Alcohol as a Non-Exculpatory Facilitator of Violence Against Women

At Stanford School of Medicine’s blog today, I describe the results of the new RAND study showing that mandatory sobriety programs reduce both drink driving and domestic violence arrests. The latter question was a particularly hot one when I was working with the UK Parliament on establishing sobriety programs in England and Wales, and split some allies who normally worked well together.

I have advocated for and provided services to women who were victims of family violence, so I know how difficult a field that is in which to work and I admire those who make it a lifetime commitment. It was thus painful for me that many leading anti-domestic violence advocates in London were against using a sentence of mandatory sobriety for men who batter their spouses/partners.

Their argument was that violence against women is caused by patriarchy. Focusing on the perpetrator’s alcohol use was therefore a distraction at best and the legitimation of an excuse for violence at worst. I agreed with them on the first point, but not the second.

If a man believes that women are a lesser species who should be subordinate in intimate relationships, those attitudes may in his mind justify physical violence. It seems to me obvious that the link between those attitudes and that behavior are stronger when the man has consumed a disinhibitory drug such as alcohol.

As I said to the advocates, that doesn’t give alcohol any exculpatory power in domestic violence cases. Alcohol doesn’t leap into the body of unwilling batterers. A batterer who consumes 8 pints of beer and then hits his wife should be held responsible for both behaviors, rather than having the first decision become a moral blank check for the second.

I was unable to convince my friends in the anti-domestic violence movement of this view. I hope the new results showing that mandatory sobriety programs do in fact reduce domestic violence will be persuasive to them. There are 50,000 domestic violence arrests in London each year, making this too important an issue to tackle without reliance on solid evidence.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Alcohol as a Non-Exculpatory Facilitator of Violence Against Women”

  1. One of the big tensions in criminal law is between deontology and consequentialism. At the same time, the criminal system must express society’s moral values, and also make policy sense. It’s a completely legitimate tension. Sometimes, the tension can be nicely resolved. There are good general arguments on both sides of the house for incarceration of violent individuals. But in other cases, it is irresolvable, and leads to very different conclusions, depending on one’s starting point. Do you incarcerate a violent individual when incarceration will deprive the individual’s victim of an income? That happens all the time in domestic abuse cases, and there is no easy answer.

    The deontologists tend to be on the political right; the consequentialists to their left. Domestic abuse may be an issue in which the polarities are reversed. Keith is clearly taking the consequentialist position. Keith’s adversaries seem more deontological in nature, although I have to rely on Keith’s characterization. (One could argue that concerns about the legitimation of patriarchy are consequentialist, but this is a deontologists’ favorite kind of consequentialist argument. You see it, for example, in the same-sex marriage debate, although the political polarities take their more normal configuration.)

  2. That must be a UK thing. Here in the US, we lean over backwards to the alcohol lobby, AND we give out ridiculous sentences to drunk drivers who happen to kill people by accident. Here, we even call this “murder.” Before everyone jumps on my head, I am fine with a long sentence, but it is not a “murder.” It just isn’t. Plus, we give such light sentences to drunk drivers who don’t kill anyone that I find that we are all somewhat to blame. It is part of my theory that Americans have a love for a certain amount of chaos, and won’t give it up. Well, plus we have no transit.

    Having said that, your UK friends sound balmy. Of course you should go ahead and nail people for drunken battering. As a friend of mine used to say, “f***in’ duh.” Battering can only have one cause? Nuts. Plus, all humans are sexist, imho. So let’s please move on and do something about the behavior.

    1. NCG: It’s not just a UK thing, in many US jurisdictions people who run Batterer Intervention Programs do not think that substance abuse treatment is appropriate for alcohol dependent batterers for the same reason as given by the UK advocates. It’s often, sadly, a bitter fight between two groups of good people, both underfunded to do something quite worthwhile.

      1. I’m sorry to hear it!! I wonder though, would these folks feel better if it were the case, as I imagine it must be, that beatings of men are also often alcohol-related (and/or other anger-releasing substances)?? Beatings in general? Violence and bad behavior in general?

        My guess is, they hear the word “treatment” and think, you’re helping the perps. Maybe throw Mark’s program at them? It feels less like “helping,” perhaps. (God forbid that any of us should help someone be better… and yes, I think this way sometimes too.)

        1. Maybe throw Mark’s program at them?

          24/7 sobriety is the same program applied to alcohol as is HOPE probation, it’s not therapy (although it can have a therapeutic impact). The same advocates had no objection to using it on street violence with drunken men assaulting other men, because they don’t see that as caused by patriarchy.

          1. Okay, then they just sound crazy. And I think I may know why. Would these “advocates” happen to be working in groups that are practically all women?

            From experience, I know that there *can* be too many women in charge in an organization. It can lead to bad things. This is rarely discussed because usually, women don’t have enough power, anywhere, to start falling into their own patterns of dysfunction. The nonprofit world may be an exception.

            I’m a woman, so I think I can say this. Anyhoo, they remind me of the same folks who used to say that rape wasn’t about sex. A level of denial so ridiculous I don’t even know what to say.

    2. Plus, we give such light sentences to drunk drivers who don’t kill anyone that I find that we are all somewhat to blame.

      Where I live, you have two drinks, chance upon a dui checkpoint (common near entertainment districts), blow 0.08, and you’re looking at upwards of $10,000 when you add up impound, fines, legal fees, hiked insurance rates, mandatory alcohol treatment, mandatory driving school, monitoring costs, transportation costs related to forfeiture of your license for several months, etc. If it’s your first offense you’ll likely get probation backed up up with a suspended jail sentence, if it’s your second or more you’ll probably do some time. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound so light to me when you add it all up.

      1. Nope, doesn’t sound light to me, either. I suspect that there are many jurisdictions where the penalties for a first offense, and even for subsequent one(s) are, indeed light be most definitions. But I don’t really care whether penalties are expensive or not. I care whether they have the desired effect, and if there are programs that don’t impose as much financial burden on the person and his family but which have a better chance of success, I’m for them!

      2. Well, actually, my favored response to a DUI (where no bystanders get hurt) — and this is probably heavily influenced by where I live, which is LA/Southern Cal — is, along with some community service and some kind of treatment or HOPE program, whichever, or both — is a nice loooooong period of NOT having a license.

        As in, 2 or 3 years.

        I feel like a mean person just typing that! And after that, if you keep doing it, the second offense, it’s gone forever.

        My main concerns are in avoiding deaths to bystanders, and also, in helping otherwise good people with alcohol issues from having to wake up and realize they killed someone. I just think that would be about the worst thing in the world.

        I know this would greatly inconvenience a lot of people, and I’m not sure I care. On the positive side, there’s not necessarily any prison or huge fines. I’m with Bev on that. The idea is to stop the bad thing. That’s all. 6 month suspensions don’t do it, imho.

        And maybe 2 or 3 years wouldn’t work either. It’s just a thought. But “we” want people to go out and drink, and spend money, so we don’t even try.

  3. On the other hand, if all you’re doing is regulating the level of abuse to non-reportable-injury-producing, that’s a sort of pyrrhic victory.

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