Alcohol as a Non-Exculpatory Facilitator of Violence Against Women

At Stanford School of Medicine’s blog , I described the results of the new RAND study showing that mandatory sobriety programs reduce both drink driving and domestic violence arrests. The latter question was a particularly hot one when I was working with the UK Parliament on establishing sobriety programs in England and Wales, and split some allies who normally worked well together.

I have advocated for and provided services to women who were victims of family violence, so I know how difficult a field that is in which to work and I admire those who make it a lifetime commitment. It was thus painful for me that many leading anti-domestic violence advocates in London were against using a sentence of mandatory sobriety for men who batter their spouses/partners.

Their argument was that violence against women is caused by patriarchy. Focusing on the perpetrator’s alcohol use was therefore a distraction at best and the legitimation of an excuse for violence at worst. I agreed with them on the first point, but not the second.

If a man believes that women are a lesser species who should be subordinate in intimate relationships, those attitudes may in his mind justify physical violence. It seems to me obvious that the link between those attitudes and that behavior are stronger when the man has consumed a disinhibitory drug such as alcohol.

As I said to the advocates, that doesn’t give alcohol any exculpatory power in domestic violence cases. Alcohol doesn’t leap into the body of unwilling batterers. A batterer who consumes 8 pints of beer and then hits his wife should be held responsible for both behaviors, rather than having the first decision become a moral blank check for the second.

I was unable to convince my friends in the anti-domestic violence movement of this view. I hope the new results showing that mandatory sobriety programs do in fact reduce domestic violence will be persuasive to them. There are 50,000 domestic violence arrests in London each year, making this too important an issue to tackle without reliance on solid evidence.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.