Comparing the treatment needs of women and men who perpetrate intimate partner violence and abuse

  • Jennifer Louise Mackay

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Intimate partner violence and abuse (IPVA) is a global phenomenon that impacts individuals, families and societies in a myriad of ways. Since the work of feminist activists in the 1970s bought this subject to the forefront of public and policy debate, IPVA has largely been regarded as a set of behaviours perpetrated by men against women. There has recently been growing interest in examining less traditional narratives of the topic and one such area is that of women who perpetrate IPVA. In England and Wales, there has been an increase in the number of women convicted of IPVA-related offences and more women than ever are therefore entering criminal justice settings related to this crime. When men are convicted of IPVA-related offences, typically, they can access interventions specifically designed to address these behaviours. However, there are no equivalent programmes for women. It is unclear whether women who perpetrate IPVA have the same treatment needs as male perpetrators and what interventions would benefit them.

    The first aim of this thesis was to identify the state of knowledge regarding the risk factors for women who perpetrate IPVA and are situated in criminal justice settings. A systematic review revealed a paucity of research conducted in the UK and identified that although some factors are associated with IPVA perpetration (experiencing child abuse, experiencing trauma, substance use, borderline personality traits and attachment issues), methodological shortcomings of the studies reviewed meant it was impossible to say if these were causal risk factors. The second aim of the thesis was to critically examine the dominant theories of IPVA perpetration in relation to both male- and female-perpetrated IPVA in order to uncover any substantive theory of female IPVA perpetration. Although the review found that no single theory could adequately explain female-perpetrated IPVA, two had potential explanatory power (Background Situational model and Contextual Framework).

    The findings from the reviews informed the third aim of the thesis – to explore the pathways to IPVA perpetration in both women and men through primary qualitative research. In-depth qualitative interviews with 15 women and 14 men currently in prison were undertaken. Thematic Analysis was used to characterise and compare developmental pathways, the function of IPVA and the offence process of IPVA perpetration between women and men. Results of this study suggest that there are more similarities than differences across women and men in prison who have perpetrated IPVA, with both following similar trajectories to IPVA perpetration. Women discussed the impact of their trauma experiences more than men, some displayed a different pattern of insecure attachment and although women tended to report being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder more so than men, both genders displayed trauma symptomology that has been labelled differently throughout their lives. Functions of IPVA perpetration were similar across both women and men (expression of negative emotion, revenge, actions of partners, substance use and self-defence), although women reported unique functions related to a need to take back control in their relationships, an anticipation of violence and problems with managing conflict.

    The developmental pathway to IPVA perpetration in women is unlikely to be explained by single factor theories. Thus, a ‘contextual maintenance’ theory of IPVA perpetration is proposed to explain IPVA perpetration in both women and men. This has incorporated the impact of trauma and mental health issues as factors that perpetuate IPVA perpetration that has been missing from previous theoretical explanations. An approach to intervention for those who perpetrate IPVA and are situated within criminal justice settings is also proposed, containing eight key components. It is suggested that the key driver in intervention development is not the gender of the person perpetrating IPVA, but individual need and risk factors.
    Date of AwardApr 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorLorna O'Doherty (Supervisor), Katie Walker (Supervisor), Erica Bowen (Supervisor) & Isla Masson (Supervisor)


    • domestic violence
    • systematic review
    • female perpetrators
    • risk factors
    • intimate partner violence

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