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Shame permeates the experience of intimate partner violence (IPV). People who perpetrate IPV commonly use tactics designed to cause shame in their partners, including denigrating their dignity, undermining their autonomy, or harming their reputation. Many IPV survivors report an abiding sense of shame as a result of their victimization—from a lost sense of self, to self-blame, to fear of (or actual) social judgment. When seeking help for abuse, many survivors are directed to, or otherwise encounter, persons or institutions that reinforce rather than mitigate their shame. Survivors with marginalized social identities often must contend not only with the shame of IPV victimization, but also with the shame that follows being stigmatized or otherwise assigned inaccurate or incomplete “identities.”

Understanding how these layers of shame can shape a survivor’s experience matters. Shame can be a destructive harm that devastates a person’s sense of self-worth. It can lead to long-term psychological injury and can be both a source and outcome of trauma. A desire to reduce shame’s damaging impact can cause survivors to utilize coping behaviors that may be self-protective, but profoundly misunderstood by the people and institutions to whom they turn for help. Included among those institutions is the civil legal system. Protection orders are the most common legal intervention for IPV and can be critical tools for responding to it. Yet, to obtain a protection order, survivors must enter a process that often deprives them of their privacy and ability to control their self-image—experiences anchored in shame. Without understanding shame’s behavioral and psychological effects, survivors risk having their claims of victimization discredited, harming their ability to obtain safety and relief.

This Article explores these individual, social, and institutional dimensions of shame. It examines how those who work or interact with survivors can better understand the shame that results from traumatic experiences, and the trauma that results from shame-intensive ones. This Article further explores strategies to reduce the shame that can pervade civil litigation. These strategies include prioritizing survivor dignity and narrative control—critical antidotes to the injury of shame.

Publication Citation

13 UC Irvine L. Rev. 103 (2022)