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A critical take on the Government’s latest domestic violence survey

March 9th, 2009

Dr Petra

Today the papers are full of ‘shocking’ findings about our attitudes towards domestic violence. It’s based on a survey that has been released to coincide with a government consultation for tackling domestic violence.

Results from the survey (from media coverage) are undoubtedly shocking:
1:5 respondents thought it was acceptable for a man to hit his wife or girlfriend
1:7 reported it was okay for a man to hit his wife/girlfriend for nagging
1:10 stated a woman deserved a slap if caught flirting with another man
50% agreed that women were responsible for rape if they didn’t clearly say ‘no’
1/3 thought women were partly responsible for being raped if they were drunk
¼ believed women should take the blame for rape if they were wearing revealing clothing
1/3 participants said they knew someone who’d experienced domestic violence

But are these findings reliable? Sadly they are not. Here’s why:

We have very little no idea about who was in this survey. Press coverage states men and women were questioned (915 in total), but we don’t how they were recruited for the research and whereabouts in the UK they were recruited from. We also have no idea how the survey was explained to respondents. If you go to the Home Office website you find out it was a telephone survey, so people were cold called by a polling company and asked to respond to. You can also see the questions and how they were phrased here.

It’s not a balanced survey and does not make for very pleasant reading. I can’t think that those doing the research or answering the questions would have found it a particularly easy experience. It’s unlikely your average ethics committee would pass these kinds of questions using a cold-calling approach.

The press coverage indicates the survey assumed that domestic violence is a problem that only occurs in heterosexual relationships and is carried out by men on women. That’s despite us knowing that domestic violence happens in lesbian and gay relationships as well as straight ones, and that 1:4 women and 1:6 men experience domestic violence.

The questions asked are a strange mix of attitudes to women being harmed by someone they’re in a relationship with, and women being raped by a stranger. This suggests the survey wasn’t just focusing on domestic violence and including stranger rape questions could have confused participants and further affected their responses.

Domestic violence can take many forms yet this survey presents domestic violence as physical attacks (asking under what circumstances slapping/hitting is okay). It has not identified what people think about other forms of abuse.

Although presented as ‘new’ and ‘shocking’ these findings are anything but. If you look at studies on ‘rape myths’ or ‘attitudes to domestic violence’ going back twenty or thirty years you find the same outcomes, pretty much.

The majority of respondents to the survey said they did not know anyone who had experienced domestic violence. So we can’t really take this survey as a measure of their understanding of domestic violence, but more their attitudes towards it. And based on that the majority of participants actually suggested violence isn’t acceptable (1:5 think it’s okay to hit a wife/girlfriend also means 4:5 think this is not okay).

How ethical was this survey? People were cold called and asked to talk about their views on domestic violence over the phone, which can be very upsetting. Nowhere are we told how participants were prepared for the study, or whether they were offered any support afterwards if they needed help. We’re also not given any information about the impact running such a study had on the researchers asking the questions, although we know from other studies of this kind that such research can be distressing to conduct.

What we’re really seeing here is not a ‘new’ survey measuring genuine beliefs about domestic violence, but a selective sample of participants who’ve been given leading statements about domestic violence and rape to respond to. Followed by muddled media reporting that mostly seems to hinge on the opportunity for picture editors to run wild with photos of (pretty and often scantily clad) women cowering while male abusers tower over them with clenched fists.

Of course this isn’t a proper survey. It is purely a PR activity designed to get press coverage in order for the government to promote this particular consultation. You can, of course, create and run reliable surveys for this purpose (I’ve done some for the Department of Health in the past). But they only work if they’re based on evidence and are well designed. Otherwise they become unethical, unreliable and a waste of money – something the government’s already been criticised for. There is a major ethical question to be asked on how you can run a consultation fairly if you open it with a survey that potentially misleads people about what violence is and who is at risk.

That said, we can’t completely blame the government here. They should be able to go to the media and say ‘domestic violence is a problem, we want a public consultation to decide what to do about it, let the public know this is going on’. But that’s not ‘newsworthy’. Instead the government (like anyone now who wants to get some publicity) has to hang their consultation on a shonky survey to persuade editors to feature the story. Ask yourself how much would running this survey cost? Let’s say around £10k (which is about average for a survey of this kind). How else might that be used to improve, say, domestic violence services or outreach programmes?

Rather than running a survey the government should have looked at the existing evidence base on domestic violence so they could understand the complex nature of this issue, and what interventions are effective at tackling the problem.

It’s unclear why the government appear to see the abuser register as a main solution to our domestic violence problem, or why they’ve opened a consultation by telling us what they think we ought to do (before asking us what we would like to see done). It seems they’ve based the idea on a pilot scheme for a register of child sex offenders where new partners of convicted child abusers could find out about any existing criminal records. The government have assumed a. this approach works and b. that it can equally be applied to violent partners.

Because domestic violence is underreported and a taboo topic most victims do not report their experiences to the police. Where they do it is not always handled appropriately (although admittedly the police have got a lot better at managing domestic violence). The majority of abusers are not prosecuted. Victims may eventually get the courage to leave or ditch their abusive partner (with the help of a refuge, family or friends) but this often happens without any police involvement.

If you don’t involve the police then there will be no record of the abuse you suffered, and if there is no record of abuse then there is no opportunity of said abuser being included on any register.

We need to think how such a register would work? If someone is on it, would the police notify potential partners they could be starting to date an abuser? Or would you have to find out for yourself? If so, who is thinking that in the early stages of dating? And if you are in that romantic stage would you believe that this wonderful person could possibly be abusive? We already know that where people are told their new paramour has a bad past they often ignore this, believing with them it will be different.

Why recommend such a scheme when the arrest and prosecution rate for domestic violence is so low? Why not instead focus on ways of stopping violence before it starts, or in cases where it’s happening improving policing tactics so more abusers can be arrested and charged. Since this is part of a consultation, you do at least have the chance to suggest what alternatives (particularly evidence based ones) could be tried instead. Although don’t hold your breath on those being implemented. Previous experience with this government suggests once they’re decided on a problem and solution the consultation exercise is usually just window dressing.

The government and Jacqui Smith in particular appear fixated on micromanaging aspects of our intimate relationships with policies that often seem unworkable and contradictory. Already the police are supposed to be checking we’re not looking at extreme porn, with Smith also recommending they should be clamping down on prostitution. Where, within this increased workload are police supposed to find the time to identify, charge and monitor those who have been previously violent with a partner?

I’m not surprised Sandra Horley the chief executive of charity Refuge has hit out at this proposed strategy calling it a gimmick and stating the government’s approach to tackling domestic violence to date had been poor and ‘piecemeal’.

This sadly fits what we’ve become used to with Jacqui Smith. A pattern of poor and unethical research used to hide the fact that policy is being based on opinion and rhetoric not evidence. Where existing evidence from social and health research is ignored even if it offers genuine solutions on how we can tackle these distressing social issues. It’s all about people pleasing and a whole lot of spin.

Don’t for one moment think I’m belittling domestic violence here or suggesting it is not a problem. Quite the opposite. I know exactly what a major issue this is, and the devastating effects domestic violence has. I want real opportunities to tackle this problem, not empty promises and unactionable solutions. What we’ve been offered today is nowhere near enough to sort out this problem. It makes me furious to think of those I work with who are suffering from violence are not offered any real help from this government, and that the proposed consultation is unlikely to help all who are at risk.

Let’s hope domestic violence charities continue to keep the pressure on the government and hold them to task over their inability to do anything other than pay lip service to this scourge on our society.

This whole initiative is based on a consultation which you can respond to – details here. It’s accompanied by yet another survey on domestic violence which is as flawed and leading as the one in the papers today. Again, you have to wonder why, if they’ve just commissioned one survey, they’re running another one. Just more examples of very bad science – you have to wonder who is advising the Home Office on their social research?

I’d strongly recommend you do respond to the consultation, and particularly highlight where initiatives are needed, what we know works from an evidence based perspective, and where the government has previously not done enough to help. You might want to draw attention to the leading way they’ve gone about this process while you’re at it.

If you have been affected by domestic violence, the following resources could help:
Women’s Aid
The Hideout (for children and young people affected by domestic violence)
Duluth Model (aimed at women but highlights the different forms domestic violence can take)
Helpguide outlines some of the warning signs of an abusive relationship

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