DV Conference Report #11: Feminist DV Expert Criticizes Pizzey, Defends Excluding Teen Boys from Shelters

Sacramento, CA–Background: At the conference “From Ideology to Inclusion: Evidence-Based Policy and Intervention in Domestic Violence” (held in Sacramento, California February 15-16), Erin Pizzey told me about domestic violence shelters’ policies of excluding all males ages 12 or older from going to the shelters with their mothers. I wrote about it here.

Evan Stark, a prominent feminist advocate for domestic violence victims and the author of Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life (Interpersonal Violence), took issue with Pizzey’s criticisms of battered women’s shelters’ policy of excluding boys. To read his views, click here.

Pizzey saw Stark’s comments and was not pleased. She wrote:

“I am outraged at the inference that boys have never been able to go into shelters in America or refuges in England because the shelter/refuge can’t monitor the boys’ sexual or violent behaviour. Why does this man think that the boys will be violent or sexual towards the girls/young women in the shelter? This shows an appallingly biased mindset.

“Of course some of the girls and some of the boys will be violent and sexual, but it is the job of the shelter/refuge to work with those children just like they should work with the some of the women in the shelter/refuges to help them learn appropriate behaviour.

“It is untrue to say that my refuge did not take boys into the central refuge. I made it quite clear that the boys, could if they wished, live in the boy’s project. Many boys chose to stay with their mothers.

“Chiswick was a therapeutic community and everyone within the community worked to see that we treated each other with respect and love. The problem with the shelters/refuges is that most of them are hostels and their purpose is to fund the feminist movements so they exclude young boys because they are the potential enemy.”

Stark counters Pizzey’s views below.

Feminist DV Expert Criticizes Pizzey, Defends Excluding Teen Boys from Shelters

Pizzey is “outraged” that I support excluding older male children from all shelters. But I never said anything of the kind. What I did was explain that some shelters exclude older boys because they lack the staffing to regulate violence and sexual acting out by these adolescents, females as well as males. In fact, this is no longer as much of a problem as it was 25 years ago, when Pizzey worked in a shelter.

Today, most refuges in England use free standing apartments, so families stay in tact. Here, the picture is mixed. Many of our shelters lack the funding or staff to regulate violence or sexual acting out in the facility and are not equipped for older males. Pizzey admits “some boys and girls” may be violent or sexual, but she thinks we should monitor these behaviors rather than try to prevent them by separating older boys from girls.

Shelters in this country and most in England are not social service agencies. They are spaces where women can be temporarily safe and consider their options. Critical to this experience is the idea that we do not tell women how to lead their lives or set any but the most basic rules to maintain the house.

Pizzey’s approach was more like a mother superior who treated the residents at Chiswick as if they were immature and needed her personal guidance. We treat women who use the shelter not as problem women but as women who have had problems with abusive partners. In many of these relationships, they were punished, often brutally, for any behavior their partner considered inappropriate or disloyal. Restoring confidence in their own decision-making is a critical phase in recovery. This means letting women make their own mistakes. But many shelters feel they can’t extend this philosophy to violence or sexual acting out.

Painting all shelters as feminist is also wrong. While many shelters in the U.S. were started by women’s groups and some remain feminist in their orientation, the majority of U.S. facilities were started by the Y, the Salvation Army and other religious, community-based or free standing organizations. Unless these facilities have the staff and space, they too exclude older boys. So this policy has nothing to do with feminism or man- hating. And it is designed to protect boys as well as girls.

Many shelters also exclude women with addictions or serious psychiatric problems. Since many battered women suffer from these problems, this policy also sets limits on what we can do. Again, however, it reflects widely held beliefs about what is safe, not a bias against addiction or mental illness.

I pointed out that Pizzey herself segregated older males in a house behind the main refuge. She admits this, but claims boys had the choice to stay in the refuge with their moms. This may be true. But when we visited Chiswick several years after it opened, there were no male adolescents in the refuge.

The most absurd part of Pizzey’s response is her description of Chiswick as a “therapeutic community.” When we visited, there were 90 women and children staying in the 5 bedroom house, more than l5 in a room. Pizzey claimed, “If they can manage this, they can manage anything.” Since even this chaos was preferable to the violent situations women and children had left behind, it may ultimately have helped women gain confidence in their ability to survive on their own. But there was nothing even remotely resembling therapy taking place.

As several letter writers and Glenn Sacks, I am a feminist as well as a man. This means I believe in full equality, liberty and justice for women as well as men. Women in the U.S. earn a third of what men do for the same work; still do 90% of child care, 90% of housework, 85% of all cooking; represent a tiny proportion of those in political power (though they register and vote in larger numbers than men), etc.

It is only in my lifetime that women in many advanced countries got the right to vote, to sit on juries, to go to the top universities and professional schools, to charge husbands with rape or to enter corporate boardrooms.

I have no question that women can be as violent and abusive as men. But these inequalities and numerous others I could list with more space, mean that women enter personal relationships on an unequal footing with men, though ostensibly both have the same formal rights. It is this unequal footing, exploited by too many men with coercion and control, that drives the millions of women to seek shelter or legal or police protection each year.

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