The notion of the family as being a place of sanctuary, a private idyll, where the individual is protected from the pressures of the public aspects of life has been much criticised. Various writers have sought to bring to attention the violent abuse that occurs within families. It is accepted that the majority of incidences of domestic violence are those that involve women being abused by men and this discussion will focus on that particular scenario. However, it is important to recognise that other forms of domestic violence occur.
Men, children and the elderly are also abused and the notion of domestic violence is not peculiar to heterosexual relationships. The idea that the family, rather than acting as an institution which functions to protect its members, is, in fact, a powerful tool of ideological patriarchy has been much emphasised by feminist writings. “The value system of male supremacist society holds the family to be inviolable… ” (Ward, 1997 in O’Toole and Schiffman, 1997. Page 479). Millett (1970), further describes the family as being a patriarchal component contained within a patriarchal whole (society).
This analysis by Millett (1970) is important as she refers to the family as being an important link between the individual and the external social structure. Thus, the family is central to the social control to which women are subjected to in both realms of their lives. As notions of control feature heavily in feminist debates surrounding the issue of domestic violence, it may be argued that this issue raises the concept of the split between the public and the private spheres of social life.
An article by Larkin and Popaleni (1994) develops this theme further. They claim that, “… nquiry into the arena of the ‘private’, therefore makes it possible to understand broader political relations inculding males’ harassment of females in the ‘public’ sphere. ” (Larkin and Popaleni, 1994. Page 215). However, it is also important to note that, while it has been claimed to provide a useful insight into the link between the two spheres of social life. This perceived division between the public and the private domain has also been cited as being a reason as to why the issue of domestic violence has been previously ignored by both legislators and law enforcing institutions.
During previous centuries, there have been attempts to bring the issue of domestic violence into the public arena in a bid to reduce the oppression of many women. As far back as 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft spoke of the tyranny within the family home and, in 1853, an Act intended to permit magistrates to punish males who were using violence against women and children was passed (Evason, 1982). However, this Act was rarely invoked and was criticised for attempting to halt the use of violence whilst failing to challenge the authority of husbands.
The lack of alteration to women’s subordinate status was criticised by many and “John Stewart Mill played a crucial part in the second upsurge of concern over domestic violence in the 1870’s. ” (Evason, 1982. Page 4). The previous unwillingness on the part of those with the means to legislate against domestic violence has been described as being due to their hesitance to challenge the widely held belief that women became the property of their husbands as soon as they married.
The passing of The Domestic Violence Act in 1976 was heralded at the time as being a triumph for the feminist movement, especially Women’s Aid who had long been campaigning for such an Act to be introduced. The Act sought to simplify the procedure by which a woman was able to obtain an injunction against an offender. However, while the Act was claimed to represent progress in the bid to alleviate domestic violence, after its introduction it was claimed that “… the law remains a clumsy and ineffective way of dealing with the problem. (Cootes and Campbell, 1982. Page 42).
Though the notion of a wife being the property of her husband thus, by implication, being a legitimate target for physical, sexual and psychological abuse is not as prevalent as it was during the time up the late nineteenth century, it has been argued that it still pervades. The notion that the family is a haven in a heartless world has been proffered by theorists expounding, to a greater or lesser extent, a Functionalist view of the role and functions of the modern family.
Parson’s opinion that the modern nuclear family best fits the needs of modern societies, for example gives an optimistic, liberal view which describes the family as being an institution which has been relieved of many functions previously ascribed to it in pre-industrial times. Thus, according to Parsons, the family in modern societies is “… free to devote more of its time and energy to affective relations. ” (Gordon, 1997, in O’Toole and Schiffman, 1997. Page 315).
However, while Parsons’ theorising about the family appears to promote ideals of harmony, thus providing a place where its members seek safety and solace, Parsons’ work has been interpreted in a different, negative way. “Parsons himself sees women as the property of their husbands. ” (Evason, 1982. Page 6). Thus, from this assertion within Parsons’ writings about the family, it is possible to conclude that even (relatively) modern theories about family life incorporate notions of male ownership and control over women.
Though it is impossible and, indeed, implausible to regard this as an open advocacy of domestic violence on the part of Parsons, it can certainly be alleged that domestic violence is heavily influenced by power relations (Radford, 1987. In O’Toole and Schiffman (editors) 1997. Due to this factor, Parsons’ work can be deemed to be relevant when considering the topic of domestic violence, in so far as it clearly defines the inequality of power between the sexes and, rather than criticise it as feminists have, regards it as both inevitable and positive.
Whilst feminist consciousness raising about the subject of domestic violence continues, it is generally recognised now that the awareness of domestic violence has increased and the acceptability of it decreased. However, there is debate about the extent to which existing legislation in Britain actually helps the situation of those suffering at the hands of a violent partner. The reluctance of the police to become involved in ‘domestic matters’ is outlined by Edwards (1989) who argues that, laws regarding violence in the home are “… clearly imbued with value-judgements about who and what forms of violence should be regulated. (Edwards, 1989. Page 1).
It can be claimed that the ideology influencing the legal responses to domestic violence against women clearly challenges the notion that the home is a haven in a heartless world as it implies that the safety of women undergoing abuse within it is not a priority, indeed rather a matter to be brushed aside. The reluctance of the police and penal system to deal with domestic violence is perhaps reflected in the fact that, according to the Crime in England and Wales 2001/2002 report, less than 35% of actual domestic violence crime is reported to the Police (Home Office, July 2002 available online at WWW.
Womensaid. org. uk). On the basis of these figures, it can be argued that the indifference shown by the police towards victims of domestic violence is such that they are reluctant to report incidences of it. The police are not the only agency within society that has been accused of showing an ideological bias when dealing with the issue of domestic violence; the approach of those responsible for formulating the law has also been criticised. Campbell (25th October, 2000) argues that the British government are reluctant to directly tackle the issue of domestic violence against women.
She asserts that the perpetrators of this offence will continue to go unstopped as long as the government continues to pay only lip-service to the problem of domestic violence and criticises the motives behind the government’s lack of action, “It is only misogyny that determines this government’s resistance to what is obvious. ” (Campbell, 25th October 2000). The argument of Campbell’s raises further interesting points that relate directly to the question of whether the home is a shelter within which it’s members can take refuge from the outside world.
Campbell (2000) describes the government’s apparently ambivalent attitude towards the problems of domestic violence as being at odds with the pledges made by the New Labour government of 1997 to curb the use of violence in British society. The focus for new legislation regarding violent conduct, Campbell (2000) argues is wrongly on that which occurs in the public sphere. Thus, the private world of the family is again promoted as a place of safety and shelter.
The continuing idea of the dangers which women face in the public world serves to reinforce the idea of the family home as a place of sanctuary, however, the idea is a groundless and inaccurate one. McWilliams (1998, in Dobash and Dobash, 1998) also raises this point as she describes the disinterest in the murder of women in the home in Northern Ireland compared to the reported tragedy of women killed in the conflict there. McWilliams’ (1998) argument is that there exists a “… gendered nature of public morality… ” and that “… hen a woman has been murdered in a ‘domestic’ assault in the ‘sanctuary’ of her own home, there is less of a sense of violation. ” (McWilliams, 1998 in Dobash and Dobash, 1998. Page 130).
It has been argued that the perceived danger of the outside world serves to limit women’s power and make them subject to far more control in the larger world “… because so much of their behaviour is geared to securing their own safety. ” (Larkin and Popaleni, 1994. Page 225). Thus, the predominance given to heightening the safety of women in the public sphere detracts attention from the issue of the violence women suffer in the home.
This is in spite of evidence that highlights that, in reality, more women are at risk of encountering violence in the home. McWilliams (1998, in Dobash and Dobash 1998) examines the apparently contradictory nature of the treatment given to violence against women in both spheres of social life. McWilliams describes how “the ‘public’ and ‘private’ juxtaposition of violence also lead to contradictory messages about what constitutes ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ forms of violence” (McWilliams, 1998 in Dobash and Dobash, 1999.
Page 130). Hence, it is possible to conclude that by classifying violent attacks into an, alleged, order of importance or seriousness the law acts in an extremely biased way and somewhat trivialises the phenomenon of domestic violence. However, Mirlees-Black (1999) argues that, according to The British Crime Survey of 1996, figures relating to domestic violence show that 23% of women aged 16-59 state that a current or former partner has physically assaulted them, at some time.
If this statistic is believed, then it is possible to conclude that almost a quarter of British women who have experienced, or who are experiencing, domestic violence would heavily refute the notion that the family is a haven in a heartless world. In conclusion, the popular notion of the family home providing a place of safety for women, away from the alleged dangers of the outside world, is one which is continually being reinforced through social agencies, especially the media and the police.
The idea ties in with outdated assumptions that women’s role is one which should be primarily based around the home. Edwards (1989) argues that such patriarchal ideals and attitudes have had negative consequences regarding what and who are policed in society and who is protected and result in violence in the home being accorded “… a low priority because it happens behind closed doors, has a low visibility, occurs within a sphere traditionally considered private and is perpetrated against women by male partners. ” (Edwards, 1989. Page 31).