BUFFALO, N.Y. –African-American women in abusive
relationships use a variety of strategies pulled from three general
categories to survive intimate partner violence (IPV), according to
a new University at Buffalo study recently published in the journal
“There’s this stereotype that African-American women
who experience abuse are probably reacting to it a certain way, but
there is a range of responses,” said Noelle M. St. Vil, an
assistant professor in the UB School of Social Work and the
paper’s lead author. “Some fight back, some turn to
prayer, some turn to family and friends, and others turn to law
enforcement or other outlets.”
Roughly 40 percent of African-American women have experienced
intimate partner violence. The portrayal of victims of
intimate partner violence in media, and even in previous research,
is of the passive victim, which does not accurately capture the
realities of African-American women, according to St. Vil.
“There are these dynamics when you look at black
male/female relationships and you have to be careful of larger
stereotypes we see in the media of the angry black women and the
hyper-masculine black male,” she said. “The most
important element here in the way African-American women respond to
violence is that it’s not a matter of one size fits
Based on interviews with 29 women who had reported physical or
sexual abuse by an intimate partner, St. Vil, along with research
associate Bushra Sabri, research assistant Vania Nwokolo, and
assistant professor Kamila Alexander and professor Jacquelyn
Campbell, all from Johns Hopkins University, identified internal,
interpersonal and external responses as the three general survival
strategies that emerged from the research.
Internal strategies included use of religion and becoming
“These are women who said they turned to God,” said
St. Vil. “They used the church as a resource, whether it was
attending services, engaging in prayer or talking to a
The external responses found the women reaching out to informal
sources of support, such as family or friends, or other formal
resources, from the police to domestic violence service
The interpersonal strategies found the women fighting back,
which most commonly involved leaving the abuser.
For some women, this meant temporarily leaving either the room
or the relationship.
One survivor told the researchers that she walked out of the
room as soon as an argument began. Others said they left because
they needed a break from the relationship, while still others left
altogether, according to St. Vil.
Women also reported using self-defense because they were tired
of being hurt, and that using violence was a way of releasing
frustration and, in some cases, ending the violence.
Regardless of which strategies women used, St. Vil says there
are other actions to consider.
“One of the things we need to think about is the bystander
intervention piece of intimate partner violence,” she said.
“We hear about bystander interventions as it relates to
sexual assault on college campuses and how we get kids to
intervene, but we also need to think about that with intimate
She said many of the women talked about either going to the
hospital or visiting family.
“Those are excellent intervention points,” said St.
“If we can talk to families as they come into the
hospital, explaining to them the nature of intimate partner
violence, we can explain how to best assist a loved one by
explaining how to intervene when they see things starting to
“We need to equip everyone with the skills to adequately
address intimate partner violence and help those who are
experiencing it,” she said.