Violence in close relationships—a hidden crime?

Close-up portraitphoto of Susanne Boethius. Susanne has short light hair and blue eyes, smiling, looking into the camera
Susanne Boethius. Photo: Private
Susanne Boethius is a researcher at the Department of Sociology at Lund University in Sweden and is currently working with the project “Call the Police? A study of social networks’ responses to domestic violence”, financed by FORTE. The research team also includes Margareta Hydén, Linköping University, Malin Åkerström, Lund University and Elisa Bellotti, Manchester University. The study focus on how social networks’ responses interplay with the decision for abused women to contact the police.

When I write this, five women have been murdered by men during a short period in Sweden. This has raised medial and political attention regarding men’s violence against women, and discussions about violence in close relationships are currently on everyone’s lips. That women do not report domestic abuse to the police is often seen as part of the problem.

Violence in close relationships is often described as a hidden crime, only the “tip of an iceberg” is revealed in police records and crime statistics. It is estimated that only about 4 % of all victims of domestic abuse file a report to the police (BRÅ, 2014).

But domestic abuse is not necessarily “hidden”. Numerous studies have shown that relatives, friends, children, co-workers, neighbours, etc. are often aware of (at least some aspects of) the violence.

My colleague Malin Åkerström and I recently published a study in Nordic Journal of Criminology (Boethius & Åkerström, 2020), and the focus of our article is on the very first disclosure made by abused women to members of their informal social networks. Our results show that the first disclosure was something the victims saw as very important. Some women had planned the disclosure carefully and decided to tell someone regardless of concerns about potential negative outcomes, referring to the need for emotional and/or practical support. Other women revealed the abuse as an unplanned response to a specific situation described as turning points, or as a result of someone in the woman’s network suspecting or noticing the abuse. Our study illustrates varied accounts from women revealing their previously hidden realities to informal others, showing not only in whom they confide, but also in what situations the revelations were made.

Violent men sometimes tell others about their abusive behaviour, too. In a study of Swedish men participating in voluntary treatment programs due to abusive behaviour against their partner, most men reported that they had told someone within their social network about their aggressive behaviour (Boethius, 2015). These men also reported that they had tried to tell formal others about the violence, but these accounts were not always taken seriously. They described their conversations with doctors, social service staff, priests, psychiatrists, work coaches, and other professionals as “mentioning the problems”, in undetailed or hinting, subtle ways. For example, they would say things like “I’m getting angry at my wife”, or “I have outbursts”, and many violent men left their meetings without having disclosed the abuse.

Violence in a close relationship is, in many ways, not a hidden crime, and more attention should be paid to informal others and on subtle cues to formal others. Many women and men tell others about the abuse, and it’s important to highlight, help, and support these receivers. What kind of responses do men and women get, need, and want? What effects do the disclosures and the responses to them have, for the network, the victims, the perpetrators, police involvements, and the violence itself? How can we help informal and formal networks give the right support? Trying to answer these questions, my colleges and I are currently working on a larger study focusing on how social networks’ responses interplay with abused women’s decision to contact the police (“Call the Police? A study of social networks’ responses to domestic violence”, financed by FORTE.) Results from this study are expected in late 2021.

Boethius, S., & Åkerström, M. (2020). Revealing hidden realities: disclosing domestic abuse to informal others. Nordic Journal of Criminology, 21(2), 186-202. (See also short video below where the researchers present their study. Link to NSfK YouTube channel)

Boethius (2015). Män, våld och moralarbete: Rapporter från män som sökt behandling för våld i nära relationer. Lund Dissertations in Sociology.

Brå (2014).  Brott i nära relationer: En nationell kartläggning.