Intimate Partner Violence: The Effect of Gender and Contextual Factors on Community Perceptions of Harm, and Suggested Victim and Criminal Justice Responses

By Dennison, Susan M.; Thompson, Carleen M. | Violence and Victims, May 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Intimate Partner Violence: The Effect of Gender and Contextual Factors on Community Perceptions of Harm, and Suggested Victim and Criminal Justice Responses


Dennison, Susan M., Thompson, Carleen M., Violence and Victims


Using a vignette to depict physical violence by an intimate partner, a 2 (perpetrator gender) × 2 (participant gender) × 2 (frequency) × 2 (intent to cause harm) between subjects factorial design was used to examine under what circumstances individuals perceive: an incident should be illegal, the extent of harm, and appropriate victim and criminal justice responses. There were 868 participants from the Brisbane (Australia) community (48.5% males). The actions of male perpetrators were viewed more seriously and the victims were recommended to seek more forms of assistance when the perpetrator was male. There were few differences in perceptions of violence according to participant gender. The frequency of the violence affected the participant's responses but the intentions of the perpetrator did not. Results are discussed in terms of stereotypes of intimate partner violence (IPV) and the implications for help-seeking behavior by victims.

Keywords: physical violence; psychological harm; attributions; repeat violence; gender

Intimate partner violence (IPV) involves violence inflicted by an intimate partner towards the other. Intimate partners can be current or former spouses, as well as current or former nonmarital partners. The violence itself falls into four categories: physical, sexual, threats of physical or sexual violence, and psychological/emotional abuse (Saltzman, Fanslow, McMahon, & Shelley, 2002). Although definitions of IPV are reasonably clear, there are likely to be individual differences in the type of incidents that are considered illegal. Because of the success of any prevention, deterrence or other criminal justice responses depend on the common understanding of what IPV is; it is important to consider how community members (as potential victims, perpetrators, jurors, or critical support networks) perceive IPV. Reddy, Knowles, Mulvany, McMahon, and Freckelton (1997) noted that jurors are likely to have preconceived notions about violence in intimate relationships. Whether such attitudes are then shaped by information specific to a case is not well understood. For example, the gender of the perpetrator and victim, whether violence has occurred previously, and the intentions of the perpetrator, may influence the perceptions of a violent episode and the appropriateness of various victim and criminal justice responses.

The theoretical domains of attributions of responsibility and blame provide a framework to examine community perceptions of IPV and the factors that contribute to beliefs that an alleged perpetrator should be held accountable and punished. Brewer (1977) argues that attributions of responsibility increase as the relationship between the actions and resulting consequences move through higher levels of responsibility. Such a progression includes those consequences that were not foreseeable to those that were, and finally to those consequences that were intended (Brewer, 1977). However, Brewer also suggests that if the consequences are considered highly probable, then actual intentions may have little impact on the judgments of responsibility. In the case of IPV, victim harm may be seen as a likely consequence of physical violence-rendering the assailant's intentions irrelevant. Similarly, Heider (1958) suggested that a perceiver uses the information available regarding the motivation and the ability of an actor to accomplish an outcome and surrounding situational factors to assign responsibility.

Weiner (1979) extended these theoretical domains to consider the psychological consequences of perceived causality. He argued that an evaluation of behavior would depend on locus of causality, controllability (related to intentionality), and stability. In the context of IPV, a perceiver's attitudes and actions towards an actor would depend on whether they perceived the locus of causality to be internal or external to the actor, the extent to which they perceived the actor to have control over their actions, and whether violence was a stable characteristic of the actor. …

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