Why data matters when talking about domestic abuse

By Acting CEO of Women’s Aid, Nicki Norman

Today on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I want to talk about the importance of listening to the data and providing a gendered response to domestic abuse. And with new ONS figures out today demonstrating the prevalence of domestic abuse, to also provide some context for what these figures actually represent in real life.

Evidence shows the majority of domestic abuse is experienced by women and perpetrated by men. That is not to say all men are perpetrators, far from it. We know domestic abuse can affect people from every background and all victims, whether female or male; heterosexual or LGBT+; and from any background, deserve to get the help and support they need. But the frequent and harmful abuse of women and girls by men is part of a wider continuum of male violence against women and girls, which is a worldwide issue and a consequence of a patriarchal society and systems that still exist in many forms today.

Who does what to whom?

The prevalence estimates published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) today show that women are more likely to experience domestic abuse than men, with an estimated 1.6 million women and 757,000 men having experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2020. However, these latest figures do not tell us who does what to whom. We know from our work, and other data sources, that women are mostly subjected to domestic abuse by male perpetrators. National data from On Track (Women’s Aid’s case management and outcomes monitoring system) show us that 94.1% of the perpetrators (recorded in cases of female victims) are male.

The domestic abuse prosecution statistics published by ONS today also paint this picture of sexual asymmetry. The large majority of defendants in the year ending March 2020 were recorded as male (92%) and the majority of the victims recorded female (77%, compared with compared with 16% who were male). The sex of the victim was not recorded in 7% of prosecutions. If these missing data were excluded from analysis, then it would be 82% female victims and 18% male victims.

 

Considering impact, context and repeat victimisation

The prevalence estimates published today (an estimated 1.6 million female victims and 757,000 male victims in the year ending March 2020) are calculated by ONS by looking at the number of respondents to the Crime Survey for England and Wales who have indicated that they had experienced any of a number of behaviours (that could be abusive) at least once. However, men and women’s differences in experiences of domestic abuse are much more polarised than these prevalence estimates suggest. These estimates obscure the real gendered nature of domestic abuse because they do not consider the following important factors:

  • Context – were these behaviours experienced as a pattern of abuse, in a context of control and fear, as resistance against a perpetrator of abuse?
  • Impact – did they make someone fearful, did they cause injury and harm (both physical and psychological), did they serve to restrict someone’s personal freedom?
  • Repeat victimisation – who experienced abuse as pattern of repeated incidents, who experienced abuse from more than one person?

Moreover, ONS data published today show that women were more likely than men to be victims of every type of domestic abuse in the year ending March 2020 (this was statistically significant for each type of abuse with the exception of sexual assault by a family member where, although higher for female victims, the difference was not statistically significant).

It is particularly important to understand that men do not experience domestic abuse as part of embedded, structural inequalities against their sex. For women, however, domestic abuse is deeply rooted in inequalities between women and men. It is also important to consider how other forms of inequality intersect with sexual inequality to affect a woman’s experiences of domestic abuse. Structural inequalities also cause the barriers and discrimination often faced in accessing support and justice by Black and minoritised survivors, LGBT+ survivors, disabled survivors and older and teen survivors. Structural inequalities are also manipulated by perpetrators, as they strive for power and control over their partner.

In short, this is a method of calculating prevalence that does not adequately consider power and control. When the factors above are taken in account the differences between men’s and women’s typical experiences of domestic abuse become much clearer. These limitations in calculating prevalence is something that ONS is currently looking to address by exploring how coercive and controlling behaviour could be better accounted for within the crime survey.

 

Severity and impact

When we look at other evidence it is clear that women are more likely to be repeat victims of domestic abuse and are more likely to be seriously injured by a domestic abuser (Walby & Towers, 2018; Walby & Allen, 2004). A study of data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales found that 83% of high frequency victims (more than 10 crimes) are women (Walby and Towers, 2018). The homicide statistics released by ONS today show that women are more likely to be killed by a domestic perpetrator and are five times more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than men. The majority of domestic homicide victims (killed by ex/partner or a family member) for the year ending March 2017 to the year ending March 2019 were female (77% or 274 victims) and most of the suspects were male (263 out of 274; 96%).

The methods used by perpetrators in their abuse are also often gendered. We know that non-fatal strangulation is often used by male perpetrators to instil fear and enact power and control over female victims (CWJ, May 2020; Thomas, et al, 2014).

 

Coercive control

Women are more likely to experience higher levels of fear and are more likely to be subjected to coercive and controlling behaviours – abusive actions designed to limit their freedom and make them dependent on a controlling perpetrator (Dobash & Dobash, 2004; Hester, 2013; Myhill, 2015; Myhill, 2017).

The statistics published by ONS today on the prosecution of the offence of coercive and controlling behaviour show that nearly all of the defendants are men (97% in the year ending December 2019 where the sex was known). The ONS publication does not give the sex of the victims here, but we know from other research that the majority of victims are likely to be women. A study of Merseyside Police domestic abuse data found that 95% of coercive control victims were women (Barlow et al, 2018).

 

The impact of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic and associated restrictions/guidelines have and continue to disproportionally impact on women and highlight existing inequalities between men and women, for example the unequal distribution of parenting responsibilities (Andrew et al, 2020) and women’s higher representation amongst areas of the workforce at high risk of exposure (The Fawcett Society, 2020A). The pandemic has also drawn attention to other intersecting structural inequalities, such as racism, ageism and discrimination against disabled people and people who self-define as LGBT+. It is in this context of acerbated and highlighted inequalities, that domestic abuse survivors are experiencing challenges in finding routes to escape and support. The pandemic itself, of course, does not cause domestic abuse but lockdown restrictions have limited or closed down the support networks available for survivors. The pandemic has also led to many survivors having to spend the majority or all of their time in a home where they feel unsafe and it has also been used by perpetrators in their abuse to assert control.

 

Time for change

Today, as the world marks the day for the elimination of violence against women in the middle of a pandemic, it is important that we acknowledge that the campaign against domestic abuse is part of this mission. We cannot end domestic abuse, and make homes safe places for women and children, until we dismantle the sexist and misogynistic structures and notions that give root to and perpetuate domestic abuse. Women’s Aid on this important day, and every day, will continue to highlight the experiences and needs of women subjected to domestic abuse and to call out the everyday sexism that enables violence against women and girls.

References

Andrew, A., Cattan, S., Costa Dias, M.,  Farquharson, C., Kraftman, L., Krutikova, S., Phimister, A. and Sevilla, A. (May 2020) How are mothers and fathers balancing work and family under lockdown? Briefing note. May 2020. Published online: Institute for fiscal studies.

Barlow, C., Walklate, S., Johnson, K., Humphreys, L. & Kirby, S. (2018) Police responses to coercive control. Published online: N8 Policing Research Partnership

Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) (May 2020) Written evidence submitted by the Centre for Women’s Justice (DAB06) Submission to Domestic Abuse Bill Committee

Dobash, R.P. & Dobash, R.E. (2004) Women’s violence to men in intimate relationships. Working on a Puzzle. British Journal of Criminology, 44(3), 324–349

Hester, M. (2013) Who Does What to Whom? Gender and Domestic Violence Perpetrators in English Police Records. European Journal of Criminology, 10, 623-637.

Myhill, A. (2015) Measuring coercive control: what can we learn from national population surveys? Violence Against Women. 21(3), 355-375.

Myhill, A. (2017) Measuring domestic violence: context is everything. Journal of Gender-Based Violence, 1(1), 33–44.

The Fawcett Society, May 2020A: Exiting Lockdown: The Impact on Women. May 2020. Published online: The Fawcett Society.

Thomas, K., Joshi, M., & Sorenson, S. (2014). “Do you know what it feels like to drown?”: Strangulation as coercive control in intimate relationships. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38(1), 124-137.

Walby, S. & Allen, J. (2004) Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking: Findings from the British Crime Survey. Home Office Research Study 276. London: Home Office.

Walby, S. & Towers, J. (2018) Untangling the concept of coercive control: Theorizing domestic violent crime. Criminology & Criminal Justice. 18(1), 7-28.

Women’s Aid. (2020) The Domestic Abuse Report 2020: The Annual Audit. Bristol: Women’s Aid.

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