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Are We Right to Assume that Women Perpetrate Domestic Violence in Self-Defence?

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The short answer to the question of whether we are right to assume all women’s domestic violence perpetration towards men is defensive, is no. The longer answer requires a wider discussion about not only the motivations of women’s violence and men’s experiences of victimisation, but also the social narrative that still dictates domestic violence as a form of ‘gendered violence’. 

The women’s movement of the 1970s onwards excelled in raising the profile of violence against women, and increased awareness as well as social discourse about it; indeed, without this we would not have the victim services and support we do today that help women escape abusive relationships.

At the same time this work was developing, there was a parallel body of literature growing that demonstrated the prevalence of violence within the home more generally; research from this work suggested that women were violent towards their partners as well, as well as there being similar prevalence within LGBTQ+ groups, and other family relationships.

Indeed, in 1978 Susanne Steinmetz coined the term the ‘battered husband syndrome’; she posited based on her research that men were also victims of abuse but that through the stigma and shame they would be less likely to tell anyone. 

Critics of this latter body of work suggested that the methods chosen, specifically the community-based samples and gender-neutral survey techniques, were not capturing the ‘context’ of the violence. One specific assertion here was that women’s use of violence towards their male partners was likely to be in self-defence, and a form of ‘violent resistance

While self-defence is certainly the case for some of these instances, the evidence does not support that this is the case all the time. For example, a meta-analysis published 20 years ago demonstrated the prevalence of women’s aggression and indicated women were using physical aggression towards a partner at higher rates than men. There is also research demonstrating men experience significant verbal, physical and sexual aggression at the hands of female partners. Qualitative studies have included descriptions of men’s victimisation that indicate not only the severity of the violence, but also the one-sided nature of it. Men are victims in the absence of their own use of violence. 

More recent research has shown that where violence exists in a relationship, this is mostly bidirectional; that is, both men and women report being a victim and a perpetrator. For example, a comprehensive literature review of 48 studies found that prevalence of violence across all samples was 47% and of this, 59.6% was bidirectional. The remaining 40.4% was unidirectional violence, of which 17.5% was male to female and 22.9% was female to male. These prevalence figures initially suggest that women’s use of violence in relationships cannot always be self-defence. Furthermore, studies that have examined which partner hit first have found that not only is the violence mutual in severity but also women more often than men strike the first blow.  

Another common assertion about women’s violence is that is includes a ‘loss of control’ rather than being motivated by power and control. Evidence supports that women can engage in controlling behaviour; in fact, just last year, the first woman to be convicted of the 2015 new law of ‘controlling or coercive behaviour’ hit the headlines.

They are also likely to be categorised as ‘intimate terrorists within Johnson’s typology, meaning they engage in controlling behaviour and physical violence within their relationships. Earlier gendered models of domestic violence suggest that men’s use of physical violence and control is rooted in patriarchal values and male privilege; their use of abusive behaviours are in line with their need to control and dominate women. Evidence of women’s use of coercive control, as well as the presence of it in same-sex relationships, suggests that this is an incomplete explanation for domestic violence. The links between domestic violence perpetration, same-sex non-intimate aggression, and control further suggest different motivations and may indeed be reflective of a more generally coercive interpersonal style that goes beyond that intimate relationship. 

If we are therefore able to gain an understanding of why women use violence and/or abuse in relationships, we can begin to offer interventions or programmes of work that aim to change this behaviour and improve individuals’ quality of life. But if it is not always self-defence, why else would women turn to violence?

One systematic review of 23 papers found that self-defence was indeed a motivation for domestic violence, cited in 87% of the studies. However, 70% of the studies cited expression of feelings as a motivation and 61% stated coercive control was identified as a motivation. A more recent systematic review of 31 papers, specifically focusing on women who were in criminal justice settings, found further motivations for domestic violence. Motivations included management of negative emotions/interactions (16% of studies), control or instrumental gain (16%) and retaliation (10% of studies). Self-defence was also identified as a motivation, this time in 23% of the studies, however, where studies also explored men’s domestic violence, it was also cited as a motivation for men. 

In one of the author’s recent PhD research (Mackay, forthcoming), self-defence was identified as a motivation for domestic violence for both women and men, alongside a range of other motivations. These included expression of negative emotion, revenge, actions of partners, substance use and as a way of managing conflict. Interestingly, men also discussed using domestic violence as a means of getting their own way in some situations, but it was women who talked about using domestic violence as a way of taking back control. 

It is important to consider these motivations as they inform interventions and attempts to reduce the prevalence of domestic violence. However, it is also important to consider the perceptions of men’s and women’s violence, as these attitudes go some way to informing how victims themselves conceptualise their own experiences.

We saw in a previous blogpost that the way in which we talk about domestic violence and gender significantly impacts on the way male victims are able to understand their experiences – which ultimately will inform their decisions around reporting and help-seeking. Assuming that women’s violence is in response to either their own victimisation, or indeed some ‘fault’ of their partners, often renders men in particular asked about ‘what they did to deserve it’.  For example, in a recent qualitative study, one man describes the reaction he received from trying to report his victimisation: ‘I reported her to the police on one occasion and was asked what I had done to deserve the beating, I told them I had done nothing at all, to which they told me that was unlikely and it was probably something I had done or said’

Aside from the obvious victim-blaming nature of this response, it is also something that we would not see if the victim here was a woman. These issues are further reinforced then by language in policy and practice. Women’s violence is still not taken as seriously as men’s; Michael Johnson wrote: ‘When a woman slaps her husband in the heat of an argument, it is unlikely to be interpreted by him as a serious attempt to do him physical harm. In fact, it is likely to be seen as a quaint form of feminine communication.’


We tend to be more understanding of women’s use of violence in relationships, so much so that the motivations of female perpetrators are more likely to be considered than those of males. However, it is not always as simple as understanding what motivates an individual to be violent in relationships, but we need to know how someone has got to that point in their lives and what needs to change to stop it happening again. This means we need to know about what the risk factors and treatment needs are, as well as understanding the factors of the situation that prompted the use of violence.

Women (and men) who perpetrate domestic violence often have complex lives and needs; if we do not learn more about women’s use of violence, we run the risk of not meeting those complex needs and we also ignore the consequences for the many victims who are left to fend for themselves. 


Image credit: Freepik

Dr Elizabeth Bates is Senior Lecturer in Applied Psychology at the University of Cumbria. Dr Jenny Mackay is Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at Nottingham Trent University.

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