The culture of abused women: Family violence sequelae as predictors of STDs/HIV

Date of Completion

January 2005


Anthropology, Cultural|Women's Studies|Health Sciences, Public Health




Women who have experienced family violence—compared to those who have not—differ in their patterns of behavior and cognition (i.e., cultural models) for behavior regarding risk factors for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including HIV/AIDs. Sequelae of abuse that present as STD risk factors include: propensity for substance abuse, inability to negotiate condom use or monogamy, depression, a fatalistic attitude toward safe sex, and higher numbers of lifetime sexual partners. This is so regardless of sociodemographic factors such as a woman's ethnicity or age. ^ This research tests two hypotheses. (1) Life-history experiences of family violence and support correspond with life-history sexual behavioral experiences to form a cultural cline, the end points of which are characterized by qualitatively unique shared patterns of behavior and cultural models underlying behavior and (2) this cultural variation can be explained by resource access theory. ^ These hypotheses were assessed with data collected from participant observation conducted during my work as a certified sexual assault advocate, 28 in-depth interviews of abused women's life-histories, and 215 structured interviews of both abused and non-abused women. I delineated patterns of behavior and cognition among informants (i.e., cultures) using principle components analysis and test for the effects of resource access theory, social control theory, and sociodemographic variables with multivariate regression. ^ Results confirm the clinal relationship between family violence and STD risk. As abuse increases in a woman's life, so too does her risk of STD contraction. As affection increases, this risk is diminished significantly. As posited by resource access theory, victims of abuse actively attempt to evade exploitation by their abusers. Empowered women have access to resources (e.g., family and friends to help them financially and emotionally, help with child care, income, money to spend as they see fit, etc.) that provide them with the means necessary for preventing abuse and its sequelae. Lacking alternative means, disempowered women resort to behaviors that place them at elevated STD risk. My findings suggest the need for incorporating STD education and screening into current family violence intervention efforts as well as other modifications that may more effectively prevent family violence in women's lives. ^