Domestic and Sexual Violence Through the Lens of Criminology

Sakhi supporter Darakshan Raja reports on the annual American Society of Criminology Conference

The American Society of Criminology held its annual conference in San Francisco this November.  Researchers, professionals and students interested in criminology gather every year to exchange ideas, share research findings and propose solutions to some of society’s worst problems. This five-day conference covers topics such as violence against women, incarceration, poverty and crime, terrorism, promising practices for law enforcement, and courts. Several panels focused on research and findings on the issues concerning violence against women.

Among the most intriguing research included a study called “Evaluating Guilt in a Case of Duress: Defendant Gender, Sexual Orientation, and the Battered Women’s Syndrome” by Brenda L. Russell, Laurie Ragatz, and Shane W. Kraus.

The study focused on the impact of what Dr. Lenore Walker has defined  as Battered Women’s Syndrome (BWS) on domestic violence victims within the legal system. BWS as a concept was hailed as a victory by some for capturing the physical and emotional impact of suffering from domestic violence.  According to Dr. Walker, a woman must experience at least two complete battering cycles before she can be labeled a “battered woman”. The cycle has three distinct phases. First is the tension-building phase, followed by the explosion or acute battering incident, culminating in a calm, loving respite – often referred to as the honeymoon phase.*  The syndrome has a set criterion and is similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) except that it is specifically tailored towards victims of domestic violence.

The study found that the standards BWS sets in place for defining who is a battered woman is inherently problematic and hurts rather than helps survivors of domestic violence within the legal system. Based on BWS definitions, judges and jurors look for the “ideal” domestic violence victim.

Any survivor and domestic violence advocate will argue that such standards do not allow for proper and nuanced assessment and detection of domestic violence.  Many of the women who come to Sakhi for help risk being excluded in such a framework as BWS does not make room for women who face coercion in an abusive relationship or those who undergo physical and psychological violence within an extended family.  Everyday Sakhi sees women who are abused by in-laws while their husbands watch in silence.

Another powerful study by Lesley McMillan described at the ASC conference entitled  “What Factors Influence High Attrition Rates, and Low Conviction Rates, in Reported Rape Cases?” investigated the causes of low prosecution rates for sexual assault cases. The most unique aspect of this study was its inquiry into the criminal justice process to detect the causes of low-prosecution rates. This study indicates that a large number sexual assault cases were decided upon as court-worthy or not in the initial stage of reporting.  Which cases were chosen for follow-up on depended largely on the decisions made by law enforcement officials- despite protocol that gives that power to prosecutors. The study also found that cases that have advocates tend to get processed better and faster, highlighting the incredible value of direct services and advocacy professionals.

While the conference researchers delved into important topics with unique research methods, there were gaps in the data presented. The lived experience of sexual assault and domestic violence cannot be fully contained in a particular sample size or a particular test group. For this reason, it is vital for researchers to gather the opinions and insights of the people who work directly with survivors and advocate on their behalf. The perspectives of direct care professionals add the nuances and details that tend to get weeded out in the clinical nature of a scientific study.

As these panels came to a close, the resounding thought among all participants was that more research is needed on violence against women and the way this sensitive topic is dealt with in the criminal justice system. There is much to be done.

*Walker, L., The Battered Woman (1979).

Darakshan Raja is a human rights activist and recent recipient of the North Central Bronx Hospital’s Volunteer Network Adult Honoree Award for her work as an advocate on the Sexual Assault Response Team. Currently Darakshan works as a Research Associate at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, an organization that conducts research to improve justice and public safety policies and fosters sound public policy in the United States. When she is not activisting she loves to spend time with family, travel, and watch Bollywood movies.

Editors Note: This report is of particular interest to Sakhi as it informs our ongoing research towards the creation of a Restorative Justice Program- an approach to justice that balances the needs of victims and the rights of offenders and the rehabilitation of all parties.