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Photo of Alexandra Lysova
Alexandra Lysova.

Always the Victim?

A criminology student questions long-standing assumptions about women and domestic violence

Women may play a more active role in domestic violence than is currently acknowledged, according to Alexandra Lysova, a PhD student in criminology at U of T who has received a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholarship.

There are two major schools of thought about violence between intimate partners, she says. One is that women become violent primarily when defending themselves against male aggressors. The other is that women are equal participants. The first way of viewing intimate partner violence has been dominant in our society for years, says Lysova, but her research has led her to believe that the second is closer to reality.

Lysova has been studying family violence for more than a decade. She first became interested in the field while living in eastern Russia, a region with high crime rates. Based on police statistics and forensic data, she determined that a third of all killings in Russia involved intimate partners. She wanted to better understand what triggered them.

We dismiss female aggressive behaviour too lightly, she says. “We think a slap on the face is not serious,” she notes, “but it may actually be very serious.” Lysova wants to investigate the role that female aggression, including verbal taunts and public humiliation, plays in escalating fights between spouses.

She is currently examining transcripts from detailed interviews with 256 incarcerated women from Ontario who have had experiences with intimate partner violence (although only some of the women are incarcerated for this reason). She is looking at who started the attack, how each partner reacted and details such as whether alcohol and drugs were involved. “I want to see what role female behaviour plays in the whole escalation process,” she says.

She hopes that once this is better understood, more can be done – by psychologists, police officers and intimate partners themselves – to avert it.

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  1. One Response to “ Always the Victim? ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I admire the work being done by Alexandra Lysova. But I am puzzled by the article's final sentence: “Lysova hopes that once this is better understood, more can be done – by psychologists, police officers and intimate partners themselves – to avert partner violence in the first place.”

    While it may be reasonable to suppose that adult men and women who hurt each other might benefit by becoming more self-aware about why they do it, it is hard to see how psychologists and police, absent actually living in disturbed households, can play any meaningful role in a process that plays out in private. In Orwell’s 1984, every house has a surveillance camera that can never be switched off but none of us lives in a novel – or would want to.

    Geoff Rytell
    BEd 1975 OISE