The Office for National Statistics have published the latest crime statistics for England and Wales. As they do almost invariably, the mainstream media have published selected figures without any trends or historical context, to provide alarming headlines. Typically, the Guardian proclaims “Domestic violence experienced by 30% of female population, survey shows.”
It is true, after a fashion, if one chooses to define domestic violence as any one single adult lifetime incident of emotional or financial abuse, threat or ‘minor force’ by any partner or family member. That is not, however, how most people (including most agencies and academics) would choose to define domestic violence. The total is here
If we look at the table which breaks down the experience of all those victims, a rather less dramatic picture emerges.
This shows a couple of interesting things. The first is that only about a third of all victims reported any instance of severe force or serious sexual assault. Of course some forms of non-physical abuse can be devastating and terrifying, but it is important to note that the reality of the data is not quite as dramatic as headlines would suggest.
The second notable thing here, I think, is that while (as most of us realise) female victims of most forms of intimate violence are more numerous, male victims here were much more likely to report having experienced severe force as women. This doesn’t match the stereotype which paints male violence as severe and frightening, and women’s as trivial acts of self-defence.
Where headlines like the Guardian’s really slip up though, is in hiding the trends. You really wouldn’t know it from reading the papers, but we are in the midst of an ongoing and dramatic decline in partner violence. A rather more appropriate headline would be: DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AT AN ALL TIME LOW. You could go further. Partner violence is at an all time low. Sexual violence is at an all time low. Stalking is at an all time low. Domestic homicides are at an all time low. And if you’re wondering, for male victims the rates hit an all time low in 2010/11 and have remained roughly constant since.
As these tables show, both male and female victimisation has dropped by about 20-25% over the past decade. (Regular readers will know that the decade prior to that saw even more dramatic declines. Partner violence was at its peak in the mid 90s) The trend is probably clearest on physical violence, but even sexual violence against women is now at the lowest point since records began.
The trend is even more marked in the domestic partner homicide figures. There were 75 women killed by partners and ex-partners last year, and 15 men. In 2004/5 the equivalent numbers were 106 and 39. It goes without saying that any homicide is one too many, but it would be wilfully obtuse to ignore the good news here. (Should also be pointed out that figures are just about the only police stat that can be relied upon for accuracy.)
Elsewhere in the data, another couple of statistics that intrigue me, because they are so unexpected. If anyone can offer credible explanations, I’m all ears.
UPDATED: THE FOLLOWING APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN A MISTAKE IN THE ORIGINAL DATA TABLES, SINCE CORRECTED (see comments, and hat tip to Unity at Ministry of Truth
First, it appears that the majority of serious sexual assaults on women are committed by strangers. This flies in the face of received wisdom, which holds that women are much more likely to be raped or seriously sexually assaulted by their partners, loved ones and acquaintances. Look The only explanation I can offer is that the dramatic improvement in rates of domestic and relationship violence – including much improved capacity and greater willingness of people to leave abusive relationships – mean that those types of assaults have become less common, while frequency of stranger attacks have remained broadly unchanged. I had a quick look at the stats from last year, and they were heading in the same direction, which would confirm that.
One final point regards the consequences of intimate violence on the victims. A point I’ve often seen raised in relation to male victims is that compared to their female equivalents, they are less likely to live in fear and terror, less likely to be traumatised, and are therefore in less need of support, protection and services.
Well the CSEW asks a question in that vein, and it turns out that yes – male victims are less likely to have lasting psychological damage from their abuse – but the difference is marginal.
In a nutshell, 4 out of 10 female victims have lasting psychological impacts, but so do 3 out of 10 men. Five women in a hundred feel suicidal, so do three men in a hundred. Yes, there are differences there, but I’d suggest they are not dramatic enough to really operate as justification for any kind of discriminatory policy.
Some final notes on the CSEW, from which these stats are drawn. For those who don’t know, it is a survey of around 50,000 people and is one of the best regarded, most reliable victim surveys in the world. But it is not perfect. There are problems with it – notably it misses data from people on the margins of society, who are temporarily homeless or who have chaotic lifestyles. There are always doubts about the accuracy and honesty of subjects’ reporting in surveys like this. There is a particular issue with the intimate violence modules, which is that it does not record high multiples of instances – it is counting the numbers of victims, not the numbers of incidents. So the CSEW does not really pick up on rates of systematic coercive controlling violence which (some researchers claim) is the type of DV which is most likely to be male perpetrator – female victim.
For all that, what the CSEW does do is provide really quite reliable data on trends. Whatever doubts we may have about total counts and some of the details, I’d be pretty confident that what this survey is telling us about the long-term trends is pretty much true. And that really is good news, whatever you might read in the newspaper.