Intimate partner violence permeates contemporary social landscapes, staying as acute a problem as ever. The enduring interest to – undoubtedly serious – issue manifests through the entire spectrum from political debates to the works of literature, with the latter probably giving even better insight into the matter. Judging on the literary portrayals of intimate partner abuse, its victims are ready to take help even from the eight-legged spider robots as long as they offer protection and retribution.
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Which is precisely the wrong kind of thinking. The main question in combating intimate partner violence is not how to punish the deed. The actual issue is how to prevent it from happening in the first place.
Throughout the centuries of its existence, Western civilization perceived intimate partner violence as an offense. People could view it as an especially abhorrent crime or as something only mandating a mild reprimand. Police officers could ignore the complaints of the abused or prosecute the perpetrators vigorously. Yet the framework remained the same: intimate partner violence was a legal issue, a crime, and, as such, belonged to the realm of policing. If one wanted to curb it, the only relevant question was – how to organize a police force so that it would respond to the challenge better.
In the short story “Spider the Artist,” the author describes a woman’s unhappy life in dystopian Nigeria of the near future. Vegetation is scarce, the population lives in poverty, and the endless pipelines pumping the oil are patrolled by “zombies” –government-designed spider-robots created to prevent harm to the pipes by any means necessary (Okorafor, 2011). Yet for all the futuristic entourage, some of the problems experienced by the main character are remarkably similar to those of today – in particular, she receives regular beatings from her husband (Okorafor, 2011).
However, she forges an unexpected friendship with one of the “zombies,” who eventually saves her from both the abusive husband and the inevitable death when the government forces raided the village (Okorafor, 2011). Thus, even in the fantastic narrative of all-powerful corporations and mechanical spiders, two things remain unchanged: women experience domestic abuse and look to the governmental agents, however unlikely they seem to help, to escape it.
Yet this emphasis on intimate partner violence as a crime to be combated by the police force may be the exact reason why abuse in relationships remains a recurring problem. Its overall rates have indeed decreased in the last decades – but no more so than the rates of violent crimes in general (Catalano, 2015). While the overall violent crime has dropped by 40 percent between 2000 and 2010, intimate partner violence only experienced a decrease of 21 percent (Catalano, 2015). Perhaps it is time to finally admit that the approach to the problem as the criminal one does not lead to the desired result.
In the discussions regarding the issue, we may often hear policymakers referring to intimate partner violence as an epidemic – yet this may be more than just a suitable figure of speech. Recent studies reveal that violence against intimate partners may be an epidemic not only in name but in essence. If so, it is necessary to treat it like any other epidemic and address the root causes of the problem rather than mere symptoms.
More than thirty years of scholarship confirm that excessive alcohol consumption is a causal factor in intimate partner violence (Leonard & Quigley, 2016). Moreover, there are already theoretical and methodological frameworks that allow the researchers to analyze how exactly alcoholism transfers to intimate partner violence (Eckhardt, Parrott, & Sprunger, 2015). The medical rather than purely social nature of intimate partner violence becomes more and more apparent, and society should structure its response accordingly.
One may naturally object that this epidemiologic approach with an emphasis on prevention rather than punishment threatens to undermine the effort on neutralizing existing abusers. Yet the turn from criminal to medical paradigm does not mean neglecting legal penalties – it merely suggests they should not be the primary focus. It has been noted that the victim’s primary reaction to intimate partner abuse is seeking informal support among friends, family, coworkers, or neighbors, and such support correlates with better mental health (Sylaska & Edwards 2013). The victims have always understood what science has only established in the last decades: when it comes to intimate partner violence, health comes first and retribution – second.
As long as we hope that the distribution of punishment by government agencies may eliminate intimate partner abuse, the problem will reappear time and again. Police – regardless of how numerous and well-trained – will never succeed in this struggle because it is not equipped to address its root causes. It is past time to see intimate partner violence as what it is – an issue in public health rather than criminal justice. And if this understanding prevails and guides us in treating the causes of the problem rather than its symptoms – who knows, we may not need spider-robots to solve the problem after all.
Catalano, S. (2015). Intimate Partner Violence, 1993–2010. The US Department of Justice. Web.
Eckhardt, C. I., Parrott, D. J., & Sprunger, J. G. (2015). Mechanisms of alcohol-facilitated intimate partner violence. Violence Against Women, 21(8), 939–957. Web.
Leonard, K. E., & Quigley, B. M. (2016). Thirty years of research show alcohol to be a cause of intimate partner violence: Future research needs to identify who to treat and how to treat them. Drug and Alcohol Review, 36(1), 7–9. Web.
Okorafor, N. (2011). Spider the artist. Lightspeed. Web.
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Sylaska, K. M., & Edwards, K. M. (2014). Disclosure of intimate partner violence to informal social support network members. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 15(1), 3–21. Web.