Distinctive Characteristics of Marital Violence

Richard Felson, Sociology, The Pennsylvania State University

Research Grant, 2004

The study of violence has become increasingly specialized. Researchers and policy makers focus on such topics as domestic violence, sexual assault, or violence between strangers. Specialization can be beneficial, but it may also inhibit our understanding of violent behavior. For example, perhaps some of the patterns observed in domestic violence occur in any type of violent encounter or in any violent encounter between people who know each other. Perhaps men’s violence against their wives is similar in many ways to their violence against others. Only by examining violence involving both genders in a variety of relationships can we determine how particular forms of violence are special. Only by examining the larger context can we discover when theories of domestic violence, theories of violence against women, or general theories of violence or aggression, are more useful.

We examined these issues using a large national victimization survey. In one of our studies we examined the ways in which assaults committed by male intimate partners are more serious than assaults committed by female partners and whether these differences reflect gender differences in offending and victimization generally (Felson and Cares, 2005). In general, gender effects do not depend on the victim’s relationship to the offender. Regardless of their relationship: (a) men cause more injuries; (b) women suffer more injuries although their injuries tend to be less severe; (c) victims are more fearful of male offenders, but only if the offenders are unarmed; and (d) men are particularly likely to precipitate assaults by other men, not their female partners. Violent husbands do assault with particularly high frequency but so do women who assault family members.

In general, gender effects do not depend on the victim's relationship to the offender.

We also examined the role of alcohol intoxication in different types of violent incidents (Felson, Burchfield, and Teasdale, unpublished). Analyses indicate that offenders are much more likely to be intoxicated when they physically assault a stranger than when they assault someone they know and least likely to be intoxicated when they assault an intimate partner. We argue that conflicts involving people who know each other are more intense and may lead to an assault without the facilitative effect of alcohol. We find no support for the idea that offenders who commit sexual assaults are more likely to be drinking than offenders who commit physical assaults.

Finally we examined whether when people are intoxicated they increase the likelihood that they will become victims of physical or sexual assaults. Analyses showed that the frequency and amount of alcohol people consume increases greatly their risk of victimization when drinking, but it is not associated with victimization while sober. This evidence suggests that drinking has a causal effect on victimization. We also find that men, young adults, and less-educated respondents are at a particularly high risk of victimization when drinking, controlling for how frequently they drink. Evidently, some demographic groups behave more provocatively than others when they are intoxicated.

  1. Felson, Richard B., Keri Burchfield, and Brent Teasdale. The impact of Alcohol on Different types of Violent Incidents (unpublished).

  2. Felson, Richard B. and Keri Burchfield. "Alcohol and the Risk of Physical and Sexual Assault Victimizations." Criminology 42(4) (November 2004): 837-858.

  3. Felson, Richard B. and Alison C. Cares. "Gender and the Seriousness of Assaults on Intimate Partners and Other Victims." Journal of Marriage and Family 67 (December 2005): 1182-1195.

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