Culture, the Domestic Abuse of Women, and the Law

Culture – broadly defined as a set of norms, beliefs, ways of thinking, and customs in a society – can create conditions that tacitly allow for the perpetuation and proliferation of forms of abuse. The ubiquity of women’s abuse and maltreatment transcends ethnicity and geography, and is culturally universal (or pan-cultural).

In 1974, Sherry Ortner hypothesized that female physiology and the traditional social roles held by women have led them to be perceived as “closer to nature” than men, and because “it is always culture’s project to subsume and transcend nature” (Ortner, 1974, p.73), women’s symbolic association with nature insinuates an inherently second-class status. Culture, in this case, is comprised of pursuits and goals seen as intellectual and rational. Despite their supposed association with nature, however, women are very obviously also participants in the establishment of culture. They therefore hold a dual-role; a kind of intermediary between nature and culture.

As such, she states, women are perceived as less transcendent of nature than men.  While Ortner’s argument may strike some as taking a “blame the victim” stance, it may help explain aspects of how women’s oppression continues to be ever-present, despite many people’s attempts to eliminate it. How are we, as a culture, complicit in the perpetuation and acceptance of violence against women and domestic abuse?

“The universality of female subordination, the fact that it exists within every type of social and economic arrangement, and in societies of every degree of complexity, indicates to me that we are up against something very profound, very stubborn, something that cannot be remedied merely by rearranging a few tasks and roles in the social system, nor even by rearranging the whole economic structure.” (Ortner, 1974, p.67-68)

We see, all over the world, domestic abuse as an expression of this subordination, embedded within the cultural systems that support it. How this subordination manifests varies based on the values and social norms within a given culture. To thoughtfully consider ways to intervene in legal systems in Canada, we must look carefully at the cultural constructs that form the landscape upon which laws and policies are established, upheld, or interpreted, and within which domestic violence proliferates.

What Defines Abuse?

This project’s preliminary analysis of some of the key cultural factors that contribute to the proliferation of domestic abuse and the range of ways in which it is addressed in Canadian society includes an examination of the definitions and semantics of abuse. Under Canadian law, for instance, forms of abuse are relatively narrowly defined to include physical violence, and specific forms of harassment such as stalking; these laws as they relate specifically to cases of domestic abuse can often be difficult to interpret and/or apply. Community organizations working to combat domestic abuse and support victims, however, cite broader definitions that include the many forms of psychological and emotional abuse often experienced. The discrepancy in what constitutes abuse to the victim, versus how it is perceived under law, creates conditions that make navigating the legal system and seeking support more difficult.

Also culturally significant in the context of domestic abuse and the law are the ways in which intimate partner violence and assault are treated differently from stranger assault. For example, the recent U.S. incident involving Janay Palmer and her husband Ray Rice (an NFL player) raises questions about how the case would have been handled had Rice rendered a stranger unconscious instead of his wife. We may ask:


  • Why do we separate these forms of violence and investigate and prosecute them so differently?
  • How does this approach imply causation on the part of the victim in cases of intimate partner violence?
  • What impacts do these perceived differences have on citizens’ sense of agency in our legal system, if they are experiencing abuse?
  • And why, too, did the victim in this case take partial responsibility for the assault?

Traditional Family Roles

The cultural value placed on the ‘nuclear family’, and the stigma associated with ‘single motherhood’ have been cited as one reason women endure ongoing domestic abuse. This value impacts both men and women, as it implies a cultural tolerance of abuse over the safety of all family members.

Our cultural definitions of what constitutes mental health and related disorders, as defined by the DSM and similar manuals, has included the fabrication of psychological designations to pathologize women in their attempts to escape situations of abuse. The controversial “PAS” – or “Parental Alienation Syndrome” – came under particular scrutiny because of how its ‘diagnosis’ might have been used to unfairly characterize mothers in cases where the father has been accused of abuse. It is one example where an ardent campaign was mounted to discourage its inclusion.

The Workplace and its Anti-Social Norms

The valuing of anti-social personality traits in our places of work, and the emerging evidence that employees who embody certain sociopathic traits (such as bullying, ruthlessness, and intimidation) are shown to excel in conventional workplace hierarchies, further contribute to a cultural climate that tolerates and rewards abusive behaviours. Meanwhile, “Gamergate”, and the vehement, ongoing sexism and cyber-violence against women that pervades online social networks, in particular gaming culture, also contributes to a cultural fabric that makes permissible violence against women.

Society, Self-subjugation and Shame

Relational aggression – witnessed between peers as young as 30 months in research studies – is primarily observed among girls. The role that media plays in unintentionally encouraging this type of social aggression (even when the underlying message is to discourage it) may be contributing to the proliferation of girls’ and women’s self-subjugation. Women who feel that, for instance, women who wear sexualized clothing may be ‘asking to be assaulted’ may be consciously or unconsciously contributing to their own devaluation and creating a culture that permits sexual predation.

The policing of women’s sexuality, and the shaming associated with women being free agents of their own bodies, sexual practices, and enjoyment, is yet another form of cultural subordination that limits women’s and girls’ sense of agency and feelings of safety in our culture.

These are but a few examples of how cultural perceptions of men and women may be influencing how we write and uphold laws with regard to domestic abuse. If the lens through which we see the world is mediated by our cultural beliefs and understandings of sex and gender, then how might this create biases and gaps in our legal and judicial systems?


Ortner, S. B. (1972). Is female to male as nature is to culture?. Feminist Studies, 1(2), 5-31.

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