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Book: ‘Rethinking Domestic Violence’

Filed under: Domestic Violence — JohnPotter @ 11:55 am Sun 27th August 2006

by Donald Dutton, 2006. UBC Press, Canada

‘Rethinking Domestic Violence’ is the third in a series of books by Donald Dutton critically reviewing research in the area of IPV (intimate partner violence).

Book cover: 'Rethinking Domestic Violence' by Donald Dutton

After 20 years of viewing IPV as generated by gender and focusing on a punitive “law and order” approach, Dutton argues that this approach must be more varied and flexible. Treatment providers, criminal justice system personnel, lawyers, and research is have indicated the need for a new view of the problem – one less invested in gender politics and more open to collaborative views and interdisciplinary insights.

Preface xi

[This book] is a modern history of social intervention on a specific problem that shows how such intervention can be misguided by the political conceptualization of the problem. It would be preferable to see policy made by pragmatists and “dust bowl” empiricists who are willing to set and undo policy on the basis of what the data tells them about success and failure, rather than on attempts to prolong an ideological view.

After a thorough review of the history of the spouse assault in chapter 1, Dutton introduces a framework which allows a far more nuanced analysis than the ‘ one-size-fits-all’ feminist approach which proclaims all male violence against women to be an evil symptom of patriarchal society.

Nested Ecological Theory, as described elsewhere, has four levels:

  • Ontogenetic: individual characteristics both inherited and developed during childhood.
  • Microsystem: family unit.
  • Exosystem: social structures both formal and informal that impinge upon the immediate settings e.g. work groups, friendships, peer groups, support groups.
  • Macrosystem refers to broad cultural values and belief systems e.g.: patriarchal beliefs that men should have control over women.

Dutton suggests the addition of an even deeper level which he called “suprasystem”, encompassing fundamental power conflicts between all groups in society. He argues that:

“at this level social disparities in power themselves breed conflict and violence. This occurs regardless of what group is in power. Power, in other words, is unrelated to the characteristics of the group holding power. It is the holding of absolute power that leads humans to act abusively. However, the powerless group will always attribute the abuse to characteristics of the powerful group because that is all they know.

A view short excerpts from the book will make it clear that official domestic violence interventions in New Zealand are far from evidence-based, and unlikely to have any positive impact on the rate of IPV. I have not included any of Dutton’s extensive references – anyone who is serious about being up-to-date with their knowledge in the domestic violence field should own this book.

The Woozle Effect – page 110

Social scientists frequently become aligned with contemporary notions of social justice and attempt to fit their enterprise to the objectives of achieving social change. In so doing, they increase the risk of straying from objective reporting of data. In domestic violence research, the sense that the greater good of women’s rights and the protection of women should prevail over questions of scientific accuracy has directed the investigations, the data reported, and the interpretations of the data. In concert with value-laden theories, the focus of attention on male violence has deflected study and recognition from female violence. In effect, a “paradigm” has developed in the domestic violence literature in which perpetrators are viewed as exclusively or disproportionately male. Any and all data inconsistent with this view are dismissed, ignored, or explained away. In some cases the data are simplified, altered, or distorted to make them more consistent with the theoretical position. Gelles and Straus called this the “woozle effect”.

If you are wondering what a woozle is, read chapter three of ‘Winnie-The-Pooh’, by AA Milne, in which Pooh and Piglet go hunting and nearly catch one!

Risk Factors for Female Violence – page 133 – 134

Girls aggression was associated with a preference for male partners who were also aggressive. As they approached adolescence, these Aggressive girls had elevated rates of smoking, alcohol, and illicit drug use…

The Aggressive group had elevated levels of depression and anxiety disorder by their late teens. When they married, their children had higher health risks, and the Aggressive girls had become Aggressive mothers, exhibiting maternal childhood aggression and having children who had more visits to hospital emergency rooms for treatment of injuries. These risk factors for woman are completely overlooked in the advice given by domestic violence expert to custody evaluators. These experts concentrate solely on male intimate partner violence and warn evaluators of this risk.

Risk Factors for Male Violence – page 182

Despite the lack of evidence for attitudes as risk factors for male abusiveness, attitudes constitute the central focus of the “psycho-educational” [e.g.: Duluth] models of intervention.

Subtypes of Perpetrators – page 185

Studies have found incidence rates of personality disorders to be 80-90 percent in both court referred and self referred life assaulters, compared to estimates in the general population ranging from 15 percent to 20 percent. As the violence becomes more severe and chronic, the likelihood of psychopathology in these men approaches 100 percent.

These men are not mere products of male sex role conditioning or “male privilege”; they possess characteristics that differentiate them from the majority of men who are not repeat abuses.

Attachment Disruption and Trauma – page 226 – 227

In abused boys, another prominent sequela of abuse victimisation is hyperaggression. Carmen, Reiker, and Mills suggested that abused boys are more likely than girls to identify with the original aggressor and eventually perpetrate the abuse on their spouse and children. In the authors’ view, an effect of physical maltreatment by a parent is to exaggerate sex role characteristics, possibly as a means of attempting to strengthen the damaged self. Van der Kolk noted that children who were traumatised had trouble modulating aggression, and he included being physically abused as a child as a trauma source. Schore also noted the traumatic impact of attachment disruption realised through the alteration of right hemispheric functioning. This occurs during the first year when right hemispheric development has a maturational spurt. Hence, abuse stressors during this period can have a long-lasting impact on neural development, especially the parts of the brain that regulate emotion. The right orbitofrontal cortex, which acts as a brake to curb impulsivity, develops rapidly during this time. Moreover, in households where abuse is occurring, the failure of Secure attachment to buffer the child from stress reactions to abuse amplifies trauma.

The Abusive Personality – page 231

The “abusive personality” described is both a product of this early exposure and a constellation of mutually reinforcing beliefs, emotional reactions, and behaviours. Far more occurs in reaction to early exposure to violence than the mere modelling of behaviour as social learning theory suggests. Children who are exposed to ongoing violence also tend to be shamed by parents and to have no secure base. The three exist as a package in dysfunctional abusive families. For these reasons, treatment that fails to address the underpinnings of abusiveness is destined to fail.

Couple Therapy – page 241

As Margolin and Burman point out, “the family therapy movement is grounded on the ideas that clash… particularly with the feminist movement.” After all, there is no point to marital and couple therapy if violence is always male-initiated. But this book has reviewed evidence that male-initiated violence is not the only pattern. As will be seen, individual or group therapy for each member of the couple separately might be effectual, followed by therapy for them as a couple. Couple therapy has been shown effective in altering dysfunctional interaction patterns.

Treatment Policy Issues – page 289 – 291

Maiuro et al. then at the cite the woozle effect as being a risk for limiting treatment practice on the grounds of what’s “known” to work. Maiuro et al. call this “the greatest risk of stunting the development of new or alternative interventions for families afflicted with domestic violence. In this respect more work is needed to assure that the existing guidelines truly protect the well-being of victims without inadvertently impeding much-needed programme development.” Hence, Gelles and Maiuro et al. both warn against political dogmas being translated into both law and “state authorised” therapeutic practice.

Maiuro et al. also reported the alarming fact that of the states surveyed only 20 percent required a college degree for treatment providers and, of those, four-fifths required only “specialised training in domestic violence” (i.e., socialisation into the prevailing paradigm). This reflects, in my view, the anti-professional perspective of feminist activists. Maiuro et al. recognise the nonprofessional attitudes and suggest care must be taken to avoid a state standards committee made up exclusively of activists and treatment providers. They recommend an ethicist to ensure against conflicts of interest, including “secondary gain in the form of training contracts for a particular intervention approach or an agenda to put those competitors out of business who do not adopt a particular philosophy or a specific form of program.” One method to ensure this is to have a rotating multidisciplinary board (including at least one researcher) with re-appointments every two years.

Difficulties of Court-mandated Treatment – page 300

A group frequently sent to court-mandated treatment consists of men with borderline traits. Many men with these traits even self-refer to existing court-mandated groups. In any event, psychological problems will be commonplace in court-mandated treatment, as well a general reluctance to participate.

This combination of problems and reluctance presents the therapist was a difficult situation. Men who have violence problems and are in denial about them are in what Prochaska et al. called the “precontemplation” phase of the change cycle, not yet persuaded or ready to work at changing themselves. To further complicate the problem, many of the men sent to court mandated groups will be partnered with women who are themselves a violent. Yet if they refer to the wife’s violence, they will be deemed as being in denial. Finally, in some systems the man must “confess” to his violence problem in order to fulfil his conditions of probation. This sets up an unproductive conflict between the man and the so-called therapist who is supposed to be helping him. The role of a true therapist, requiring a therapeutic bond and emotional connection, is compromised by system requirements that prevent the formation of that bond.

Problem with the Duluth Model – page 304

In California, the policy gave leeway to therapists to add their methods onto the essential components of the Duluth model: that all abuse was a male-generated need for “power and control.” In other locations service providers became disenchanted with the Duluth program, to the point that, when a recent treatment outcome study sought to compare Duluth with the CBT model, only one “pure” Duluth model could be found. The others had reverted to using cognitive behavioural therapeutic techniques – blended with the Duluth perspectives in order to satisfy state requirements. Dutton argued that the Duluth models had two major flaws that prevented effective treatment: (1) they attempted to shame clients, and (2) by taking a strong adversarial stance to their clients (based on a feminist view that a major issue in domestic violence is male sex role conditioning), they failed to establish a therapeutic bond with their clientele.

Subtypes of Abusers – page 307

Men who are court-mandated for treatment for wife assault come from couples varying in their violence patterns. However, men in mutual-violence couples (the most common form) who are arrested and to report their wives is also being violent are disbelieved in Duluth model groups. Their experience is invalidated and treated as rationalisation and victim-blaming. Furthermore, Duluth models in most locations prohibit therapists from interviewing wives to make assessments of whether violence is reciprocal or unilateral, so the therapists cannot know when their mail clients are excusing their behaviour and when they are reporting truthfully. When a client report victimisation by his partner and it disbelieved or invalidated by his therapist, it only supports the attitude that many victims of child abuse experience – don’t bother telling because no one will believe you anyway. Although, in my view, men would be responsible for their own violence in either case, different treatment strategies might be invoked according to the presence or absence of reciprocal violence.

Duluth model treatment does not assess for and cannot treat personality disturbances (including attachment insecurity), disbelieves clients who claim their partners are also violent, and does not have the flexibility to tailor therapy to the clients.

Treatment outcome studies – page 313

The results of the valuations of the Duluth interventions is therefore clear: there is no treatment success from this approach. Given the theoretical problems with the model described above, this should come as no surprise: it’s hard to imagine a therapeutic case for a positive treatment result in groups where no therapeutic bond is developed.


  1. “A NEW South Wales grandmother who skinned and cooked her de facto husband will plead with a court to overturn her life sentence – because she is a woman.”

    Here is a good example on how women see themselves as not only blameless but also above the law.
    This murdering female, skinned and cooked her de facto husband and tried to feed him o the kids !
    Is blameless.

    “His decapitated head was found in a pot on the stove. The table had been laid for dinner with name cards for Mr Price’s three children and parts of his buttocks cooked and served up with vegetables and gravy on dinner plates.”

    Comment by Stephen — Sun 27th August 2006 @ 12:57 pm

  2. What a terrific book, reads as though very well researched and thoroughluy grounded in ‘evidence based’ rather than ‘value laden’ theory. I hope it is required reading for those who work to treat and prevent domestic violence. The simple clear thinking in statements like

    “treatment that fails to address the underpinnings of abusiveness is destined to fail”


    “The role of a true therapist, requiring a therapeutic bond and emotional connection, is compromised by system requirements that prevent the formation of that bond”

    leaves you hoping that those who treat perpetrators of violence have long ago recognised the common sense of this.

    The book seems an exceelent argument for leaving politics out of such treatment. I don’t know if this is a controversial view amongst “anger management” and “domestic violence” type services and treatment providers, but I don’t understand how it could be.

    Comment by PaulM — Wed 30th August 2006 @ 3:23 pm

  3. am waiting with abited breath on some outcry against this book…

    Comment by starr — Wed 30th August 2006 @ 5:32 pm

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