Learn more about the book, Women and Violence

The impact of violence against women is too often masked by silence. Its continuation depends on silence. Distance keeps us safe and unless one personally experiences violence or knows someone who has, many of us remain ignorant and complacent.

Violence is difficult to study because its manifestations are ambiguous and inconsistent, and the multiple dimensions that converge to create unique causes and consequences make comparisons and replication impossible. There are a number of books written on the issue, primarily from a feminist perspective, but in “Women and Violence,” Barrie Levy concisely and comprehensively provides the big picture as well as the personal picture of violence; its consequences to victims as well as to society. The book explains violence, its forms, its consequences, its controversies, the progress activists have made and the work still needed to be done. It is written clearly enough to serve as an introduction or a succinct review and reminder for veteran activists.

The best place to begin is the beginning, and Levy takes the time to define violence. Many interpersonal behaviors are harmful, and one individual’s experience with violence will be drastically different from another, making violence hard to define and quantify. Regardless of the form violence takes, whether it is physical or psychological, the key factor is the effect of the behavior. Violent behavior takes away a woman’s ability to control her contact with another person and puts her into a subservient, powerless position.

Clear definitions of intimate partner violence such as stalking are presented clearly and without bias. The breadth, complication, and diversity of violent acts are apparent when Levy describes psychologically abusive behaviors such as psychological destabilization, withholding caring and nurturance, and coercive control. Many times these behaviors accumulate over a long period and may not be considered as violent as isolated incidents, but the collective consequences of those behaviors are just as strong.

Further evidence of the difficulties of accounting for violence are presented through descriptions of secondary victimization, the people surrounding the primary victim who suffer equally, or the continuation of abuse after a relationship ends. Levy describes the legal definitions as well as court actions that clarify which actions constitute more ambiguous forms of violence such as sexual harassment.

What causes violence? Who causes violence? Research has presented a number of causes including social learning, biology, psychological problems, and sociocultural factors, but Levy stresses the intersection of all of these as well as race, class and gender. The unique intersections of these variables as well as individual differences make it difficult to come to concrete conclusions. Without clear conclusions, legal definitions, punishment of perpetrators, treatment of victims and prevention efforts are more complicated.

Violence does not just occur in the United States. Levy explains the globalization of violence through sex trafficking, sex tourism and culturally specific violence. Female genital mutilation, honor killing and dowry deaths are more widely practiced in countries far from us, but the impact of these practices are felt globally.

The consequences of violence expand far beyond the individuals involved. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the health-related costs of partner violence in the United States to be more than $5.8 billion per year. That number only counts physical injuries resulting from intimate partner violence. As for mental health, the United States Department of Justice estimated the annual mental health care costs for victims of attempted or completed rapes to be over $863 million. That number only counts the reported crimes of a specific form of violence.

These are only two examples of figures presented in this book and they do not factor in secondary victims or those victims who do not make reports to law enforcement. Also undocumented are costs related to sheltering women who escape abusive situations, the social services that provide help, the police protection needed or the judicial, legal or correctional services that are involved when crimes are reported. Violence against women costs everyone money and is a key contributor to the millions of women living in poverty.

The controversies about violence often are caught up in definitions. What one researcher claims is violence, another refutes. While most programs focus on violence against women as perpetrated by men, how are the same issues dealt with when women perpetrate violence against men? The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered populations experience violence perpetrated by both men and women and until recently, those communities had little support. Institutionalized sexism and aggressive behavior in general is becoming more common and arguments about those issues also need to be addressed.
With all the violence occurring around the world and in our communities, where is the hope?

There are two kinds of advocacy that Levy describes, individual case advocacy and systems advocacy. On the individual level, there are a number of people who work with victims and perpetrators to improve and to help curtail future violence and curb its effects.

Systemic change takes more time and more people. The anti-rape and battered women’s movements have been the most publicized in the United States and have shown progress. Internationally, organizations have been created and laws have been passed to criminalize female genital mutilation, sex trafficking and sexual violence. But the work is not done yet and Levy offers resources for readers to continue learning and start helping.

Counting myself as an educated feminist and veteran activist, I chose Levy’s book because of the subject’s familiarity and because I have read enough about feminist issues to believe I possess a critical enough mindset to evaluate this one. Books don’t need to be long to be effective and I think Levy’s book is effective on several levels.

In her prologue, Levy describes her background as feminist scholar and activist. Upon reading her credentials, I was certainly impressed and confident that the subject would be covered thoroughly, but I anticipated a more politically charged feeling. The expectation of an emotional appeal or a feminist-inspired battle cry was unmet. The appeal was intellectual and the writing style matter-of-fact. Definitions were clear and reinforced or clarified by utilizing research and other material. Not once during this book did I feel like the author was attempting to persuade me.

The organization of the book was effective in that Levy presented the issues of violence against women in both broad and concrete terms. Interspersed throughout definitions, descriptions and explanations were short vignettes of personal stories that made the intellectual writing more meaningful and created balance.

Issues of magnitude can be perceived as too overwhelming to do anything about. In our age of attention to education, health care and the economy, Levy connected violence with each one and showed how connected they are. The chapter about consequences could result in its own book since I am sure there is more that can be said, but the author gave enough information to stimulate more questions and more thinking.

At the end of the book, the Reader’s Guide encourages discussion and further research and the resources section provides contacts to become involved with organizations working to end violence.

This book would be a terrific book club addition or women’s studies text. I look at this book as a teaser. Just as movies have a preview to spark interest in the full feature, “Women and Violence” serves as a compelling reason to pay attention.

Women and Violence
By Barrie Levy
October 2008: Seal Press
Paperback, 150 pages

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