The number of victims of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in women’s prisons has been variously estimated. The data I analysed estimated figures to be between 57-79%. This is significantly higher than the 20% of women who are estimated to have experienced IPV in the general population.
The exact reasons for this are complex. Traditional criminology has sought to explain overlaps between victimisation and offending in a number of ways, however my work highlights that women have been ignored in much of this research. Instead, my work reviews the existing and emerging literature from feminist criminologists which asks why and how IPV can be a defining feature of women’s pathways into crime.
My work argues that links between IPV and offending are nuanced and varied, and that experiences and effects of IPV are highly specific and individual. Some women may identify an obvious causal link between their experiences of IPV and their offending, whereas for others such a direct link may not be so obvious. My dissertation was split, therefore, into two areas of analysis; long-term links and immediate links.
My analysis on long-term links argued that offending which occurs long after IPV has subsided can still be influenced or characterised by past abuse. This may be due to long-term emotional coping strategies that a victim employs. Substance misuse is one example of this. Substances may be misused during or after an abusive relationship as a way of dealing with trauma, or an abuser may encourage or utilise addictions as a control tactic. When substance misuse issues are ongoing, and characterise a later offence, a long-term link can therefore be established between previous abuse and offending behaviour. Another example is instances of ‘projection and association’. This occurs when a victim associates a specific situation with their past experiences of abuse, triggering a reaction or retaliation for past abuse onto someone who is not their abuser.
Long term links may also be characterised by practical survival strategies. Research suggests that women make rational, strategic decisions to practically deal with abuse. One example of this is purposeful incarceration, which can act as a practical route to safety for women either in the midst of an abusive relationship or while dealing with the long-term after effects. Another example is financially motivated offending, such as fraud, sex work or theft. Women are sometimes made to give up jobs, lose jobs, or forced into debt by their abusers. These issues can continue long after the relationship has ended, and women may engage in financially motivated offending as a practical means of survival, particularly if they have children to support.
These examples are by no means exhaustive, but they show how the long-term impacts of IPV, both psychologically and practically, can link IPV with offending in longitudinal and complex ways.
My second area of analysis was into the immediate links between IPV and offending. This explored two offending scenarios; women who offend with their abuser and women who offend against their abuser. In both of these offending scenarios the abuser has a clear role in the offending, therefore making the link between IPV and offending obvious and direct. Women who offend with or against their abusers, particularly the more serious cases, tend to receive sensationalised and over-simplified representation in the media, so there is a need for a more informed understanding of the complexities of such cases.
When IPV is involved in co-offending relationships it can differentiate these partnerships in a number of ways. In the research I analysed, some women offended due to direct threats or physical violence from their partner. However in other cases such threats and violence were not used, and it was the pre-existing controlling and coercive relationship dynamic which secured women’s participation in the offence. Therefore, in cases where women co-offend with an abusive partner, I argue that the relationship as a whole must be considered rather than only the direct context of the offence.
Violent resistance – a type of reactional violence where a victim retaliates against their abuser – can also link IPV and offending in obvious and direct ways. Early research in this area focused on violent resistance as a form of self-defence in the midst of an attack, however more recent research shows how violent resistance can take a number of forms, such as premeditated attacks on an abuser when they least expect it. The recent, high-profile case of Sally Challen was discussed as an example of this.
My analysis of the long-term and immediate links between IPV and offending found that offending behaviour is often defined by women’s needs for survival, practical provisions, or emotional coping. This necessarily raises complex questions about agency, autonomy, and criminal liability. Our contemporary criminal justice landscape tends to polarise notions of offender and victim, agency and coercion, and guilt and innocence. Therefore, women who are both victims and offenders (either at the same point in time or in more longitudinal and complex ways) simply do not fit in to this. I argue that intimately-victimised women do make a choice to offend, but their choices are often very restricted, and that a multitude of complex and interweaving factors must be considered when judging the criminal liability of their choices.
The final part of my dissertation explored how the criminal justice system understands and treats victims of IPV who commit criminal offences. A recurring theme of my work was that there is a lack of formal support and effective state action for women who experience IPV, and this worsens their experience of victimisation, creates barriers for accessing help, and further drives them to offend. I argue that recent developments (such as the new statutory definition of domestic abuse, the introduction of new coercive control laws in 2015, and the 2019 Domestic Violence Bill) are important steps in the right direction – to meet women’s needs as victims before they enter the criminal justice system as offenders. However close scrutiny will be needed to assess whether changes at legislative and policy level are matched by proper focus and funding, and whether they effectively filter down into changes in practice and women’s lived experiences.