Women’s Aid releases new research on how UK public attitudes ‘tolerate’ domestic abuse


More than a third of UK adults believe domestic abuse is not a reflection of wider society, and instead a case of perpetrators being just ‘bad people’, according to research published by Women’s Aid.

Farah Nazeer, chief executive of Women’s Aid said:

“While it is true that only abusers are responsible for their actions, effective responses to domestic abuse need to address the tolerance throughout our society which enables them to act.”

The charity’s findings also uncovered that respondents with stereotypical views of gender roles and underlying misogynistic views are more tolerant of the impact of domestic abuse and less aware of its nature.¹

Farah added:

“This research shows many people are aware of domestic abuse and the harm it causes, but also illustrates how societal sexism and victim blaming enables and excuses domestic abuse. Shockingly, however, many adults do not view societal views as harmful in this way.

“To challenge this, individuals, communities and more must come together to raise awareness and increase understanding of the societal norms underpinning abuse. This must start with education about healthy relationships and include training of professionals who may come into contact with domestic abuse survivors. We must all challenge the everyday sexism and misogyny in society, which is the root of all violence against women. Women’s Aid is calling on everyone to play their part- until domestic abuse is entirely intolerable.”

In July 2022, the charity launched its Come Together to End Domestic Abuse campaign ahead of their 50th birthday in 2024. The campaign emphasises that everyone has a role to play to end domestic abuse and make it intolerable in society.

As part of the campaign, Women’s Aid issued a survey to determine UK adults’ attitudes to domestic abuse and to better understand where and why domestic abuse is ‘tolerated’ in our society.

Key findings of the survey include:

  • UK adults are likely to see perceived ‘poor behaviour’ by the victim as an excuse for the abuse they experience. For example, there was a 17% drop in those who think it’s extremely wrong for the husband to control what his wife wears to the gym if she’s previously been unfaithful.
  • UK adults also see the abuser’s perceived wellbeing or repentance as an excuse for abusive behaviour. There was a 15% drop (from 81% to 66%) in those who thought the husband was really wrong to slap his wife when he later apologised.
  • 34% believe domestic abuse is the result of just ‘bad people’ rather than a reflection of sexism in wider society enabling it. Findings indicate that those with a belief that the root cause of domestic abuse is in the individual rather than societal inequality are less likely to see the harm caused by abusive behaviours or understand it as a pattern of behaviour.
  • Men are more likely to view domestic abuse as a private matter to be resolved within the relationship or family (7% compared to 2% of women).
  • Only 9% of UK adults believe it’s likely that they will be a victim of domestic abuse in the future (10% of women and 8% of men). Yet a much higher percentage, 37%, reported they had experienced one or more types of abusive behaviour in the past (46% of women and 27% of men)
  • Those behaviours classed as emotional/psychological abuse, controlling behaviour or stalking are perceived as less harmful than others. This indicates a need to increase understanding of the escalatory nature of domestic abuse and the harm caused by coercive control.

Sexual violence in intimate relationships is downplayed compared to physical abuse. UK adults were more likely to report that the man’s behaviour is extremely wrong and that it caused the wife a great deal of harm in a scenario of physical abuse (71%) compared to a scenario of sexual abuse (60%).

Perceptions of different forms of control: The majority (59%) of UK adults believe that a man checking his wife’s bank statements and not allowing her to check his is extremely wrong. While less than half (46%) of UK adults believe that the husband checking his wife’s clothes before she goes to the gym is extremely wrong. While both scenarios describe forms of controlling behaviour, it appears that the UK public perceive controlling behaviours related to finances to be less acceptable than controlling behaviours related to self-expression and clothing, especially if it is presented as well intentioned.

UK adults are less likely to perceive verbal abuse as wrong and harmful, compared to other actions which may be classified as emotional or psychological abuse, such as sharing explicit images. A much greater proportion of the population believe that a man sharing explicit images of a partner is extremely wrong (84%) compared to a scenario where a husband repeatedly criticises his wife (49%).

Significant proportions of the population hold some survivors responsible for the abuse they experience. When responding to a scenario of marital rape, 67% of respondents said the husband’s behaviour was extremely wrong. This dropped to 55%, however, when the scenario changed to one where the wife had initiated the sexual contact before changing her mind. Similarly, actions seen as ‘bad behaviour’ such as infidelity are seen as justification for abuse. This would indicate that victim blaming is still pervasive and needs to be addressed as the UK public’s attitude towards domestic abuse is influenced by the behaviour of the person being abused.

Prioritisation of men’s wellbeing over harm to women: The research shows the impact or harm of particular types of abuse, notably sexual abuse and control, are downplayed. It is also apparent that the impact of men’s actions, for some people, is used to excuse abusive behaviour. This was evident in scenarios where the men could be perceived as repentant or well intentioned, and where their own mental health was impacted by the end of the relationship.

Read more in the full report Come Together to End Domestic Abuse: a survey of UK attitudes to domestic abuse 2022.

Notes to editor:

¹To determine the prevalence of gender stereotypes, participants were asked how they’d respond to a three-year-old girl choosing a toy truck and a three-year-old boy choosing a princess doll. To determine possible underlying misogynistic views, participants were asked under what conditions they believed it acceptable for sports crowds to sing rude chants about women.

Women’s Aid worked with M&C Saatchi World Services as their charity partner to develop a unique survey into UK adults’ attitudes to domestic abuse, to better understand where and why domestic abuse is ‘tolerated’ in our society.

The survey included scenarios between domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, and respondents were asked how wrong they believed the behaviour described was, and how harmful they believed that behaviour to be.

The survey was disseminated through YouGov to their panel, achieving a nationally and politically representative sample of 2,151 UK adults aged 16+. Fieldwork was undertaken between the 6th and 8th of May 2022, and the survey was carried out online.

An estimated 1.6 million women in England and Wales have experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2020 (ONS 2020)

Contact the Women’s Aid press office at [email protected] or 020 7566 2511

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