Writing About Domestic Violence

Let’s be clear: this is not a sociology post. This has not been written to tell you how the world is. It has been written to make you consider how you treat domestic violence in your stories.

+ Domestic violence in research is generally referred to Intimate Partner Violence, or IPV for short. IPV will be used throughout this article.

In literature, domestic violence is generally portrayed as a more simple narrative than it can be. For example, the antagonist (a man) tries to use his societal power and physical strength to dominate the protagonist (a woman).  This is the traditional victim versus perpetrator, hero versus villain, narrative we embrace. We understand that powerlessness the protagonist feels and empathise with her as she attempts to escape the destructive cycle.

“What’s wrong with this Kenneth?” you might ask. “That’s how domestic violence works.”

See, that’s the problem. That’s how some of domestic violence works. Let’s have a look at a 2012 literature review conducted by Desmarais, S.L., Reeves, K.A., Nicholls, et al called Prevalence of Physical Violence in Intimate Relationships, Part 2: Rates of Male and Female Perpetration. 

This is an American-based literature review so please be that in mind.

Here are some key discussion points:

  1. The number of women who perpetuated violence against their partner was higher than men. 1 in 4 women reported perpetrating physical violence against their male partners. Whereas 1 in 5 men reported perpetrating physical violence against their female partners. Even more surprising, this was not an original discovery. This was consistent with previous reviews.
  2. The number of women who continue to commit IPV over their whole life is double that of men. 18.4% of men who have committed IPV against their partner continue to do it for the whole life. Whereas 31.5% of women are lifetime perpetrators.
  3. IPV victimisation and perpetuation peaks between the ages of 16-24 years of age. 
  4. In heterosexual relationships about 25% of them have some form of IPV. So if you have three friends in a long-term relationship, and you aren’t committing IPV, then statistically speaking one of them will be in a relationship with IPV.

As a person, these stats are more than scary. They’re terrifying. 25% of people (whether male or female) will be subjected to, or perpetuate, IPV.

There’s a lot more research about this, and there are some serious disagreements. Do the methodologies and measuring tools used overrepresent female violence against their partners? Do the guys lie more often than their spouses because it’s socially undesirable to be known as a ‘wife beater’? Are women using violence only as self defence?

These are difficult questions that the research I cited was not sure about and put lots of disclaimers on. And it links to over 110 studies that are good reads if you’re heading into that topic as a sociologist.

The point for this post though is simple though: IPV in real-life relationships is often complicated and uncertain. The narrative of victim versus perpetrator is neat and tidy. The narrative of men are violent and women are not is clean and easily digestible. It fits into the agressive / passive roles the patriarchy have carved out in the literature landscape. Unfortunately, that’s not all IPV is. Not even in most cases.

So, what’s the take away as a writer? That real relationships are complex and people do a whole variety of things for different reasons. Whatever gender you’re writing, whatever sex you assign to the character, they have an equal chance of being either a victim or a perpetrator. And that, hopefully, will free up some new myths for you to create for the future generations of readers.

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