In the 1970s, “battered woman syndrome” began being used as a legal defense to explain the mental state of women who kill their abusers. Coined by psychologist Lenore Walker, she proposed the term to describe the psychological condition of women who endured repeated traumas at the hands of an intimate partner, including the coping or survival skills a victim would develop over time to live with abuse.
The defense was famously used in the Lorena Bobbitt trial in the early ‘90s after Bobbitt castrated her abusive husband. Bobbitt was acquitted. In 2011, Barbara Sheehan killed her husband, claiming he severely abused her throughout their marriage. She, too, was acquitted after a battered-woman defense was used.
While it can be used in a victim’s favor, advocates and experts would also attest that battered woman syndrome comes with its pitfalls, as assigning victims a syndrome means that they can be pathologized, taking the focus off of the abuser and their choice to abuse, and putting a spotlight instead on a victim that supposedly just needs psychological treatment.
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You’re Not Crazy, You’re Traumatized
Currently, battered woman syndrome is listed as a subcategory under post-traumatic stress disorder in the DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association’s manual for diagnosing mental disorders, a more gender-neutral, non-blaming term that many advocates say they prefer. While battered woman syndrome may still be diagnosed, it’s more often than not called PTSD.
The symptoms of PTSD can include:
- Intrusive memories of the abuse
- Loss of interest in other people and the outside world
- Outbursts of anger
- Panic attacks
- Overwhelming feelings of sadness, fear, despair, guilt or self-hatred
- Physical pain that migrates throughout the body
- An inability to imagine a positive future
But Does It Make Victims Kill?
Research has shown that battered woman syndrome or PTSD can lead to serious health issues including dissociative states and violent outbursts toward the abuser, which may explain why some abuser survivors are pushed to a point where they’re forced to fight back. And sometimes, fighting back can turn lethal.
The fact of the matter is that, traumatized or not, victims of abuse are allowed to defend themselves. There shouldn’t need to be a mental diagnosis of Battered Woman Syndrome or PTSD to explain why a victim no longer wants to be abused.
To learn basic self-defense tactics, read ...
Police often determine a primary aggressor when called to a domestic violence situation. It’s important for survivors to try and stay as calm as possible when answering police questions and make sure to talk to officers away from the abuser. If a survivor finds themselves arrested, this article, “I Got Arrested, Too. Now What?” explains what may happen next.
Unfortunately, when self-defense reaches a lethal level, women will often receive longer prison sentences for killing an abuser than abusers will serve if they kill their victim. Advocates argue that the legal system typically utilizes a male-centered definition of self-defense in court. Self-defense is thought to be justified after an abuser attacks a victim. But for a female victim living with an abuser, she is often able to predict an attack is imminent, allowing her defend herself before being harmed. Some victims of domestic violence have killed their abuser in these situations, but courts don’t often side with survivors in these instances, claiming keeping herself and her children safe is not self-defense.
Victims Are Not Helpless
Walker had originally proposed victims of abuse developed a “learned helplessness” to an abuser—being abused over an extended period of time stripped them of the will to live and, in turn, prevented them from getting away from an abuser. Yet, we also know this isn’t true. Victims try to leave abusers all the time—many statistics will cite victims try to leave seven times, on average, before staying away for good, though this is hard to prove unequivocally.
A survey on DomesticShelters.org showed survivors weren’t able to leave abusers most often because of threats from the abuser, followed up by fear of retaliation or risk of losing custody of children. To leave an abuser safely, consider creating a safety plan with a trained domestic violence advocate near you. And be prepared for anything: Read “When an Abuser Tries to Block Your Separation” for more information.
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Battered woman syndrome theorized that victims of abuse were not mentally sound enough to make rational decisions, including leaving an abuser before violence escalated. But we know now that victims don’t stay with an abusive partner because they have a mental disorder. If they’re unable to leave, there are myriad barriers that may be standing in their way, as stated above. And there are at least 50 such barriers, according to law professor, advocate and survivor Sarah Buel. Among them:
- Fear of retaliation by the abuser
- Lack of financial resources or employment
- Absence of support system or advocate that can help them leave safely
- Fear of losing custody of children
- Isolation from shelters, family or friends
- Disability, undocumented status or other dependence on abuser
- The abuser is in law enforcement
- Promises of change or continued hope for the abuse to end
- Religious beliefs that prevent separation or divorce
- Family pressure to stay
- Shame or embarrassment
More Accountable Language Needed
Describing any victim, woman or man, who has survived an abuser as having “battered woman syndrome” can minimize their experiences, reducing an abuser’s choice to abuse to a list of psychological symptoms. Advocates argue for more accountable language to be used.
Sue Osthoff, director and cofounder of the National Clearinghouse for Defense of Battered Women says they prefer to use “battering and its effects” when discussing the trauma of abuse, “since the consequences [of being abused] are way more than psychological,” she says.
Mo Therese Hannah, Ph.D., chair and co-founder of the Battered Mothers Custody Conference, and professor of psychology at Siena College says she uses “trauma-informed” as the term used to frame experiences like intimate partner abuse.
Trauma and Its Effects
Make no mistake, what an abuser does to a victim is traumatizing, and replacing the term “Battered Woman Syndrome” with “trauma” helps to turn the conversation back onto what happened to the victim, not what the victim did. Trauma can infect all parts of a person’s life, from childhood on. It can affect the ability to hold a job, make friendships, start new relationships or parent. Luckily, there are trauma-informed practices out there that can help survivors through the healing process. Here are a few articles that explain those practices further.
- Trauma-Sensitive Yoga. Classes especially designed with the needs of survivors in mind.
- Trauma-Informed Classrooms. Children who witness violence may thrive in a more nurturing type of classroom.
- How Trauma Rewires the Brain. After trauma, learn how to regulate the overly sensitive fight-or-flight mechanism in your brain.
- 5 Meditations to Try. The practice of meditation has been shown to help reduce the symptoms of PTSD.
We've prepared a toolkit "What Is ‘Battered Woman Syndrome’?" to help you understand even more what BWS is so you can better assess and understand your situation.
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