Love as a Total Institution. A Theoretical Model for Understanding Violence against Women


Catania, 30 March 2009. It is ten o’clock in the morning and  113,  the emergency telephone number in Italy, receives a call in a male voice: “come right away, I have killed my wife”. The police go to a building in the centre of the city and find the body of Maria Pia Sciuto. This woman, aged forty-one, has been stabbed to death.

Two relatives of the victim say that they have committed the crime: the husband, Giuseppe Castro, aged thirty-five, and the oldest son of the couple, aged fifteen. The police find the boy on his knees next to the body of his mother. He is in a state of shock and later tells the magistrate that he is the murderer. However, many details that he provides do not match the dynamics of the crime. That morning Giuseppe had come back home early after going on a number of errands. He found his wife in front of the computer – she was chatting on internet. They began to argue. Such a situation was not unusual. The neighbours and the mother-in-law, who lives in the next door flat, spoke of frequent quarrels between the husband and his wife, above all over the last two years, after he had lost his job. Maria Pia, the daughter of a man with a building company in the city and economically independent of her husband, accused Giuseppe of being a good for nothing unable to find a job, and she was supported by her mother who had never had a good opinion of her son-in-law. Giuseppe responded by shouting and violent crises of jealousy because his wife had the habit of spending hours in front of the computer.

It was Giuseppe who had taken a knife from the kitchen and attacked the woman. He struck her in the stomach and the throat. Her body was almost decapitated. After a long talk with the magistrate, Maria Pia’s son admitted that he had lied. He had wanted to ensure that his father ‘stayed at home to be the head of the family’ for his two little sisters. The quarrels and mutual accusations of his parents had affected the boy and for a month he had no longer gone to school and often looked after the two girls, playing with them, taking them to school, and making sure, before they went in, that they had their snacks for the break.

This tragic but not unusual story of ordinary madness condenses in itself many of the features of one of the most frequent violent phenomena to be found in Italy: domestic or intimate partner violence. Although Italy from a comparative perspective is not a violent country, domestic violence is a very widespread phenomenon and has levels which are greater than the average of countries of western Europe. This is a reason why it should be analysed.

In the stories of Maria Pia and Giuseppe, the recurrent elements are: 1) a marital quarrel which lasts over time and which leads to an attack on the woman by the man; 2) an aggressor who ‘loses his mind’ and kills a woman; 3) an overkilling of the body of a woman; 4) a fading of the paternal figure within the family unit; and 5) man’s loss of social-economic status.

The first three elements are typical of almost all the events of family violence and – as I will try to demonstrate – point to a clear micro-social dynamic. The last two are recurrent in one of the models of violence against women, in which the male figure is weak or absent. Indeed, there are some models of violence against women in Italian society; they derive from a combination of variables such as the kind of relationship and the socio-economic status of the partners, the level of tolerance of violence by the community to which they belong, together with the greater or lesser efficacy of policies of prevention and care implemented locally in relation to this phenomenon.

The purpose of these pages is to propose a detailed theoretical model which is able to explain proximity violence, and in particular those events where, within a relationship of love, the man is the aggressor and the woman is the victim. Hitherto sociology has used the equation of power/violence to explain these events. Violence against women in a family context was brought to the surface by women emancipation movements which, denouncing the asymmetry of the roles attributed to men and women in society and in the Italian family, explained domestic violence as a consequence of male power. In the 1970s this explanation was plausible; forty years later it neglects the changes that have taken place in the condition of women and in the parallel evolution of male identity. ‘Gender’ violence (some studies still affirm today) is practised by men ‘as a class’ in order to maintain the advantages that they gain from the domination of women.  But gender is not a class. This approach does not offer any heuristic advantage; what we have to explain is not why men are violent but why and when some men are violent.

Perhaps the patriarchal family still exists in Italy but it is not the only nor the prevalent family model, nor is it the only model that is able to generate violence. The story of Maria Pia and Giuseppe illustrates an opposite and not rare model in which the woman is economically independent of the husband. I can remember another crime which generated much interest in public opinion. In 2007 Barbara Cicioni, who was eight months pregnant, lost her life as well as the baby girl she was carrying in her womb as a result of blows received from her violent husband, Roberto Spaccino. According to the testimony of her relatives given to the police, Barbara had been subjected to blows and injuries ever since her engagement to Roberto. Yet for her friends Barbara was a ‘strong woman’, the mind that organised the business affairs of the family: after Roberto, a lorry driver, had lost his job she had rolled up her sleeves and, drawing upon the work experience that she had acquired as an employee in a dry cleaner’s, had opened a dry cleaner’s herself, to which was then added another. The conflict between husband and wife was strong and ongoing. At the time of the last pregnancy Roberto had asked his wife to have an abortion and when faced with her refusal had threatened not to recognise the child which he thought was not his. Despite a long history of violence, Barbara had not taken any action against her husband because she did not want her children to be subjected to the separation of their parents, an experience that she had undergone when she was young.

The model of the patriarchal society, which is still invoked today, is unable to explain the tragic life and death of Barbara who would have had sufficient economic and personal resources to maintain herself and her children. In addition, in a patriarchal society the body of an expectant woman is sacred, whereas Barbara’s body had often been subjected to violence. The killing of a pregnant wife seems to be the final frontier in the desecration of a woman’s body. What, therefore, is the explanation which can do justice to Barbara and so many other victims?

Any analysis of stories of ordinary madness must consider three interconnected levels of explanation.

Love as a Total Institution. A Theoretical Model for Understanding Violence against Women

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