Battered Woman Syndrome
Updated: Jan 22
Update of the “Battered Woman Syndrome” Critique
Battering and the effects of battering are complex phenomena, which often are not well understood by the lay public. In addition to physical injury, individuals who have experienced battering often confront an array of psychological issues that differ in both type and intensity. The effects of domestic violence vary according to the social and cultural contexts of individuals’ lives and include differences in the pattern, onset, duration, and severity of abuse. Importantly, this context is also determined by institutional and social responses to the abuser and to the survivor of abuse and many other factors characteristic of both persons in an abusive relationship: level of social support, economic and other tangible resources, critical life experiences (e.g., prior trauma, violence history, developmental history) and cultural and ethnic factors (Dutton, 1996; Dutton, Kaltman, Goodman, Weinfurt, & Vankos, 2005; Heise, 1998).
Although individual women experience and respond to battering differently, a number of reactions are common among those who have been exposed to these traumatic events. “Battered woman syndrome” (BWS), a construct introduced in the 1970s by psychologist Lenore Walker, is sometimes used in an attempt to explain common experiences and behaviors of women who have been battered by their intimate partners (Walker, 1989; Walker, 2006). However, through more than three decades of accumulated empirical research, we have come to recognize major limitations in both the original and revised conceptualizations of BWS, as well as with the term itself (Osthoff & Maguigan, 2005). The use of BWS to describe the experience of women who have been victimized by intimate partner violence or to explain their response to such violence and abuse is both misleading and potentially harmful. As currently defined, the construct of BWS has several important limitations: (1) BWS is often not relevant to the central issues before the court in a specific case, (2) BWS lacks a standard and validated definition, (3) BWS does not reflect current research findings necessary to adequately explain either the experience of individuals who have been battered or their behavior in response to battering and (4) BWS can be unnecessarily stigmatizing (Biggers, 2005; Ferraro, 2003). This paper reviews the definition, evolution, and utilization of BWS in the courts, and offers a critique of its framework and its use. BWS is a term typically used to refer to women’s experiences that result from being battered. It has evolved from a term used to describe a broad range the victim’s (e.g., learned helplessness) and abuser’s (e.g., cycle of violence) behaviors to a mental health disorder describing symptoms experienced by an individual following traumatic exposure (e.g., Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD). Notwithstanding widespread misconception, BWS is not a legal defense. Notwithstanding widespread misconception, BWS is not a legal defense. Regrettably, even to this day, many myths persist about a specialized legal defense using the BWS. Osthoff and Maguigan (2005) outline five basic misconceptions related to the legal defense of women exposed to domestic violence. The most central misconception is that defendants who have been battered invoke a separate “battered syndrome defense.” There is no special “battered women’s defense” or “battered woman syndrome defense” (Maguigin, 1991; USDOJ/DHHS, 1996).
Even though expert witness testimony can be useful in cases involving domestic violence, there are
serious limitations of using BWS as the framework for this work. Where expert testimony is used to explain an individual’s state of mind or behavior, to support a particular defense, or to bolster credibility (when allowed) in situations that might otherwise seem unreasonable or unlikely (Parish, 1996), a packaged “syndrome” can be convenient and have the perceived legitimacy of a “diagnosis” (Schuller & Hastings, 1996). A number of factors, however, make this package particularly problematic. The most fundamental of these concerns is the lack of relevance of BWS to the issues before the court. A second concern is the lack of a standard and validated definition of BWS with which to guide experts’ use in evaluation and testimony.
Third, BWS does not adequately incorporate the vast scientific literature on victims’ response to battering.
Finally, BWS suggests a pathology that can stigmatize the defendant unnecessarily and inaccurately. We need to understand the unique experiences of each defendant informed by the large and continually growing body of scientific literature that is pertinent for understanding an individual’s experience and reaction to having been exposed to domestic violence.
This information can be invaluable in support of expert testimony for explaining the state of mind and behavior of a woman who has experienced domestic violence and who has been charged with criminal conduct that was influenced by her history of violence and abuse.
Distribution Rights: This Applied Research paper and In Brief may be reprinted in its entirety or excerpted with proper acknowledgement to the author(s) and VAWnet (www.vawnet.org), but may not be altered or sold for profit.
Citation: Dutton, M. A. (2009, August). Update of the “Battered Woman Syndrome” Critique. Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Retrieved month/day/year, from:
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