Domestic Violence (DV) is rapidly becoming a leading health concern for women in the Western World. Victimisation from DV is a powerful indicator in predicting mental health issues, substance use disorders, poor socioeconomic fluidity and future victimisation. There has been extensive attempts to curve DV in the Western World with consideration for these outcomes and their inter-generational impacts. Attempts have been by way of the introduction of punitive punishments against men that spend lengthy periods in custody, public education programs targeted at improving men’s awareness of their behaviour, empowering observers to intervene in abusive relationships, educating women about behaviours in men and an increased institutionalised response from police departments and prosecutors who are pressing DV as a matter of public interest.

Despite this public and institutionalised response to DV there appears to be inadequacies in the theoretical basis for these interventions. Leading theories which have informed the response against DV are Feminist theories of deviance that aim to view DV as an inherit gendered issue, where males assert themselves in dominant positions in the family unit. Feminist theory fails in explaining DV due to the hyper-focus on the gendered dynamic between male and females in hetro-normative structures, with no consideration for deviance and other factors which are powerful determinants of deviance. Current interventions against DV are contributing to factors of generalised deviance which may be causing DV to be a self-perpetuating system requiring the application of established deviance theories to minimise the risk of future and continued victimisation.

Definition of Domestic Violence

In order to appropriately assess the adequacy of theoretical approaches towards an issue, it is important to have discussion about the definition of the issue. It would appear that there is no static definition of DV as several theories attempt to define DV (Sunitha 2016). The general public also has difficulty with defining DV as there is differing attitudes about the illegality of abusive behaviours among large sample sizes (Carlson et all. 2005). As DV has become a widespread health issue the World Health Organisation (WHO) has attempted to authoritatively define DV as Intimate Partner Violence (IPV):

Intimate partner violence refers to behaviour by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours.

This definition provided by the WHO encompasses the tenants of an abusive relationship at varying stages. It accounts for differing types of abusers, all of which their victims are subjected to negative health outcomes (AIHW 2024). However, where this definition is not helpful is that it frames the entirety of the issue, in a broad sense, as behaviours that seek to gain compliance through controlling actions. Framing the issue of DV this way festers a notion that theories accounting for the gendered nature of relationships and a societal patriarchal structure are more powerful than established theories of deviance in explaining the causes of violence in general, leading to misguided interventions.

While all types of abuse do cause harm, it is evident that the particular type of harm that DV interventions aim to stop is violence against women (Coumarelos et all. 2023). A more simplistic definition would be appropriate as it would allow fluid adoption of theoretical frameworks to curb harm from violence by explaining known abusive behaviours as violence. Ultimately, eliminating the need for theories that are ambiguously applied due to the implication of gendered, controlling and coercive behaviours.

Defining DV in this way allows flexibility when applying theoretical frameworks as it does not require the pretence of gendered psycho-socio motivators to explain the cause of violence. This definition allows the application of traditional theories of deviance and broader range of factors to be considered when developing interventions. Namely, socioeconomic factors, health outcomes, geography, instances of previous deviance and education. It also allows a malleable definition of violence that can be any type of abusive behaviour, which is more than likely already defined as criminal conduct and explainable by accepted deviance theories.

History of the Theories of Domestic Violence & Influence on the Criminal Justice System 

Early theories explained DV using psychological and social perspectives to explain the occurrence of violence between spouses (Houston 2014). The psychological perspective suggested dysfunction between the incompatible personality types of the husband and wife (Houston 2014; Reynolds & Siegle 1959). While the social perspective explained DV through structural stress and mutual violence (Houston 2014.). These early perspectives on DV were subject to feminist critique as they presented the idea that women experiencing DV were dictating the behaviour of their abusers and remedy was possible through mediation (Houston 2014). Feminist perspectives on DV viewed domestic violence as a result of a patriarchal society where privacy in relationships kept men in control of women - dominion over women was asserted at every level - and conflict was the result of sexism against women (Dobash & Dobash 1983). From the view of feminists the one determinant factor in DV was the biological gender of the victim.

This feminist idea of gender being the causal factor of DV led to a rejection of alternative theories. Other explanations of deviance that adopted psychological and social perspectives were considered victim blaming that further asserted male dominance over society and women as a class of people.  The feminist solution to DV was a public response which utilised the criminal justice system for mandatory interventions (Houston 2014). The need for this intervention, feminists argued, comes from the extreme harm that men could cause against women due to genetic differences. Feminist theory empowered change in the criminal justice system to utilise the penal system to force incapacitation. There appeared very little room in the feminist explanation of DV for their to be prospects of rehabilitation. The only intervention that would be adequate is the one that would restrict males from being able to assert domination over women. This doctrine appears to have been adopted by a significant number of Western nations which could be used to explain the increase in pretrial remand prison populations with a disproportionate amount of DV offences (Walmsley 2014).

History of the Theories of Domestic Violence & Influence on the Criminal Justice System 

The influence of feminist theory has led to DV being considered a action that is explained by other motivators than that which is used to understand criminal deviance (Norwood et all. 2004). This has had a profound impact on several factors which dictate male outcomes that cause further offending. The feminist influenced doctrine that focuses on incapacitation of male domestic violence offenders leads to more frequent experiences in custody and longer time spent on remand for the accused (Brown 2013). The impact of this is a reduction of opportunities that causes stressors that can contribute to future offending (Evans et all. 2017).

It is documented with overwhelming evidence that justice involved persons who spend a period of time incarcerated are much more likely to experience homelessness, unemployment, mental health disorders, chronic physical disease, communicable disease, high risk alcohol consumption and use off illicit drugs (AIHW 2019). These stressors that are applied due to the influence of feminist theory has had on DV interventions is causing DV to be a self perpetuating issue. There exists little room for intervention under feminist theory as the narrow focus on gender leaves incapacitation as the only option.

The inadequacy in DV intervention can be seen when rates of violent crime are decreasing (Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) 2020). Across the board violent crimes such as assault, robbery, and homicide have all had a general trend downwards (AIC 2020). While men are traditionally the victims of violent crimes, the DV rate is at disharmony with the downward trend of crimes where men are primarily the victims. It is predicted that this rate of women that experience domestic violence is 27%, or approximately 1-in-4 women (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2024). The disharmony of these statistics must be agitated as it suggests that the interventions which are targeting the criminogenic needs in other violent crimes are not being addressed in DV related offending.

Concluding Thoughts and Discussion 

The harms caused by DV cannot be understated. When accounting for genetic differences between men and women it is undeniable that the harms are extraordinary and worth attention. However, the doctrines which dictate the institutionalised response are clearly influenced by feminist theories which look to use the penal system for the purposes of incapacitation. The very definition of DV that has been adopted from the WHO suggests DV flows primarily in the direction of gender, specifically male on female. Having a definition of DV which suggests gender as a requirement completely misdirects from the already defined criminal deviance which encompasses the described behaviours. It is this hyper focus on gender where the feminist theory fails to address DV as an already established type of deviance.

Feminist theories disregard very established theories of deviance and rather rely on applying gendered notions to the cause of DV. This leads to the DV being viewed differently from other types of violent crime and therefore the priority of interventions are not the same. Within this response and the interventions there is evidently an inadequacy as DV statistics are grossly out of harmony with violent crime as it is on a steady decline. Curiously, there is very little weight given to the impact of over incarceration caused by the incapacitating response. It is well documented that incarceration is more likely to lead to negative outcomes for individuals, which is not considered by feminist theory. The negative outcomes are more likely to lead to escalating and repeat offenders of DV. This leads to the ultimate conclusion that the feminist headed response which focuses on incapacitation needs to be reevaluated. Traditional theories of deviance could be employed that have been effective in reducing violent crime in general.


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