What is “Battered Woman Syndrome” (And Why Some Say We Should Stop Saying It)

What is “Battered Woman Syndrome” (And Why Some Say We Should Stop Saying It)

Domestic violence and subsequent survivorship is a complex process. The term “battered woman syndrome” has been around for decades, used to explain all facets of abuse in one tidy phrase. The saying is outdated, and many say it should leave our social vocabulary. 

Here’s why. 

What is “Battered Woman Syndrome?”

What we now call domestic abuse or violence, or intimate partner violence, was formerly called “Battered Woman Syndrome.” Coined in 1970s, the term was used to explain and describe experiences and behaviors common among female abuse survivors. Those experiences, such as traumatic responses, physical stress, emotional instability, and visceral responses to abusers, became the basis for decades of research.

Since the term’s inception more than 40 years ago, the generalized phrase has become problematic. What was once used to encompass all behaviors and actions of both abuser and victim has been recognized as oversimplified. 

Today, law enforcement, medical and mental health professionals, and survivors themselves shy away from the term, both as a diagnosis and as a legal defense.

BWS as a Legal Defense

In the past, female defendants accused of murdering intimate partners often used Battered Woman Syndrome as a defense. While there are instances where women do attack or kill their partners in self-defense, using BWS to justify these actions led many to discount the authentic trauma that survivors experience.

Certainly, there are instances where bringing domestic violence into a trial would be entirely appropriate. If the accused’s life was in danger, or if she suffered repeated abuse, there is a precedent for using that as a defense. But in many cases, BWS became a “buzzword,” with every accused woman using it as a defense, regardless of its accuracy.

Why It’s Problematic

The problem with using the antiquated term “Battered Woman Syndrome” is that it tries to simplify a very complex issue. As we gain more insight and understanding into domestic violence, its causes, and the dramatic impacts on survivors, we have learned that BWS isn’t an accurate descriptor.

Instead, what was once called a single “syndrome” is a conglomeration of many different physical, psychological, social, and economic impacts. Instead of lumping it all together, social scientists and medical professionals now know that what we once called Battered Woman Syndrome can be separated into:

There are many challenges facing survivors. When we try to place the complex situations of each individual under a generic umbrella, it discounts each person’s experience and specific trauma. 

Moreover, the language is outdated. We now know that not all abuse victims are female. Abuse happens to men and nonbinary people as well. It happens just as often in same-sex couples as in heterosexual couples. Inclusive terms like “intimate partner violence” or “domestic violence” are much more appropriate, giving voices to all survivors, regardless of gender. 

Over time, we learn and change. We now know that intimate partner violence is a complex and varied problem that impacts each individual differently. Using outdated phrases can not only oversimplify a complex issue, but also negate the experiences of other victims. By recognizing the unique nature of these issues, we can better serve and support survivors.

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