The Stories We Tell About Domestic Abuse, with DA Service Providers

by | Feb 16, 2024 | 0 comments

Dr Rebecca Shaw discusses her investigation of the role narratives can play in responding to, and addressing, the harm and vulnerability caused by domestic abuse.

As one of the first recipients of the inaugural ESRC Vulnerability and Policing Futures Research Centres ECR Development Fund, I am investigating the power of systemic and structural narratives on domestic abuse, as witnessed by service-providers who support both victim-survivors and perpetrators of domestic abuse. Designed in collaboration with Leeds Women’s Aid, Behind Closed Doors, Fresh Futures (formerly Yorkshire Children’s Centre) and Foundations +Choices, this project will seek to understand practitioners’ perspectives on stereotypes, myths, and biases about domestic abuse to improve future policy and practice.

Personal Stories and Dominant Narratives

Narratives can have a diverse role to play when it comes to harm and vulnerability. They can inspire and motivate harmful action; they are used to make sense of harm and vulnerability; and they are used in the process of surviving harm. Stories are crucial for helping people make sense of their actions and what happens to them, using existing narratives to give shape to our experiences and the world around us. However, the stories we draw on to understand domestic abuse are often harmful, made up of problematic myths and stereotypes that silence victim/survivors. These narratives persist despite decades of activism by organisations such as Women’s Aid, legislative changes in 2021, and the recognition of VAWG as a national policy priority. These can include narratives such as ‘why don’t you just leave?’; ‘the ideal victim’; ‘physical violence is more serious than other types of violence’: all of which contributes to a continued lack of understanding about the nature of domestic abuse. I designed this project to examine and analyse these dominant narratives and whether they prevent change. Analysing the stories of people who work with victim-survivors and perpetrators of domestic abuse has been a fascinating exercise to assess their perceptions of the kinds of narratives that persist. Throughout both the focus-group sessions and the individual interviews, it has been interesting to see the same themes, stereotypes and narratives appearing with both those who support victim-survivors and those who support perpetrators. Whether that is in relation to how victims and perpetrators are characterised by police and other agencies, managing stigma and unconscious bias, or a lack of education around domestic abuse and its impact.

Rewrite the Story, Change the Ending

A key ambition of this project is not only to identify and analyse these narratives but to consider how we can change them. I want to consider how we can ‘rewrite’ those problematic and persistent narratives by interrogating their role in perpetuating systemic and structural attitudes to domestic abuse. With that in mind, I am co-hosting with partner organisations a half day workshop on Wednesday 6th March where we plan to produce together a ‘tactical plan’ to establish how the narrative(s) around domestic abuse (as revealed by the research) should be changed and what new policy/practices are needed to facilitate that change. Ultimately, I hope this work will contribute to shaping how local agencies in Leeds, York and West Yorkshire can prevent future harm and change the narrative(s) of domestic abuse. The project is ambitious, but I hope to make a valuable and impactful contribution to changing perceptions and the mindset on domestic abuse, both within professional services and within the wider public. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who wishes to discuss any aspect of this project, so please get in touch:  


About the Author

Dr Rebecca Shaw, University of Leeds 

Dr Rebecca Shaw is a legal narratologist with particular research interests in the story scripts, dynamics and characterisations of socio-legal, historical and cultural narratives which frame and underpin legislation. Specifically, her research focuses on the power of legal storytelling, and how narrative theory can be used to examine and understand the development of master and counter narratives regarding both victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse. 

Dr Kelly Henderson, Addressing Domestic Abuse

 Dr Kelly Henderson is the CEO of Addressing Domestic Abuse, a social enterprise that works to equip organisations and associated supply chains in the social housing sector to recognise domestic abuse in all its forms and undertakes domestic abuse research and evaluation across PCCs, Local Government and the Housing sector (for example, evaluations of perpetrator programmes and Domestic Abuse Needs assessments). She is also co-founder of the Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance and has previously worked as a Research Fellow at Durham University.