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This Article examines bystander norms of disinterest and blame that inform and undermine strategies for dealing with significant social problems such as domestic violence. Current strategies rely on individual “empowerment” to reduce such violence. These strategies reflect fundamental misconceptions and false assumptions about the nature of domestic violence, about why this sort of violence persists so stubbornly, and, ultimately, about what it takes to change behavior that has long been tolerated, if not actually fostered, as a result of deeply imbedded social and cultural norms. The net effect is that far from empowering abused women, let alone reaching the norms that have made this form of abuse such an intractable problem, the so-called empowerment approach instead perpetuates the traditional view of domestic violence as a private matter, properly the business of no one except the two intimates themselves. Everyone else is a mere bystander. The responsibility for ending domestic violence is squarely placed in the hands of its (supposedly) now-empowered victims: it is up to each individual battered woman to end the violence against her; if she fails she has only herself to blame. Drawing on the literature on norms and the law, we analyze how successful norm-changing strategies in other contexts suggest a different and more effective approach to the problem of domestic violence. The conscious change of tactics in anti-smoking campaigns from a focus on protecting the smoker to a focus on protecting non-smokers has resulted in a surprisingly rapid change in cultural norms about smoking. Lessons drawn from that campaign suggest new strategies for coping with domestic violence. The Article concludes that given the financial and personal negative effects of domestic violence on third parties, norm changing strategies that rely, not on notions of individual empowerment and autonomy, but rather on strategies grounded in the idea that domestic violence is a community problem that affects us all, are far more likely to have an impact on reducing intimate violence. Such norm-changing strategies transform the bystander into an interested party.

Publication Citation

20 Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 139-180 (2010)