Family violence and abuse lecture, with COVID pandemic discussion

I recorded a video lecture on the subject of family violence and abuse, including intimate partner violence, rape, and sexual abuse, with some discussion of the COVID pandemic implications.

The 24-minute video is on YouTube here:

Related pieces that came out after I recorded this:

Fewer births and divorces, more violence: how the recession affected the American family

I wrote this for The Conversation. Read the original here.

Observers may be quick to declare social trends “good” or “bad” for families, but such conclusions are rarely justified. What’s good for one family – or group of families – may be bad for another. And within families, interests do not always align. Divorce is “bad” for a family in the sense of breaking it apart, but it may be beneficial, or even essential, for one or both partners or their children.

This kind of ambiguity makes it difficult to assess what kind of impact the recent recession and its aftermath had on families. But for researchers, at least, it offers a lot of job security – so many questions, so much going on. In any case, here’s where we stand so far.

The effect of the Great Recession on family trends in the United States has been dramatic with regard to birth rates and divorce, and has been strongly suggestive of family violence, but less clear for marriage and cohabitation.

Marriage rates declined, and cohabitation rates increased, but these trends were already underway, and the recession didn’t alter them much. When trends don’t change direction it’s difficult to identify an effect of a shock this broad. However, with both birth rates and divorce, clear patterns emerged.

Birth rates: a sharp drop
The most dramatic impact was on birth rates, which dropped precipitously, especially for young women, as a result of the economic crisis. How do we know? First, the timing of the fertility decline is very suggestive. After increasing steadily from the beginning of 2002 until late 2007, birth rates dropped sharply. (The decline has since slowed for some groups after 2010, but the US still saw record-low birth rates for teenagers and women ages 20-24 as late as 2012.)

Second, the decline in fertility was steeper in states with greater increases in unemployment. Although we don’t have the data to determine which couple did or did not have a child in response to economic changes, this pattern supports the idea that financial concerns convinced some people to not have a child.

That interpretation is supported by the third trend: the fertility drop was more pronounced among younger women – and there was no drop at all among women over 40. That may mean the fertility decline represents births postponed by families that intend to have children later – an option older women may not have – which fits previous research on economic shocks.

It seems likely that people who are on the fence about having a baby can be swayed by perceived financial hardship or uncertainty. From research on 27 European countries, we know that people with troubled family financial situations are more likely to say they are unsure whether they will meet their stated childbearing goals – that is, economic uncertainty doesn’t change their familial aims but may increase uncertainty in whether they will be met.

However, some births delayed inevitably become births foregone. Based on the effect of unemployment on birth rates in earlier periods, it appears a substantial number of young women who postponed births will end up never having children. By one estimate, women who were in their early 20s during the Great Recession are projected to have some 400,000 fewer lifetime births and an additional 1.5% of them will never have a birth.

Divorce rates: a counter-intuitive reaction
In the case of divorce, the pattern is counter-intuitive. Although economic hardship and insecurity adds stress to relationships and increases the risk of divorce, the overall divorce rate usually drops when unemployment rates rise.

Researchers believe that, like births, people postpone divorces during economic crises because of the costs of divorcing – not just legal fees, but also housing transitions (which were especially difficult in the Great Recession) and employment disruptions.

My own research found that there was a sharp drop in the divorce rate in 2009 that can reasonably be attributed to the recession. But, as we suspect will be the case with births, there appears to have been a divorce-rate rebound in the years that followed.
Domestic violence: a spike along with joblessness
Family violence has become much less common since the 1990s. The reasons are not entirely clear, but they certainly include the overall drop in violent crime, improved response from social service and non-governmental organizations, and improvements in women’s relative economic status. However, when the recession hit there was a spike in intimate-partner violence, coinciding with the sharp rise in men’s unemployment rates (I show the trends here).

As with the other trends, it’s hard to make a case based on timing alone, but the evidence is fairly strong that the economic shock increased family stress and violence. For example, one study showed that mothers were more likely to report spanking their children in the months when consumer confidence fell. Another study found a jump in abusive head trauma cases during the recession in several regions. And there have been many anecdotal and journalist accounts of increases in family violence, emerging as early as 2009. Are these direct results of the economic stress or mere correlation? It’s hard to say for sure.

The ultimate impact of these trends on American families will likely take years to emerge. The recession may have affected the pattern of marriage in ways we don’t yet understand – how couples selected each other, who got married and who didn’t – and may create measurable group of marriages that are marked for future effects as yet unforeseen. Like the young adults who entered the labor market during the period of high unemployment and whose career trajectories will be forever altered unfavorably, how these families bear the scars cannot be predicted. Time will tell.

New York City police killings: 1964 (life) – 1989 (art) – 2014 (life)

In July 1964, just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, White New York City police officer Thomas Gilligan killed Black 15-year-old James Powell. After two days of peaceful protest, police and protesters clashed and six nights of violence followed. This is not James Powell being killed, just another guy being beaten:


In the summer of 1989, Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing featured the killing of Radio Raheem by White police — using the already-infamous chokehold — after they swept into the sweltering neighborhood, where a fight had broken out. The climactic incident sparked an explosive riot (watch the scene on Hulu with membership):


Now, another quarter century later, police on Staten Island have apparently choked 43-year-old Eric Garner to death after he refused to cooperate with whatever random demand they had, as captured on video (and posted by the Daily News):


Now the chokehold is against police department rules, but the number of chokehold complaints — a statistic the department keeps — has been rising and last year reached 233, only a “tiny fraction” of which are substantiated. In the Daily News video, Garner is heard saying, “I can’t breathe” many times.

UPDATE: Spike Lee has now produced a video splicing together the chokehold scenes of Eric Garner and Radio Raheem. It’s embedded on Indiwire here.

Maybe the recession increased violence after all

I have organized a special session for the American Sociological Association meetings next August titled, “Hard Times, Gender, and Families,” featuring the research of S. Philip Morgan, Margaret Michele Gough, Krista Perreira and Kristen Harknett. This is blurb for the session:

The Great Recession altered the gender dynamics within families in ways we are only beginning to understand. Some trends were accelerated for reasons that are not positive, while others may have been slowed or even reversed. This subject is vexing for researchers because it involves adjudicating between the effects of underlying conditions, long-term trends, and short-term shocks. In the past several years we have seen new research on how labor market conditions affect family violence, the gender division of labor, and fertility decisions. However, we have as yet no overarching theory of how this recession – or economic shocks in general – helped shape gender within families. In this session a panel of researchers who have done empirical work in this area broaden their focus to address this general question.

I hope to see you there (San Francisco, August 16-19).


Violence will be just part of that discussion, but that’s the subject of today’s update. I’ve gone back and forth a little on this question of the recession and violence as I come across different information:

In that last post I was skeptical the recession increased violence because of falling violence numbers for 2010, which seemed wrong for the recession story, including this trend in intimate-partner homicide from New York State:

Now that we have another year of national data on intimate partner violence, I’m leaning back toward the recession-increased-violence story. Look at 2008 and 2009 in this trend:


Writing in 2011 I couldn’t believe that 2010 would already be showing declines from any recession-induced spike in violence. And unemployment rates actually peaked in 2010, so that’s reasonable. But 2008 and 2009 were the years with the greatest increases in men’s unemployment rates, and the big jump in the sex difference in unemployment rates:


So if intimate partner violence is partly triggered by men’s economic hardship and insecurity — with some gender-difference dynamic (say, within couples) — the sex difference might make sense. Just a thought. No conclusion yet, but since I’ve been posting on the subject I thought an update was in order. Maybe by next August will know more.

Guns dividing America (Google edition)

Whenever I get a good indicator broken down by state, I head over to Google Correlate to see how it connects to America’s search behavior. Often what I find is a gun connection. This is very big in searches related to the election, so I’ll start with that before giving a couple other examples.

Odds of Romney winning

Taking yesterday’s New York Times 538 forecast chance of Mitt Romney winning each state, I entered the numbers into the search correlation machine. As you can see from the map on the left, these are very polarized numbers, with 42 of the states being above 90% or below 10%. Of the 100 Google searches whose relative frequency is most correlated with this pattern across states, 31 are about guns. Here is the search most correlated (.82) with Romney’s odds of winning: “marlin 30-30,” which is a classic rifle (available at Walmart):

Unintentional deaths

News the other day was about the lives lost to unintentional injuries for people under age 20 — the most common causes of death in that age range. About half of this is from motor vehicle accidents, with most of the rest distributed between drowning, suffocating, fires, falls, and poisoning. The CDC put out a report that included a state breakdown, reported in terms of “years of potential life lost” per 100,000 population. That is just the number of deaths times the number of years between the age at which the death occurred and age 75 (so a death at age 1 is 74 years lost, a death at age 19 is 56).

The big inequalities here are in gender and geography. Males are about 1.8-times more likely to die from this stuff. And the most dangerous state (Mississippi) has more than 4-times the losses of the safest (Massachusetts). There are race differences as well — with American Indians having high rates — but the Black/White difference is not that large (Latino ethnicity wasn’t identified).

How are these rates of lost life correlated with search behavior? Guns. Among the 100 searches that most closely follow the pattern of deaths, 62 were about guns, starting with number 1: “shotgun for sale,” with a correlation of .93.

There were also 14 searches about cars and trucks on the list (mostly Ford F150s and Chevy trucks), four about wedding dresses and rings (“discount wedding dresses”) and three about Fox News.


I did this twice with divorce rates. Using the 2008-2009 divorce rates per 1,000 married women, I found a good gun correlation with gun searches, with “colt .45 automatic” scoring a .86:

There were 27 more gun-related searches on that 08-09 divorce-correlation list. I updated that for the new 2011 rates, and again came up with a list of gun-related searches (and other military or survivalist stuff). Here is the Norinco SKS and 2011 divorce rates, correlation .84:

Someone who knows more than me could probably read more into the searches for different kinds of guns and gun-related stuff — for example, the difference between sniper accessories, shotguns and handguns. These different gun results show variations in their geographic patterns.

Anyway, I can’t think of what else besides search data tells us so much about so many people’s behavior — not their stated interests, their reported behavior, their tax forms, or their consumption patterns. And yet I can’t really put my finger on what it does tell us. It’s a million miles wide and not that deep, but it’s endlessly fascinating. If someone can figure out how to explain the value of what this all shows, I’m all ears.

Are women becoming the violenter sex? (Hanna Rosin edition)

Are women becoming more violent as they move towards equality with men? Hanna Rosin says yes. But no.

showed previously that Rosin, in her book The End of Men, grossly exaggerates the decline in sexual assault against women. What about the reverse — the increase in women’s violence?

In the radio show we were on together, the host asked, “Are [women] superior?”, and Rosin answered:

No. In fact, one thing I explicitly avoid in the book is this idea from Steven Pinker and others, that when women take over the world the world becomes a wonderful place, which is why I explicitly put in a chapter about violence, just to sort of make people understand that it’s not that women are wonderful and better … power has an effect on women like it has an effect on men.

That’s trouble, because when Rosin has the answer before she starts the research the outcome is a pretty sure thing. So, let’s see how much more violence women are perpetrating now.

Arresting evidence

Rosin starts her section on violence trends with this:

At the start of the aughts, criminologists began to notice something curious about the crime trends. The great crime wave of the mid-nineties was finally coming to an end. Rates of all violent crimes were plummeting — that is, violent crime committed by men.

She doesn’t actually say violence by women has increased, just emphasizes that it decreased for men. Her actual evidence for an upward trend in violence by women turns out to be from arrest rates. Using a report on the trend from 1992 to 2003, for example, Rosin describes the increase in juvenile assault arrests for girls, which was real.

Here is the trend she’s talking about: juvenile arrest rates for violent crimes, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Even with the early-2000s decline, violent crime arrests for female juveniles were higher in 2004 than they were in 1980 — which was not true for men. She writes, “Women were by no means catching up to men, but they were fast closing the gap.” And that’s true, too — the male rate fell from roughly 8-times to roughly 4-times the female rate.

But arrest rates are tricky, since they reflect both (alleged) violence and police responses. Consider that the rate of homicide charges against female juveniles fell from around 1.0 per 100,000 in the early 1980s to about 0.5 in the late 2000s.

Women’s violence

Setting aside juveniles and arrest rates, we can look at violence by women through reports of victims in the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), and police accounts of homicide offenders.

From victim reports, there has been a slight increase in women’s representation among violent offenders in the last decade — edging up to about 20% of offenders. But the rate of violence by women is decidedly trending down.

The NCVS numbers show a drop in the number of women as violent offenders from the late 1990s. When you factor in population growth in that time, the drop is almost half — from more than 10 crimes per 100,000 women to less than 6:

Murder is probably the best-measured crime. According to FBI reports of homicide offenders, the number of male offenders was about the same in 2005 as it was 30 years earlier — but the number of women committing murder fell by more than 40%. As a result, the percentage of murders committed by women fell from more than 15% to less than 10%:

The FBI also releases rates of homicide for intimate partners. Here the evidence is dramatic and clear: From 1975 to 2005, the number of men murdered by intimates dropped by 75%, compared with a 25% drop in the number of women murdered:

From this evidence, it seems clear that women’s violence is on the decline — not rising, as Rosin says and implies. Even if the juvenile arrest rates reflect violence trends instead of just policing, those are also falling since the early 1990s.

When the evidence is the opposite

So far this goes in the category of exaggeration, ignoring existing evidence, and reading too much into too little evidence. But it gets much worse. A good tip from Ally Fogg (who elaborates here) pointed me toward a case where Rosin doesn’t just misread the evidence — she reverses the evidence to fit her argument.

After quoting a criminologist about how “unhinged” some people get when their narrative of female victimhood is disrupted, Rosin goes back to women’s arrest rates:

A recent British study showed the women were three times more likely to be arrested for domestic violence, and far more likely to use a weapon.

Fortunately, she provides a link to the study in question. The first half of that sentence refers to this passage. But read it:

As might be expected from the nature and severity of the domestic violence incidents, there were more arrests overall of men than of women. All cases [of couples with a violence charge] with seven or more incidents, most of which involved men, led to arrest at some time. This echoes US findings that male domestic violence perpetrators have more extensive criminal histories than female perpetrators. None the less, women were arrested to a disproportionate degree given the fewer incidents where they were perpetrators. Women were three times more likely to be arrested. (bold added)

This is not a case of just leaving out the context. The study’s fact is the opposite of what she implied, which was that women commit more domestic violence (remember, this is shortly after she used arrest rates to represent the prevalence of violence among juveniles).

On the second half of the sentence, that women were “far more likely to use a weapon,” it is true that the study found 24% of women accused of domestic violence used a weapon, compared with 11% of men. And the author wrote, “women were much more likely to use a weapon.” But in the table where that number appears, the difference is marked as not statistically significant (because this study was a small community-level study of just 126 perpetrators of domestic violence).

For the U.S., incidentally, Rosin should have cited evidence that men are in fact more likely to face a weapon in nonfatal intimate-partner violence — 81% versus 69%. Of course, men only experience 17% of nonfatal intimate-partner attacks. Overall, however, this BJS study from the 1990s reported that men were twice as likely as women to use a weapon in the commission of a violent crime. None of this suggests women are becoming more violent at their power grows.

Lest we forget

This 2005 NCVS study reported that women committed:

  • 10% of stranger violence
  • 16% of all non-family violence
  • 23% of all family violence
  • 24% of violence among friends/acquaintances
  • 16% of violence between boyfriends and girlfriends

Men commit most of the violence. The growing employment rates, education levels and earnings of women don’t seem to have changed that much.

I am not coming unhinged. I am concerned about the damage done by Rosin’s corruption of the evidence to support the claim that women’s domination is nigh.

NPR on divorce, recession and violence

NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam the other day did a very nice job in a long story on how the recession may be affecting relationships and divorce. He interviewed me, and in this post I provide the sources for my comments.

The story began with a reference to this paper by Judith Hellerstein and Melinda Sandler Morrill, who find that divorce rates in the last few decades are lower in states with higher unemployment rates. They apply a rigorous set of tests and alternative explanations, and it looks pretty solid. This is tricky because research on couples shows that unemployment increases marital stress and the risk of violence. That’s not necessarily a contradiction, of course, since the research on states doesn’t show the people who are actually unemployed are the ones getting divorced — it could be other people in those states who are not getting divorced (people who fear unemployment, for example).

Vedantam’s story focused on two women: one who postponed a divorce because she couldn’t afford the legal fees and costs of starting over, and another who felt she was at risk of violence because economic scarcity was keeping her and her husband together after they intended to separate permanently. The examples made a good case for how unemployment could worsen marriages even as it prolonged them. NPR also has a new survey out, which shows marriages suffering when one partner is unemployed:

From my own explorations on divorce in the current economic crisis, it looks like there might be a delayed uptick in divorce, and higher rates in states where the crisis was worse — but that remains to be confirmed.

Anyway, my job in this story was to interpret the evidence that unemployment increases the risk of domestic violence, which I’ve blogged about before, here and here.

The NPR transcript reads:

Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that multiple studies have found that the marital distress that comes from money problems and feeling trapped is strongly associated with an increased risk of domestic violence. One study, for example, looked at women who showed up in hospital emergency rooms for injuries that were both intentional and non-intentional.

“When you compare the women who were injured intentionally and women who were treated for other conditions in the emergency departments, they found that those who were injured intentionally were more likely to have experienced recent unemployment in their families,” Cohen says….

At the same time, however, Cohen says the overall rates of domestic violence have generally been on the decline. But what’s clear, he says, is that unemployment increases the risk of domestic violence.

“I’m quite confident from the research on couples — and what drives violence within couples — that among the people who are experiencing economic shock or dislocation or unemployment, there is an increased risk of violence,” he says. “And I would not expect that to be any different during this recession.”

These were my principal sources:

In addition, my searching around over the last several years has not turned up any evidence that would lead me to doubt this association between unemployment and violence. Still, if you think I’m off on this, I’d be glad to hear about it.

Has the recession increased family violence?

New evidence against my earlier views.

Last year I cited a study of abusive head trauma in children which showed marked increases in four cities after the start of the recession (that was a conference paper that now has been published in Pediatrics). That followed a list of evidence supporting the idea that economic recession was increasing violence within families, from local intimate homicide rates and domestic violence court backlogs to social service reports and many news media anecdotes, along with general evidence that unemployment increases violence.

Since then, a 2011 review published in Sociology of Crime Law and Deviance reports that evidence for recession effects on intimate partner violence are weak at best, so there is no reason to expect an increase to show up when the data on this recession is put together. And now the latest data from the National Crime Victimization Survey shows a sharp drop in relationship violence against women in 2010:

But this is hard to evaluate because — as with divorce — it’s part of a long-term declining trend. To put that declining trend in perspective, I lined it up with the trends for violent crime, and the subset of serious violent crime. Showing these as percent changes, they are all following the same general trend. If anything, the decline in intimate partner violence against women has slowed relative to the others since 2007, which could be a sign of recession-related violence:

Finally, there is the problem of dating the “recession” to identify its effects. How to do that partly depends on what aspect of the the economic crisis you think might be affecting family violence — unemployment, home foreclosures, social service cuts, and so on. This has been dragging on long enough that we could assemble evidence in different directions several times. Here’s a final example: domestic homicide rates in New York state, which came out last month.

The total number of New York domestic homicides (which include intimate-partner homicides even if they don’t live together) increased about 10% in 2010, but the intimate partner portion of the total fell. You might say 2008 and 2009 constituted a recession-related spike in intimate-partner homicides, but 2010 doesn’t fit.

In short (not short enough), I’m not as convinced as I was that the recession has increased the level of violence over what it would have been otherwise. So, although there are sure to be many acts of violence triggered by the crisis, I recommend skepticism about broad conclusions on overall trends.

Police your teens, or else?

According to the latest research, unsupervised hanging out is nothing but trouble. But trouble is, what trouble? Or, compared to what?

New research in the journal Criminology shows that teens with more unstructured hanging out time are more likely to do certain bad things. According to the press release:

Other research has shown that “unstructured socializing” by teens can lead to general delinquency, but this study is the first to suggest that it may also be associated with violent behavior.

Nothing but trouble.

As usual, I’m not an expert on this research. But I know enough to take issue with the conclusions. One co-author, Christopher Browning at Ohio State University, is quoted as saying, “Parents are better off assuming that more structure is better for their teens.” As the press release further explains:

Browning said the study took into account a wide variety of characteristics that are also associated with violence, such as prior levels of violence of each adolescent, their levels of impulsivity, and the violence levels of each child’s peers.

But that is the difference between a statistical study – not that there’s anything wrong with that – and the advice to parents it generates. In real life, for real parents, those other things — the prior levels of violence, the level of impulsivity, and the level of violence among his or her peers — may be exactly what matters. For an individual, you should take them “into account,” but you can’t “hold them constant.” If a given child scores low on all the other risk factors, even an increase in the proportional risk of bad behavior is no big deal — compared with the possible benefits of unstructured socializing.

The article includes in the measure of “violent” behavior things that are very rare or unlikely in the case of many teens (like “gang fights”). If there is little or no risk of gang fights, doubling that risk doesn’t much matter.

Of course, if a given child has many risk factors, adding to them can make a big difference and be a bad idea. And I’m not diminishing the importance of preventing teen violence. But there is a difference between a population pattern and the advice it compels.

One additional beef — compared to what? Is increasing the risk of violence the only thing that matters? What about having fun, learning to socialize competently and make independent decisions? The study did not have a measure of the harm caused by the violence (the most common item was  “hitting” someone outside the family). Again, not to promote violence, but a little violence now might be better than a lot of some other problem later.

Everyone likes research with important direct implications, but pushing it to the personal level can be misleading.

OK, is this horse dead yet?