Although widely misunderstood
even among legal professionals, "battered
woman syndrome" is not a legal defense.
It is one approach to explaining battered women's
experiences. Like other "social framework
testimony," ( Vidmar & Schuller, in
press ), expert testimony concerning battering
and its effects is used in the legal system
to help a judge or jury better understand a
battered woman's experience ( Federal Rules
of Evidence 702 ). The purpose of this paper
is to offer a critique of the concept battered
woman syndrome as a means of framing battered
women's experiences ( Gordon & Dutton, 1996
Review of the concept
battered woman syndrome
The concept of battered woman
syndrome has evolved from its inception in the
late 1970's. Initially, it was conceptualized
as "learned helplessness," a condition
used to explain a victim's inability to protect
herself against the batterer's violence that
developed following repeated, but failed, efforts
to do so ( Walker, 1977-78 ). Another early
formulation of battered woman syndrome referred
to the the cycle of violence ( Walker, 1984
), a theory that describes the dynamics of the
batterer's behavior. The cycle of violence theory
can be used to explain how battered victims
are drawn back into the relationship when the
abuser is contrite and attentive following the
violence. More recently, battered woman syndrome
has been defined as post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD) ( Walker, 1992 ), a psychological condition
that results from exposure to severe trauma.
Among other things, PTSD can explain why a battered
victim may react, because of flashbacks and
other intrusive experiences resulting from prior
victimization, to a new situation as dangerous,
even when it is not.
In the courtroom, expert testimony
concerning domestic violence can be offered
for various purposes: (1) to show that a defendant
is a battered woman, (2) to explain a battered
woman's state of mind, (3) to generally support
a claim (e.g., when a battered victim is suing
a batterer for damages) or the validity of a
particular defense (i.e., when a battered victim
is the defendant), (4) to explain a battered
woman's conduct, (5) to explain a battered woman's
recantation or resistance to prosecution (i.e.,
when a battered victim is witness in prosecution
case), (6) to bolster a battered woman's credibility,
or (7) to explain the existence of mitigating
factors (i.e., for purposes of sentencing when
a battered woman has been found guilty in a
criminal trial) ( Parish, 1996 ). Statutes and
case law vary from state to state and across
federal jurisdictions; in some, this testimony
is referred to as "battered woman syndrome."
The critique that follows derives from the view
that syndrome language generally, and battered
woman syndrome more specifically, is inadequate
to the task of describing battered women's experience,
whether for purposes of expert testimony, counseling,
Critique of the concept
"battered woman syndrome"
There has been a great deal
of progress in the admissibility of expert testimony
in criminal cases involving battered victims
under the rubric of "battered woman syndrome."
However, in domestic violence cases the "courts
have focused on a syndrome model to the exclusion
of other research that, though less legally
convenient, more accurately depicts the social
and psychological consequences of domestic violence"
( Schuller & Hastings, in press ). There
are a number of concerns that suggest the need
for a reformulation of this model. Five such
points are described below.
1. There is no single profile
of a battered woman.
"Battered woman syndrome" signals
a particular area of testimony or type of case.
One advantage of a short-hand label is ease
of communication. The disadvantage is related:
"battered woman syndrome" has become
a stereotype that often does not fit the current
state of knowledge concerning battering and
its effects. Further, the stereotypic image
of "battered woman syndrome" is often
clouded by other stereotypes such as those based
on race, culture, social class, and sexual orientation,
There is no single profile of
the effects of battering although "battered
woman syndrome" suggests that the psychological
impact of battering is defined by a common set
of symptoms. Nevertheless, battered women's
reactions to violence and abuse vary; they include
emotional reactions (e.g., fear, anger, sadness);
changes in beliefs and attitudes about self,
others, and the world (e.g., self-blame, distrust,
generalized belief that the world is unsafe);
and symptoms of psychological distress or dysfunction
dysfunction (e.g., depression, flashbacks, anxiety,
sleep problems, substance abuse). A particular
battered woman's reactions may or may not meet
criteria to warrant a clinical diagnosis. Variations
in women's traumatic response to battering are
based on characteristics of (1) the violence
and abuse, (2) the battered victim, and (3)
the context or environment in which battering
occurs and in which the battered woman must
respond to and heal from it, e.g., based on
racial and cultural factors, social class, social
2. The term "battered woman
syndrome" is vague.
There is no clearly defined set of criteria
to define "battered woman syndrome."
If the label "battered woman syndrome"
is reserved only for battered women with specific
types of reactions (e.g., posttraumatic stress
disorder), then using it instead of the diagnosis
term is confusing especially since battered
woman syndrome is not a recognized diagnostic
term in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) ( American Psychiatric
Association, 1994 ). Further, other reactions
to battering that are relevant to pending legal
(or other) issues may be excluded from consideration.
Alternatively, if the term is used more broadly
to refer to a range of psychological reactions
to battering, as it often is in actual testimony
by experts, then its diagnostic utility is lost
since there is no clearly defined criteria for
inclusion. In this case, the question of whether
a battered woman "suffers" from battered
woman syndrome is not an appropriate question:
its meaning is vague and can be misleading.
3. Posttraumatic stress disorder,
compared to other psychological reactions to
battering, is not uniquely relevant for understanding
legal (or other) domestic violence-related issues.
PSTD can result from exposure to domestic violence
and it may be relevant for explaining a victim's
fear or other behavior in a specific situation.
However, there is no basis to suggest that PTSD
has exclusive or even greater relevance, for
either legal or clinical issues, than do other
types of psychological reactions to battering.
Importantly, the absence of PTSD does not signal
the lack of other posttraumatic stress reactions
nor does it negate the reasonableness of a battered
woman's fear. To the contrary, posttraumatic
reactions leading to diagnoses other than PTSD
(e.g., Acute Stress Disorder, Dissociative Amnesia,
Major Depressive Disorder), as well as those
which do not constitute clinical diagnoses (e.g.,
fear, anger, transient dissociative reaction,
shame, distrust), may in some cases be more
salient for understanding pertinent legal or
clinical issues. For example, understanding
the battered woman's appraisal of specific batterer
behavior as threatening is typically more relevant
both for addressing specific legal issues and
for victim advocacy than merely whether or not
she meets diagnostic criteria for PTSD. As well,
victim's depression or suicidal thoughts as
a reaction to battering may be more salient
for addressing victim's current safety or for
understanding her previous actions.
4. The relevant information
relied upon for expert testimony in legal cases,
advocacy, and clinical interventions involving
battered victims extends beyond the psychological
effects of battering.
The various purposes of expert testimony (see
"Review" above), advocacy, and clinincal
intervention typically require information in
addition to the battered victim's psychological
reactions to battering. This information includes
(1) an analysis of the dynamics of violence
and abuse, (2) the battered victim's strategic
responses to violence (i.e., what she did in
attempting to resist, avoid, escape, or stop
the violence), (3) the short- and long-term
outcome of those efforts, and (4) the social
and psychological context in which the battering
occurred (e.g., cultural and ethnic factors,
economic factors, social network, the battered
victim's prior traumatic experiences, the response
of the police and other institutions to the
battering) ( Dutton, 1993 ; Gordon & Dutton,
1996 ). The body of knowledge that forms the
foundation of expert testimony, advocacy, or
clinical intervention cannot be adequately defined
by a single construct or diagnosis, including
battered woman syndrome.
5. The term "battered woman
syndrome" creates an image of pathology.
Battered woman syndrome language creates a stereotyped
image of pathology. A woman characterized as
suffering from battered woman syndrome may be
viewed as flawed, damaged, disordered, or abnormal
in some way. Although it is true that many battered
victims suffer negative effects of battering,
syndrome language necessarily places the emphasis
on pathology, not on the whole picture that
also includes the battered woman's strengths
and efforts, as well as other's responses to
the situation. Notably, a battered victim's
normal reaction of fear or anger can be the
most important issue for explaining her state
of mind at the time of an alleged crime or for
understanding her motivation for other behavior.
Further, it may be essential to explain the
apparent absence of fear, for example, by considering
how cultural factors influence the manner of
emotional expression. An expert witnesses' attempt
to refocus attention away from pathology after
having invoked the concept "battered woman
syndrome" can be confusing and appears
contradictory. The term "battered woman
syndrome" may inadvertently communicate
to the jury or judge the misguided notion of
an "abuse excuse." Use of the term
battered woman syndrome perpetuates stereotypic
images of battered women.
An extensive scientific and
professional literature concerning traumatic
experiences, including domestic violence and
victims' reactions to it, provides a solid foundation
for expert testimony in cases involving battered
women. Expert testimony concerning battering
and its effects cannot adequately rely on a
single construct such as "battered woman
syndrome": the comprehensive body of existing
knowledge cannot be so condensed. Instead, focus
should be on identifying the specific questions
relevant to the issues at hand for which there
is a body of knowledge to support a valid conclusion.
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