Reflections during Domestic Violence Awareness Month

—Laura L. O’Toole, Jessica R. Schiffman, and Rosemary Sullivan

We three editors worked on the third edition of Gender Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (2020) as a collaborative process blending our varied academic and experiential perspectives. With publication behind us, and Domestic Violence Awareness Month upon us, we are turning our thoughts to how the current landscape might offer additional insights into the work to end gender violence, what new issues we see arising, and what we wish we could have included, but didn’t, given space limitations and the fast pace of current events. For example, the global COVID-19 pandemic, the shifting balance of the US Supreme Court after the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and clear gendered dimensions of political polarization all have implications for Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence. We posed the following questions to each other. We welcome your questions too.

Why this book, and why now?

The need to revise this volume was clear but took on a new urgency after the US presidential election of 2016 that triggered a seismic shift across every aspect of social and political life for us and many others across the globe. There has been a departure from civility, decency, and critical thinking across all levels of government that has led to a weak response to a deadly pandemic, racial unrest across the country, widespread anxiety and despair, grotesque wealth concentrated in a fraction of the population while others struggle with historic unemployment and poverty, and a fraying of the institutions that support families (schools, welfare agencies, social service, and nonprofit). All of these events increase the burden and pain of women and children, especially in Black and Brown communities. Early reports suggest these stressors are likely related to increasing rates of violence in homes.

Were there any surprises about what emerged from the combined works in this book? 

As the book came together we were elated to witness the interconnectedness of ideas and concepts among writers from a wide expanse of disciplines, creating a coherent, integrated understanding of gender violence. When the book is considered as a whole, despite its dread-inducing title, many of the works signal hope and avenues toward positive change. When you read the book, it’s not only sadness and despair that are conveyed, but hope and resilience.

Are there topics that were left out that you would want to address? 

Any one of the gender violence topics discussed in this book could merit its own volume. Our hope for this book is that it will inspire new scholars/activists to build and expand upon these analyses of gendered, racial, and class violence, and bring to bear the social change strategies needed to end them. Of course, the pandemic exploded while the book was going to press, so we “left it out” because we had no capacity to include it! So . . . we address it below.

Why include poetry to introduce each section and why include some works of fiction under Suggested for Further Reading sections in the book?

Poets and fiction writers offer a different way to think about gender violence. As a counterbalance to the academic and factual material we present, these writings move us in a more directly emotional and experiential way. At this moment of heightened awareness of social injustice, racism, and with the arrival of DV Awareness Month, we are reminded of the many literary voices that have provided insight and moved us to think and feel more deeply about gender violence. Ann Petry’s “Like a Winding Sheet” does not appear in the book because we did not have space for short stories. We recommend it highly as an example of the poisonous effects of racism and sexism and how they may connect to incidents of gender violence. It illustrates how even the best intentions can be warped by social forces.

Is there a pervasive misunderstanding about an aspect of gender violence that you would like to debunk? 

We believe gender violence in all of its manifestations needs to be seen as a systemic and institutionally reinforced social problem that has negative effects on every person in society. It should not be seen as a personal tragedy, but as a large scale but solvable social problem. And although politicians at the highest level of government imply that victims are culpable and/or certain populations are more likely to be violent, our book provides resources to challenge these tropes.

What lessons can be learned from the current political landscape that would affect how people understand gender violence? 

The power of political leadership in modeling and shaping behavior is a driving factor in our current dystopian political landscape. The rise of masculinist authoritarian leaders around the world adds to our concern. The current US president who publicly boasted about sexually assaulting women has also presided over policies that have inflicted massive trauma onto families (family separation at the border, and inept and incompetent COVID-19 response). This divisive president has reshaped the Supreme Court in ways that may enact changes that will disadvantage women’s health care and rights to control our bodies, LGBGTQ+ rights, etc. In the midst of massive protests against racial injustice across the US, Donald Trump continues to demonize and criminalize BIPOC communities.

How does the Covid-19 pandemic intersect with experiences of gender violence? 

The fault lines of gender, race, and social class have been laid bare by COVID-19 infection and mortality rates. Marginalized communities bear the emotional, social, and economic brunt of lockdowns and unchecked spread of disease. Some of the world’s richest countries have failed to respond adequately to the pandemic. Data indicates that their response to IPV has been equally inadequate. On the other hand, some of the world’s poorest countries have so far evaded the worst of the pandemic (for example, see https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/world/coronavirus-maps.html) and hopefully, therefore, not added to the already burdensome concerns for IPV victims. In the US mask-wearing is no longer accepted public health advice, but a political dog-whistle for toxic masculinity and white supremacy. President Trump’s equation of mask-wearing to “weakness” is a case in point. Meanwhile BIPOC communities continue to get sick and die at exponentially higher rates than White communities, and it is mothers who disproportionately struggle to stabilize their families during a time of unemployment, increased poverty, children out of school, and diminished social supports, often while trying to work as well. So many of the factors that contribute to IPV have been triggered by the novel coronavirus, it is unfathomable that some countries have failed to adequately address it! Where governments have not politicized the pandemic, mitigation may be more possible and thus effects on citizens—including risk of Intimate Partner Violence—is potentially lessened. In some places, such as countries in West Africa, where the lessons of the Ebola epidemic are still fresh, the pandemic has so far not been overwhelming. Collectively, West African countries have developed public health strategies to protect their citizens, despite poverty and minimal health infrastructure. See https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/african-countries-faced-ebola-outbreaks-use-lessons-fight-covid-19-n1181156

What hope is there to actually end gender violence?

There is always hope. For example, lessons learned from the devastating public health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may provide guideposts for how we can respond to and ameliorate gender violence (see a recent article published in New England Journal of Medicine https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2024046) and there is some evidence, that the imposition of lockdowns changed the question often posed to victims of domestic violence, “Why doesn’t she leave?” in the UK to a focus on perpetrators. Reframing the question to “What will make him stop?” changes the range of interventions that may be developed to remedy individual cases as well as institutional policies and practices (see “COVID-19 Has Brought a Surge in Domestic Violence Globally” in the Financial Times, August 20, 2020). Clearly cultural, political, and religious change is necessary, which is a long term but worthy struggle. 


Read the Introduction of the third edition of Gender Violence here.

“This volume moves beyond the binary and avoids the pitfalls of studying only white, cisgendered women as victims of gender violence.”—Gwen Hunnicutt, author of Gender Violence in Ecofeminist Perspective: Intersections of Animal Oppression, Patriarchy and Domination of the Earth

Laura L. O’Toole is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Cultural, Environmental, and Global Studies at Salve Regina University. She also publishes in the area of Public Sociology and Community Development.

Jessica Schiffman is a former Assistant Professor and Associate Chair in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Delaware. She is a co-editor of Women’s Studies in Transition: The Pursuit of Interdisciplinarity.

Rosemary Sullivan is Professor of Social Work at Westfield State University. She is also a psychotherapist with twenty years of experience working with victims and offenders of child abuse.

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