Learn why domestic violence survivors don’t press charges against the men who abuse them, in this summary of a jailhouse research study of conversations between abusers and their victims.
If you are a victim (a survivor!!) of domestic violence but you’re struggling to heal and deal, read Healing the Trauma of Domestic Violence: A Workbook for Women by by Mari McCaig and Edward S. Kubany.
It will help you recognize the effects of the trauma of domestic violence on your life, and let go of anger, stress, shame, and guilt. You’ll learn how to change the core beliefs that can lead to involvement in abusive relationships, and confront and overcome your fears. Equally important, this book can help you avoid future involvement with potential abusers – especially if you tend to fall in love with emotionally unavailable men.
In this article, I summarize research that explains why women experiencing abuse don’t press charges against abusive men. If you’re unsure what abuse is, read 5 Signs of a Verbally Abusive Relationship.
“The existing belief is that victims recant [don’t press charges] because the perpetrator threatens her with more violence. But our results suggest something very different,” said Amy Bonomi, lead author of the study and associate professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University. “Perpetrators are not threatening the victim, but are using more sophisticated emotional appeals designed to minimize their actions and gain the sympathy of the victim. That should change how we work with victims.”
Why Survivors of Abuse Don’t Press Charges
This is the first time in history that recorded jailhouse telephone conversations have been used to explain why women experiencing abuse don’t press charges against the perpetrators. In this study, researchers listened to phone conversations between men charged with felony domestic violence and their victims.
These “jailhouse tips” help reveal why some victims decide not to press charges against men who have hit, strangled, and abused them emotionally, physically, and mentally.
“These results provide a new model for how to work with victims,” says Bonomi. “Advocates can counsel victims up front [about] the sympathy appeals and minimization techniques that their husband or boyfriend is likely to use on them. If the victims are prepared, they may be less likely to fall for these techniques and would be more likely to follow through with the prosecution.”
The more women know about the dynamic of abuse and why women can’t walk away from abusers, the better equipped they’ll be to protect themselves…and their children.
The Study of Abusers and Victims of Domestic Violence
Researchers listened to telephone conversations between 17 accused male abusers in aWashingtonstate detention facility and their female victims, all of whom decided to withdraw their accusations of abuse. For each couple, the researchers analyzed up to about three hours of phone conversations. The analysis of these conversations may fundamentally change how victim advocates and prosecutors work with domestic violence victims to prosecute abusers, according to the researchers.
The detention facility in the study routinely records conversations of detainees to increase jail safety. The couples were aware they were being recorded through an automated message at the beginning of each call. Such recordings have been approved by the state Supreme Court, and the researchers gained approval from the county prosecutor’s office to use the recordings.
After analyzing the calls, the researchers identified a five-step process (steps, in this article). It begins with the victims vigorously defending themselves in the phone calls, and ends with them agreeing to a plan to recant their testimony and and not press charges against the accused abuser.
Step 1 – The Victim Has Decided to Press Charges of Domestic Violence
Typically, in the first couple of conversations there is a heated argument between the couple, revolving around the event leading to the abuse charge. In these early conversations, the victim is strong, and resists the accused perpetrator’s account of what happens. “The victim starts out with a sense of determination and is eager to advocate for herself, but gradually that erodes as the phone calls continue,” said Bonomi.
Step 2 – The Abuser Appeals to His Victim’s Sympathy, Love, Compassion
In the second stage, the perpetrator minimizes the abuse and tries to convince the victim that what happened wasn’t that serious. In one couple, where the victim suffered strangulation and a severe bite to the face, the accused perpetrator repeatedly reminded the victim that he was being charged with “felony assault,” while asking whether she thought he deserved the felony charge.
“Finally, he wore her down and she agreed with him that he didn’t deserve a felony charge,” Bonomi said. One reason why victims of domestic violence don’t press charges is that their abusers use emotional appeals. It’s confusing and manipulative, and makes it difficult for some women to leave a violent relationship.
“The tipping point for most victims occurs when the perpetrator appeals to her sympathy, by describing how much he is suffering in jail, how depressed he is, and how much he misses her and their children,” she said. “The perpetrator casts himself as the victim, and quite often the real victim responds by trying to soothe and comfort the abuser.” In one case, the accused perpetrator threatened suicide and said in a phone call to his victim, “Nobody loves me though, right?”
Step 3 – The Abuser Creates an “Us Against Them” Bond
In the third stage, after the accused abuser has gained the sympathy of the victim, the couple bonds over their love for each other and positions themselves against others who “don’t understand them.” It’s an “us against them” mentality, which is romanticized in many ways.
Step 4 – The Abuser Asks Her to Recant Her Statement
The fourth stage involves the perpetrator asking the victim to recant her accusations against him and the victim complying. The victim who has experienced domestic violence for weeks, months, or years decides not to press charges.
Step 5 – The Abuser and Victim Plan What She Will Say About Not Pressing Charges
Finally, the couple constructs the “recantation plan” and develops their stories. They decide what she’ll say when asked why she’s not pressing charges against the man who has been abusing her.
“They often exchange very specific instructions about what should be done and said in court. They seal their bond as a couple and see themselves as fighting together against the state, which they view as trying to keep them apart,” Bonomi said. While the couples were told that the phone calls were being recorded, Bonomi said she doesn’t believe it had a major effect on what they talked about.
“These are couples in crisis and the perpetrator wants above all to get his freedom. He isn’t holding back,” she said. Bonomi said she also doesn’t believe the fact that the calls were recorded is what kept the accused perpetrators from threatening violence. Instead, she thinks the men calculated they had a better chance of succeeding if they didn’t make direct threats. If the accused abuser threatens his girlfriend or wife, she may hang up the phone or refuse to talk to him.
Of course, the threat of future violence is always there for these couples, Bonomi said, but the perpetrators didn’t use threats in these calls to achieve their aims…which is to avoid charges of domestic violence. Bonomi said the results of this study could help prosecutors and other victim advocates as they work with abuse victims in the criminal justice system.
If you’re in an abusive relationship – and you’re too scared to leave, much less press charges – read 5 Stages Women Go Through Before Leaving a Man Who Abuses.
Source: Jailhouse Phone Calls Reveal Why Domestic Violence Victims Recant – press release; and Bonomi’s co-authors on the study were Rashmi Gangamma and Heather Katafiasz of Ohio State, Chris Locke of Auburn University and David Martin of the King County (Washington) Prosecutor’s Office. The study was funded by the Criminal Justice Research Center at Ohio State and the Group Health Foundation of Seattle. The study appears online in the journal Social Science & Medicine and will appear in a future print edition.