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Measuring Intimate Partner (Domestic) Violence

Date Published
May 12, 2010

How researchers define terms and pose survey questions matters. Measuring intimate partner violence — often called "domestic violence" — can produce different results depending on the instruments used, the focus of the survey (crime, safety, health) and the severity of injuries.

Major National Surveys

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) measures intimate partner violence within the context of general crime victimization, and respondents answer with this context in mind. NCVS also combines multiple victimizations within a 6-month period if the victim is unable to recall the details of each crime, thereby potentially undercounting victimizations.

When respondents are asked behaviorally oriented questions, as with the NIJ/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-sponsored Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence , they report higher incidences of intimate partner violence. [1]

The issue gets even more complicated. The screening questions used by each survey differ substantially. Moreover, NVAWS relies on random-digit dialing from a database of households that have a telephone and takes precautions to ensure the confidentiality of responses. The NCVS sample, in contrast, interviews all members of a household who are 12 and older and reinterviews them every 6 months over a 3-year period, making privacy more difficult to maintain. [2]

There is a new national survey under development. Researchers continue to be hampered by insufficient data concerning the incidence and prevalence of intimate partner and sexual violence, both nationally and locally. In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initiated the development of the National Intimate and Sexual Violence Surveillance program to gather and disseminate information for each State about intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and stalking. The survey will be conducted in 2010.

Are Men and Women Equally as Likely to Be Victims or Offenders?

The National Family Violence Survey (NFVS) found nearly equal rates of assault (11–12 percent) by an intimate partner among both men and women. If so-called "minor" violence such as pushing and shoving is excluded, the rate is around 3 percent — more than twice the rate found in NVAWS.

NIJ researchers have found, however, that collecting various types of counts from men and women does not yield an accurate understanding of battering and serious injury occurring from intimate partner violence. National surveys supported by NIJ, CDC, and BJS that examine more serious assaults do not support the conclusion of similar rates of male and female spousal assaults. These surveys are conducted within a safety or crime context and clearly find more partner abuse by men against women.

For example, NVAWS found that women are significantly more likely than men to report being victims of intimate partner violence whether it is rape, physical assault, or stalking and whether the timeframe is the person's lifetime or the previous 12 months. [3] NCVS found that about 85 percent of victimizations by intimate partners in 1998 were against women. [4, 5]

The studies that find that women abuse men equally or even more than men abuse women are based on data compiled through the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS), a survey tool developed in the 1970s. CTS may not be appropriate for intimate partner violence research because it does not measure control, coercion, or the motives for conflict tactics; it also leaves out sexual assault and violence by ex-spouses or partners and does not determine who initiated the violence. [6, 7]

A review of the research found that violence is instrumental in maintaining control and that more than 90 percent of "systematic, persistent, and injurious" violence is perpetrated by men. [8] BJS reports that 30 percent of female homicide victims are murdered by their intimate partners compared with 5 percent of male homicide victims, and that 22 percent of victims of nonfatal intimate partner violence are female but only 3 percent are male. [9] Researchers that use city- and State-generated databases for analysis, however, attribute 40–50 percent of female homicides to intimate partners. This discrepancy likely results from omission of ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends from the Federal Supplementary Homicide Reports that are used by BJS. Ex-boyfriends account for up to 11 percent of intimate partner homicides committed by men, and ex-girlfriends account for up to 3 percent of intimate partner homicides committed by women.

Many researchers agree that better measurement tools are needed to determine how intimate partner violence fits within the context of coercive control. How the victim perceives the violence is another factor (for example, within some intimate partner relationships, the victim may not perceive a particular type of abuse as battering and may not report it as such).

NIJ continues to sponsor research to develop, test, and evaluate better measures of intimate partner violence (see NIJ's  Compendium of Research on Violence Against Women).

For More Information

The following reports discuss measurement of intimate partner violence:

Development and Validation of a Coercive Control Measure for Intimate Partner Violence, by Mary Ann Dutton, Lisa Goodman, and R. James Schmitt. Final report to NIJ, 2006, NCJ 214438.

Self-Reports of Traumatic Events in a Random Sample of Incarcerated Women, by Sarah L. Cook, Sharon Smith, Chantal Tusher, Jerris Raiford. Final report to NIJ, 2005, NCJ 212244.

Date Published: May 12, 2010