Do women and men experience the same amounts of violence in their relationships, or are women more at risk? Is intimate partner violence a symptom of a lack of gender equality? And what is the connection between violence in a couple relationship and the gendered distribution of power in society? These questions have been the subject of academic and political debates since the women’s movement put women’s abuse on the agenda in the 1970s, and they are still discussed in ongoing methodological, academic and political struggles.
This report presents the findings from a three-year study entitled Intimate partner violence – gender, gender equality and power. The study was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security, and was conducted by the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies as part of the research programme Violence in close relationships. The study was led by Research Professor Margunn Bjørnholt, and the project team also included Senior Researcher Ole Kristian Hjemdal and Senior Researcher Hannah Helseth.
The aim of the project was to investigate intimate partner violence from gender, gender equality and power perspectives. The study investigated the importance of different under-standings, definitions and theories of violence in relationships, the exposure to various forms of violence in relationships between women and men, and gendered experiences and consequences of domestic violence. The study included literature and theoretical studies, a qualitative study with 37 interviews with 28 women and 9 men, and the re-analysis of data from the prevalence study Violence and rape in Norway.
In the following we present six main findings from the study.
Sexual and reproductive violence is an important part of women’s experience of violence in relationships
This study finds that sexual violence and violence related to pregnancy, childbirth and maternity are an important part of women’s experience of violence in relationships, and that these two forms of violence may overlap. Sexual violence covers a wide range of violence, from what can be considered mild violence and sexual harassment to rape. This violence is gendered as it affects women virtually exclusively.
Abused mother and equal parent – a particularly vulnerable position
We found that there are particular challenges associated with being an abused mother. Fear of what could happen to their children, and safeguarding their children in an extreme situation, caused the mothers in the study great stress and emotional work, both during cohabitation with the perpetrator and after breakup. For some, parental cooperation after breakup meant continued violence and control. Finance was also used as a means of pressure, and several of the mothers experienced financial losses related to the breakup and in relation to the parenting arrangements afterwards. The contemporary legal status of parents as formally equal, and the strong norm of shared parenting, put an extra strain on some of the mothers who were victims of violence. There were variations in how these mothers were treated by the support services and whether they received the help they requested and needed.
Ordinary meets extraordinary
In a significant proportion of the qualitative material, the perpetrator had mental problems, was involved in substance abuse or was otherwise in a marginalized situation, while the victim appeared as an ordinary person, “an ordinary sporty girl”, as one of the informants put it. The surprise that the violence caused, the gendered expectations and the feelings of care and love – and fear – formed a gendered entanglement that made it difficult to leave.
Love and gender equality as rhetorical resources for the perpetrator
We found that the language of love and the ideals of trust and transparency in a relationship could be used and abused by the perpetrator to legitimize coercive control. Gender equality and the ideal of gender balance could also be used as rhetorical resources by the abuser. This could include the sharing of housework, political engagement against violence(!) and shared parenting. This shows that egalitarian attitudes and gender balance in the division of labour in the home are not necessarily incompatible with the exercise of violence.
How to define and measure violence is important for the gender distribution of violence in couples in prevalence studies
The re-analysis of prevalence data from the Norwegian survey Violence and rape in Norway revealed that women are far more often exposed to gross, sexual and repeated violence in relationships. Women had a greater fear of being injured or killed than men who were subjected to the same type of event. Mild partner violence is equally distributed between men and women. Through qualitative interviews, we found that men who had reported violence from partners in the survey in 2013 remembered this to a lesser extent when they were contacted again in 2017/18, and some of those who did remember the violence shared experiences that we would hesitate to call violence. This also applied to some women.
The representation of the problem leads to different priorities, different access to re-sources and different potentials for political mobilization
The gender perspective on violence has been important for mobilizing and politicizing violence as a social problem. Violence is also understood to be a public health problem, a legal problem and an economic problem. These understandings are partly complementary and partly competing. In particular, the gender perspective has been juxtaposed against the health perspective. We argue that the gender perspective is still important in order to explain and prevent violence, because of gendered patterns of exposure to violence and the need for continued political mobilization against it.
Violence and abuse occur in specific institutional contexts and gender cultures
The institutions of society, such as the family, education, and healthcare, are central to distributing community resources, and can both create inequality and modify it. Bullying and sexual harassment in educational institutions may, for instance, contribute to gendered pat-terns of exposure to violence and the risk of domestic violence. Institutional failure and lack of help can exacerbate the life situation of the victim. When institutions contribute to gendered patterns of exposure to violence, this violates the requirement that institutions should promote justice so that everyone can realize their full human potential.