Unit III: Institutions, Culture, and Structures

Intersecting Institutions Case Study: The Struggle to End Gendered Violence and Violence Against Women

Thus far we have illustrated some ways in which social institutions overlap with and reinforce one another. In this section, we use the case of the struggle to end violence against women as an example of the ways in which the family, media, medicine, and law and the prison system facilitate gendered violence and violence against women. The term gendered violence highlights not only the manner in which transgender people, gay men, and women often experience violence, but also how violence takes place more broadly within the context of a society that is characterized by a sex/gender/sexuality system that disparages femininity, sexual minorities, and gender minorities. Hussein Balhan’s (1985) definition of violence emphasizes the structural and systematic nature of violence: “Violence is not an isolated physical act or a discrete random event. It is a relation, process, and condition determining, exploiting, and curtailing the well-being of the survivor…Violence occurs not only between individuals, but also between groups and societies…Any relation, process, or condition imposed by someone that injures the health and well-being of others is by definition violent.” As Kirk and Okazawa-Rey (2004) point out, this definition not only includes sexual assault and domestic violence between individuals, but also includes macro-level processes of inequality and violence, such as “colonization, poverty, racism, lack of access to education, health care, and negative media representations” (Kirk and Okazawa-Rey 2004: 258). Importantly, Bulhan (1985) refers to people who have experienced violence as “survivors” rather than “victims.” The difference between the two words is significant, in that the construction of people who have experienced violence as “victims” maintains and reinforces their subordinate position, while “survivors” emphasizes the agency and self-determination of people who have experienced violence. Thus, we wish to underscore not only that sexual and intimate partner violence is systematic, but that women and men have organized to combat sexual and domestic violence, and that women and survivors of sexual and domestic violence have agency and exercise that agency.

Whereas our culture figures the home and family as a “haven in a heartless world,” the family and home are common contexts for emotional and physical violence. As we pointed out in the section concerning families, the notion of the normative family—with the concomitant gender roles we connote with the SNAF—as a privatized sphere, is an ideological construction that often hides inequalities that exist within families. Intimate partner violence refers to emotional and physical violence by one partner against another and includes “current and former spouses, girlfriends, and boyfriends” (Kirk and Okazawa-Rey 2004).   Intimate partner violence occurs in queer as well as heterosexual relationships, but this violence is quite clearly gendered in heterosexual relationships. The US Department of Justice reported that 37% of women who visited emergency rooms for injuries from others were injured by male intimate partners. Additionally, researchers of sexual violence have found that one in five high school girls surveyed reported that she had been physically or sexually abused. The majority of these incidents occurred at home and happened more than once (Commonwealth Fund 1997). It is important to note that these statistics only include those who actually sought medical care (in the case of the first statistic) and/or reported an injury from a male intimate partner. As a result, this number may grossly under-represent the actual number of women injured by intimate partners. Until the 1970s in the United States, most states did not consider rape between spouses—or marital rape—a crime. This was a legacy of coverture laws that existed until the 19th century, wherein women were thought to be the property of their husbands, lacking any legal rights to personhood. Thus, the legal history of marriage has played a part in constructing marital rape as somehow less damaging and violent than stranger rape. Additionally, the de-valuation of women’s labor, and the fact that women are, on average, paid 77% of what men receive for the same work, reinforce women’s dependence on partners for survival, even if these partners are abusive.

The history of institutionalized racism within police departments and law may make women within communities of color less likely to report intimate partner violence or sexual violence. Women may not report abuse from partners who are people of color because they do not want to expose their partners to the criminal justice system, which—as the earlier section on the state, prison, and law discusses—has disproportionately locked up people of color. Furthermore, past experiences with abusive police officers, police brutality, or police indifference to calls for help may make many women of color reticent to involve the police in cases of violence. Similarly, women who are undocumented immigrants and living within the United States may not report sexual or intimate partner violence for fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sending them or their partner back to their country of origin.

Psychologists, psychiatrists, and other medical professionals have crafted several “syndromes” used to describe the effects of violence against women. While they have brought attention to the problem and the need for treatment programs, these approaches to violence against women tend to individualize, depoliticize, and medicalize gendered violence and often pathologize the survivor, rather than identify the cultural conditions that compel abusers to abuse others. Battered Women’s Syndrome (BTS), put forward by psychologist Lenore Walker, describes a woman who “learns helplessness” and returns to her abuser because he (in this theory, only men are abusers and only women are survivors) lures her back with promises not to harm her again, yet continues to abuse her. Another “syndrome” is Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS), which describes the “irrational” behaviors of women who have been raped—behaviors that include “…not reporting a rape for days or even months, not remember parts of the assault, appearing too calm, or expressing anger at their treatment by police, hospital staff, or the legal system” (Kirk and Okazawa 2004: 265). Both of these descriptions of the impacts of violence have successfully been used in court to prosecute perpetrators, but they also construct survivors as passive, damaged victims who engage in “irrational” behavior. Activists who combat gendered violence and violence against women have argued that people who experience sexual violence are in fact not passive victims, but active agents who have the ability to organize and participate in anti-violence activism and organizations, as well as to hold their assailant responsible for their actions.


This unit has attempted to show how institutions are not merely benign, apolitical facets of our lives, but active agents in our socialization, laden with ideology and power. They produce and reproduce inequalities. Furthermore, as illustrated in the last section on gendered violence, institutions often overlap and reinforce one another. This is because institutions are deeply social entities—even though we may think of them as unaffected by society and culture. They exist in the same cultural-historical periods and are created through the same structures of thought of that period. However, due to the inordinate power of institutions and those at their heads—doctors, scientists, policy makers, experts, etc.—the ideas of those in power within institutions are often the reigning ideas of an era. In this way, institutions have an ideological facet—they are not only shaped by a particular cultural-historical period, but also society is shaped and impacted by their interests, as well.


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Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies by Miliann Kang, Donovan Lessard, Laura Heston, Sonny Nordmarken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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