervene to prevent violence against women was the perception of other men's willingness to intervene (Fabiano, Perkins, Berkowitz, Linkenbach, & Stark, 2004).   Thus, correcting misperceptions among men about violence-related attitudes is an emerging and important prevention strategy that can be implemented in media campaigns or in small group interventions.  

All of these approaches are interdependent and overlap in practice.   Considering these four approaches is helpful in adapting a program to the needs and characteristics of a specific audience.   They can be thought of as occurring in a developmental sequence starting with creating an awareness of the problem of violence against women, to fostering personal change, and ending with a commitment to impact the behavior of other men, all within a context that is consistent with the goals and practices of feminist thinking.


Effective prevention programs for men must be developed that are consistent with the prevention literature - i.e., they must be comprehensive, intensive, and relevant.   These programs can focus on a variety of issues relevant to men's violence, including specific forms of violence and the larger cultural context that makes men's violence possible.   Such programs may attempt to foster empathy in men, change individual men's attitudes and behaviors, encourage men to intervene against other men's behavior, and provide men with positive re-socialization experiences.   Programs may also be developed utilizing social marketing and social norms marketing techniques to present images of men in new and different roles and by providing alternative perspectives on men's behavior. All of the programs share common assumptions and philosophies for working with men that were reviewed in Part One of this paper.

Note: Portions of this review were adapted from Fostering Men's Responsibility for Preventing Sexual Assault and Working with Men to Prevent Sexual Assault , both written by the author in 2002.

Author of this document:
Alan David Berkowitz, Ph.D.
Independent Consultant
Founder and Editor of The Report on Social Norms

Dave Mathews, PsyD, LICSW
Director of Therapy
Domestic Abuse Project
204 W. Franklin Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55404

Citation: Berkowitz, A. (2004, October). Working with Men to Prevent Violence Against Women: Program Modalities and Formats (Part Two). Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Retrieved 10-4-09, from:


Berkowitz, A.D. (2001). Critical elements of sexual assault prevention and risk reduction programs. In C. Kilmartin (Ed.), Sexual assault in context: Teaching college men about gender (pp.75-96). Holmes Beach, FL: Learning Publications.

Berkowitz, A.D. (2002a). Fostering men's responsibility for preventing sexual assault. In P. Schewe (Ed.), Preventing violence in relationships (pp.163-196). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Berkowitz, A.D. (2002b, Spring/Summer). Working with men to prevent sexual assault. Newsletter of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2, 4-6.

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Update of the 'Battered Woman Syndrome' Critique

Mary Ann Dutton

With contributions from Sue Osthoff and Melissa Dichter

Battering and the effects of battering are complex phenomena, which often are not well understood by the lay public. In addition to physical injury, individuals who have experienced battering often confront an array of psychological issues that differ in both type and intensity. The effects of domestic violence vary according to the social and cultural contexts of individuals' lives and include differences in the pattern, onset, duration, and severity of abuse. Importantly, this context is also determined by institutional and social responses to the abuser and to the survivor of abuse and many other factors characteristic of both persons in an abusive relationship: level of social support, economic and other tangible resources, critical life experiences (e.g., prior trauma, violence history, developmental history), and cultural and ethnic factors (Dutton, 1996; Dutton, Kaltman, Goodman, Weinfurt, & Vankos, 2005; Heise, 1998).

Although individual women experience and respond to battering differently, a number of reactions are common among those who have been exposed to these traumatic events. “Battered woman syndrome” (BWS), a construct introduced in the 1970s by psychologist Lenore Walker, is sometimes used in an attempt to explain common experiences and behaviors of women who have been battered by their intimate partners (Walker, 1989; Walker, 2006) . However, through more than three decades of accumulated empirical research, we have come to recognize major limitations in both the original and revised conceptualizations of BWS, as well as with the term itself (Osthoff & Maguigan, 2005). The use of BWS to describe the experience of women who have been victimized by intimate partner violence or to explain their response to such violence and abuse is both misleading and potentially harmful. As currently defined, the construct of BWS has several important limitations: (1) BWS is often not relevant to the central issues before the court in a specific case, (2) BWS lacks a standard and validated definition, (3) BWS does not reflect current research findings necessary to adequately explain either the experience of individuals who have been battered or their behavior in response to battering, and (4) BWS can be unnecessarily stigmatizing (Biggers, 2005; Ferraro, 2003). This paper reviews the definition, evolution, and utilization of BWS in the courts, and offers a critique of its framework and its use.

What is Battered Woman Syndrome?

BWS is a term typically used to refer to women's experiences that result from being battered. It has evolved from a term used to describe a broad range the victim's (e.g., learned helplessness) and abuser's (e.g., cycle of violence) behaviors to a mental health disorder describing symptoms experienced by an individual following traumatic exposure (e.g., Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD). CEU

Learned Helplessness

Initially, BWS was conceptualized as “learned helplessness” (Walker, 1977), a condition originally conceptualized by Seligman and his colleagues (Miller & Seligman, 1975) to describe the failure of dogs to escape a punitive environment, even when given the opportunity to do so. The theory was later used to explain depression in humans (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). Walker (1977) applied the theory of learned helplessness to describe women's seeming lack of effort to leave or escape an abusive relationship or their failure or inability to take action to protect themselves and their children.  

Seligman and colleagues (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993) have clearly refuted Walker's use of learned helplessness by stating that

In sum, we think the passivity observed among victims/survivors of domestic violence is a middling example of learned helplessness. Passivity is present, but it may well be instrumental. Cognitions of helplessness are present, as is a history of uncontrollability. But there may also be a history of explicit reinforcement for passivity. Taken together, these results do not constitute the best possible support for concluding that these women show learned helplessness (p. 239).

Seligman and colleagues further argue that passivity may be instrumental behavior that functions to minimize the risk of violence, instead of reflecting “learned helplessness” as it was originally conceptualized. Some women who have been battered may appear helpless or intentionally use “passive” behavior (e.g., giving in to demands) to stay safe. Indeed, research with low-income African-American women who have experienced domestic violence showed that, as violence toward women increased, they increased their use of both passive (placating) and active (resistance) strategies for dealing with the violence (Goodman, Dutton, Weinfurt, & Cook, 2003). Further, as Seligman suggested, women sometimes use strategies that may seem passive or tantamount to “doing nothing,” but these may actually be active efforts to reduce the risk of violence and abuse to themselves and their children. Indeed, the intended and actual function of a particular strategy is understood only in the context of the lives of the individual woman and her partner, as well as their relationship together.

Cycle of violence

Another early definition of BWS referred to the “cycle of violence” (Walker, 1984), a theory that describes the dynamics of the abuser's behavior, which is characterized in three stages: tension building, acute battering, and contrite loving. The theory suggests that the abuser keeps the survivor within his control largely by the contrite loving behaviors that follow even severe violence. There is little empirical evidence testing the cycle of violence theory. Walker's own early research showed that only some of the women interviewed in her study reported patterns of abuse consistent with this theory, with 65% of all cases reporting evidence of a tension-bulding phase and 58% of all cases reporting evidence of loving contrition afterward (Walker, 1984). Further, a recent study (Copel, 2006) of the patterns of abuse in a small sample of women with physical disabilities did not find a contrite loving phase in the aftermath of abuse.

Posttraumatic stress disorder

In an attempt to standardize criteria for BWS, Walker (1992) revised the definition to be synonymous with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological condition which results from exposure to a traumatic event. Indeed, PTSD is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Many single instances of domestic violence, and certainly the cumulative pattern of violence and abuse over time, easily meet the DMS-IV-TR criteria of a traumatic stressor. These criteria are (1) events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or other and (2) intense fear, helplessness, or horror. The symptoms that defined PTSD include (1) intrusive symptoms (images, thoughts, perceptions, nightmares; distress at exposure to cues that symbolize or remind one of the traumatic event; physiological reactivity to exposure to internal or external cues that resemble the traumatic event), (2) emotional numbing1 (feeling detached or estranged, inability to recall important aspects of the trauma) and behavioral avoidance (efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, conversations associated with the trauma and activities, places and people that arouse recollections of the trauma), and (3) hyperarousal (difficulty sleeping, anger and irritability, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The psychometric validity of PTSD symptoms has been recently validated with women exposed to intimate partner violence (Krause, Kaltman, Goodman, & Dutton, 2007).

Walker again revised the definition of BWS in 2006 to include not only the three symptom clusters of PTSD (re-experiencing, numbing of responsiveness, hyperarousal), but also three additional criteria (disrupted interpersonal relationships, difficulties with body image/somatic concerns, and sexual and intimacy problems) (Walker, 2006). Many “associated features” (e.g., impaired ability to regulate emotion, dissociative symptoms, shame, feeling permanently damaged, hostility, social withdrawal, feeling constantly threatened, impaired relationships with others) often accompany PTSD, but these are not included in the criteria for its diagnosis. Walker has not provided a rationale for selecting a particular subset of these associated features and for including them as criteria for BWS.

During the 1980s, BWS was included in educational programs and materials of many domestic violence advocates, in trainings for lawyers and judges and was used by some therapists and counselors to describe the experiences of women exposed to domestic violence. Having a scientific-sounding term like BWS to describe what they learned from talking and working with women who had experienced domestic violence proved useful in some cases; it increased credibility with other professionals and the general public. However, as the field developed, more and more practitioners grew to understand the problems and limitations of using BWS; most stopped using the term. During the past 15 years, numerous articles and books have been published discussing the limitation of BWS (Ferraro, 2003; Ferraro, 2006; McMahon, 1999; Schuller, Wells, Rzepa, & Klippenstine, 2004; Stark, 2007; USDOJ/DHHS, 1996). Instead, today many practitioners use the term “battering and its effects” to describe the experiences of women exposed to domestic violence (Osthoff & Maguigan, 2005). Even so, it is important to note that some experts and attorneys continue to utilize the term BWS in their work.  

Use of BWS in Expert Testimony

Expert testimony about battering and its effects has been introduced in a wide range of criminal and civil cases. Most typically, it has been introduced by the defense in cases involving women who are criminally charged, especially women who have killed their abusers. It can also be offered by the prosecution in criminal cases, usually to explain why the survivor of a crime has recanted or is unwilling to participate in the prosecution, or to explain other behaviors that might be difficult for jurors to understand without the aid of expert testimony (e.g., why don't the survivors leave, why would a survivor return to an abuser, why did the survivor act emotionally unaffected right after a shooting). Expert testimony about battering and its effects has also been introduced in civil matters, such as child custody cases, marital dissolution, tort, or personal injury cases. Here we will focus more heavily on the use of the testimony in criminal cases, and more specifically in self-defense cases, although many of the issues described here are also applicable to other uses of expert testimony.

It is in the legal (rather than clinical) arena that BWS continues to be most firmly embedded and to receive the most attention. Indeed, the term BWS appears in some state statutes, as well as in numerous legal decisions. Even today, it is not uncommon to hear about cases that involve expert testimony on BWS. Notwithstanding widespread misconception, BWS is not a legal defense. Regrettably, even to this day, many myths persist about a specialized legal defense using the BWS. Osthoff and Maguigan (2005) outline five basic misconceptions related to the legal defense of women exposed to domestic violence. The most central misconception is that defendants who have been battered invoke a separate “battered syndrome defense.” There is no special “battered women's defense” or “battered woman syndrome defense” (Maguigin, 1991; USDOJ/DHHS, 1996). Other important misconceptions are that expert testimony is only about BWS and that it is based on an analysis of the victimization dynamic only, excluding information about women's strengths, including responsibility (e.g., taking care of her children, providing economic resources to her family), agency (e.g., making decisions intended to protect herself and her children from violence and abuse), and capacity (e.g., competence to act independently and endurance to continue functioning in the face of great adversity).    

Both expert and lay testimony about battering and the effects of battering may be useful in support of (but not to replace) already existing legal defenses, such as self-defense or duress when the defendant in a criminal case is a women who has experienced domestic violence. Also, it may be offered to explain the defendant's behavior to support a different criminal defense or defense theory other than self-defense or duress and/or to negate the specific intent element of a crime.  

In criminal cases involving a woman who has experienced domestic violence as the defendant, it is necessary for jurors to understand why the defendant did what she did. The context of her behaviors – including her motivation – is essential for determining the ultimate issues in a criminal case. For example, a homicide can be ruled as murder if judged to be premeditated “cold-blooded” intent to kill, or it can be ruled as justifiable if understood as an act of self-defense from a “reasonable” perception of danger. When the defendant is a woman who has been battered, what she did (and in some cases, did not do) is not always understandable to the lay individuals on the jury. Judges and jurors can hold myths and misconceptions, which may result from their limited experiences with women who have been battered, and bring these misunderstandings and biases to the bench or jury box. Without information to better understand the defendant's experiences and behaviors, judges and jurors often inaccurately evaluate and unfairly judge the defendant. For example, they may not understand why the defendant did not “simply” leave the batterer, assuming that leaving would have made the woman safe. As a result, they may blame the woman for the abuse she experiences. They may believe that unless the defendant had previously reported the abuse, she is not to be believed when she later asserts self-defense against an abusive partner. It is essential that judges and jurors have the information necessary to fairly understand a defendant's situation, especially when jurors are asked to put themselves “in the defendant's shoes.”  

Thus, expert testimony can be useful to aid the factfinder in determining the “ultimate issue” (e.g., in a self-defense case, reasonable perception of immediate danger), as well as to educate the factfinder about common myths and misconceptions (Maguigin, 1991) . Expert testimony may cover a wide range of topics, such as domestic violence and abuse, characteristics of abusers, the emotional and physical effects of violence and abuse on women and children exposed to domestic violence, women's efforts to protection herself and her children, women's use of strategies to cope with domestic violence, including the use and responsiveness of community resources, the impact of domestic violence on economic stability, employment, and social and family relationships and the influence of contextual factors (e.g., race and ethnicity, economic status, prior trauma history, alcohol and substance abuse, physical and mental health status) on battering and the effects of battering.  

What is Wrong with Battered Woman Syndrome?

Even though expert witness testimony can be useful in cases involving domestic violence, there are serious limitations of using BWS as the framework for this work. Where expert testimony is used to explain an individual's state of mind or behavior, to support a particular defense, or to bolster credibility (when allowed) in situations that might otherwise seem unreasonable or unlikely (Parish, 1996) , a packaged “syndrome” can be convenient and have the perceived legitimacy of a “diagnosis” (Schuller & Hastings, 1996). A number of factors, however, make this package particularly problematic. The most fundamental of these concerns is the lack of relevance of BWS to the issues before the court. A second concern is the lack of a standard and validated definition of BWS with which to guide experts' use in evaluation and testimony. Third, BWS does not adequately incorporate the vast scientific literature on victims' response to battering. Finally, BWS suggests a pathology that can stigmatize the defendant unnecessarily and inaccurately.  

BWS may not be relevant to the issues before the criminal court.

An initial limitation of BWS testimony is that it may not be relevant to the specific issues before the court in a particular case; that is, PTSD (whether referred to as BWS or not) simply may not be relevant for those issues which require explanation by the expert witness.

For example, BWS may not be helpful for explaining why a woman returns to an abuser after separating or fails to call police. She may be reluctant to tell others about the abuse. Expert witness testimony may be needed to challenge mischaracterizations when a woman is well-educated, has access to economic resources, or has specialized training (e.g., police officer) since a judge or jury often does not understand how such a woman could not simply leave or protect herself against an abusive partner. BWS is not particularly relevant for these issues. A woman who appears unemotional right after or right before shooting her abusive husband may be thought merely to have killed in “cold blood.” PTSD may be relevant here, but dissociation as a part of acute stress disorder may be even more accurate. Certain experiences that an abused woman may have had (e.g., substance abuse history, prostitution, criminal history) can easily lend themselves to victim blaming. Expert witness testimony may be required to understand how these experiences do not necessarily negate the reality that the woman may have been abused by her partner, or that she perceived her partner's behavior as an imminent threat to her safety. These particular experiences may make it even more difficult for a woman who is being abused to seek help and effectively protect herself and her children from abuse. Typically, BWS is not adequate or perhaps even relevant to these issues.

According to Federal Rule 702, "If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise" (Federal Rule of Evidence, 2009). There is a great deal of scientific literature that can be brought to bear and is potentially helpful to understand the evidence and to determine facts in issue in domestic violence cases. However, BWS is simply insufficient to this task.

First and foremost, an expert witness needs to know the relevant questions for which expert testimony is needed. Too often an attorney will begin with one question: “Does she have BWS?” without considering the particular relevance of this question to the defense theory or considering how the defendant's particular abusive history is specifically relevant to her conduct. The goal of the expert testimony in most cases is not to “prove” that the defendant has been battered. Rather an expert can help the jury understand better the defendant's experience of abuse and why those experiences are legally relevant. For example, in self-defense cases, perhaps the most relevant question is, "What factors would inform the court to better evaluate the defendant's assertion that she was in immediate danger?" When the expert focuses his or her evaluation on this question, the result is an analysis of those factors that support or fail to support the reasonableness of the defendant's perception of immediate danger, given the circumstances. CEU

Since the expert cannot testify to the ultimate issue, the expert offers to the court an analysis that allows the trier of fact to make a more informed decision about these “ultimate” issues. BWS is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain the defendants' perception of immediate danger. Relying on BWS as the primary explanation for the defendant's perception of danger offers the untenable formulation that only when the defendant has a clinical diagnosis of PTSD is her perception of danger reasonable. BWS is simply not a sufficient explanation for this central question or most other questions typically posed to the expert witness in criminal cases involving a woman who has experienced domestic violence

BWS lacks a standard definition and evidence of scientific validity.

BWS – even as currently conceptualized – lacks both a standard definition and evidence of scientific validity for many of the purposes for which it is used. As stated, BWS is not recognized in the DSM-IV-TR. Although the International Classification of Diseases, 10th Version (ICD-10; World Health Organization, 1993), classifies “battered spouse syndrome” and “effects of abuse of an adult” as maltreatment syndromes, these do little to clarify the definition for use in legal matters. Although numerous articles have been written about BWS, few include validation through empirical research. The term BWS does appear in several state laws, but its definition is not consistent from state to state when a definition is actually included in the language of the statute, which often it is not.

If it is argued that BWS is really just PTSD, then BWS is entirely redundant and there is no need for a separate term. Clear and well-validated criteria for a PTSD diagnosis exist. Expert testimony relying primarily on PTSD can – and is – used by expert witnesses in court. However, it is only appropriate to do so when PTSD is relevant for explaining a particular issue before the court that might not otherwise be well understood by the jury or judge. PTSD might well explain important issues before the court in some cases. An example is when a woman's perception of danger is explained by an intrusive recollection or subjective experience of “reliving” prior domestic violence that may be “triggered” by events leading to the criminal act (e.g., shooting). In this example, the focus is on the woman's internal psychological state (e.g., PTSD), not on external events to explain the perception of threat posed by the abuser's behavior. While this explanation “fits” some battered women who might – due to PTSD – experience objectively nonthreatening events as threatening and might respond in self-defense, it fails to account for many women's accurate understanding of unique danger cues learned over repeated incidents of violence and abuse from their abusive partners.

Indeed, there is a large scientific literature pertaining to PTSD, including empirical research, theoretical and conceptual articles, and clinical case studies. And, a significant portion of this research includes victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as other types of traumatic events, such as child abuse, vehicle accidents, terrorism, and combat. At this point in time, the scientific community does not distinguish PTSD arising from one type of trauma vs. another. When the diagnostic criteria are met, a PTSD diagnosis is appropriate regardless of trauma type. However, clear scientific evidence for PTSD does not translate to support of the construct of BWS. There is no “type” of PTSD called BWS.  

The inclusion of associated features in Walker's 2006 revised definition of BWS further contributes to the lack of standardization in its definition. The reliability of several of the measurement scales used in Walker's study (2006) to “operationalize” BWS using these additional indicators of BWS is unacceptably low. Further, no threshold level of these additional criteria for defining BWS was described. For example, how much or what kind of body image distortion is required to meet criterion for BWS? Does sexual dissatisfaction refer to an abusive partner or someone else and how much dissatisfaction is required to be considered BWS? Again, how much loss of the perception of power and control is necessary? Regrettably, Walker's newer definition has clouded the criteria for assessing BWS even more than had previously been the case. Perhaps more importantly, these issues really have little relevance for many issues raised in criminal cases?

Without standard and validated criteria, we do not have a way to determine with reliability who meets criteria for BWS and who does not. This is a problem in the legal context because, without a scientifically accepted definition or standard criteria, the use of BWS can fail to meet basic standards of scientific reliability and, therefore, may be inadmissible as expert testimony in court under the scientific reliability prong according to Daubert v. Merrl Dow Pharmaceuticals (1993). In sum, because it is not clear what is meant when we say BWS and because we do not have a clear way of measuring the condition, BWS is not even a good shorthand term for explaining the experience of women who have been abused by their intimate partners. Thus, the lack of a clear definition of BWS makes it difficult for jurors and judges, attorneys, parties to a legal case and the lay public, to understand even what is being referred to when the term BWS is used.

BWS does not adequately incorporate current research.

The state of knowledge concerning battering and its effects has increased dramatically in the past three decades since BWS was first introduced. Simply, scientific knowledge continues to expand on an ongoing basis as new research is completed. A qualified expert witness is compelled to rely on the most rigorous available scientific evidence that is pertinent to an evaluation of a defendant and providing expert testimony.

When an expert witness is called to testify in a legal matter involving battering and its effects, he or she is required to have command of the current scientific literature as the foundation for sound theoretically- and empirically-based testimony. It is clear from the current scientific literature what advocates have known, which is that no single profile adequately characterizes women's experiences following domestic violence. BWS is often used to describe victims as if they all experience similar effects from having been exposed to battering and all respond in the same way. For example, we know that patterns of violence and abuse vary across women, as does their desire to remain in relationships, the extent to which they stay or leave (Bell, Goodman, & Dutton, 2007) , and the extent of traumatic effects (Dutton et al., 2005) . BWS is often used as if it were a standard against which to determine whether a particular woman is justified in her actions against an abusive partner, is credible as a woman claiming to have experienced domestic violence, or deserves consideration in some other way. While we know that there is a range of common reactions to being battered by an intimate partner (Dutton, Hohnecker, Halle, & Burghardt, 1994) , how an individual woman experiences or reacts to being battered will vary depending on her psychological, social, cognitive and practical circumstances. Given this reality, it is not appropriate to describe “the profile of a battered woman” or to describe the effects of battering as a “syndrome.”

The expert witness must rely on the continually expanding body of existing scientific literature to develop a formulation in each case about factors that address pertinent questions posed to the expert. This body of scientific knowledge, which provides relevant information for the issues before the court, is extensive. A few of these research areas include primary stress appraisal (“How do victims evaluate the seriousness of actual and threatened violence and abuse?”), secondary stress appraisal (“What options do abused victims perceive that they have to deal with violence and abuse?”), coping (“What do victims actually do to deal with violence and abuse?”, “Why don't victims leave or do other things that some others might expect?”), traumatic stress reactions (“What are the traumatic and related mental health effects of being exposed to violence and abuse?”), and social and cultural context (“How does having children, poverty, gender, racism, immigration status, heterosexism, and other social and cultural factors influence a victim's experience of violence?” “How do these factors influence the way in which she responds to it?”). Notably, there is very little empirical research on BWS per se.

A full discussion of alternatives to BWS as a framework for expert testimony in cases involving battering is beyond the scope of this paper. Briefly, these include expert testimony referred to as “social agency” (Schuller et al., 2004; Schuller & Hastings, 1996) or social framework (Monahan & Walker, 1988) testimony, both of which are available generally to criminal defendants and are not specific to the defense of victims of domestic violence. Another option is simply referring to the testimony as about “battering and its effects” (Osthoff & Maguigan, 2005; USDOJ/DHHS, 1996). These three approaches all refer to the idea that the issues presented to the expert can be explained in terms of the context in which victims experience violence and abuse – relying on the available scientific literature and the expert's experience to inform that testimony.  

BWS can be stigmatizing.

For whom is BWS intended to explain experience and behavior? The answer is not clear. BWS is sometimes used as if to describe the experiences of all women who have experienced domestic violence. At other times, it is used to describe a stereotypic image of the so-called “good” or “sympathetic battered woman.” The “image” of a woman who has experienced domestic violence is often clouded by stereotypes based on race, culture, ethnicity, social and economic class, and sexual orientation.  

BWS often evokes the image of a woman who ends up “snapping” and killing her abusive partner. BWS often creates a stigmatizing image of pathology, which may affect the decision-making of judge, jury, clinician, and/or researcher (Schuller et al., 2004). Interestingly, some research using simulated jurors found that testimony utilizing BWS and PTSD in combination was associated with jurors' opinions focusing on the women's deficits, a pathological view of the hypothetical defendant, even more than BWS alone (Terrance & Matheson, 2003) . Although BWS is intended to explain the experience of women who have been abused, the use of “syndrome” language defined essentially as a mental disorder (PTSD) helps to create an image of pathology. Ironically, a woman with PTSD may also reasonably perceive immediate danger, but not because of PTSD. Nevertheless, the image of PTSD or BWS runs counter to the self-defense argument that the defendant's perception of immediate danger was reasonable for someone in her circumstances and therefore that her actions were justifiable under the law. It is difficult to argue that a defendant who is viewed as “flawed,” “damaged,” “disordered” or “abnormal” by virtue of a mental health diagnosis (PTSD) should be justified in her actions based on the reasonableness of her perceptions. Her perceptions – and even her actions – may be understandable, given her history of domestic violence and its impact on her (e.g., PTSD). However, this argument is likely to be insufficient for a straightforward self-defense claim2.

Expert testimony to explain a victim's experience and behavior must also rely on information about non-psychological effects of battering, including disruption of a woman's economic stability and employment, impairment in physical health, and alterations in her view of the world and others in such a way as to influence her trust of others and sense of safety in day-to-day life. Women can feel trapped in an abusive relationship because of the very real threat of further violence, lack of economic resources, and lack of institutional and social support (Anderson et al., 2003; Fleury, Sullivan, & Bybee, 2000) . In most cases, a woman's behavior is best characterized as logical within the context of her abuser's behavior and functional in its attempt to stop the violence and abuse, not the product of a mental health problem. Although emotional dependence and feelings of hopelessness may keep a woman in a relationship with an abusive partner (Short, McMahon, Chervin, Lezin, Sloop, & Dawkins, 2000), these emotions are not defined as a mental disorder. Even when mental health problems, such as PTSD and depression, result from battering, and influence a woman's decisions or her behavior, they are usually only a part of it. Empirical evidence has found that predictions of risk of future assault by women who have experienced domestic violence are often correct (Bell, Cattaneo, Goodman, & Dutton, 2008; Cattaneo, Bell, Goodman, & Dutton, 2007; Heckert & Gondolf, 2004; Weisz, Tolman, & Saunders, 2000).

If a women's behavior is not understood in the full context of their lives, important decisions in a legal case can be incorrectly influenced by stereotypes or assumptions about how or why women who are battered behave the way that they do. In sum, the concept of BWS does a poor job of describing for the court the range of experiences or behaviors of women exposed to domestic violence. Thus, in the courtroom, the use of BWS by those with scientific knowledge and specialized experience with domestic violence fails to serve those who demand, and deserve, the very best: jurors and judges and, ultimately, women who have endured domestic violence.


The conceptualization of BWS helped the field focus on the fact that battering has adverse effects on those who have been exposed to it. Over three decades later and an accumulation of a wealth of scientific knowledge, BWS is now recognized as a flawed model (Rothenberg, 2002, 2003), even as a shorthand reference. Its use persists, in part, because it conveniently packages in a single phrase a far more complex issue. Indeed, we need to understand the unique experiences of each defendant informed by the large and continually growing body of scientific literature that is pertinent for understanding an individual's experience and reaction to having been exposed to domestic violence. This information can be invaluable in support of expert testimony for explaining the state of mind and behavior of a woman who has experienced domestic violence and who has been charged with criminal conduct that was influenced by her history of violence and abuse.

Author of this document:

Mary Ann Dutton, Ph.D.
Professor and Associate Director
Center for Trauma and the Community
Department of Psychiatry
Georgetown University Medical Center


Sue Osthoff and Melissa Dichter
National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women
Philadelphia, PA


1 Emotional numbing and behavioral avoidance symptoms are combined in a single symptom cluster in the DSM-IV-TR diagnostic criteria.

2 In some states, this situation may give rise to an “imperfect self-defense,” but this option varies across jurisdictions.


Citation: Dutton, M. A. (2009, August). Update of the "Battered Woman Syndrome" Critique. Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Retrieved month/day/year, from:



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