Domestic violence is a serious social problem in both the United States and around the world, and, as such, is a global health concern with grave impacts on individuals and communities. While the abuser is solely at fault, his or her behavior is fueled by a combination of several different influences including peers, cultural attitudes, and the media, to name a few. In this lesson, we will learn about the Social-Ecological Model of domestic violence and prevention strategies, as well as expand upon the factors that cause and perpetuate domestic violence.

The Social-Ecological Model

The Social-Ecological model of domestic violence is a comprehensive approach to understanding the influences of abuse, as well as the effects of prevention programs. The Social-Ecological Model attempts to understand the intricate exchange between the four levels – individual, relationship, community, and societal and explains why some people are more likely to either experience or perpetrate abuse. This model is based on the belief that there is not one single factor that explains domestic violence.

Individual: The first level, individual, attempts to identify both biological and personal history factors that increase the likelihood of a person either experiencing or perpetrating violence. These factors can include age, education, income, history of alcohol and/or drug use, history of abuse, attitudes or beliefs that support violence, personal temperament, a lack of problem-solving skills, and/or mental health issues such as personality disorders. At this level, prevention strategies are designed to educate and provide training in basic life skills, as well as promote healthy beliefs and behaviors that ultimately prevent abuse.

Relationship: The second level, relationship, attempts to evaluate personal relationships that may increase the risk of experiencing violence, either as a victim or as a perpetrator. Close relationships include those with family members, intimate partners, and friends, and influence a person’s attitudes, behaviors, and or experiences. Having close friends who, for example, frequently joke about sexually abusing women may influence a person’s attitudes about sexual interaction with women. He or she may think, “well, it’s funny, so it’s okay. It’s not abuse.” At this level, prevention strategies include peer programs designed to reduce conflict, encourage problem-solving skills, and promote healthy relationships.

Community: The third level, community, attempts to investigate a person’s settings: schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces, in which social relationships are fostered. The community-level attempts to understand if and how these settings are, characteristically, associated with either becoming a victim of or perpetrating domestic violence. Such characteristics include population density, unemployment rates, the amount of poverty, and potential drug involvement.

If, for example, there is a lack of law enforcement or a general tolerance for violent behavior in the neighborhood, there may be little or no consequences for those who perpetrate domestic violence. At this level, prevention strategies are designed to impact a person’s climate and policies in his or her given system. Within the community, at large, social norms and marketing campaigns are often implemented to attempt to foster climates that encourage healthy, non-abusive relationships.

Societal: The fourth and final level, societal, attempts to examine the broad societal factors that create a climate in which domestic violence is either promoted or discouraged. These factors include both cultural and social norms, such as religion or widespread attitudes and/or beliefs, as well as the economic, educational, health, and social policies that create and maintain either economic or social discrepancies between groups within society. Some cultures, for example, believe in and teach dominance over women, and encourage violence as a means to resolve conflict.

The Social-Ecological Model does not excuse perpetrators of domestic violence, or seek to blame anyone else; rather, it attempts to explain the factors and environment to which an individual is exposed that may make it more likely for him or her to experience domestic violence. The “culture of domestic violence” can be limited to an individual’s personal beliefs, or as boundless as widespread cultural attitudes and beliefs. For prevention to be effective, strategies must cover all four levels of this model.

Perpetuation of Domestic Violence

To elaborate on the Social-Ecological Model, we can look further into how our society, as a whole, perpetuates domestic violence. To do so, we will examine three broad categories: cultural attitudes, the media, and laws and politics.

Cultural Attitudes: Although our culture has made great strides in gender equality, there are still people who believe that women are not equal to men. Though not all victims of domestic violence are women, the majority are. As a result, this systematic inequality of the sexes contributes to the perpetuation of domestic violence. These kinds of attitudes include the belief that men are inherently better than women, that women should remain in traditional gender roles, and that men should exert power and dominance over women in all aspects of life.

To be very clear, we are not saying that all men subscribe to these beliefs. We are saying that those who do subscribe to these kinds of beliefs may contribute to the more serious problem that is domestic violence. These kinds of beliefs are, either consciously or not, often expressed within intimate partner relationships, and can lead to controlling behaviors and abuse.

Additionally, many people hold the belief that domestic violence is strictly a private matter. What happens within a couple’s marriage, for example, is their business and only their business, and to meddle is taboo. As a result, there are still many, many people who believe that it is inappropriate to intervene in domestic disputes. This is likely one reason why domestic violence is so underreported in the United States, and probably abroad, too. What many don’t realize is that failing to intervene, in effect, can allow abuse to continue.

Religion, too, can play a role in the perpetuation of domestic violence. Many religions, worldwide, teach that a woman’s role within an intimate partner relationship is to be submissive and obedient to her husband and that it is a man’s right to discipline his wife in any way he sees appropriate. Much likely use these beliefs to justify abuse.

The Media: In various media platforms, including many popular movies, TV series, and video games, violence is normalized. As a result, the general public becomes desensitized. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) reported that half of all rated video games contained violence.

While many video games include general violence in games depicting war, for example, others directly involve violence against women. In ‘Grand Theft Auto, for example, an extremely popular video game, sexual assault, and violence against women are dominant themes. In this game, players can not only choose to play female characters to perform sexual acts but are also given the option to kill the women and are even incentivized to do so. As aforementioned, violence is prevalent, too, in popular movies and TV series. Long-term exposure to such violence increases the acceptance of it in daily life.

Some studies have even shown that those who regularly play such violent video games, or witness violent behavior via other media tend to engage in violent behavior, themselves. Perhaps the most disturbing tendency in our media, however, is the pairing of violence with humor. In a 2011 episode of the popular animated series Family Guy, for example, an abusive relationship was depicted that included the beating of a female character.

Her beating was portrayed positively. By seeing such violence in a lighthearted, even enjoyable way, the public becomes desensitized to the seriousness of domestic violence. Such examples send the message that aggressive and violent behaviors are acceptable.

Laws and Politics: As we touched on earlier in this course, definitions of domestic violence and what constitutes such vary state-to-state. Some states maintain all-inclusive definitions, and very strict laws, while others maintain less strict enforcement, such as a misdemeanor versus a felony charge. In states in which domestic violence is a less serious offense, certain acts of violence may not only be legal but also perceived as acceptable.

Law enforcement officials, generally, may tend to respond more quickly to calls of serious offenses as opposed to those of minor infractions. This is not entirely incomprehensible. If a police officer, for example, receives two calls at the same time, one of an armed robbery with reports of multiple injuries, and one of a minor car accident with no reports of injuries, he or she is more likely to take the first call. If an offense is not taken seriously, it’s unlikely to lead to arrest. This can send the message that domestic violence is not only acceptable but that offenders will face little to no consequence.

Politics can also contribute to the ever-growing problem of domestic violence. In many, if not most, of the realms of politics, both in the United States and globally, women are underrepresented. As a result, discussion of many women’s issues, including domestic violence as well as reproductive rights, for example, is limited. A lack of discussion can stifle new laws from being passed and stricter rules being implemented.

Victim Blaming

Another dominant theme within our culture is that of victim-blaming. It is not unusual, for example, to hear members of both sexes speak of a person’s rape, and say things like, “she was asking for it,” or “if she hadn’t been drinking so heavily, she could have said ‘no’ and avoided this altogether.”

It is entirely too easy for people to assume that the victim is somehow at fault, as the result of his or her actions leading up to the abusive event. This kind of mindset puts us at ease. We like to feel as though people get what they deserve. It makes us uneasy to think that people are often exposed to unjust actions at the hands of others. That said, let us be very clear: no victim is ever to blame.

Domestic violence will cease neither to be a serious social problem nor a global health concern if victims simply take the proper precautions to avoid abuse. As we have seen, repeatedly, even individuals who do take all of the necessary precautions, such as dressing conservatively, or avoiding conflict, can become victims of violence. A perpetrator’s actions are their choice, and their choice alone, and a perpetrator is the only one to blame.

To get to the root of this issue, and to begin to solve the greater problem of domestic violence, we must shift our focus from avoiding abuse and victim-blaming to preventing people from engaging in abusive behaviors, altogether.