Locking up men who beat their partners sounds like a tremendous improvement over the days when men could hit women with impunity and women fearing for their lives could expect no help from authorities. But does our system of requiring the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of abusers lessen domestic violence or help battered women? In this already controversial but vitally important book, we learn that the criminal justice system may actually be making the problem of domestic violence worse. Looking honestly at uncomfortable facts, Linda Mills makes the case for a complete overhaul and presents a promising alternative.
The evidence turns up some surprising facts about the complexities of intimate abuse, facts that run against mainstream assumptions: The current system robs battered women of what power they do hold. Perhaps as many as half of women in abusive relationships stay in them for strong cultural, economic, religious, or emotional reasons. Jailing their partners often makes their situations worse. Women are at least as physically violent and emotionally aggressive as are men toward women, and women's aggression is often central to the dynamic of intimate abuse.
Informed by compelling evidence, personal experience, and what abused women themselves say about their needs, Mills proposes no less than a fundamentally new system. Addressing the real dynamics of intimate abuse and incorporating proven methods of restorative justice, Mills's approach focuses on healing and transformation rather than shame or punishment. Already the subject of heated controversy, Insult to Injury offers a desperately needed and powerful means for using what we know to reduce violence in our homes.
In a bold new book guaranteed to cause a stir among mainstream feminists as well as among mental health and law-enforcement professionals, Mills exposes the limitations and shortcomings of the current approaches toward domestic violence. Although activists have helped get domestic abuse on the criminal justice map, Mills, a professor of both law and social work at NYU, asserts that their strategies have a tendency to ignore the racial, ethnic and religious complexities of domestic violence. In some cases, she argues, current policies may even exacerbate the problem. For example, by failing to recognize the individual needs of women in abusive relationships,"mandatory arrest" policies may strip women of their agency, thus perpetuating their role as helpless victims. Mills also challenges the axioms upon which the existing theoretical model is predicated (namely, that abuse is caused by patriarchy and sexism), and she demonstrates how such assumptions create a static, one-sided view that runs contrary to the dynamic, shifting and cyclical reality of intimate abuse. In one of her most provocative statements, Mills asserts that the current simplistic view may be motivated by"countertransference reactions of mainstream feminists and some helping professionals" who have themselves suffered abuse. Women can be as aggressive as men, she points out, and regardless of gender a child who endures violence is three times more likely to become violent as an adult. While she agrees that perpetrators should be held accountable, her new paradigm eschews punishment in favor of a"restorative justice" approach, which encourages dialogue in a counseling group called the Intimate Circle of Abuse (ICA). Mills's hope is that, in ICA, couples will begin to understand their narratives of abuse, and equip themselves with the skills necessary to prevent future recurrences. Hers is a system both inclusive and liberating; whether it is idealistic remains to be seen.