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This Article explores the use of shame as an accountability intervention for perpetrators of intimate partner abuse, urging caution against its legitimization. Shaming interventions—those designed to publicly humiliate, denigrate, or embarrass perpetrators or other criminal wrongdoers—are justified by some as legitimate legal and extralegal interventions. Judges have sentenced perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence (“IPV”) to hold signs reading, “This is the face of domestic abuse,” among other publicly humiliating sentences. Culturally, society increasingly uses the Internet and social media to expose perpetrators to public shame for their wrongdoing. On their face, shaming interventions appear rational: perpetrators often belittle, humiliate, and disgrace their partners within a larger pattern of physical abuse, and survivors often report feeling an abiding sense of shame as a result. Further, perpetrators are assigned en masse a dominant narrative about their motivations and traits as controlling, violent, and beyond reform. Consequently, they are cast into a category of individuals for whom traditional forms of rehabilitation are identified as ineffective and for whom shaming may be particularly apropos.

However, even if stigmatizing perpetrators to achieve accountability has some legitimate purpose, any benefit is outweighed by the fact that shaming perpetrators undermines the goals of violence reduction and survivor safety. Internalized shame can lead to externalized violence, thereby increasing, rather than decreasing, a survivor’s risk of harm. Further, using shame to punish an act that is itself built on shame can blur clarity about socially acceptable behavior, have a profound social and economic impact on the individual shamed, and devastate a person’s dignity and sense of self-worth. Moreover, many perpetrators have cumulative shaming experiences in their pasts, intensifying the negative consequences that can flow from shaming interventions. To understand the unique risks of shaming in the context of IPV, this Article explores shame as a tool for achieving perpetrator accountability.

Publication Citation

98 B.U. L. Rev. 1677