Feminist Theory and Domestic Violence

Feminist theory in domestic violence emphasizes gender and power inequality in opposite-sex relationships. It focuses on the societal messages that sanction a male’s use of violence and aggression throughout life, and the proscribed gender roles that dictate how men and women should behave in their intimate relationships (Pence & Paymar, 1993). It sees the root causes of intimate partner violence as the outcome of living a society that condones aggressive behaviours perpetrated by men, while socializing women to be non-violent.

Proponents of feminist theory acknowledge that women can also be violent in their relationships with men; however, they simply do not see the issue of women abusing men as a serious social problem, and therefore, does not deserve the same amount of attention or support as violence against women (Kurz, 1997).

Treatment Approach

The “Duluth Model” represents the dominant treatment approach aligned with feminist theory. This model was created following a serious domestic violence homicide that took place in Duluth, Minnesota (Pence & Paymar, 1993). Community and government officials wanted to address the problem of domestic violence, but did not know where to begin. They wanted to create a treatment approach that involved the courts, police services, and ‘human services’. Guiding the model’s development were the following questions:

Why is she the target of his violence? How does his violence impact the balance of power in their relationship? What did he think could change by hitting her? Why does he assume he is entitled to have power in the relationship? How does the community support his use of violence against her? (Pence & Paymar, 1993, p. xiii).

Domestic Violence - woman crying

Much of the Duluth model revolves around the power dynamics inherent in opposite-sex relationships, which is a reflection of the different ways men and women are socialized on issues of power and equality. The goal of treatment is to educate men about gender roles, and how behaviours and values identified as ‘masculine’ have been shaped by societal messages and attitudes that reinforce patriarchal privilege and unhealthy ways of relating with women.

Limitations of Feminist Approach

Limitations of feminist theory can be found when trying to explain violence in same-sex relationships (Lawson, 2003). While issues of power, control, and autonomy have also been identified as reasons for intimate partner abuse in lesbian relationships, issues such as dependency and jealousy also exist (Renzetti, 1992). The point is that partner abuse in same-sex couples requires a more comprehensive analysis and theoretical explanation.

Secondly, a feminist approach is also limited for explaining abuse perpetrated by women. Feminist theory typically explains women’s use of violence in the context of self-defence and retaliation for previous abuse. Yet, by doing so, a strictly feminist orientation denies that women can also feel angry and enraged without provocation in their relationships with men (Nolet-Bos, 1999). Additionally, while much of a woman’s use of violence does exist within the framework of retaliation and self-defence, feminist theory does not explain why women perpetrate violence outside their intimate relationships (e.g., at work, with children, or with peers).


Dr. Richard Amaral