Moving Beyond the Gender Symmetry Debate: Ongoing Opportunities for IPV Research

By Wendi Johnson

One cannot begin to enumerate the number of articles, papers, and book chapters that have addressed the gender symmetry debate within the literature on intimate partner violence (IPV).  Yet the academic sparring between family and feminist scholars has led to a circular argument with no clear winner and has ultimately hindered progress on IPV research.  Thus, this entry will not be another weighing in of the debate, but instead I will focus on providing several suggestions to IPV researchers. While most of my comments are likely to reflect my quantitative orientation, by no means are they meant to exclude qualitative researchers.  I do not claim credit for any of these ideas, as they have been introduced previously in other outlets.  Rather, this is meant to simply serve as a reminder to myself and other IPV researchers of areas that could benefit from scholarly attention.


Gendering situational (common) couple violence

            Kristin Anderson notes that a key problem with Michael Johnson’s typology and similar attempts to categorize IPV is that it indirectly facilitates a gender-neutral approach by privileging intimate terrorism and coercive control. Consequently, fights and conflicts not characterized by systemic control attempts are viewed as not being gendered.  This is unfortunate since community-based surveys suggest that these make up the majority of IPV experiences and thus limit treatments of gender within these studies.  With the exception of Miller and White’s qualitative examination of dating violence among African American youths, situational couple violence has been given short shrift with respect to gendered analyses, and particularly in quantitative corners.  Acknowledging that girls and young women often perpetrate IPV does not mean that gendered processes are absent.  Women’s use of violence may stem directly from the symbolic meanings they attach to their interactions with their partner – symbolic meanings that are derived from their structural location.  April Few provides an excellent discussion of how she integrates feminist and family theories to study the lives of Black women and families. IPV research could benefit from similar theoretical treatments.

Attending to the intersection between age and gender

The lack of attention to the intersection of age and gender is surprising given that much of the research on IPV has originated from disciplines such as criminology and sociology which often draw on a life course perspective.  Criminology in particular has spent decades attending to its own age-related debate of criminal careers and career criminals. Even as research on the subject of teen dating violence has expanded exponentially over the last two decades, much of it remains separate and distinct from adult IPV creating a sort of silo effect.   Certainly numerous longitudinal studies have examined the associations between adolescent dating violence and adult IPV.  Likewise, there is a bountiful literature on gender and adolescent and young adult development. Yet, there continues to be a lack of work effectively connecting the dots.   Further limiting this research is that it has continued to focus on drawing between-person distinctions, rather than focusing on how individuals and their relationships change over time, and how these patterns are gendered.  For example, we currently have little understanding of how gendered power dynamics within and across relationships change over the life course and how this relates to IPV.

In The Age-IPV Curve: Changes in Intimate Partner Violence Perpetration during Adolescence and Young Adulthood my co-authors and I used community-based data from the Toledo Adolescent and Relationships Study (TARS) to show that while antisocial and drug and alcohol behaviors accounted for some of the age variation in IPV perpetration among male youths, it accounted for none of the age variation among female youths.  Furthermore, even after we controlled for relationship characteristics, a large portion of the age variation in IPV perpetration for female youths remained.  These findings highlight that not only do IPV processes (including less serious forms of IPV) differ for male and female youths, but that we need to continue to explore and develop concepts that help explain these differences.

Distinguishing mediating from moderating relationships

            IPV has often been used as a predictor variable in examining a variety of outcomes.  As a reviewer I often encounter articles where the authors are positing that IPV will have one effect for girls/women and a different effect for boys/men.  This is an example of using gender as a moderator of IPV’s influence on the dependent variable, which is completely appropriate.  The problem arises when researchers fail to provide a theoretical explanation for the proposed moderating relationship.  Alternatively, the researchers’ theorizing may be more indicative of a mediating relationship, which would suggest that IPV is accounting for any observed gender differences in the outcome.  One way to think about it is that proposing gender as a moderator suggests that women may be more vulnerable to IPV which yields differential effects in outcome. Proposing gender as a mediator, however, suggests that women suffer greater exposure to IPV or a particular type or element of IPV (e.g., intimate terrorism, coercive control) and this in turn is driving the observed gender difference in the outcome (see also Beeble et al. for a good example of a study that tests main, mediating, and moderating effects).  Each are worthy of consideration, but researchers must be explicit in which they are testing.

Longitudinal studies of IPV in same-sex relationships

            Umberson et al. provides a comprehensive review of the challenges associated with studying same-sex romantic relationships among adult populations.    These include a lack of longitudinal datasets that make use of probability sampling, accurately identifying same-sex couples, and moving beyond the gender binary to include individuals who identify as transsexual, bisexual, or some other gender or sexual identity.   These issues are further complicated for longitudinal scholars, such as myself, who focus on adolescence and young adulthood which are periods known for intense identity exploration.  Again, more work is needed to help understand how these identities intersect with other identities as well as how they unfold during adolescence and continue to change over the life course.

            Research on IPV remains one of the most vibrant areas of scholarship.  Contributions from sociology, criminology, psychology, social work, public health, and other disciplines reflect its interdisciplinary nature.  By continuing to draw from these diverse pools of knowledge we can further the gains already achieved.

Wendi Johnson is currently an Assistant Professor in the Criminal Justice Program at Oakland University. Her research focuses on family relationships and processes related to within-individual change over the life course.  Recent papers using the TARS data include an examination of how IPV experiences change across relationships and the influence of parents on their children’s identity formation and antisocial behavior across adolescence and young adulthood.  Co-author contributions include a recent publication that examined the relationship between IPV and parenting using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.  She also serves as an editorial board member of Gender & Society. 

One thought on “Moving Beyond the Gender Symmetry Debate: Ongoing Opportunities for IPV Research

  1. With the under research area of IPV addressing the pressing issues within African American intimate relationships, I would have liked to see a reference or two to more current research (Hattery 2016; 2014) than the 2007 paper by Few (2007) where the references stop at 2005. The research on African Americans and IPV is sorely missing from mainstream researh agenda, This, too, is an area needing much more attention.

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