Why Shaming Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence Harms Survivors
By A. Rachel Camp | May 15, 2018
In 2017, a judge in Guilford County, North Carolina convicted three men of domestic violence misdemeanors. Their sentence? They were forced to spend hours over the course of several days standing outside the courthouse holding signs that read, “This is the face of domestic abuse.” Such shaming sentences – ones that publicly stigmatize perpetrators of intimate partner abuse and other criminal wrongdoers – are trending in courts across the country.
A judge ordering a shaming sentence for a perpetrator of intimate partner violence (IPV) may seem rational. Perpetrators commonly belittle, humiliate, and disgrace their partners within a larger pattern of physical abuse, and survivors often report feeling an abiding sense of shame as a result. Thus, humiliating a perpetrator may seem particularly apropos. Judicially imposed shaming sentences also appear to serve the criminal system’s retributive goals, sending a clear public message of intolerance for abusive behavior. These sentences may further be meant to rehabilitate, assuming that moral education flows from public humiliation.
But even if these stigmatizing sentences have some legitimate purpose, any benefit is outweighed by the fact that they undermine the goals of violence reduction and survivor safety. Shaming perpetrators makes their victims more vulnerable, not less.
Shame is among the most uncomfortable of emotions a human can feel; it often leads to profound embarrassment, a sense of unworthiness, and a destructive loss of dignity. Many who experience these consequences seek ways to diminish their intensity. Acts of aggression and violence can provide an outlet for restoring one’s self-image or gaining back a sense of control. Psychologist James Gilligan explains shame as a unifying emotion among the most violent individuals in our country. Perpetrators of IPV often have multiple shaming experiences over their lifetimes, including those arising from conditions associated with poverty, family-of-origin abuse, and childhood trauma. Childhood shaming experiences may even be more strongly associated with adult perpetration of IPV than witnessing parental violence.
Judicial shaming, then, contravenes what we understand about creating optimal conditions for changing behavior for the better. It also ignores what we know about the relationship between internalized shame and externalized violence: shaming a perpetrator can increase–not decrease–a survivor’s risk of harm, particularly if her partner believes she is somehow responsible for the shame imposed by a third party. Further, judges ordering public shaming risk reifying the same behavior for which a perpetrator is being punished, sending confusing messages about the acceptability of shame to persons who may use similar tactics against their partners.
The legal system perpetuates another shaming condition that is, itself, correlated with IPV: poverty. Routine legal interventions such as jail sentences and mandatory participation in domestic violence intervention programs often lead to missed or lost work or an inability to obtain employment. These consequences can perpetuate or worsen perpetrators’ economic instability. For men whose self-worth may derive, in part, from their “breadwinner” role, the often deeply stigmatizing consequences of economic instability and poverty can be particularly shaming. Legal interventions meant to curb IPV may again create conditions that increase abusive behaviors.
To be sure, efforts to understand and respond to conditions identified as contributing to the use of violence must not be conflated with a willingness to excuse IPV. The fact that a perpetrator feels shame – regardless of how profound that feeling is – does not justify his use of violence. However, we must not tolerate interventions that create a counterproductive risk of increasing harm to survivors. Finding and promoting promote policies that advance economic stability for all people can contribute to the prevention of violence in the first place. Once IPV occurs, both survivors and perpetrators require interventions that promote their dignity in the courtroom and beyond. In holding perpetrators legally accountable for their abusive behavior, courts should expand beyond the standard menu of interventions —not to innovate new ways to humiliate, but to find ways to hold perpetrators of IPV accountable while also addressing the conditions that contribute to IPV in the first place.