IV. Intimate Partner Homicide Trends
Intimate partner homicide has also gained attention in recent years, partly because of the efforts by feminist scholars to bring awareness to violence among intimate groups. While intimate partners (i.e., spouses, ex-spouses, boyfriends, and girlfriends) make up approximately 11% of all homicides, females are much more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than males. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while both the number of male and female victims of intimate partner homicides dropped from 1976 to 2005, the number of males killed by an intimate partner had the most significant drop (75%) since 1976. On the other hand, the decline for females killed by an intimate partner was only witnessed after 1993 (see Figure 2).
As research in this area grows, descriptive accounts reveal that intimate partner homicide trends differ not only by the gender of the victim and offender, but also by the type of victim–offender relationship and the race of the victim (Browne & Williams, 1993; Gallup-Black, 2005; Puzone, Saltzman, Kresnow, Thompson, & Mercy, 2000). Essentially, while total intimate partner homicide has decreased over time, much like total homicide rates, once these rates are examined separately by gender, relationship type, or race, significant differences emerge. For instance, males have experienced a greater decline in intimate partner homicide victimization than females, and blacks more so than whites. In addition, intimate partner homicide among married persons has decreased, but homicide involving nonmarried persons has increased over time. In fact, the rise in nonmarried intimate partner victimization is most pronounced among white females. A number of reasons for the specific trends in violence among intimate partners, particularly the differences across gender and relationship type over time, have been offered. Some of these explanations are outlined here.
Figure 2. Intimate Partner Homicides by Gender, 1976–2005
SOURCE: Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2008). Supplemental Homicide Files. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
A. Exposure Reduction
The exposure reduction hypothesis proposes that factors that reduce the exposure or contact between violent intimate partners should decrease the probability of intimate partner homicide, because the opportunity for violence would be removed. A number of factors have been examined to determine the exposure reduction effects on intimate partner homicide. These factors include access to domestic violence resources, declining domesticity, and improved economic status of females.
Access to domestic violence resources, specifically the availability of legal (i.e., presence of statutes pertaining to domestic violence) and extra-legal services (i.e., number of shelters and other programs), is related to the decline in the rates of female-perpetrated intimate partner homicide, but less so for male-perpetrated intimate partner homicide (Browne & Williams, 1989; Dugan, Nagin, & Rosenfeld, 1999, 2003). On the other hand, research has also shown that some domestic violence resources (e.g., prosecutors’ willingness to prosecute) have the unintended consequence of putting women more at risk for intimate partner homicide victimization (Dugan et al., 2003). Because the role of domestic violence resources has been largely inconclusive, increasing divorce rates, declining marriage rates, an improved economic status of women, as well as other economic conditions, have received attention, partly because they consistently have been found to predict intimate partner homicide (Dugan et al., 1999, 2003; Reckdenwald, 2008; Rosenfeld, 1997).
Reflecting a decline in domesticity, rising divorce rates and the general trend toward declining marriage in the United States have surfaced as strong predictors of intimate partner homicide largely because these factors reduce the exposure to violence. For instance, divorce rates would result in fewer married couples living together and would therefore reduce the exposure of violent couples. The same idea applies to falling marriage rates, which would reduce the exposure of violent couples because fewer individuals would be getting married and living together. Rosenfeld (1997) examined intimate partner homicide trends in St. Louis, Missouri, and found that 30% of the decline in African American spousal homicides was attributable to falling marriage rates and rising divorce rates.
However, decreasing marriage rates may mean that more individuals are cohabitating without getting married. Cohabitation has been shown to be an important risk factor in intimate partner homicide. Wilson, Johnson, and Daly (1995) found that females that cohabitate with their partner are 9 times more likely to be killed by their intimate partner than are married females. Interestingly, other researchers have found that cohabitating men with female partners are 10 times more likely to be victims of intimate partner homicide compared to men in married relationships.
Improvement in the economic status of women has an exposure-reducing effect, reducing the rates of intimate partner homicide. Improvements such as higher educational attainment, income, and employment increase the opportunities available to women, and thus reduce the likelihood that they will resort to killing their male partners. Dugan et al. (1999) found that females’ improved status was associated with a reduction in intimate partner homicide victimization, particularly male intimate partner homicide victimization. That is, the increase in females’ relative income is associated with a decline in married female–perpetrated homicide. Furthermore, an increase in females’ relative educational attainment is associated with a decline in nonmarried male victimization. They suggest that “more educated women are better able, and perhaps more willing, to exit violent relationships and thus avoid killing their partner” (pp. 204–205).
B. Backlash or Retaliation
While research has shown the importance of reducing the exposure between intimate partners in violent relationships, it is well-known that the highest risk for homicide is when the victim leaves the relationship, and this is especially true for females who are killed by their male partners (Block, 2000). Thus, retaliation by the abusive partner from domestic violence interventions is another important consideration. Dugan et al. (2003) found a retaliation effect where domestic violence resources actually increased homicide between intimate partners because they failed to effectively reduce exposure between intimate partners. In fact, the prosecutor’s willingness to prosecute violators of protection orders, though intended to reduce exposure between violent intimate partners, actually caused a retaliation effect where homicide increased for married and unmarried white females and African American unmarried males. They concluded that “being willing to prosecute without providing adequate protection may be harmful” (p. 192). Reckdenwald (2008) also found that the number of shelters per 100,000 females was significantly related to intimate partner homicide. Despite all the efforts to increase shelter availability to females in violent relationships, it appears that the increase in availability is actually associated with an increase in intimate partner homicide. For instance, in 1990 and 2000, the increase in the shelter rate was related to an increase in male-perpetrated intimate partner homicide. It was concluded that efforts to prevent domestic violence and homicide need to also provide adequate protection during times that are characterized by increased violence.
C. Economic Deprivation
Aside from exposure reduction and retaliation effects, recent research has explored the link between economic deprivation and intimate partner homicide over time (Reckdenwald, 2008). The main idea is that, even though women have experienced improvements economically since the 1960s, they still lag behind their male counterparts in regard to occupational prestige and income levels. Furthermore, women are much more likely to be impoverished than males. Economic deprivation arguments allows researchers to tap the influence of poverty, unemployment, and the dependency on public assistance on the trends in male- and female-perpetrated intimate partner homicides over time, particularly since patterns of intimate partner homicide involving males and females diverge over time. Reckdenwald (2008) found that cities that had the greatest levels of change in female poverty, unemployment, and public assistance from 1990 to 2000 were also areas that experienced significant changes in female-perpetrated intimate partner homicides, suggesting that trends in such homicide were largely influenced by persisting economic deprivation among females.
As noted, overall attempts to explain the different trends in male and female intimate partner homicide have examined a number of different factors, including domestic violence resources, declining domesticity, improving economic status of females, and economic deprivation. Though a conclusive explanation has not surfaced, separating homicide trends by gender and the victim–offender relationship gives a better understanding of the nature of the crime drop in the 1990s.