Nicola Graham-Kevan

The Gendered Perspective of Domestic (Intimate Partner) Violence: A Review of the Evidence




The gender perspective of domestic violence between intimate partners (subsequently termed ‘domestic violence’ in this article) largely views domestic violence as a problem of men’s violence towards women. This approach is apparent within the EU as evidenced by surveys such as the FRA survey which assessed violence against women across the 28 Member States of the European Union (EU). The standardised survey included questions about physical, sexual and psychological violence, childhood victimisation, sexual harassment and stalking. These questions were only asked of women in spite of ample evidence that men experience the same victimisations, at significant prevalence rates. For example research funded by the EU commission concluded that men and women generally experienced domestic violence as both victims and perpetrators with few significant sex-differences. They also found substantial overlap of victim/perpetrator roles leading them to conclude the need to consider men and women as both potential victims and perpetrators when approaching domestic violence (Costa, Soares, Lindert, Hatzidimitriadou, Sundin, Toth, & … Barros, 2015).

The gendered perspective generally attributes male violence towards women to wider societal values and patriarchal beliefs that encourage male dominance and female subordination (eg., Abrar, Lovenduski & Margetts, 2000; Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Yllö, 2005). The EU refer to violence against a female victim by her male partner as ‘gender based violence’ and assert that “women and girls, of all ages and backgrounds, are most affected by gender-based violence… and includes violence in close relationships (European Commission 2016). Patriarchy and sexual dissemination within this perspective are viewed as the direct causes of domestic violence (Bell & Naugle, 2008), rather than one potential factor that interacts with other causes (Dutton, 2006). Research that finds that women are also violent to their male partners is interpreted within this perspective as self-defense (Dobash and Dobash 2004). Such attributions are rarely made in relation to  understanding male perpetration. Thus, violence towards women is viewed as a special case, unrelated to other forms of violence and other forms of crime.

This gendered theoretical stance has been instrumental in shaping responses to domestic abuse against women in western societies (Dixon & Graham-Kevan, 2010; Graham-Kevan, 2007), however, it has been heavily criticised as a theory that is ideologically based rather than empirically supported (Dutton & Nichols, 2005; Dutton & Covro, 2006; Gelles & Straus, 1988; Graham-Kevan, 2007; Hamel, 2005a). Indeed, hundreds of research findings exist that undermine the exclusivity of the gendered perspective (e.g., Archer, 2000; 2002; 2006; Stith, et al., 2004; Desmarais, et al., 2012a, 2012b; Sugarman & Frankel, 1996; O’Leary, et al., 2007). Including an ever growing number of longitudinal cohort studies (see Dutton, 2007 for a review).

Those studies that are used to support a gendered perspective either fail to measure female perpetration or male victimisation at the hands of their partners (for example the FRA study above; World Health Organization [WHO], 2005a; Medina-Ariza & Barberet, 2003), or utilise selected samples, usually women from shelters or accident and emergency departments (Dutton, 2006). Research using samples of this nature unsurprisingly find high rates of male to female violence. Straus and Gelles (1999) refer to this as the ‘clinical fallacy’, whereby findings from research with clinical samples are inappropriately extrapolated to the general population who experience this problem. However, meta-analytic reviews which take into account the scientific rigour of studies offer limited support for the relationship between patriarchal values and domestic violence (Sugarman & Frankel, 1996) or for patriarchy being the most significant risk factor for domestic violence  perpetration (e.g., Stith et al., 2004; O’Leary, Smith Slep & O’Leary, 2007).

This approach is a logical extension of the conceptualisation that  if women are only violent in the context of men’s control and violence towards them, women’s  perpetration is a symptom of men’s domestic violence and so it is at best irrelevant and at worst potentially damaging due to its potential to mislead. The difficulty with such an approach is that theories about female violence remain untested. Although there are exceptions (e.g. Dobash & Dobash, 2004; Giles-Simms, 1983) research concluding domestic abuse is primarily concerned with men’s violence to women has largely omitted the measurement of women’s partner violence  (e.g. Johnson & Leone, 2005). A notable and oft cited exception was Dobash and Dobash (2004) analysis of domestic violence using a sample of  couples who were recruited from the UK criminal justice system, whereby all the men were convicted domestic violence perpetrators and all the women were their victims. In spite of this highly selected sample the authors concluded that their findings showed that domestic violence was “…primarily an asymmetrical problem of men’s violence toward women, and women’s violence does not equate to men’s in terms of frequency, severity, consequences and the victim’s sense of safety and wellbeing” (p.324). In this female ‘victim’/ male perpetrator sample 79% of women reported that their partner was violent toward them, interestingly however 54% also reported they were also violent to their partners. One quarter of the women and half of the men did not attribute the women’s violence to self defencive motives, which is particularly challenging to theory which conceptualises such women as archetypal domestic violence victims (Johnson, 1995; Kelly & Johnson, 2008).

The lack of evidence and lack of scientific rigour in the few studies that assess men and women’s domestic violence has led a growing number of researchers and other professionals to disregard these findings (Dutton, 2006) particularly when results from studies using much more rigorous designs directly contradict these interpretations (e.g. Moffitt, Caspi, Rutter & Silva, 2001).

A gender inclusive perspective encourages examination of both men’s and women’s use of domestic violence incorporates a variety of theoretical standpoints that guide research to understand why heterosexual and homosexual men and women engage in these behaviours towards their partners (e.g. power theory (Straus, 1976; 1977); social learning theory (Bandura, 1971, 1973); personality theories (Dutton, 1995; Holtzworth-Munroe & Stuart, 1994); and nested ecological theory (Dutton, 2006)). From this perspective factors associated with the individual are important, as is psychological assessment and therapy aimed at the individual or couple (if appropriate). The gender inclusive perspective grew from the findings of nationally representative surveys in the US which began in the 1970s. These surveys revealed remarkably similar prevalence rates of IPV perpetrated by both men and women (Straus, Gelles & Steinmetz, 1980; Straus & Gelles, 1985). This apparent gender-symmetry was an unexpected finding (Straus, 1979), and responses tended to be either outright rejection framed around methodological issues (e.g. Dobash, Dobash, Wilson & Daly, 1992; Straus, 1990) or a search for testable theoretical explanations. Typically, criticisms of the methodology used focus on the simplicity of tools used to measure violence in such surveys, which ask respondents to indicate from a list of discreet acts which they have experienced, and do not consider the context in which the IPV takes place (e.g.,  male dominance and female self defense; see Dobash & Dobash, 2004). This assertion is typically used to persuade researchers, clinicians and policy makers to question or disregard  figures of male victimisation. In addition, sceptics of the gender symmetry findings claim that surveys carried out with representative community samples will almost exclusively showcase lower levels of couple violence that may occur for reasons other than power and control. These cases are thought far more likely to be sampled  using this methodology,  than are severe cases of ‘Intimate Terrorism’, where a gendered approach would suggest the victim is likely to be the woman in a heterosexual relationship (Johnson, 1995), which are the very cases with which professionals should be concerned (Johnson & Ferraro, 2000).

Research has investigated prevalence rates of domestic violence in the community. Whilst this may intuitively seem a straightforward task, estimating a true prevalence figure is extremely difficult as the very measurement of domestic violence prevalence is contentious. Crime survey data has frequently provided evidence of the gendered nature of domestic abuse (e.g. Dobash et al., 1992). This support however is largely contingent upon the participants being assessed within a ‘domestic violence’ or ‘criminal assault’ context. This type of contextual framing essentially requires the research participant to define what is meant by ‘domestic violence’ rather than the researcher. This is problematic as many people do not view their victimisation or perpetration as domestic violence which leads to large underestimation of prevalence (Mihalic & Elliott, 1997; Moffit et al 2001) especially for men’s victimisation (Straus, 1999a; Povey, Coleman, Kaiza, Hoare & Janssen, 2008). In response to such concerns, more recent surveys have adopted an act based approach whereby both men and women are asked to report of the use of a variety  of aggressive and non-aggressive acts in a context of conflict in relationships (rather than crime or domestic violence). This method does not prime individuals to interpret questions in the context of crime, safety, violence or men’s aggression (e.g., National Family Violence Surveys [NFVS], Straus et al, 1980; Straus & Gelles, 1985). This conflict tactics approach may explain higher rates of self report in surveys that use this methodology (Straus, 1999a).

Therefore, failing to ask respondents about perpetration and victimisation within intimate relationships, in a non-priming context, is likely to result in large underestimates of women’s and particularly men’s IPV victimisation (Straus, 1999a). It is also important in light of research which shows that both men and women systematically underreport their own aggression (Archer, 1999), and/or over report their partner’s violence (Riggs, Murphy & O’Leary, 1989). Self-reports from both parties can be used to control for this effect and allow sex-differences to be investigated (Graham-Kevan, 2007). Furthermore, where victimisation and perpetration are both measured, the dyadic nature of domestic violence can also be studied.

Empirical research that addresses many of the issues listed above, typically finds mutual aggression the norm in dating and marital relationships (see Langhinrichsen-Rohling, et al., 2012; for a review). It also finds women are frequently the initiators of this aggression (e.g. Capaldi, Kim & Shortt, 2004; 2007; DeMaris, Pugh & Harman, 1992). In cases of one sided assaults women are more likely to be the perpetrator (Anderson, 2002; DeMaris, 1987; Gray & Foshee, 1997; Morse, 1995; O’Leary, Barling, Arias & Rosenbaum, 1989; Riggs, 1993; Roscoe & Callahan, 1985), even when using data from arrest sheets (Simmons Lehmann, Cobb & Fowler, 2005). Research has found that women’s use of domestic violence increased the frequency and severity of men’s use (e.g. Graham-Kevan & Archer, 2005), and mutual aggression increased the likelihood of injury for both men and women (e.g. Capaldi et al., 2007; Fergusson, Horwood & Ridder, 2005; LeJeune & Follette, 1994; Milardo, 1998; O’Leary & Slep, 2006).

Findings of sexual symmetry have undoubtedly presented a challenge to a gendered conceptualisation of domestic violence. Gendered explanations lead to expectations that apparent reciprocal aggression between partners, is actually due to  women’s violence being predominantly as ‘self-defensive’. Research has presented accounts of women’s violence which has been interpreted as self-defense or in some way a reaction to men’s IPV (Dasguta, 1999; Dobash et al., 1992; Dobash & Dobash, 1984; 2004; Henning & Feder, 2004). More, empirically rigorous research has found little support for the primacy of self-defensive explanations for women’s IPV (Gray & Forshee 1997; Straus & Gelles 1988; Stets & Straus 1990), particularly for those  women who are violent towards non-violent male partners (Morse 1995; Simmons et al., 2005; Straus & Ramirez, 2004, or lesbian domestic violence (Dutton, 1994). Rather, such studies have highlighted alternative motivations for female violence towards partners, such as control, anger, jealousy and to get through to their partner (Carrado, George, Loxam, Jones & Teplar, 1996; Graham-Kevan & Archer, 2005; Harned, 2001; Langhinrichsen-Rohling et al., 2012b).

Neither does a gendered explanation fit with longitudinal data that suggests both men’s and women’s IPV can be predicted from risk factors present in childhood (Moffitt et al., 2001) or even before birth (Côté, Tremblay, Nagin, Zoccolillo & Vitaro, 2002; Tremblay et al., 2004). Longitudinal data has found risk factors for aggressive and antisocial behaviour tend to be shared by both boys and girls (Broidy et al. 2003; Côté, Tremblay, Nagin, Zoccolillo & Vitaro, 2002; Moffitt et al., 2001), and that the same influences predict both general aggression and partner aggression in men and women (Moffitt et al., 2001, Tremblay et al., 2004). These shared risk factors suggest the different forms of aggression are developmentally similar and likely co-occur. Furthermore, research has identified that one of the strongest risk factors for female victimisation is a woman initiating violence toward her male partner (e.g., Graham-Kevan & Archer, 2005; Stith et al., 2004). These findings are not ‘blaming’ women, but instead adopting a problem-focused, systemic approach whereby domestic violence is understood within a family context, occurring almost always within interpersonal interactions. This type of research moves from a blame/accountability model to a needs based approach (e.g., Stith et al., 2004). Therefore, there is strong empirical support for studying men and women’s domestic violence in a gender neutral manner.

Whilst the vast majority of  research has examined perpetrators or victims in isolation, exploration of relationship dyads has begun to evolve. It has long been suggested that to fully understand aggressive behaviour we should consider the interaction of the victim, perpetrator and environment in which it takes place (White & Kowalski, 1998).

Research has classified couples involved in violent relationships along dimensions of their own, and their partner’s use, of controlling behaviours and domestic violence (Graham-Kevan & Archer, 2003a; 2003b; 2009; Johnson, 1995; 1999).  Johnson (1995) stated that the most severe type of domestic violence is intimate terrorism (where one partner is highly controlling and physically aggressive towards a non-controlling partner). Whilst Johnson (1999) reports intimate terrorists are likely to be men and their victims women, recent research (Graham-Kevan & Archer, 2003a; 2003b; 2009) including using large representative samples (Bates & Graham-Kevan, 2016; LaRoche, 2008), found no support for  sex-differences in classification, i.e. men and women are equally likely to be intimate terrorists. Johnson also used the term ‘Common Couple Violence’ (later classified as Situational Couple Violence (Johnson, 1999)) to describe relationships where one or both members used non-controlling physical aggression toward the other There domestic violence was conceptualised as borne out of conflict,  rather than a power and control dynamic. This type of low level partner violence was thought to be experienced by the majority of violent couples in community samples. Such conceptualisations have led to some researchers asserting that principles underlying a strategy to combat domestic violence should be directed at men’s violence to women (Dobash & Dobash, 2004). These authors argue “[W]hile any and all conflict and negative encounters between couples is regrettable, policies and interventions, particularly those of criminal justice, are not developed to provide wide scale responses to such encounters; nor are public resources spent upon them” (p. 344).

Such a policy not only implies a general relaxing of criminal law to allow some types physical assault towards partners to be effectively ignored, it also ignores the  literature that suggests that  reciprocal aggression is more likely to result in  injury for both parties in comparison to uni-directional violence by men and women (Straus, 2008; Whitaker et al., 2007). Considering the frequency of reciprocal violence (approximately half of all domestic abuse Langhinrichsen-Rohling et al., 2012), and the large overlap between partner violence and child abuse and neglect (Appel & Holden, 1998; Eddleson, 1999), it is likely that reciprocal domestic violence is the most common type experienced by children (Slep & O’Leary, 2005). Child witnesses to domestic violence are at high risk for experiencing a host of emotional and behavioural problems in comparison to children who have not experienced this violence (Wolak & Finlehor, 1998), regardless of whether the perpetrator is their mother or father (English, Marshall & Stewart, 2003). Taking into account the potential negative effects associated with reciprocal domestic violence, it can be argued that it is not only misleading, but dangerous to underplay its negative effects and minimise law enforcement and service response to its prevention and intervention.


Interpersonal violence has been recognized as a public health problem, as WHO (2005b) state “Interpersonal violence – violence between individuals in families and communalities – is a public health problem…In response, many governments, nongovernmental organizations and communities are supporting the development and implementation of prevention strategies” (p. 1).  The principles of public health have been used as a framework to understand the causes and consequences of violence, and how it can be prevented. The approach is risk factor, evidence base and population oriented, in that it aims to provide maximum benefit for the largest number of people possible. Therefore, primary, secondary and tertiary prevention methods are advocated to target the whole population (Hamilton & Browne, 2002). Primary prevention strategies aim to prevent the development of social problems in an entire population and refer to those services that can be accessed universally by all members of the population, such as TV series and poster campaigns. Secondary prevention strategies aim to prevent the occurrence of a social problem in those people deemed at high risk of experiencing it, and refers to targeted services shown to identify and reduce the susceptibility of high risk individuals (see risk assessment section). Tertiary prevention refers to services delivered to those people who have already experienced the stated problem in an attempt to reduce its reoccurrence and negative impacts, such as IPV perpetrator programs in this instance (see treatment section).

In terms of primary prevention, research shows that media campaigns have proved extremely useful in the reduction and prevention of various social problems (Biglan, 1992). Research has further demonstrated that only when a large proportion of the population is reached is reduction in the prevalence of a problem evidenced (Biglan, 1995). Therefore, in order to make noticeable reductions at societal level Universal campaigns should be put into practice.

It is important that primary prevention campaigns actually map onto what the majority of the general population experience as domestic violence, otherwise the message may not be internalised by the majority as something that applies to them. Universal campaigns containing messages which only apply to smaller, specific sub groups of people (e.g., men at high risk of unidirectional control and violence to a female partner) may lead the majority to assume that only severe violence to women is ‘domestic violence’, and anything less is ‘normal’ in relationships, especially aggression by women towards men. For example, data from the British Crime Survey (Povey et al., 2008) showed the majority of total respondents (65%) who reported some level of domestic violence victimisation in the previous 12 months did not view this as ‘domestic violence’, although female victims were more likely to view such acts as ‘domestic violence’ than were male victims (39% compared to 30% of men). Furthermore, 29% of victims thought this was ‘something that just happened in relationships’ (36% and 23% of male and females respectively), and 30% thought the acts were wrong but not a crime (29% and 30%). Such figures raise questions about what governments are doing wrong if a large proportion of the population who experience legally defined violent acts from a partner do not consider this to be ‘domestic violence’ or ‘criminal’, but rather an inherent part of everyday relationships.

Therefore, it is imperative that governments take note of what surveys with representative community samples tell us about male and female victimisation and perpetration rates. Despite the wealth of evidence that exists showing similar rates of male and female perpetration, the majority of universal campaigns typically advertise women (and sometimes children) as the unidirectional victims of male violence (Dixon, 2010). Such campaigns may actually be serving to increase the rates of female violence against men, as some evidence would suggest (Whitaker et al., 2007), and as female perpetration is a risk factor for male perpetration (Stith et al., 2004), it may also serve to increase reciprocal violence via this mechanism (Dixon, 2010).

Based on US representative community surveys (e.g., Slep & O’Leary, 2005; Straus et al., 1980; Straus & Gelles, 1985), it would appear universal campaigns that portray the message ‘violence in families by any member is not acceptable’ would best represent the experiences of the majority. This is especially important considering the overlap of violence to partners and child maltreatment, and the intergenerational cycle of abuse (Dixon, Browne & Hamilton-Giachritsis, 2005).


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Nicola Graham-Kevan

Monographic Giflted women, fragile men

School of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, PR1 2HE, UK.
March 2017