Why doing research with domestic abuse perpetrators is challenging

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by Dr Helen Cramer, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Academic Primary Care, University of Bristol

The importance of providing support for victims and survivors of domestic abuse has long been established and a considerable body of research shows what effective support should look like. How to engage with perpetrators of domestic abuse is less well understood. There are a range of interventions of different lengths and purposes such as shorter ones to assess risk, and containment and disruption approaches for the highest risk perpetrators to try to manage that risk.

For lower risk perpetrators, longer (e.g. six month) group programmes aiming to reduce abusive behaviour and offering support to the partners and ex-partners alongside are recommended by Respect, a UK membership organisation that sets standards and accredits perpetrator programmes. However, the evidence for these group programmes is uncertain and there are extensive methodological challenges to conducting robust research on the effectiveness of group programmes.

A few initial challenges for researchers are:

  • a lack of suitable measures and agreement on the best measures to use to assess abusiveness;
  • disagreement on whether perpetrators themselves can be relied on to report and self-assess their abusive behaviour accurately;
  • whether partners and ex-partners, or an external source, such as police data, are a better source of data.

The lack of a comparison pool of perpetrators, bias allocation, poor descriptions of the interventions, high dropout rates from the group intervention and participants failing to feed back to researchers all add to the challenges facing research teams, as outlined in our recent paper, Methodological Challenges in Group-based Randomised Controlled Trials for Intimate Partner Violence Perpetrators: A Meta-summary.

Adding to the evidence base

Despite the Sisyphean challenges facing researchers, the intrepid REPROVIDE team based in Bristol Medical School’s Centre for Academic Primary Care has been conducting a randomised controlled trial of a group programme for male perpetrators of domestic abuse.

Researching and talking with male perpetrators of abuse isn’t easy and the researchers in the team sometimes face tricky situations with participants. For example, the usual approaches of building rapport with research participants, especially when conducting a qualitative interview, can feel collusive when it’s a perpetrator of domestic abuse. Female researchers may face particular challenges, some of which are covered in another recent paper from our research, Researching Men’s Violence Against Women as Feminist Women Researchers: The Tensions We Face.

Recruiting participants to the trial testing effectiveness and cost-effectiveness has been hard, not least because we started at the beginning of 2020 just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But we are pleased to report that the study has almost reached its target for male and female participants (310 men recruited, 98% of the target; 174 women 110% of the target) and is now finishing recruitment. The recruitment area covered Southwest England and South Wales, and these recruitment figures represent a mammoth achievement for the research team. It was a big ask for people who were often desperate to get some form of help. In signing up for the study, they knew they would not get any intervention if they were allocated to the comparison group.

The next steps for the study are to follow up the final batch of recruits and analyse the data. The results are due in November 2024.

Further information

For more information about the REPROVIDE study please see the study website at

Respect also runs a national helpline for male victims and male perpetrators of domestic abuse.

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