The Theories of Crime

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Theories of Crime   2.Feminist Criminology/Law:The criminal defence of "Battered Woman Syndrome" is founded on gendered stereotypes of helpless women. Discuss. Domestic violence and the result of continuous domestic violence against women is a multifaceted issue. Despite the obvious physical injuries that victims sustain, victims of domestic violence also suffer psychological issues that can vary considerably from minor anxiety and stress to debilitating mental illness. On occasion, victims retaliate due to the violence sustained. Criminal courts are now recognising a plausible excuse of this retaliation to domestic violence as the ‘Battered Woman Syndrome’. (NRC, 2014) However, this is also a controversial topic as courts including the lawyers, judges and jurors will have preconceived notions of women and gender stereotypes and the presentation of testimony towards battered women. In this essay I aim to define the Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS), the ‘helpless woman’ and how BWS is founded on the stereotypes of women. BWS was initially identified by psychologist, Lenore Walker as “a set of distinct psychological and behavioural symptoms that resulted from prolonged exposure to situations of intimate partner violence” (Walker 1984). Walker (1984) states that the emotional condition and mindset of a battered woman who has succumb to the cycle of prolonged partner violence is one of absolute helplessness. Furthermore, Walker (1984) states that the cycle of violence is often determined by the level and intensity of the violence. This cycle is therefore categorised in to three separate stages and are depicted below as: Stage 1 – Tension Building (Verbal and emotional abuse) Stage 2 - Acute Battering Incident (Physical violence and heightened sense of fear for the victim) Stage 3 - Loving Contrition (Abuser would attempt to convince victim of their intention to change) (Craven 2003) BWS is a manifestation of learned helplessness which derives itself from the perception of the ‘helpless woman’. Learned helplessness assists in explaining the battered person’s perceptions of the situation and why they do not flee from the abuser. The ‘helpless woman’ syndrome was an adapted theory by Walker from Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness. Seligman used the theory to help explain how mental illness and subsequent vulnerability to inmate violence were associated with depression, low self esteem and helplessness. Walker (1984) utilised the base of this theory to explain how battered women also suffered similar mental conditions as a result of their battery. (Craven 2003) Seligman conducted a laboratory experiment on dogs which were continually shocked. Once given the ability to flee the torment the animals were unable to physically escape the painful situation. This helped Seligman argue that when sufferers of domestic violence are given the ability to escape it is apparent they develop distorted perceptions of their ability to alter their position. Seligman then drew the link between the behaviour of the dogs and some side effects of depression which is a condition caused by BWS. (Craven 2003) “Battering, like electric shocks, would, over-time, diminish a woman’s motivation to respond and produce the same kinds of cognitive, behavioural and motivational responses. In other words, a woman who remained in a violent relationship was more likely to exhibit signs of learned helplessness that one who had never been in, or had escaped a violent relationship” (WALKER 1984) BWS has been implemented in Criminal Court in the past 25 years and is being seen by more and more as a plausible excuse for grievous retaliations of violence of women against their abusing partner. However, this is not without its share of criticism and scepticism by some. (Schneider 2002) Elizabeth Schneider helped explain the use of BWS in the courtroom. Elizabeth believed that for a defence solicitor to utilise the defence of BWS for a client in a criminal courtroom, first they would have to overcome sex-based stereotypes. The lawyer will have to understand enough about the experiences suffered by their client to consider whether her actions are reasonable and in a way that is sensitive to the problems of gender bias. (Schneider 2002) The Australian (Western) legal system has been developed around a ‘male norm in mind’ (Schneider 2002) Because generic stereotypes of battered women continue through all levels of the legal system (Judges, Lawyers and Jury), Lawyers need to be critical about their own trains of through and seek assistance by experts to help recognise gender bias in the law. (Schneider 2002) Magistrates, Judges and prosecutors should do the same. They MUST be aware of the misconceptions of women who have suffered at the hands of domestic violence and must stay neutral at trials to provide a fair outcome. (Schneider 2002) For BWS to be successfully utilised in the courts, defence lawyers must express the following information
  • History of violence against the abused woman
  • Her efforts to protect herself in the past
  • The mental impact of violence on her
  • The context in which the violence occurred
(Schneider 2002) Even with an understanding of BWS and its gradual acceptance in the criminal courtroom, as previously mentioned it does have its share of criticism. Schneider states that many testimonies provided by sufferers of BWS reinforce the, sometimes dated, attitude that courts have displayed towards women. Further to this other problems that BWS encounters as a plausible form of defence include: (Schneider 2002)
  • The issue of ‘intention to kill’ as opposed to a direct threat on a woman’s life.
  • Male gendered double standards of reasonableness.
  • Testimonies provided by expert witnesses do not have to be accepted by the courts
  • Unfair bias due to financial situation. (Rich women can afford the best psychologists to provide expert opinion and poor women cannot)
  • Generic stereotyping of women who have suffered at the hands of domestic violence.
(Schneider 2002) Gender stereotype is the foundation for BWS as it can reinforce the stereotypical gender roles and the view of women as emotional and irrational victims. With the inclusion of BWS to more and more trials, expert testimony has become an excuse for the crimes committed rather than justification. This has incited many critics of BWS believing that it reinforces gender bias stereotypes and women were excused of their conduct due to irrationality. The initial innocent concept of BWS and its use to help women explain the experiences of a battered woman and her actions of self defence has started to lose credibility as it gets abused and molestered in criminal court by defence. (Wimberly 2014) In conclusion, courts and the people associated with the legal system/profession; need to be aware of gender stereotypes with women as they can influence the outcome of a trial due to preconceived notions. Experts and psychologists should be given the ability to provide expert evidence on the psyche of the victim to gain an insight into the battered woman’s mindset, yet in the same notion not providing excuses for the defence. BWS is an excepted notion and provides a form of standardisation for battered women to justify violent actions, however, does not provide a blanketing excuse. The complex notion of BWS and the helpless woman (learned helplessness) is far from perfect and does come with its own issues and plausible defences negating its relevance. In this essay I have discussed and explained BWS, discussed and explained ‘the helpless woman’ learned helplessness and have explained how BWS is founded on the gender stereotype of women. Word Count: 1,021 Reference:
  • (Craven 2003),Craven, Z, 2003, Battered Woman Syndrome, Australian and Domestic Violence Clearing House Topic paper
  • (Wimberly 2014), Mary Helen Wimberly, Defending victims of domestic violence who kill their batterers,
  • (Walker 1984), Walker, L.E. 1984, The Battered Woman Syndrome, Springer Publishing Company, New York
  • (NRC 2014),National Online Resource Centre – Violence Against Women
  • (Siegel 1995) Siegel, L 1995, Criminology: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies, 5th Edition, West Publishing Company.
  • (Schneider 2002) Scnheider, E, Battered women and feminist law making, Yale University Press, US
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The Theories of Crime. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved July 21, 2024 , from

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