It is true that both women and men perpetrate intimate partner violence — in heterosexual and same-sex relationships.
However, this blog post is about heterosexual relationships.
Research shows that men and women hit each other at similar rates.
Understanding the role that gender plays in domestic violence in heterosexual relationships is important because there are differences in perpetrators’ motivation and intention, differences in severity of abuse, differences in one-off isolated acts of abuse compared with repeated ongoing patterns of abuse. There are differences in the types of violence and abuse, differences in social messages that condone abuse, and there are differences in outcomes as a result of intimate partner abuse.(1)
Research shows that 90% of victims are female.(2) Men are usually the predominant perpetrator and women are usually the predominant victim.
Domestic violence is the main cause of death for women aged 15-44.(3)
Men’s violence is more severe with more women than men being hospitalised as a result of domestic violence. Other outcomes are more severe for women such as being more likely to become homeless, to lose their financial footing and live in poverty. Women experience longer-term mental health problems such as chronic pain, inflammatory diseases, or physical disabilities as a consequence of partner abuse. Many women become pregnant due to their partner raping them, or because of his refusal to use contraceptives.(4)
Women are more likely to experience rape and other forms of intimate partner sexual abuse and to live in fear for their safety, the safety of their children, other family members and the safety of their new partner. Thirty-three to fifty percent of battered women are raped by their male partner.(5)
There are different types of domestic violence.
One form of domestic violence called Situational Couple violence.(6) This form generally results from a particular situation, conflict or argument. Generally there’s no fear, no ongoing power and control, and any violence tends not to be very severe (although it can be). Generally, this form of domestic violence does not result in murder.
Another type of domestic violence is called Coercive Control.(7) Coercive control can involve physical violence, but not always. Situational couple violence is far more prevalent than coercive control. However, because men’s violence tends to be more severe when there’s a pattern of coercive control, this is the type of abuse that human service agencies most often deal with. Men’s history of controlling behaviour is strongly linked to murder of a female partner if she threatens to leave, or does leave her controlling partner.
Men’s and women’s use of violence entail different dynamics
To provide effective support it’s important to separate out women’s use of violence from men’s use of violence. For example, women are more likely to use violence as a form of self-defence, whereas men are more likely to use violence as a desire to have power and control and to send a clear message that he is in charge. Whereas women’s violence tends to be motivated by a desire to stop ongoing repetitive relentless coercive control. And yes some women are the predominant aggressor, however, the percentage is very low compared with women who use violence in self-defence.(8)
Men are more likely to use violence as part of coercive control. Coercive control can carry on after a relationship ends (especially when children are involved).
Men’s violence and coercive control is linked to wider social norms
Men’s violence and coercive control is linked to wider social norms and messages that support men’s control over their female partner. There are social norms that continue to grant male entitlement, that grant men control over female behaviour, masculinity is linked to legitimate use of violence, there are social perceptions that men have ‘ownership’ of women and there continues to be social tolerance of physical punishment of women and children.(9)
On the other hand, there are no social messages that grant women control over men (however there are messages that grant mothers control over children). There are no social messages that link femininity with violence. However, it is true that girls’ violence is on the rise.(10) There are no social perceptions that women have ‘ownership’ of men and there are no social messages that tolerate women’s physical punishment of men, however, there are messages that tolerate women’s punishment of children.(9)
Domestic violence is complex. But as can be seen from these social messages, any form of abuse whether it be intimate partner abuse, workplace bullying or schoolyard bullying always entails a power imbalance. At the moment much of men’s violence and coercive control against female partners has social supports for it and is based on men asserting power and control with the aim of maintaining higher status than women. Such hierarchical behaviours occur in same-sex relationships, institutions such as schools, religious establishments and the workplace. Gender does not always play a role in some of these situations, but it plays a major role in intimate partner abuse.
When women are killed, they are killed by a husband, boyfriend, or ex-husband or ex-boyfriend significantly more often than by a stranger.(11)
Men who use an ongoing pattern of coercive control are more likely to murder their female partner than are men who do not have a history of controlling behaviour, but might use one-off isolated incidents of violence.
Of all people who are murdered by their intimate partner, 70% are female victims.(4)
Women and men are more likely to be killed by men.(4)
No one deserves abuse — regardless of gender or sexuality.
Ultimately, both men and women do use violence in intimate partner relationships. The response to victims, regardless of gender, should always be safety first. To effectively support survivors of abuse and find effective prevention and long-term strategies for change, it is vital that the specific complexities for men and complexities for women are fully considered and understood.
Disclaimer: I wrote this blog on why gender matters for the Home & Family Counselling Blog. I changed a handful of words.
- Braaf R, Meyering IB. The gender debate in domestic violence: The role of data. Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse: Issues Paper 25, 2013.
- European Institute for Gender Equality. Review of the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action in the EU member States: Violence against women – Victim Support. Luxembourg: European Union, 2012.
- Amnesty International Australia. Setting the standard: International good practice to inform an Australian national plan of action to eliminate violence against women. 2008.
- Kimmel MS. “Gender symmetry” in domestic violence: A substantive and methodological research review. Violence Against Women. 2002; 8:1332-63.
- Bergen RK, Bukovec P. Men and intimate partner rape: Characteristics of men who sexually abuse their partner. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 2006; 21:1375-84.
- Kelly J, Johnson MP. Differentiation among types of intimate partner violence: Research update and implications for interventions. Family Court Review. 2008;46:476-99.
- Stark, Evan. Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life, 2009.
- Mackenzie D. Arrested female offenders in Auckland City: April–September 2008. Auckland: Safer Homes In New Zealand Everyday (SHINE), 2009.
- Krug EG, Dahlberg LL, Mercy JA, Zwi AB, Lozano R. World report on violence and health. 2002.
- Carrington K. Girls’ violence on the rise. Brisbane, Australia: Queensland University of Technology, 2009.
- Lewandowski LA, McFarlane J, Campbell JC, Gary F, Barenski C. “He killed my mommy!” Murder or attempted murder of a child’s mother. Journal of Family Violence. 2004; 19:211-20.