What the evidence tells us about the nature of Intimate Partner Violence

Interviewer: Andy Tootell (Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Dr Louise Dixon
Recorded: 24/10/2012
Broadcast: 30/10/2012

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Andy: Hello, today I’m with Dr Louise Dixon, who’s senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham.  Hello, Louise.

Louise: Hi, Andy.

Andy: So do you want to tell me a little bit about what it is that you do?

Louise:  Well, as you say, I lecture at the university and I’m also a registered forensic psychologist with experience of working with violent and aggressive men and women.  My research interests really lie in the general area of prevention of family violence, in particular, a lot of my research has examined theoretical debates around what causes someone to be violent to their intimate partner.  The idea here is that if we can understand what’s causing someone to behave in a certain way, we can then understand what we need to do to stop them carrying out this behaviour in the first place.  So my work really has many practical implications, it’s very practice focused.  I aim to, sort of, guide the development of assessment and intervention programmes that can prevent partner violence.

Andy: And it’s intimate partner violence that you’re here to talk about today.  Is that the same as what we would understand as domestic violence?

Louise: It is, yes.  As you can imagine, domestic violence could refer to any form of aggression that occurs between people in the family home, so it could be sibling abuse, parent abuse, elder abuse and so on.  So we do try to get quite specific about our terms, but that’s exactly what I’m referring to, yes.  And in terms of what is intimate partner violence, well, a simple definition that I would probably use is any form of aggression or controlling behaviours used against a current or a past intimate partner of any gender and of any relationship status.  And I suppose that could seem quite a mouthful, but what I’m trying to stress here are a few important points.  It doesn't just constitute physical violence.  It can include sexual, psychological and emotional aggression and it’s really important that we know that and it can also include much more subtle controlling behaviours such as monitoring someone’s movements or phone calls.  It’s really important to note it can happen to men or women in heterosexual or homosexual relationships and those relationships don't just have to be marriage, they can involve people who cohabit or involve people who date one another.  

Andy: So intimate partner violence it seems can happen to lots of people in lots of very different situations.  How common is it?

Louise: Well it’s very difficult to say exactly because it’s rarely measured in the same way twice in surveys or in the same way in different countries.  We do have information from the British Crime Survey every year.  The 2010/11 survey would suggest that about 5% of women and 3% of men that were surveyed experienced non-sexual partner violence in that last year.  They also asked a question about how much non-sexual partner violence have those people experienced since they were 16 years old onwards and that showed us that about 24% of women and 12% of men said that this had happened to them since that time point.  But what we have to remember is that the British Crime Survey is a survey that asks people about their experience of crimes, something that’s happened to them, you know, in the last year that would be classified as a criminal act and, of course, there are problems with estimating figures of family violence from surveys like this.  You know, people are not primed to think about reporting acts of partner violence as a crime like they would burglaries or muggings or stranger sexual assaults, we just don't think of it in the same way.  And, worryingly, about a third of people think it’s just something that happens to them in relationships, it’s not a crime, it’s not wrong, it’s just something that happens.  And this is especially true of men and they’ve been shown to under report the victimisation and genuinely not recognise what they experience is intimate partner violence.  So we need to look at these figures and recognise and work with them, but also take them with a pinch of salt.  The important thing here also is that regardless of the different methodologies used, this rate is considerably high, especially when you think that about 4% of men and less than 1% of women will have had a heart attack in the UK, so these figures are quite alarming, really.

Andy: When you think about violence in relationships between partners, it’s a deplorable thing, why does it happen, what makes people do this?

Louise: Well that is the big question and it’s raised so many debates over the last 40 years or more.  I would say the most commonly adhered to view is what I would call a gendered approach.  And it basically assumes that men’s violence to women is the problem and it’s caused by wider societal patriarchal beliefs and structures that promote subordination of women.  And from this perspective, it’s thought that women can be violent but when they are, it’s typically out of self defence or retaliation to the man’s aggression.  And while this view recognises that same sex aggression and female to male aggression can occur, it argues that the causes are very different to the causes for men’s violence against women.  Now, the opposing approach to understanding why this happens and one that so much good empirical evidence has found support for is what’s been termed a gender inclusive perspective and this simply suggests that partner violence and explanations for it can relate to both male or female perpetrators and it believes that a whole host of complicated risk factors interact with each other and a whole host of theories can be used to explain why it takes part.  You know, the important thing here is it can’t be narrowed down to one main explanation of patriarchy causing partner violence.  And I think taking this approach, we can really understand and recognise that heterosexual and same sex partner violence exist and that the causes are very similar.  Now, although the gender inclusive approach gets more recognition as time goes on, I think it’s fair to say that this gendered approach is much more commonly adhered to and is the theory that people use to devise treatment programmes.

Andy: So intimate partner violence is something that many of us will have heard of, hopefully won't have experienced on a personal level, why does it matter how we understand the causes and which gender is mostly victimised?

Louise: That’s a great question. It really does matter.  And I suppose there were two main reasons that stick out as important.  First, if we understand the problem as one of men’s violence towards women caused by patriarchy, the solution for change is obviously to change these attitudes in men and society at large.  Now, many treatment programmes for male perpetrators have historically adopted this approach re-educating men about their beliefs.  In some states in America, adopting any other form of treatment is illegal but, historically, existing treatment programmes have not shown to be that effective, not with male perpetrators, and there’s no evidence that this approach is effective in general, no real concrete evidence of large effect sizes.  Secondly, it greatly effects who the services are provided to and, certainly, this is the way things seem to be at present in the UK in terms of male victims not receiving very much recognition or services or help from authorities, whereas female victims and their children do. I’ve gone to the trouble to take some information from a website by Parity, which is a charity that promotes equal rights between men and women.  And they’ve actually cited a few examples of this inequality between men and women in England and Wales.  So there are over 400 publicly funded refuges for abused women and children, but none specifically for abused men and their children.  And the second one that struck my attention was local authorities at present receive about £60m each year in Government funding to specifically support female domestic violence victims, but nothing to support male victims.  And I think they’re quite right to actually go on to note that such indifference not only deters many men from reporting the victimisation, but it also reinforces the stereotype that many of us hold and many professionals probably hold, that men can’t possibly be victims of intimate partner violence, not by the female partner.

Andy: So, looking to the future, are there any new directions underway to prevent partner violence?

Louise: They are.  I’m really pleased to say that professionals have recently understood that a different approach using the evidence base needs to be adopted to make change happen.  For example, the National Offender Management Service, they have successfully piloted a male perpetrator programme that doesn't treat partner violence as a special type of aggression; it’s not based solely on re-educating men about their patriarchal beliefs.  Instead, it’s used theories of general aggression to guide its development which is fantastic to hear.  And this type of programme could, in theory, be easily adapted to female perpetrators.  I suppose, finally, it’s probably worth putting in a shameless plug about the fact that I’ve co-edited a book that’s due to be released in early 2013, it’s called What Works in Offender Rehabilitation.  And it addresses some of the issues I’ve discussed here today and what treatment programmes work with partner violence offenders but also with a whole host of other different type of offenders, so hopefully it’s a really interesting book and it’ll be useful for practitioners in the field and people with just a general interest in this area.

Andy: Thank you very much for joining me today, Doctor Louise Dixon.

Louise:  Thank you, Andy.

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: www.ideaslabuk.com. On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Andy Tootell.