From a sociological feminist perspective, a battering relationship is one of captivity, and battered women are survivors of terror. Battering is an obsessive campaign of coercion and intimidation designed by a man to dominate and control a woman, which occurs in the personal context of intimacy and thrives in the sociopolitical climate of patriarchy. For the woman it is a terrifying process of progressive entrapment into an intimate relationship of subjection that is promoted and preserved by a social order steeped in gender hierarchy— a social order in which mainstream ideology and social institutions and organizations, including the criminal justice system, the church, social service and medical institutions, the family, and the community, recognize male privilege and accordingly relegate a secondary status to women.
Sometimes physical violence is incorporated into the battering agenda. When less risky intimidation strategies such as yelling, threatening, stalking, and harming the family pet fail, a man may have to resort to assaulting his mate—with all implied potential for serious injury or even death—in order to maintain control over her. In the face of defiance or even simple resistance on the part of the woman, or perhaps because he for some reason independent of the woman’s behavior perceives a threat to his control, he may feel forced to appeal to her most basic need for physical safety. That is what battering is all about: a man using male privilege derived from a patriarchal social structure to coerce a woman, sometimes through fear for her very life, into an exploitive intimate relationship that holds her hostage and in servitude to his personal needs and desires. With the weight of society behind him, a man is able to gain deference, and all that goes with it, from a woman.
Men are able to intimidate and coerce women to their benefit because society favors men and thwarts women at every turn (Acker 1989; Lorber 1994: 298). It orchestrates women’s emotional and economic dependence on men. Girls are taught to believe that in order to be whole they must please and be desired by men. The socialization of women emphasizes the primary value of being a good wife and mother at the expense of personal achievement and satisfaction in other realms of life. It is no surprise, then, that United States women who are employed full-time earn, on average, about 75 percent of the amount earned by their male counterparts. Indeed, women are programmed to willfully play into a social order that minimizes their value and sense of self-worth and oppresses them.
Battering takes two: a man and a patriarchy. Battering is comprehensive in that it includes both interpersonal and societal forms of gendered abuse. It represents the convergence of one man (the batterer), obsessed with controlling a particular woman and willing to abuse her to gain and maintain that control, with a social order that delivers that woman to him and helps hold her there as hostage. Patriarchal culture creates a generalized climate of risk in which all men are allowed to, and particular men will, batter women. Battered women, then, constitute one of the numerous categories of women (including victims of stalking, sexual harassment, incest, and rape) who fall prey to men’s individual as well as collective oppression.
Using this sociological definition of battering, there can be no battered men: Men can be treated unfairly and even severely abused by women, but they cannot be battered, because to be battered requires a social order antagonistic to one’s gender. To be battered means to be blocked by the gendered nature of society from escaping an abuser. Simplistically stated, men cannot be battered because they can leave their abusers. In a patriarchal society, a woman cannot hold a man captive through conventional dynamics of romantic intimacy. Hypothetically, men could be battered, but only in a matriarchal society—if one were to exist. In the meantime, one can only imagine such a state of affairs the likes of which is depicted by Gerd Brantenberg (1985) in her fictional account of a fishing village named Egalia. The ideal, of course, would be an equalitarian society, where no one could be battered.
From the perspective offered here, battered women can be viewed as political prisoners because their captivity is a political act or process in that it operates as both a manifestation and a reinforcement of social-structured power imbalance. With the more conventional forms of politically based hostage-taking, where operatives of terrorist governments or special interest groups overpower military or civilian personnel, the power imbalance is one between governments and/or special interest groups, whereas with battering, the power imbalance is sourced in gender inequality.
This interpretation of battered women as hostages and survivors of terror has occupied a niche in feminist scholarship since the emergence of the neo-feminist movement in the 1970s. One path has been to explore battered women’s psychological processes as explanations for their captivity. Some neo-feminist writings rejected traditional psychological theories that suggested that battered women love and remain with their abusers because of female masochism, in favor of an alternate interpretation attributing such behavior to the woman’s psychological response to power imbalance. These feminist scholars explained the battered woman experience as an example of the Stockholm Syndrome, which is a framework developed to account for the paradoxical psychological responses of hostages to their captors (Dutton and Painter 1981; Finkelhor and Yllo 1985; Hilberman 1980). With the discovery of the Stockholm Syndrome and its eventual application to the understanding of woman abuse in the context of intimacy, one psychological theory was replaced with another. And in that sense, the woman continued to be blamed for her victimization.
The Stockholm Syndrome is a survival strategy observed among a variety of captives in hostage-taking situations, including concentration camp prisoners, cult members, prisoners of war, and physically and/or emotionally abused children. It is characterized by a relationship of solidarity initiated by the captive with his or her captor perhaps in a subconscious attempt to gain the captor’s sympathy and leniency. The syndrome is named after the 1973 robbery of the Kreditbanken at Norrmalmstorg, Stockholm, Sweden, in which four bank employees were held hostage for six days by two men. During that time, the hostages and their captors bonded bidirectionally. After six days of being bound with dynamite and being generally mistreated, several hostages actually resisted rescue attempts, believing that their captors were protecting them from the police. Afterward, they refused to testify against their captors. Following the release of the hostages, one of the women became engaged to one of the captors, and another hostage initiated a ‘‘defense fund’’ for the legal expenses of the captors.
Four conditions give rise to the Stockholm Syndrome: (1) perceived threat to one’s physical or psychological survival and the belief that the captor(s) will carry out the threat, (2) perceived small kindnesses from the captor(s) to the captive(s) (allowing the captive to live is enough), (3) isolation from perspectives other than those of captor(s), and (4) perceived inability to escape. The Stockholm Syndrome model predicts that when hostages are faced with these four conditions, they may forge a strong emotional bond with their captor(s) as well as an antipathy toward authorities working for their release. They will claim to love their captor( s) for their show of kindness during captivity. For example, the kidnapped hitchhiker Colleen Stan, who was held captive and tortured by Cameron Hooker for seven years, some of those years closed up in a wooden box, justified her love for Cameron with stories of his kindnesses, including his once bringing her an extra plate of pancakes. How wonderful he was for that kindness, she thought. After all, he could have killed her, but instead he gave her an extra plate of food (McGuire and Norton 1988).
It is the contention of this author that all battered women are hostages, but that not all battered women have fallen prey to the Stockholm Syndrome. Every battered woman, according to the definition offered here, is held captive by a man who chooses to use his male privilege derived from a patriarchal society to hold her in servitude. A woman’s psychological processes, including those designated as Stockholm Syndrome, can fortify her social-structural captivity. Essentially it is the gendered nature of society that holds her captive, but that captivity can be reinforced by psychological processes.
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- Dutton, Don, and Susan Lee Painter. ‘‘Traumatic Bonding: The Development of Emotional Attachments in Battered Women and Other Relationships of Intermittent Abuse.’’ Victimology 6, nos. 1–4 (1981).
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- Lorber, Judith. Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.
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