Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Glamour" has it wrong; to tackle relationship violence, one must take agency as a victim (and no, the two terms are not mutually exclusive).

A 2008 neighborhood sign reads "North Hampton is a Domestic Violence-Free Zone." Carisa Showden points out that in situations of relationship violence, agency must be shared with concerned others. Image from Creative Commons.

Assistant professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

In its May 2011 issue, Glamour magazine ran the article “Relationship Violence: The Secret that Kills 4 Women a Day.” The article combined well-sourced, hard-hitting statistics with stories from many young women who had experienced often quite serious relationship violence, or from family members and friends of women who were killed by husbands or boyfriends. I do commend Glamour for running no-nonsense stories on important issues like this that affect its readers, and I don’t mean to criticize necessarily for how this reporter framed the article. At the same time, I think the way the magazine phrased questions delving into this story is telling, and is representative of a sort of “mainstream” view of the problem of domestic violence in 21st America.

After leading with some heart-wrenching (and all-too-common) accounts of the nature of domestic violence against women, Glamour asks:

“Why is this still happening in 2011? After all, as women, we’re clearly no longer second-class citizens, so dependent on men’s earnings and support that we must put up with brutal relationships simply because we have no choices. We have more choices than ever—and men are surely more enlightened. So why are women more likely to be killed by their boyfriend than they were 35 years ago? And what can we do to reverse the trend?”

The class and race biases embedded in these questions may simply be indicative of Glamour’s target readership, but they are also emblematic of the common understanding of what women’s choices look like in situations of intimate partner violence. What the article misses in framing the question in this way is that while some women indisputably do have more options—and more to the point, more good options—than they did forty or fifty years ago, not all women do. To have “good choices” available, material resources have to be more widely distributed, gender norms (what we might in our philosophical language call “discursive resources”) have to change, and laws and public policies have to support an array of ways that women and men deal with ending abuse. So women have “more choices than ever” only to the degree that they have increased access to healthcare, good jobs, day care, supportive friends and family networks, full citizenship status, mobility, access to legal interventions that enable them to negotiate effectively with their partners when needed, and a strong enough sense of self to buck gender norms about responsibility for the maintenance of relationships and being a good partner. Not all women have most of these resources.

Framing aside, Glamour also asks readers to confront an age-old question: Why do women stay? As the article points out:
Perhaps most surprising, some researchers believe that because young women today feel invulnerable in relationships, they may actually try to tough it out themselves rather than ask for help when things turn bad. “We’ve grown up in a different generation, where women are leaders, we have careers, children—we break glass ceilings,” one 24-year-old student tells Glamour … In other words, it’s hard for young women to see themselves as victims at the hands of a man.

That is, women, especially young women, have grown up with the expectation that they have agency. Being an “agent” means being able to assess your situation and wrest some control from it. In our popular definitions of “victim” there’s no room for the idea of “agency;” “victims” don’t have control. But that definition is wrong and dangerous. It’s often only through seeing oneself as being a victim that one can get to the point of realizing the situation needs to change and making the plans necessary to enact those changes. This is what I call “the agency in ‘victim’.” Victim and agent are not mutually exclusive categories; they are co-implicated. Being willing to say you are a victim is one of the first steps in saying that the abuse you are suffering is wrong, not your fault, and has to change. Evaluating what it takes to change that situation is the next step. And here, the Glamour article is spot-on: it makes its main point an important and powerful one: “tell somebody.”

Talking with concerned others is essential to agency; because agency, in addition to all of the personal and individual things that it is, is shared. Our capacities for acting in our own best interests are developed by and enhanced through the conversations we have with others and the intellectual, moral, emotional and material resources we devise in our actions with others. Family, friends, co-workers, even by-standers can provide outside narratives that we can use to evaluate our own sense of ourselves and our evaluations of our situations. It is, finally, in this process of evaluating and reevaluating who we are and how we are living our lives that we become agents in the fullest sense of the word. We become competent criticizers of the gender norms we’ve internalized and our sense of the limits placed on us by the gender, race, and national narratives through which we’ve developed a sense of ourselves and our capacities.

And at the end of the day, while it is essential to get abused women help, to get them talking to concerned others, and to provide safe havens, until our first gut-reaction question is “why does he hit her?” rather than “why doesn’t she leave?,” we will not be at a point where gender norms have altered deeply and significantly enough for us as a society really and truly to tackle intimate partner violence.


Carisa R. Showden is assistant professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of Choices Women Make: Agency in Domestic Violence, Assisted Reproduction, and Sex Work.

"Choices Women Make is one of the best treatments of agency and its relation to women and feminism that I have seen. It is a superb book."
—Kathryn Abrams, University of California, Berkeley

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