In her controversial book, Carolyn Hoyle talks to many women who have suffered domestic violence. Here, she explains why feminist arguments have failed to serve their needs
IT WASN'T until my book, Negotiating Domestic Violence, was published last week that I realised quite how difficult it can be to challenge accepted orthodoxies, even when they turn out to rest on sand. The book is an academic monograph, and the only notice I ever expected it to attract was reviews by colleagues in the specialist press. Instead, I have found myself vilified, accused of "selling out" battered women, of attempting to "decriminalise" domestic assaults, as part of a "new feminist" movement in which my cohorts, I am surprised to learn, include luminaries such as Camille Paglia, whose work I have never read, and whom I have certainly never met.

I brought this opprobrium down upon my head because I challenged what has become the standard, and in my view, highly simplistic, feminist remedy for dealing with domestic violence. In no sense do I seek to minimise the seriousness of this class of crime. At the same time, I do not share the uncompromising right-wing stance that the appropriate solution is to advocate ever "tougher" sentences for violent men. To take such a position, it seems, is to find oneself branded as betraying women and as excusing men's violence. We should never excuse violence of any kind. But we need to understand it. John Major's notorious statement in 1992, that society ought to condemn crimes a little more and understand them a little less, applies to assaults in the home as well. The real betrayal of women is by those who prefer dogma to reasoned argument, and anecdotal evidence to in-depth research.

One way in which I have been misrepresented is the repeated claim that my book suggests that victims of domestic violence are "to blame" for the low proportion of violent men who end up being taken to court. It has been falsely alleged that I wrote that it is "the attitude of women, rather than the police or lawyers", which accounts for the low prosecution rate. I have never said, nor put in print that victims are "to blame". Nor have I written disparagingly about their "attitude". My book describes the complex interactions between victims, perpetrators, police and prosecutors. It seeks to explain what is really going on, and ways in which the existing system might be improved.

The point which has attracted most attention from the book is that many victims of domestic violence do not wish their abusers to be prosecuted by the criminal justice system as it currently operates, and that it is their reluctance to proceed with prosecutions which explains much of the low prosecution rate.

I interviewed at length more than 100 women victims, many of them several times. The first point which emerged is that the majority of women who call the police want something very simple from the police: they want them to provide a temporary resolution to the situation by removing their violent partner or ex-partner from their homes. Many of the women in my study did not mind whether this involved a formal arrest, although in many cases police did arrest the perpetrator. Indeed, in some cases police used common law powers of arrest in order to remove aggressive men who had not actually committed a criminal offence. They did so in order to give the women some "breathing space" to make a decision, about the immediate future - even though they had no intention of charging the men.

In contrast to the standard feminist account, in which the police are described as sexist and unresponsive to victims' needs, the majority of victims I spoke to were satisfied with this initial response. The book is critical, however, of the lack of aftercare which left some women who did not wish to pursue a prosecution feeling isolated after this immediate police response. Since I finished the research on which the book is based, Thames Valley Police have addressed this criticism by appointing trained, specialist domestic violence officers to follow up all cases of reported domestic violence. Further research I conducted found that victims have benefited from this enhanced service, and more were now able, with the help of these officers, to leave violent relationships.

Of course, some victims of domestic violence do not wish to end their relationships. For these women, prosecution does not seem to be a desirable option.

In almost all of the cases I followed where the victim either refused to make a statement, or later withdrew it once made, the police or the Crown Prosecution Service discontinued the case. Often this was because, without the victim's statement, there was no evidence to mount a prosecution. Sometimes, however, it was simply because police and prosecutors had a genuine desire to respond to the apparent wishes of victims. They were also - rightly, in my view - concerned that compelling victims to testify could send out strongly negative messages to the other victims. They recognised what women told me constantly: that the criminal justice system is an extremely clumsy tool for dealing with domestic violence.

It was reported last week that women's organisations argue that the police "often dissuade victims from bringing charges". I am not so naive as to believe that this never happens. However, in all the cases of domestic violence I investigated, using various research methods, I found only a couple of cases where it had. The majority of women who refuse to give evidence do so for reasons which seem absolutely rational when we consider their context.

There are three main reasons why woman decide not to pursue a prosecution. First, some women do not wish to break up the relationship or the family. There are various practical, social and emotional reasons for this. Suffice to say, we need to listen to this group of women and be careful how we judge them.

This brings us to the third explanation: that many women do not think that the sentences meted out by the courts are worth the "costs" of pursuing a prosecution. In most domestic violence cases, attacks are sporadic, and at the lower end of the seriousness scale. The one thing which many women experiencing this kind of abuse wanted was help for the perpetrators, behaviour-changing or educative programmes aimed at stopping men being violent. Such schemes do exist in Scotland, although they are rare elsewhere. A recent evaluation showed that these programmes were more effective than other criminal justice sanctions in deterring men from further violence.

Sandra Horley of the Chiswick Women's Refuge has criticised programmes which try to work with domestic violence offenders for deflecting resources away from support for women. This raises a false dichotomy. Of course, more needs to be done, for victims: Women's Aid is still pitifully under- resourced. However, doing some thing for men, in the form of batterers' programmes, if successful, would ultimately "do something" for victims. It is naive to see this as an "either/or" issue.

I am disturbed by a further argument made last week. If women are reluctant to prosecute, what should we do? There are essentially two options. We can rely on the criminal law as it presently operates, but give women no choice but to testify - in other words, to compel them to take the stand. It has been contended that the police could avoid the necessity of compelling victims by adopting more "imaginative ways" of gathering evidence. I agree that in some cases, the police should be more assiduous in interviewing neighbours and other potential witnesses. But when this is impossible, or produces no result, then what? Secret cameras in every home? Or are my critics trying to propose a different system of justice for crimes of violence against women? Rules of evidence are aimed at ensuring that all defendants are protected from wrongful conviction. They cannot be swept aside for certain classes of crime.

There is, however, another way of ensuring increased prosecution rates. We could try to make prosecution a more attractive option to victims. If more victims think that by going to court their violent partners may be helped to cease their abusive behaviour, they will be more inclined to co-operate with the criminal justice system.

Like many victims, as well as police officers and prosecutors, I believe that in many cases the criminal law and the prosecution system are too blunt and uncompromising. We need to listen carefully to what women want from the criminal justice system. If they want interventions which attempt to re-educate violent partners and ultimately stop the violence, we need to be ready to provide such programmes.

If we are to take seriously the violence experienced by women in the home, sentencing needs to become both useful and symbolically powerful. Knee-jerk recourse to repression and social exclusion is unlikely to be in anyone's best interest.

`Negotiating Domestic Violence: Police, Criminal Justice and Victims' by Carolyn Hoyle is published by Oxford University Press


Suzanne's story:

"He'd grabbed me and pushed me around a bit. The officer told me he could be arrested for it but I wanted to give him another chance. I didn't want all the nastiness of the law being involved. It would have upset the kids. I wanted protection, not him prosecuted. I never really wanted to get him into trouble. In the past I'd always threatened to call the police and this had worked, in the main. It was enough to calm him down. I've never wanted him to go to prison or anything like that. I just want him to stop thinking he can treat me like this."

Finally, with the help of the police, Suzanne was able to use the threat of prosecution to deter her husband from further violence against her. With the help of the domestic violence officer, she sought the help of a solicitor and took out an injunction and she has left him. She now has an amicable child-care arrangement with her husband, who has not been violent.

Six months after this interview, I telephoned Suzanne, who assured me that her husband had not been violent since the injunction was taken out and that her divorce had been finalised.


Jeanne's story:

"When I called the police I wanted them to take him away until he cooled down. They arrested him and I thought that was fine but then they came back and tried to persuade me to make a statement. I really wasn't sure about it. They were taking it all very seriously and I went along with it. Then the next day I withdrew it. They (the police) tried to make me stick with it, but I still loved Steve and wanted him back. I said that I wished he could get some help in controlling his drug habit and controlling his aggression. I still love him. It's the drugs and the booze that make him violent. Underneath, he's a nice man. I don't want him to get into trouble, but I do want to make a fresh start. He had an awful childhood - he was abused by his father. I'm not excusing him for what he did, but it did make him bitter."

Steve got help with his drug addiction via his doctor. Five months after this interview Joanna had not called the police again. She told me that they were still arguing a lot but that he had not actually hit her since he got help. When asked if the police response had deterred him from further offending, she said that she believed that it was the treatment that had brought about the changes in him.