Challenging the Gendered Discourse of Domestic Violence

Dr Ben Hine
Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of West London

The UK government currently defines domestic violence and abuse in the following way:

“Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass but is not limited to the following types of abuse:

  • Psychological
  • Physical
  • Sexual
  • Financial
  • Emotional"

Their definition, like most legislative language, does not make any distinctions based on gender or sexuality, and includes a number of different ‘types of abuse’, covering a wide range of actions. Statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics support a picture of domestic abuse that is varied, complex, and not defined by one gender over the other. For example, in the UK 1 in every 3 domestic violence victims is male, and 13.2% of men (27.1% of women) say they have been the victim of domestic abuse since they were 16. Roughly 1 in 6 men (1 in 4 women) will suffer domestic abuse in their lifetime, and in any given 12 months in the UK 600,000 men (and 1.3m women) will experience domestic abuse. In addition, men and women suffer equally severe consequences at the hands of their abusers, both physically and psychologically.

However, whenever I ask my undergraduate students, my family, my friends what they think of when they hear ‘domestic violence’, I always get the same answer – A strong, dominant and imposing, aggressive man, being physically abusive towards a small, weak and fragile woman. As such, it has become obvious to me that a pervasive and persistent stereotype surrounding domestic abuse clearly exists in the minds of many.

Where do these stereotypes come from? A convincing argument comes from understanding the role of ‘Social Cognition’ (i.e., our understanding of the social world in which we live). Across the course of our lifetime we continually absorb knowledge about how our social relationships operate, building up mental representations or ‘schemas’ which act as sets of rules as to how people and situations are ‘supposed’ to go. One of the most fundamental schemas is our understanding of gender, and the associated characteristics assigned to men and masculinity, and women and femininity. This was proposed by Sandra Bem in 1981[i], and when we examine the characteristics associated with men and women in general, it is easy to see how men are much more likely to be seen as aggressors and perpetrators, and women as recipients and victims of things like domestic violence.

Masculinity (Men)

Femininity (Women)

Aggressive

Independent

Strong

Dominant

Stoic & Unemotional

Self-confident

Sexually Dominant

Perpetrators

Non-Aggressive

Interdependent

Weak

Passive

Emotional

Caring/Nurturing

Sexually Submissive

Victims

In addition to this general information about gender, we will also build up particular ‘Scripts’ for particular events. For example, when we go to a restaurant, we know how this event will usually go and the sequence of actions that will follow upon us entering (i.e., being given a menu, ordering, eating, then paying etc.). We build up a similar type script for domestic violence, drawn from both our general gender schemas, and specific depictions that we might pick up from the world around us (i.e., in popular media). As a result of this natural mental process, many people view domestic violence through a very narrow, over-simplified lens, represented by the stereotype outlined above.

Most of the time, social cognition and the shortcuts it produces (known as ‘heuristics’) help us in our day to day interactions. They allow us to make assumptions that save our brain the time and effort it would take to work out every detail of any given scenario. Imagine if every time you went into a restaurant it was like the first time you had ever done so! However, when it comes to things like domestic violence, this can lead to severe and damaging consequences.

For example, several studies have highlighted that evaluations on several measures, such as severity, trauma, responsibility, intervention, and punishment etc. are influence by victim and perpetrator gender[ii],[iii],[iv]. For example, scenarios involving a male victim and female perpetrator are evaluated as less serious than those involving a female victim and a male perpetrator. These evaluations are made because these scenarios don’t fit or agree with our own mental scripts. Interesting results also emerge from these studies regarding same-sex domestic abuse (and even less well known phenomenon), suggesting that judgements of male-male and female-female abuse fall somewhere between the two scenario types outlined above. When male victims do chose to report their abuse (which is rare), they report both negative experiences with peers and services[v],[vi], as well as negative the criminal justice system, particularly police officers[vii]. One of the most worrying findings from this study is that male victims are often automatically cast as the perpetrator and arrested, even when they have made the complaint. This suggests that officers too may be using their own mental scripts to inform their actions and judgements, without waiting to gather all the facts and details.

Clearly there are serious consequences associated with our stereotypes towards domestic abuse. So how do we begin to change this? An increasing amount of work is already being done to advocate on behalf of male victims, and, as such, there has been a slow but steady rise in discourse in the public and political sphere surrounding male victims. However, for me, five key areas of improvement are needed:

  1. More needs to be done to challenge the current political and societal narrative that portrays women as the exclusive victims and domestic violence. For example, whilst the language used in legislation is often neutral, the term ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’ is frequently used in reports on domestic and sexual violence, and as the name for strategies designed to tackle these crimes. This fundamentally undermines the experiences, needs and existence of male victims, and, importantly, this prejudice is often mirrored in inequality of funding and support (e.g., no male-only refugees currently exist in London)
  2. Services, such as police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service, and other professional bodies need to respond, immediately, to the specific needs of male victims in their provision and training. As whilst many services argue that their training is ‘neutral’, many programmes don’t consider the very specific and nuanced experiences of female vs. male victims
  3. Academics need to continue investigating which factors influence our judgements and attitudes towards domestic violence, in an effort to educate and inform policy and discourse. For example, my current research program looks to expand on the work outlined above by including variations in abuse type to more fully understand how domestic abuse is evaluated when committed by men vs. women. Also, non-politicised models of domestic violence need to be developed that account for gender, but are not determined by specific, political narratives (i.e., feminism and the Duluth model)
  4. The media also needs to help provide varied and more nuanced representations of domestic violence to audiences, in an attempt to broaden stereotypical understandings of abuse
  5. On a broader, societal level, we need to open our minds to the complexities of domestic violence and abuse as a crime, and guard against utilising stereotypes when confronted with a victim in need of our help

Domestic violence is a crime that is deeply coloured by gender, but it is not a crime that is committed exclusively by one gender towards another, and we need to take substantive and immediate action to acknowledge the wide range of perpetrators and victims, as well as behaviours and circumstances involved when domestic abuse occurs.


Link to the full talk

[i] Bem, S. L. (1981). Gender schema theory: A cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological Review, 88, 354–364

[ii] Poorman, P. B., Seelau, E. P., & Seelau, S. M. (2003). Perceptions of domestic abuse in same-sex relationships and implications for criminal justice and mental health responses. Violence and Victims18(6), 659-669.

[iii] Seelau, E. P., Seelau, S. M., & Poorman, P. B. (2003). Gender and role‐based perceptions of domestic abuse: does sexual orientation matter?. Behavioral Sciences & the Law21(2), 199-214.

[iv] Seelau, S. M., & Seelau, E. P. (2005). Gender-role stereotypes and perceptions of heterosexual, gay and lesbian domestic violence. Journal of family violence20(6), 363.

[v] Tsui, V. (2014). Male victims of intimate partner abuse: Use and helpfulness of services. Social work, 59(2), 121-130.

[vi] Tsui, V., Cheung, M., & Leung, P. (2010). Help‐seeking among male victims of partner abuse: Men's hard times. Journal of Community Psychology, 38(6), 769-780.

[vii] McCarrick, J., Davis-McCabe, C., & Hirst-Winthrop, S. (2016). Men’s experiences of the criminal justice system following female perpetrated intimate partner violence. Journal of family violence31(2), 203-213.

 

Dr Ben Hine is a senior lecturer at University of West London.

1 thought on “Challenging the Gendered Discourse of Domestic Violence

  1. Mr. Nigel Johnson
    Reply
    Nigel - February 22, 2017

    Very interesting. I have been impressed by the work of Professor Archer and Drs. Graham Kevan and Bates in this area. What has been interesting to me has been the shifts in the understanding of what was “dating abuse” and “elder abuse”. In the early years (really the turn of the century) the concentration on violence/abuse in teen relationships was largely approached in a much less “gendered” way. Research on large populations tended to find some expected and also unexpected patterns (for instance that Girls are more likely to hit boys and both sexes think boys being hit by girls is justifiable but not the reverse). The issue approached as “educational” with immature people. However the narrative appeared to then become colonised by the male perpetrator/female victim paradigm with a consequent hardening of discourse with regards to males from “education” to punishment. A similar process is also clear in Elder Abuse as a “Violence Against Woman and Girls” lense is increasingly applied in the Safeguarding processes and literature. The latter is something I am particularly close to and it is dismayed at this simplification of what can be heart-breaking situations as one partner struggles with the effects of the illnesses of a partner, notably dementias.

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