Public awareness surrounding domestic and family violence has drastically increased over the past two decades, and is predicted to continue increasing (Peled, Eiksikovits, Enosh, Winstok, 2000). In response to the increase in public education, legal reforms have been implemented that aim to aid victims of sexual and domestic violence. However, even with an increase in awareness violence against women is still a prominent issue in society (Peled et al., 2000). The development of Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) by practitioners and legal scholars, the foremost being Lenore Walker, in 1981 has been one of the many developments regarding violence about women (ADD CITATION). Though positively received by many, like all theories it has received a number of criticisms. This paper will explore the defining features, history, legal contexts, relation to Walker’s cycle of violence, and criticism of BWS. It is estimated that nearly 28% of married women (Faigman,1986), or over one million women total experience male-perpetrated violence in an intimate relationship yearly. (Tjaden & Thoennes as cited in Terrance, Plumm & Kehn, 2014). BWS is a psychological theory intended to explain behaviour patterns exhibited by women in an abusive relationship (Savage, 1997). Specifically, Savage (1997) states that the theory is designed to explain why a woman may harm or kill her abusive partner as opposed to leave the relationship. According to Terrance et al. (2014), when in an abusive relationship a woman may see no other option than to resort to the use of harmful or potentially deadly force. Studies found this to be more common in women who have experienced more frequent attacks that lead to more serious injuries (Terrance et al., 2014). BWS is diagnosed based on the following seven criteria: (1) internally intrusively re-experiencing trauma (2) increased rates of arousal anxiety (3) cognitive difficulties (4) numbing of emotions and increased behaviours of avoidance (5) interpersonal relationship difficulties (6) physical health difficulties and body image challenges (7) intimacy and sexual challenges. Lenore Walker developed BWS after she conducted interviews with 435 women who had either been or were at the time victims of domestic abuse (Cravern, 2003). Lenore conducted her study to determine the main psychological and sociological factors that BWS was to be comprised of, in addition to testing the cycle of violence and Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness (Walker as cited in Cravern, 2003). Since its formation, BWS has been used in a variety of settings including family law disputes, custody disputes, clinical intervention programs, and most notably as a criminal defence (Tolmie, as cited in Cavern, 2003). Prior to the recognition of BWS as an acceptable form of evidence, women who were accused of an offense regarding a violent relationship had limited evidence that could be used to their advantage (Savage, 1997). Savage (1997) noted that in trial, the traditional rules solely require facts of relevance as opposed to contextual factors (Savage, 1997). Therefore, it was highly difficult if not impossible for women to develop a case of self-defence (Savage, 1997). As a response, BWS was introduced through self-defence cases during which victims accused of murdering their partner requested to provide a psychological reasoning for their behaviour (Savage, 1997). The psychological theory is most frequently used in two forms of criminal cases when evidence regarding BWS is present: confrontational and non-confrontational (Savage, 1997). A confrontational case consists of a woman harming or killing her abusive partner as a result of a physical attack, whereas a non-confrontational case entails a woman attacking the perpetrator when they are not engaging in abuse, such as when they are asleep (Savage, 1997). Walker suggested that spousal abuse frequently consisted of cycles defined by fluctuating magnitudes of severity (Cravern, 2003). The first phase, known as the tension building phase, consists of the victim sensing that an act of violence will occur (Bake, 2013). Cravern (2003) notes that this stage may consist of emotional and/or verbal abuse, in addition to minor occurrences of physical violence. Bake (2013) states that the victim may either attempt to appease their abuser utilizing techniques that were effective in the past or instigate the violent episode to get it out of the way. Phase two, the acute battering incident, occurs when the violence intensifies to a severe and often out of control level (Bake, 2013). This phase may result in severe injuries or death (Bake, 2013). Lastly, the respite or honeymoon phase occurs immediately following the battering phase (Savage, 1997). This phase entails the abuser apologizing profusely and promising that it will never happen again (textbook). Frequently, the perpetrator may demonstrate behaviours that display a change in behaviour and that they will not hurt the woman again, such as to stop drinking alcohol or using a substance (Savage, 1997). Thus, Walker (as cited in Fiagon, 1986) explains that a woman is likely to experience an increase in tension during the first phase, develop severe fear and anxiety of serious injury or death during the second phase, and perceiving that defending herself will not be possible upon the next attack she ‘defends’ herself at the only possible opportunity; during the third phase or between two cycles (Faigman, 1986). According to Craven (2003), Walker believed that so much as a single act of violence could lead to Battered Woman Syndrome, and cause the victim to fall into a state of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness was first introduced by psychologist Martin Seligman in 1965, and provides a possible explanation as to why an individual may remain with their abuser (Savage, 1997). Walker (as cited in Savage, 1997) believes that individuals may experience a lack of regarding their abusive relationship, and therefore do not believe that it is possible to leave the relationship even though it is indeed a possibility. Given the individual feels as though there is no solution to their situation, they may become increasingly passive and lose motivation to leave the abusive relationship (Walker as cited in Savage, 1997). As with every theory, BWS has received a number of both legal and environmental criticisms. One of the more frequent criticisms includes that the diagnosis of BWS stigmatizes women as being submissive and/or helpless while disconcerting any emotional challenges that take place in an abusive relationship (Savage, 1997). This paper will discuss the methodological, conceptual, and feminist criticisms of BWS. There are a number of methodological flaws in Walker’s study, as noted by Cravern (2003). Firstly, no control group was utilized, and therefore the psychological conditions of women diagnosed with BWS were never compared to those of woman who had not experienced violence (Cravern, 2003). Additionally, Walker never provided an explanation proposed for the frequency that women displayed behaviours other than the anticipated learned helplessness response (Cravern, 2003). All data collected was from the female victim’s point of view, and therefore the perpetrators perspective was not taken into consideration/both sides of the story were not listened to. (Cravern, 2003). Lastly, the study has never been replicated, which questions the reliability and generalizability of the results. (Cravern, 2003)Walkers study, as analyzed by Cravern (2003) had a number of conceptual criticisms. Primarily, the theory was based on only one study comprised of women who, for the most part, were no longer living with their abusive partner (Cravern, 2003). Additionally, the concept of remaining with the abuse perpetrator as a coping strategy was not explored when Walker developed BWS (Cravern, 2003). Furthermore, the rate women demonstrated alternative behaviors to those expected of learned helplessness were not sufficiently explained in Walkers conclusion (Cravern, 2003). Many feminists have criticized BWS due to the theory turning women’s experiences into a syndrome, and generalizing men and women from diverse cultural and social backgrounds within one theoretical construct (Cravern, 2003). Using BWS as a legal defense strategy lead critics to believe that juries may disregard stereotypical assumptions regarding women who harm or kill their abuse perpetrator as unstable, provocative or pathological given it provides a psychological explanation for their behaviour (Dutton, 1996). Additionally, feminists argue that BWS would defeat traditional limitations regarding background or contextual evidence being utilized in a court case, and allows the panel to view the victims behaviours given their circumstance. (Cravern, 2003). Lastly and perhaps the most noted feministic criticism is heightened number of cases in which BWS evidence has not been properly used, used during inappropriate contexts, or used to harm a victim’s case (Cravern, 2003).
In conclusion, BWS is a psychological theory that aims to explain a woman’s harmful or deadly repercussive actions in an abusive relationship. It is explained by Walkers cycle of violence as consisting of three phases; the tension building phase, the acute battering phase, and the honeymoon phase. Though BWS can be beneficial in the legal system, the theory also has a number of methodological, conceptual, and feminist criticisms including a lack of empirical evidence and inappropriate use within the legal environment.