Poor women who are physically or sexually abused at some point in their lives are less likely to maintain stable intimate relationships, according to a new study of more than 2,500 women by sociologists from The Johns Hopkins University and Penn State University.
The women involved in the study said they want fair treatment and companionship from their partners, just like everybody does, the researchers said. Many of those who had been abused as adults told ethnographers that they had decided to forego marriage and cohabiting relationships, at least temporarily. Those who were sexually abused in childhood were not as likely to avoid relationships altogether; rather, they tended to engage in a series of short-term, transient relationships, many of them abusive.
While there is no evidence that abuse rates have increased, the number of women postponing intimate relationships may be growing, said Andrew Cherlin, the Griswold Professor of Public Policy at Johns Hopkins and lead author of the report, “The Influence of Physical and Sexual Abuse on Marriage and Cohabitation,” to be published in the Jan. 21 issue of American Sociological Review. “What’s changed over the past few decades is the social context of abuse,” Cherlin said. “Women don’t have to stay with abusive men anymore because they have alternatives to marriage.”
The researchers, working in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio as part of the long-term research project called “Welfare, Children and Families: A Three-City Study,” surveyed a random sample of 2,402 Hispanic, African American, and white women. Ethnographic research teams studied another 256 women in depth for several years, observing day-to-day activities and conducting repeated interviews. All of the women studied were the primary caregivers of at least one child.
Fifty-two percent of women in the random-sample survey reported being physically or sexually abused at some point during their lives. Twenty-four percent said they were sexually abused during childhood or adolescence. Forty-two percent of women who had never been abused were married at the time of the survey, compared to 22 percent of women who had ever been abused. Of the 256 women studied in depth, one-sixth — many of whom had been physically abused as adults — said they were taking a timeout from intimate relationships with men.