Understanding female perpetrators of intimate partner violence

NatCen was awarded funding to carry out research with the aim of improving understanding of female perpetrators of intimate partner violence.
  • Author:
    Jennifer Barton-Crosby
  • Publishing date:
    25 July 2022

The Home Office Domestic Abuse Perpetrators Research Fund is focused on strengthening the evidence base for ‘what works’ in addressing perpetrator behaviour, to support effective commissioning and delivery of perpetrator services and interventions.

As part of this initiative, NatCen was awarded funding in 2021 to carry out a piece of research with the aim of improving understanding of female perpetrators of intimate partner violence (IPV).

To distinguish the focus of this research from other forms of violence and abuse that can occur within wider domestic and family relationships, we use the term ‘intimate partner violence (IPV)’ to refer to violence and abuse that occurs specifically within intimate (i.e. romantic and/or sexual) relationships.

Motivations, methods, and impacts of female perpetrated intimate partner violence

A key element of the research was to explore the motivations, methods, and impacts of female perpetrated IPV.

Findings from our review of the literature and stakeholder interviews point to a number of similarities in the motivations of male and female IPV perpetrators. This includes an underlying desire for power and control. Stakeholders also suggested that the situational, psychological, and developmental factors that may contribute to the instigation of IPV are also similar across male and female perpetrators. This includes alcohol use, relationship conflict, and jealousy, as well as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

While female IPV perpetrators use a range of physical methods of abuse, stakeholders who took part in our research suggested that female IPV perpetrators tend to engage in more coercive and controlling behaviour than they do physical abuse. According to stakeholder accounts, the coercive and controlling behaviour used by women is largely similar to that used by men, including psychological and emotional abuse, monitoring of daily activities, isolation from friends and family, and financial abuse. However, the use of legal and/or administrative abuse was a type of coercive and controlling behaviour that stakeholders identified as being more prevalent among female IPV perpetrators.

Although stakeholders recognised the physical impacts of female perpetrated IPV, descriptions largely focused on the psychological and emotional impacts of abuse on male victims/survivors. Stakeholders also provided accounts of male victims/survivors feeling unable to speak to friends or family or to seek professional support regarding their experiences of IPV, which in turn was described as increasing their psychological vulnerability.

Professional attitudes

Stakeholders suggested that while there is increasing recognition that men can be victims of IPV, help-seeking by male victims/survivors can be difficult. As a consequence of social norms and stereotypes around IPV and gender, male victims/survivors of female perpetrated IPV can be mistakenly viewed as the perpetrator, and often have negative experiences of seeking help from frontline services such as police officers, social workers, and medical professionals. There also remains a lack of support for male victims/survivors and a lack of treatment provision for female IPV perpetrators.

Raising awareness of the issue

Stakeholders suggested that a key element of raising public awareness of female perpetrated IPV is to challenge societal norms and stereotypes around IPV and gender. Recommendations to achieve this included campaign content that reflects the range of relationships and age groups that IPV occurs within. Stakeholders also suggested messaging that encourages violence-free lives regardless of gender should be part of a campaign strategy, as well as education for children and young people on healthy relationships.

This research comprised a brief literature review and qualitative research with expert stakeholders. The literature review synthesised relevant evidence on female IPV perpetrators, approaches to behavioural intervention, and social attitudes towards female perpetrated IPV. The aim of the review was to provide context to the qualitative study, which involved in-depth interviews with a range of UK-based experts who work with female IPV perpetrators and/or victims/survivors of female perpetrated IPV.