The numbers don’t lie?

Domestic violence researchers seem to want women to live up to their statistics.

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

The aphorism, ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’, recommends a suspicion of numbers claiming to represent the ‘real truth’.

Statistics about violence in intimate relationships should be treated with particular care. After all, this is a area where subjective judgements are often made behind closed doors. Exactly what constitutes ‘violence’, and whether this standard can be applied irrespective of the perceptions of the people involved, is a thorny issue.

Yet most domestic violence statistics are treated not as damned lies, or even part-lies, but as the Absolute Truth. As long, that is, as these figures suggest that a lot of women are being abused a lot of the time.

‘1 in 4 women suffer from domestic violence’, ‘1 in 3 American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime’, ‘1 in 20 women has been raped’…these and other statistics are today accepted as common sense. We see them in newspaper headlines, splashed all over Tube stations and bus-stops, and hear them bandied about in conversation.

But behind these figures lie some pretty questionable assumptions. Take the much-quoted Home Office Research Study in 1999, that found that 1 in 4 women had suffered domestic violence (1).

This category contains a broad variety of incidents, some of which would not be generally be considered as a serious crime of violence. Indeed, only 17 percent of incidents recorded in the survey were considered to be crimes by their victims. And only a third of women victims agreed that their experience made them ‘a victim of domestic violence’.

The most common kind of assault counted in this study was ‘pushing, shoving and grabbing’. Forty-one percent of victims were injured, and this injury was in most cases restricted to bruising.

Using such a broad category is of dubious merit. Defining a ‘grabbing’ incident that the victim did not view as a crime, as ‘domestic violence’, only blurs the distinction between that and serious, sustained abuse.

The 2000 British Crime Survey (BCS) found that 1 in 20 women had been raped (2) – and that most of these rapes occurred within intimate relationships. But the question the survey asked women was whether they had been ‘forced…to have sexual intercourse against your will’. If ‘force’ and ‘against your will’ were liberally interpreted, they could include a whole range of incidents – from a woman being persuaded to have sex when she didn’t want to, to being taken advantage of while drunk.

While the 2000 BCS found that 61,000 women had been raped in 1999, that year only 7809 offences were recorded by the police as rape. Though there are many reasons why women would not come forward, this gap between measured rapes and the rapes that women report to the police is suspiciously large.

But instead of casting doubt on the way that rapes were measured in the BCS, this gap between abuse statistics and women’s perception of their experience becomes another shock-horror statistic – this time showing the extent of women’s denial. The 1999 Home Office Research Study found that just under half of victims told a relative or friend about the incident. Other surveys have found that only 11 percent of domestic violence was reported to the police.

In the world of domestic violence statistics, it is the 1 in 4 ‘discovered’ by the survey that is sacrosanct – this is the benchmark that real people have to live up to. If 4 out of 5 women didn’t think their experience was a crime, then it seems that they must have been mistaken.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Domestic violence

(1) Domestic Violence: findings from a new British Crime Survey self-completion questionnaire, Catriona Mirrlees-Black, Home Office Research Study, 1999

(2) Rape and sexual assault of women: the extent and nature of the problem: findings from the British Crime Survey (.pdf), Home Office, 2002, pvii

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