Feminists Were Wrong About Domestic Violence

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Okay, I know what you’re thinking, but the title of this video has nothing to do directly with the recently concluded Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial. I’m done talking about that for now. Sooooo done.

But it IS related, and it’s also related to another previous video I made on the topic of gun violence, in which I mentioned that in 68.2% of mass shootings, the perpetrator either killed at least one partner or family member or had a history of domestic violence. It stands to reason that if we really refuse to do the obvious thing and make guns more difficult to access, another way we can reduce mass shootings is to find and arrest perpetrators of domestic violence as quickly as possible.

There are a number of problems with that approach, of course. First I’ll cite the National Institute of Corrections special Report, “Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges”:

“According to the (National Violence Against Women Survey), only 27 percent of women and 13.5 percent of men who were physically assaulted by an intimate partner reported their assault to law enforcement. Less than 20 percent of women victims reported intimate partner rapes to police.”

“Once reported, police arrest rates vary, depending on the jurisdiction and how each defines

domestic violence. Arrests for domestic violence per 1,000 persons ranged from 3.2 in Omaha,

Neb. (2003), to 12.2 in Wichita, Kan. (2000).”

I will pause here to first point out, because those figures are a bit confusing, the Department of Justice says about half of domestic violence reports result in an arrest. I will also highlight another problem with the reporting and arrest rate of domestic violence: 40% of police officers admitted to abusing their spouse in the previous six months in a 1991 survey, a figure that has been supported by several other surveys. A meta-analysis published in 2016 found that “the rate of officer-perpetrated domestic violence ranged from 4.8% to 40%” with a “pooled rate” of 21.2%. So. Hm. These are the guys arresting (other) domestic violence perpetrators. Anyway, back to the NIC report:

“Prosecution rates similarly vary. A review of 26 domestic violence prosecution studies from

across the country found prosecutions per arrest ranged from 4.6 percent in Milwaukee in 1992

to 94 percent reported in Hamilton, Ohio, in 2005. The average rate was 63.8 percent, and the

median rate was 59.5 percent.”

So yeah, a minority of domestic violence victims report their assaults, about half of those reports result in an arrest, and about half of those arrests are prosecuted, leading to the conclusion that “Judges typically see only a small minority of domestic violence cases that actually occur.” Once they’re in the courtroom, most accused domestic violence perpetrators are convicted. That’s good, right?

Well! Not necessarily, if we’re talking about a conviction that leads to imprisonment. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, handily beating out El Salvador, Turkmenistan, Palau and Rwanda. USA! USA! Oh wait, but it turns out that the number of people we put in prison doesn’t necessarily mean less crime: according to the National Resource Council of the United States National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “On balance, panel data studies support the conclusion that the growth in incarceration rates reduced crime, but the magnitude of the crime reduction remains highly uncertain and the evidence suggests it was unlikely to have been large.”

Throwing domestic violence perpetrators in prison might stop them from abusing partners for a little while, but eventually they leave prison, and research shows that about a quarter of them (that we know of…refer back to all the stuff I just said about how few incidences are reported or result in arrests) end up abusing a partner again within 3 years. Other data suggests recidivism rates as high as 45% within five years.

So how do we make actual change, in the form of actually stopping abusers from abusing again once they serve their sentence? For the past 40 years or so, the only real attempt to rehabilitate abusers has been what’s known as the Duluth Model, an intervention program more or less based on second-wave feminist theory. Workers at domestic violence agencies in the late 1970s and early ‘80s suspected that men abuse women not because of individual choices but because of a society that marginalizes women and entitles men to use violence to maintain power and control over their partners. Instead of throwing these men in prison, we’re better off re-educating them by challenging patriarchal beliefs and promoting accountability.

You may already notice something a bit wrong with that: what about women who abuse men, or violence within same-sex couples? Yeah, like second-wave feminism itself, the Duluth Model was a bit of an underbaked cake, but at the time it was the only cake we had, and it DID appear to help reduce the number of abusers who reoffended, so it was instituted around the country. 

Unfortunately, as more and more data has been collected over the years, it seems like the Duluth Model and other similar interventions for domestic violence perpetrators only make a small dent in recidivism. A systematic review from 2021 found “insufficient evidence to conclude that these programs are effective” despite “modest (but statistically nonsignificant) benefit for the program group.” The authors urged that “new programs and/or entirely new approaches to this important social problem should be explored.”

Well, they asked and Amie Zarling, clinical psychologist and associate professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, answered with a new study titled “A randomized clinical trial of acceptance and commitment therapy and the Duluth Model classes for men court-mandated to a domestic violence program,” available in full at Researchgate (link in the transcript as always!).

Zarling wanted to put the Duluth Model up against cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. I actually talked about another study incorporating CBT back in January, when I took credit for inventing it: it’s the idea that we can change our behaviors by reevaluating the thoughts that lead to the emotions that inspire that behavior. Change the thoughts, change the behavior. I also talked about mindfulness in that video: yes, thoughts lead to behaviors but we don’t necessarily have to change those thoughts–just recognize them, understand the context in which they’re occurring, and then modify your behavior. If you didn’t watch that video, the study in question compared these two techniques and found that both were equally good at fixing a bad mood but they worked better if the person doing it was told they were better at that technique rather than the other one. Weird!

Anyway, Zarling developed a new intervention for abusers based on mindfulness, which is known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT. She hoped to “increase psychological

Flexibility in the abusers, writing that “Psychological flexibility is the ability to choose prosocial and value-based behavior, even if psychological barriers (e.g., anger, shame, maladaptive beliefs, etc.) are present. A lack of psychological flexibility is linked to avoidance of emotional experiences and impulsivity, and aggressive behavior in particular.”

Under the Duluth Model, an abusive man who thinks “my partner shouldn’t treat me that way,” he would be taught that this thinking comes from a patriarchal society and isn’t necessarily “right,” and then be encouraged to think a more egalitarian thought. Under Zarling’s ACT-based program, he would instead be asked to accept that he thinks that way, but to understand that he doesn’t need to act in accordance with that thought. He’s instead asked about what he truly values, like love and family, and then asked to instead behave in accordance with those values.

To test if this approach works, Zarling pre-registered her study (as you all know by now, my favorite type of study: pre-registering means that a researcher can’t collect loads of data and then go hunting for anything with a positive effect). She then randomly assigned about 300 men, all of whom were on parole for domestic violence, to a once-a-week treatment over 24 weeks, with about half getting the Duluth Model and the other half getting ACT.

She then checked in one year later to see if any of them had been convicted of any crimes, including domestic violence. She also interviewed their victims to see if there was any evidence that the men’s behavior had changed. The results were very interesting: first of all, there was NO difference between the two groups for domestic violence recidivism: about 13% of men in both groups went on to be charged again for domestic violence. I know, you weren’t expecting that, were you?

However, there WERE other very important differences: the ACT group had about half as many later convictions for any kind of crime at all (like drug possession or robbery) compared to the Duluth group. Also, the victims who remained in contact with the perpetrators reported significantly fewer aggressive, controlling, and stalking behaviors from the men who were in the ACT group, and more of those victims were able to report ZERO physical assaults or other dangerous behaviors in the year following the treatment.

That’s very promising! The lack of a difference in terms of domestic violence recidivism may be due to a small sample size and an interrupted treatment schedule, both of which occurred due to complications from COVID in March of 2020. A larger study may find a difference there, but even if there IS no difference, the significant difference in victim reports and overall crime convictions offers a really compelling case to switch to ACT anyway.

So does that mean the feminists got it all wrong? Well, yes and no: we DO live in a patriarchal society, and a lot of male violence (directed towards male or female intimate partners, women in general, or other men) is a direct result of a society that turns a blind eye to, or encourages, or rewards aggression in men. But that doesn’t mean that individual choice doesn’t matter, as we can see when women abuse their male or female partners, and it doesn’t mean that the solution, on an individual basis, is telling men they must first change the fucked up mindset they’ve lived with all their lives in order to change their behaviors. Maybe the solution is to tell individuals that their behaviors don’t need to follow mindlessly from their thoughts and emotions, and to help them recognize their core values and the types of behaviors that can help them achieve what they really want out of life. The added benefit is that this type of treatment can apply to women as well as men, to gay people as well as straight people, and to a myriad of antisocial behaviors as well as domestic violence.

And in the meanwhile, we can still work to fix our patriarchal society that raises us to have these malignant mindsets in the first place. It’s a win win!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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